Kevin O’Malley was standing on the steps of Aras an Uachtarain in Dublin, the official residence of the President of Ireland, on October 8, 2014, listening to a band playing “The Star Spangled Banner” and soaking in all the pomp and circumstance that greets the arrival of a new American ambassador on Irish soil.
O’Malley visited the Aras, as it’s known, to present his credentials to President Michael D. Higgins. The occasion was a festive one, a source of great pride for a grandson of Ireland who couldn’t help but remember his Co. Mayo-born grandparents Michael and Elizabeth O’Malley who left for America 105 years ago.
“I kept wondering what they would think, seeing their grandson return to their homeland as United States ambassador,” O’Malley told the Irish Voice during an extensive phone interview.
“I think they would have been surprised. And even more so that I was the grandchild selected!” he laughed. “It really says so much about the Irish DNA, and about opportunities in the United States. In two generations you can go from economic refugee to U.S. ambassador. It’s a success story that’s not uncommon at all.”
O’Malley, 67, reports that he’s had an “extraordinary” year as America’s top representative in Ireland. Missing his home in St. Louis hasn’t been an issue at all, and he’s been so busy that trips back to the U.S. are few and very far between.
“It’s my duty to be here, and that’s what I’m happy to do,” he says.
“I’ve talked about the job with Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. Anne is the best, I just love her, and we’ve debated which is the most fun job: to be Irish ambassador to America, or American ambassador to Ireland. We’re not sure, but we think both positions are pretty cool.”
O’Malley’s life until he and his wife Dena moved into Deerfield, the stately ambassador’s residence that sits on 62 acres in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, was centered around his family – he and Dena have two sons – and a four decade career as a lawyer that at one point looked like it wouldn’t happen.
His calling to be a priest would have undoubtedly pleased his Irish grandparents, who arrived in Chicago in 1910 with seven children and had another eight kids, O’Malley’s father the first to be born on American soil.
The O’Malleys left Mayo without any education, penniless, jobless “but certainly not hopeless,” their grandson says.
“I knew my grandparents,” says O’Malley, who has three siblings. “Our home was a traditional Irish Catholic home that one would expect in the fifties and sixties.”
St. Louis, O’Malley’s hometown, had a substantial Irish population, he recalls. Certainly not as sizable as New York or Boston, but there were Hibernian activities and other events going on, and O’Malley felt extremely connected to his heritage.
The priesthood beckoned, and O’Malley spent his high school years studying at a seminary. But eventually “I decided it wasn’t the place I should be,” he says. He turned to college and then law school, earning a JD from Saint Louis University School of Law in 1973.
A career as a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice immediately followed. For the first part of his career O’Malley was based in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., working for the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section. He returned to St. Louis in 1979 to work as an assistant U.S. attorney and four years later entered private practice. He joined Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale’s St. Louis law practice in 2003 and defended both white collar criminals, and doctors and hospitals in malpractice cases.
His success as a trial attorney led to an interesting and unexpected diversion as an author. In 1990 he wrote a book about judges and juries titled "Federal Jury Practice and Instructions" that is still considered a standard reference work. It has expanded to a nine volume series that legal professionals throughout the United States regularly consult.
“Maybe people reading the Irish Voice's Legal 100 won’t necessarily equate the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland as being its author, so hopefully that will surprise them,” O’Malley laughs.
“I was trying cases in the western part of the U.S. courtesy of the Department of Justice, and that gave me lots of opportunities to be exposed to judges all over the country. The publisher of the book was very sensitive to judges’ opinions, so they asked a lot of judges who they thought would be a good person to write the book. I’m told my name kept coming up, so that’s how it happened.
“I’m one of those lucky authors who had a publisher before I actually wrote a book.”
O’Malley enlisted two partners to help him write the book as it grew in prominence. He hasn’t been involved in any publishing aspect since getting the call in 2014 that brought about an unexpected but thrilling turn in his life.
Politics was always a part of O’Malley’s orbit. Lawyers are usually politically informed, and he was active in Democratic politics to a point. The emergence of a contender to rival Hillary Clinton in the 2008 presidential race hooked O’Malley and he became an early and eager supporter of Barack Obama in 2006, involved in many aspects of the Obama campaign in the critical state of Missouri.
“I don’t want to say that I never supported other Democratic candidates because I had,” O’Malley says.
“But I didn’t really become totally engaged until President Obama came along. I thought before he was president, and I still think now, that he is exceedingly bright. He’s so well-intentioned, and very kind, thoughtful and deliberate in everything he does.”
O’Malley’s early backing of the fledgling Obama candidacy earned him a call from the White House in March of 2014, asking if he would accept the post of U.S. ambassador to Ireland, one that had been vacant since the 2012 departure of Dan Rooney.
“I was very surprised,” O’Malley recalls. “The thought that the president wants you to represent the United States of America and its 300 million people in a foreign country is pretty spectacular.
“And then when you hear that the country which you’ve been selected to is one in which the relationship is so rich, and to which I have my own personal ties … really, it was amazing to me.”
O’Malley versed himself in all things Irish in preparation for Senate confirmation hearings, and was easily confirmed in July of 2014. He was well-prepared for his journey to Dublin in October, and was wowed by what he and Dena encountered.
“There are two things that nothing could have prepared me for,” says O’Malley. “One was the tremendous welcome I have received from everybody, everywhere in Ireland. And the second thing I could not have been prepared for is the vibrancy of the economic relationship between the two countries.
“I certainly knew about both, and I did everything I was supposed to do intellectually to prepare for the job, but to see both in action has really been something.”
O’Malley has been encouraged by the emergence of what he sees as a “new Ireland,” one that’s picking itself up from the calamitous collapse of the Celtic Tiger and creating a new future that’s highly focused on innovation and entrepreneurism.
“Ireland is the youngest country in Europe right now,” he says, “and there’s a whole group of very creative innovators coming along. Ireland is an incredibly vibrant place for selling ideas and trading ideas. One of the first events I attended here last year was the Web Summit in Dublin and it was unbelievable, filled with thousands of young Irish entrepreneurs. There’s no question that these people are taking great steps towards building a new future for Ireland.”
O’Malley spends about half of his time tending to embassy business in his role as chief of mission – “there are 250 employees and it’s a very professional staff,” he says – and the remainder getting out and about in Dublin and throughout the country, building on the links that have bound Ireland and America for many generations.
“When I’m outside the embassy we are promoting the economic ties between the two countries. There’s a true economic engine there, and my job is to make sure that the engine keeps roaring along, to promote more trade and more investment,” O’Malley says.
Not long after his arrival in Dublin, O’Malley began a new program called Creative Minds which aims to bring together young American and Irish leaders in the worlds of culture, technology and business. Forging new links that aren’t necessarily dependent on heritage, O’Malley says, is critical for both countries, and an obvious way to grow the relationship given the talent pool that exists.
“Ireland is a country that is looking globally, and we have to look globally as well,” O’Malley adds.
“I’m working hard on finding new ways to hook up American and Irish entrepreneurs and cultural leaders so the next generation of leaders are as closely aligned as the ones we have today.”
The huge waves of Irish coming to America have virtually ground to a halt, starting with the restrictions that came with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and the end of limited visa programs named after former Congressmen Bruce Morrison and Brian Donnelly that provided tens of thousands of green cards for the Irish. The vexing issue of comprehensive immigration reform remains perpetually stalled in Congress, so finding new ways to connect is imperative, O’Malley maintains.
“Things change. Ireland isn’t exporting people the way it used to. There are going to be fewer emigrants from Ireland to America,” he says.
“You aren’t going to see as many people like me, for example, the children and grandchildren of emigrants who grew up thinking differently about Ireland. I grew up not thinking that Ireland was a foreign country. It was who my grandparents were, and by extension who I was. But that will change in the future, and we need to find a substitute for that.”
The Creative Minds series, O’Malley says, introduces people who are already like-minded, and offers them the chance to learn from each other and grow their talents. Participants to date have included Oscar-winning Irish musician and songwriter Glen Hansard, Oscar-winning Pixar animator Pete Docter, and American entrepreneur Jim McKelvey, co-founder of the mobile payment company Square which is valued at $6 billion and just announced plans to go public.
“It’s not like we’re taking two opposites and trying to put them together. The U.S. and Ireland are clearly leaning towards one another already, so all we have to do is find new and creative ways to carry the relationship forward,” O’Malley says.
During his frequent trips around rural Ireland O’Malley finds the connections to America are even more profound, with the vast majority of people having a relative living in the U.S., or perhaps one who just returned. Immigration reform in the U.S. is something that he constantly fields questions about.
“The Irish have tremendous curiosity about two things, the first being our elections,” O’Malley says, “and the second about immigration. The Irish are very, very emotional about immigration.
“But they understand, at least the ones who I’ve talked to, that we cannot have Irish immigration reform. Our country doesn’t work that way. We need comprehensive immigration reform. President Obama has taken some dramatic steps in this regard, but he can’t solve it on his own. It’s a legislative process.”
O’Malley held dual U.S.-Irish citizenship, but had to surrender his Irish passport as part of the confirmation process. But that’s just a formality. His Irishness comes from within.
And, he happily reports, from the outside too – as in the multitude of Ireland-based cousins who have called to Deerfield to visit their famous American relative who will be in residence until at least the end of the Obama administration.
“We’ve had so many relatives and friends come to visit and share this with us,” said O’Malley, who traveled to Ireland not only with Dena but their two dogs, Kieran and Liam. One of their sons lives in Ireland too.
“It’s been nice to share all of this with them. I’m getting to see everyone and it’s been my pleasure. I honestly couldn’t have a better job.”