Ireland’s new ambassador to the United States, Dan Mulhall, had little experience of the U.S. before he arrived two months ago, and he’s enjoying every minute of learning about Irish America. Debbie McGoldrick spoke to Mulhall last week in New York.
Two weekends after Ireland’s new ambassador to the United States Dan Mulhall arrived in Washington, D.C. with his wife Greta in late August, he was the guest of honor at a black tie dinner hosted by the Hill Irish, a congressional networking group. More than 100 guests attended, each one of them thrilled with the chance to meet Ireland’s new top diplomat and share stories of pride in their Irish roots.
The Mulhalls were heartened by the warm welcome and, truth be told, somewhat surprised. Being feted and fussed over by the local Irish in the other countries where they had been posted – Germany, Britain and Scotland among them – was not par for the course.
But America, they’re quickly finding out, is different. Irish Americans are an expressive breed, deeply proud of their backgrounds and not shy about rolling out the green welcome mat.
Though he’s only been here less than two months, Mulhall has been struck by what Ireland really means to those who claim Irish heritage.
“I’ve never before been greeted with such unambivalent warmth and enthusiasm,” Mulhall, 62, told the Irish Voice during an interview in New York last week.
“Of course everyone in Ireland knows about Irish America, but until you come here and experience it for yourself it doesn’t quite hit home. And it’s hit home for me in a big way.”
It’s been a delightful experience, one that Mulhall looks forward to not only enjoying but building upon during his tenure in Washington. There’s lots of work to be done – Ireland has multiple political and business issues with the U.S., including immigration and trade – and the Irish calling card can only help promote the cause.
“In America the attitude to Ireland is wholly positive. It’s different to what I’ve ever seen before,” Mulhall says.
A native of Co. Waterford and one of six children, Mulhall’s childhood was unusual in that members of his family never emigrated. In fact they never really left Waterford. His aunts and uncles and cousins were able to find work and stay close to home, unlike many of that generation who were forced to leave.
There was never an uncle who left for England, or a cousin who headed for America. “None of that at all. When I was growing up I had scores of cousins in Waterford but nobody anywhere else,” Mulhall recalls. “Everyone stayed put so my horizon was entirely based on what was going on in Waterford. I have nieces and nephews now who are more spread out, but back then we stayed put.”
It was a big move when Mulhall left the family nest in 1972 and headed for University College Cork where he studied Irish history, a long-time passion. As secondary education in Ireland had become fee-free five years earlier, the numbers heading off to university in the 1970s swelled. Mulhall was the first member of his family to earn a university degree.
A career in the Irish diplomatic corps wasn’t Mulhall’s dream. He finished a master’s degree at Cork and was ready to head to either Cambridge University or the Australian National University at Canberra to study for a Ph.D., but those plans took a permanent detour when a friend showed Mulhall a newspaper ad from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs looking for junior diplomats.
After some persuasion he decided to apply, with no real expectation of getting a job. An exam and a couple of successful interviews resulted in an offer, and Mulhall accepted. In 1978 his career representing Ireland was born, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“Luckily, with my five brothers and sisters around Waterford there wasn’t really a need for me to stay home to look after parents in the way that many people would have,” Mulhall says. “So I was able to take the job without any reservations.”
The posting to Washington is Mulhall’s eighth stint abroad, which is more than the norm for most diplomats. And he’s had a more than willing partner in his world travels.
Greta Lothian (her mother’s family emigrated from Co. Armagh to Australia in the 1870s) was a young staffer at the Australian Embassy in New Delhi in 1980 when she met her future Irish husband. Both were on their first assignments abroad and they married after two years, with Greta leaving the Australian Foreign Service “to throw her lot in with the Irish,” her husband laughs.
Their daughter Tara was born in New Delhi, and son Jason in Dublin. Both went to university in Edinburgh and Tara still lives there with her Scottish husband and their two children. Jason is an entrepreneur in London, the co-founder of a company called Karousel which brings pop-up food options into offices around the city, an idea he first came across while spending time in New York.
“Greta was very keen to travel. She wasn’t someone who wanted to stay at home and put down roots somewhere, and that’s a big advantage if you’re in the Foreign Service,” Mulhall says. “We managed to keep the kids with us until they went to university in Scotland.”
New Delhi was an eye opening experience for Mulhall. For the first time he saw the power of Ireland’s storied culture in action, not to mention the political kinship Indians felt for the Irish. The ruling British Raj had departed India in 1947.
“In 1980 when I came to New Delhi, there was still a strong memory of Ireland having had an influence on India and its struggle for independence,” Mulhall said. “We were embraced warmly by Indians who were conscious of that historical link and were keen to play it up.
“I discovered that our writers were popular in India, particularly William Butler Yeats. So I found at an early stage in my career that our history and our literature, apart from its intrinsic value to us as a people, had a value in terms of our profile in the world. I remember meeting [first prime minister of India Jawaharlal] Nehru’s sister, a lady who had a distinguished career in Indian diplomacy, and she immediately recited Yeats for me. She told me she learned his poems when she was interned in the 1930s with her brother as part of the Indian struggle for independence.”
Mulhall’s postings have taken him to all parts of the world, including Europe (Vienna, Brussels, Berlin and London) and Malaysia for an ambassadorship that also included responsibility for Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. He recalls the early 1980s in Europe when his country was an outlier in the EU. Its economy was severely under-developed, and it was the only EU member at the time that wasn’t a member of NATO. The Irish had a lot of catching up to do.
“I felt from an early stage that my ambition for my country was to be like the other European countries in terms of development,” he says. “I saw fairly early on in my career that we had a lot of potential, but we needed to realize that potential and push hard. I feel gratified that we’ve done that and that we’re ahead of most of the other EU countries now, but I’m in no way complacent and I think we can do better.
“But from the Ireland that I grew up in, there’s been a genuine transformation. We should be pleased but not too cocky about it.”
Mulhall’s first head of mission posting came in 1998, when he became Consul General of Ireland’s first ever Consulate in Edinburgh. Scots-Irish relations are fruitful these days, but 20 years ago that wasn’t always the case. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 helped to change that.
“The First Minister of Scotland was in Ireland last week and it was normal. There was a time when many in Ireland would have thought of the Scots as being connected with the unionist tradition,” Mulhall says.
“It was an eye-opener to go there and explore Scotland, a country really very similar to Ireland, and being able to reconnect again because of the new political circumstances. Devolution and the peace process made Scotland a more interesting partner for Ireland.”
In 2009, after Malaysia and four years back in Dublin working on EU matters, Mulhall headed for Berlin where he served as ambassador for four years. The challenges were daunting. Ireland was no longer the bright star of the EU, a success story fueled in large part by a booming real estate market where it wasn’t unusual to see Dublin apartments selling for close to similar ones in Manhattan.
Post-boom, Ireland was an EU problem child thanks to the collapse of Anglo Irish Bank and a multi-billion euro bailout. And Germany, with EU’s largest economy, wasn’t happy about it.
“It was a very demanding but fascinating time as well, trying to explain Ireland’s situation to a German public and political class who may have instinctively thought we had a bit of a party at their expense,” Mulhall remembers.
“It was an unfair caricature but that’s the way they saw it. You had to try and break down these prejudices and explain that we’d been victims of the openness of our economy, that we had made mistakes but that we didn’t deserve what happened to us. We didn’t cause the global economic crisis, but we were one of its first victims.”
The posting as Ireland’s ambassador to London came in 2013. Again, the climate was one of changing relations, but this time it was all good. Queen Elizabeth had made her first ever state visit to Ireland in 2011 and it was a game changer. The Irish welcomed her with open arms, and the Queen by all accounts was moved by the momentousness of the visit.
She reciprocated with an invitation to President Michael D. Higgins to travel to London for the first ever Irish state visit to the U.K. in 2014, and Mulhall headed the planning efforts for Ireland.
The Higgins visit was flawless. The old enemies, Ireland and England, had firmly entered a new phase, and Mulhall said it was gratifying to see.
“I think the state visits and their success gave everyone in Britain and Ireland permission to love each other again!” he laughs.
“The royal family was very conscious of the fact that the Queen’s visit made a big difference in our relations. It was a career highlight really for me, to be involved in the planning of an occasion between our countries. To see the recognition of Ireland by the British state at the highest level was incredible.”
The Irish community in Britain is huge, with some 750,000 native born throughout the U.K., and millions more who are first or second generation. Mulhall prioritized engagement with the community and visited every significant Irish center during his time in the U.K.
“And I loved it. So did Greta. They have some great stories to tell,” he says. “We met people who have lived in Britain for 50 or 60 years, but they are still completely Irish because of the proximity. I felt it was very important to talk to as many people I could and thank them for what they did in their daily lives because they represented Ireland at its best.
“The image of Ireland in Britain didn’t change because the Queen went there. It changed on the back of all the hard work from the local Irish throughout the years, and many times it wasn’t easy for them to be Irish in Britain.”
America is fertile new ground for Mulhall. He was a J-1 visa summer student in 1974 and fondly recalls that his first ever airline flight was Shannon to Chicago. He spent the summer flipping burgers in Kansas City, “and eating my first ever pizza in Chicago,” he laughs.
“I really enjoyed that summer. My friend and I were adopted by two Irish Americans who really looked after us. That was my first sense of Irish America.”
He’d been back a few times for brief visits, but his engagement in Irish American affairs has been virtually non-existent. Mulhall is well into the process of changing that and has already taken part in Irish events in Miami, New Orleans, New York, Kentucky and Los Angeles.
“We were delighted to learn we were coming to Washington,” he says. “I find it really exciting, the chance to learn about a whole new community and a new country.”
Whereas the majority of the Irish in Britain have close family connections to the old sod – a parent or grandparent -- Mulhall has been struck by the number of Irish Americans who feel such a deep connection to Ireland even though their ancestry is many generations back.
“It’s just so wonderful to experience. You would never see that in Britain,” Mulhall says. “All the warm wishes I’ve gotten, the events and celebrations. That wouldn’t have happened in any of my other postings.”
Mulhall presented his credentials to President Donald Trump in the Oval Office last month. The president “was very warm. He has a strong sense of Ireland,” Mulhall says. “And he’s surrounded by Irish Americans. Chief of staff John Kelly was the only other person in the office when I was there. Then there’s Vice President Pence and Mick Mulvaney. I met Kellyanne Conway who told me she grew up as Kellyanne Fitzpatrick.”
Mulhall was especially moved when he was given the American flag that was flying on Capitol Hill on the day he met Trump. Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont made the presentation. There were 11 other ambassadors who gave their credentials to Trump the same day, but the flag went to Ireland.
“I’ve spent time in Congress visiting with members. Minister [Simon] Coveney was here last week doing the same. Many of the names – Kennedy, Crowley, Boyle, Rooney – are Irish, and over here they really are proud of their Irish identity. There are probably more politicians in Britain with Irish roots, but they definitely don’t identify with them the way they do here.”
Mulhall is particularly aware of the problems facing the Irish undocumented in the U.S., and plans to keep pushing for a solution as much as possible.
“I’ve had any number of conversations with people about it. The problem is that it’s not an easy time to try and sort out immigration when there’s clearly a kind of zeitgeist at the moment which is negative. We will keep looking at ways in which it might be resolved,” he said.
Another point Mulhall is keen to hone in on is the economic relationship between the U.S. and Ireland. It’s hardly a one way street, he stresses. The trade between the two countries amounts to $100 billion annually, a number he feels is poised to grow due to the negative implications for the U.K. after Brexit.
“I think Ireland will become more and more of a bridgehead into Europe for American companies. We’re an ideal place for American companies to locate themselves,” he says.
“And I think it’s very important for me to stress that our trade with the U.S. right now is more or less balanced. And investment flows are becoming more balanced too. There are 400 Irish companies in the U.S. that employ 100,000 people here. So Ireland is not just a small country benefiting from a bigger one, and I intend to keep hammering away at that point.” One of the ways Mulhall will tell Ireland’s story? Twitter. He’s an early adopter of the form, and started tweeting several years ago when he was ambassador to Germany.
“I discovered that there was a thing called Twitter. I really didn’t know what social media was about at all, but I heard about it at a conference in Dublin. I thought this was something I could do, so I tried it and I liked it,” he said.
“I very quickly realized that it’s a free form of communication. When I worked on the media side I used to send out loads of press releases and I have no idea if any of them were ever read. But with Twitter, a short tweet, it’s easy to connect.”
Mulhall’s verified account, @danmulhall, has more than 14,000 followers. He’s tweeted nearly 14,000 times. Every day he posts some Irish poetry – he’s an ardent historian and author who has published A New Day Dawning: A Portrait of Ireland in 1900 and The Shaping of Modern Ireland: A Centenary Assessment which he co-edited – and news about his activities. He plans to keep up the multiple daily tweets in America, and also post a couple of blogs every month.
The new ambassador says he’d love more Irish American Twitter followers. If all of the 40 million Irish Americans gave him a follow, he says, he could surpass the current tweeter-in-chief in the White House.
“That would be funny,” he laughs. “And if that happens, I think I’ll change my Twitter handle to @realdanmulhall.”