The birth of modern day mass activism by Irish Americans of all backgrounds in Northern Ireland began in many ways with a conference in Chicago in July 1983.

It was convened by a Texas millionaire, James A. Delaney, a towering cowboy-hatted Irish American who bore more than a passing resemblance to John Wayne.

Jim passed away this week in San Antonio, Texas, but his contribution to Irish America’s role in the Irish peace process should be noted and acknowledged.

He was a true pioneer, a man who set aside a hugely successful business career to lend a hand to bringing peace to his ancestral land.

Operating out of San Antonio where he had his family roots, Delaney quickly came to attention in Irish America with his can-do Texas attitude, John Wayne looks and determination to help create the newest Irish American lobby.

The new organization was called the Irish American Unity Conference (IAUC), and the only criteria for joining was that you believed that Ireland should be united.

Some 600 from all over the U.S. attended that first conference, and Irish America was never the same again.

I was a 30-year-old publisher based in San Francisco at the time and remember being awed at how many Irish Americans had travelled from all over the U.S. to be present after hearing the Delaney message.

First of all, the phenomenal numbers were a tribute to Delaney, whose influence had swept through Irish America like wildfire.

Second, he was playing with a new deck when it came to Northern Ireland, seeking to leverage Irish American business power as well as political in the fight for justice there.

He also had clout. Bishops, members of Congress, labor leaders, legendary figures such as Paul O’Dwyer and even Dail (Irish Parliament) members led by Paddy Harte a very influential Donegal politician at the time, all attended.

Also there was leading academic Professor Charles Rice of Notre Dame University, an expert on human rights. In later years Cardinal Tomas O'Fiaich, Primate of All Ireland also attended. He sent a message of support to the first gathering.

While other groups such as Irish Northern Aid and the Irish National Caucus had effective lobbies, the IAUC brought an entirely new dimension into play, the business aspect led by Delaney, as well as the ability to reach out to leaders in Ireland with a new and vital message of both economic and political assistance from America.

As Delaney noted in his opening remarks, “Forty million Irish Americans can send a message so strong to the Irish, U.S. and British governments that they cannot ignore.”

He noted, “We are particularly mindful of the great impression that Jewish Americans have made on behalf of Israel in the United States. We intend to make our Irish voice as powerful in quest of our goals.”

The conference was an eye opener. There were political action seminars, a human rights committee, an economic development committee chaired by Delaney containing half a dozen Irish American millionaires and a media committee that I was part of.

Harte made an impassioned plea that Protestants had to be enticed, not railroaded, into a united Ireland, and his speech won overwhelming applause. It was clear a new day had dawned.

Jim Delaney went on to run the IAUC for many years and remained active after he stepped down. He was a true pioneer and trailblazer who created the Irish American activist business dimension that was so later so critical.

All of us stand on his broad shoulders when we talk of how Irish America helped bring peace to Northern Ireland, A millionaire from Texas who had a dream and a vision was one of the key figures who lit the way.

May he rest in peace.