He may be the new kid in town, but Noel Kilkenny has already begun to make his mark in the New York Irish community.
Kilkenny, 58, a native of Co. Clare, is the new Irish consul general in New York. He replaced Niall Burgess, who moved back to Dublin to take up the position of director general of the Anglo Irish Division at the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Kilkenny isn’t a man who believes in easing himself into the job. He asked for a full schedule to be put together immediately, and he got right to work.
Within his first week he visited the Aisling Irish Center in Yonkers to become acquainted with the older members of the Irish community.
There he met 98-year-old Joe Cunningham. An active member of the senior group at the center. Cunningham promised to keep Kilkenny up to date with the happenings of the group and pledged to paint him a picture.
“We had such a wonderful time at the Aisling Center,” Kilkenny shared during an interview with the Irish Voice last week at the Irish Consulate.
“My wife Hanora came with me and it was very special for both of us to meet the older members -- the heart of our community really -- who came here in difficult times and still maintain such great pride for their country and Irish heritage.”
Referring to the “great work” started by Burgess with the older members of the Irish community, Kilkenny pledged to continue to concentrate on serving the same people and doing for them what he can.
“Niall had a real strong passion for the community and especially the seniors in the community, so I plan to build on that and reach out to them as much as possible,” promised Kilkenny.
Pausing during the interview for a moment, Kilkenny turned around to point out several pictures taken by famous Irish photographer John Minihan of the older members of the Irish community hanging on his office walls.
He smiles and says, “They are wonderful reminders to me every day that these are the people I’m here to serve.”
Kilkenny hails from Kilrush, Co. Clare. There he attended the Christian Brothers primary school and went to Co. Waterford to boarding school for the latter part of his secondary schooling. He furthered his education with a law degree from University College Dublin.
He spent three years in the Irish Department of Justice and began his career with the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1977.
Since then his career has brought him all over the world, including various stints in Holland, China, Washington, D.C., Bosnia, London, Estonia and Moldova, and many years in between in Dublin.
During his tenure in Washington Kilkenny served as the press officer for the Irish Embassy there.
“That was a hugely exciting time,” said Kilkenny, who has several relations in Chicago.
“I was there for the final year and a half of George Bush Senior’s administration and then of course the election of President Clinton,” he said.
For Kilkenny, the real excitement began when Washington got involved in the Northern Irish peace process and the first visit of Gerry Adams to the country in 1994.
“It was just great to be here seeing all this progress happen. New York and Washington had a very significant role in developing the Good Friday Agreement and it was wonderful to be part of that,” he said.
Also during his tenure in Washington, Kilkenny witnessed the surge of young Irish people coming to the U.S. to escape the poor economy at the time in Ireland.
“I was here to see so many young people get good news from the Morrison visa program, and that was another exciting time in my career,” he said.
“The feel good factor with the Morrison visas was fantastic. Just meeting young people who were below the radar -- as it is now too -- who benefited from the visa was wonderful.”
Kilkenny was quick to make note that he “will work closely with Washington and the Irish Embassy there” to do what he can “to find a solution” for the Irish undocumented currently in limbo in the U.S.
“I know what it’s like. They came here when they were younger, but now their parents are getting elderly and they can’t go back home to see them,” he said, adding he can “only imagine” the hardship they face in that situation.
“While posted in Washington I lost both my parents but I had the freedom to visit them. Not to be able to do that would have been awful,” said Kilkenny. “The situation really breaks my heart."
Although his feet have only just touched the ground in New York, Kilkenny said he already gets “the feeling that New York is going to be a very special post.”
Said Kilkenny, “I’ve heard from my predecessors that New York was a great place, and I can safely say I’m already realizing that.”
Kilkenny, father to two grown children, is ready to hit the ground running.
“The first thing I plan to do is to serve our Irish community,” outlines Kilkenny. “We celebrate 80 years of serving the community in New York this week, and I plan to continue to build on that service.”
Kilkenny also plans to ensure the government support for programs throughout the U.S., and “particularly the programs that support the welfare of the Irish immigrants” through continued funding from the Irish government.
“Liaising with the young Irish networks out there is also an integral part of my job. I will support them in their efforts,” he said.
Kilkenny also sees the need to highlight the presence of Irish culture in New York. In the past few weeks he has attended various Irish plays and festivals and has thoroughly enjoyed them all.
“There is great work being done in the arts in New York in all aspects, and of course being from
Clare music is very close to my heart, so I’m looking forward to feeding into the image of Ireland as a place of culture and vibrancy through the arts,” he said.
Touching on the arts again, Kilkenny said the meeting of the Global Irish Network -- born out of the Irish government hosted meeting at Farmleigh in Dublin last year -- in New York this November will be an exciting time for the consulate.
“Often people think of this as just business, but there is also a huge cultural strand to it,” he said.
On the business end Kilkenny said, “There are so many Americans of Irish extraction and Irish-born Americans who are dedicated to supporting Ireland and working within various co-operations and law firms to advance the interest of Ireland, and we want that to continue, and for the arts too.”
Kilkenny also endeavors to extend the consulate's reach to Philadelphia and further afield in the coming months.
In the meantime, Kilkenny is busy this week accompanying Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheal Martin during his ministerial visit to New York as part of the ongoing UN meetings.
It’s a busy beginning, but Kilkenny is happy. “It is New York, a great city for so many things, including for the Irish. How could you not want to jump right in!”