Dublin: Now comes the President of the Irish Republic, Michael D. Higgins, still trailing clouds of glory following his momentous state visit to Britain and his visit with Queen Elizabeth in April of this year.
That trip bridged 800 years of a tempestuous and ill-starred relationship and for the first time put the former warring neighbors on equal and peaceful footing.
Speaking of footing, Higgins did not put a step wrong during that extraordinary visit and he is rightly Ireland’s most popular politician as a result.
We are gathered in the function room of Aras an Uachtarain on Thursday night, literally the house of the president, in Phoenix Park, in Dublin.
It is fine outside, a late Indian summer even as November beckons, and inside the crowd of 200 or so leaders of Irish politics, culture legal and community gather
I am here to receive the President’s Distinguished Service Award given to 10 leading members of the Diaspora every year.
It is Ireland’s way of acknowledging those abroad either of Irish birth or lineage who have done well and done good by the old country.
Times have changed. In my high school years in Ireland the history books merely mentioned emigration as if those who left fell off the horizon and disappeared.
Now there is the beginning of a huge recognition of the role in the Irish story of those who left and their descendants.
After all, what is this tiny island off the Western coast of Europe without its worldwide footprint from those who left?
In recent times successive Irish governments have begun to acknowledge that reality. Tonight is one of those moments.
It is a singular honor, one of those rare nights when I wonder what Kathleen and Donal O’Dowd, my parents, would think of the son who packed himself off to America, in June 1979, for what looked like a summer sojourn and instead became a stay of a lifetime.
In the room are five of my six siblings, all of them based in Ireland, on this special night which means an enormous amount to me. They let me know the deep sense of pride they feel being here in the house of the President on such a meaningful night. Is this not what it is all about as we age, a celebration of tribe, heritage, and family?
My wife Debbie, alas, cannot be here as the event clashes with our previously scheduled Legal 100 function, in Washington, and she is the architect of that event.
On the stage already are Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tanaiste (Deputy Leader) Joan Burton, new Minister for Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan, and the President’s wife Sabina. Later Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan will join.
The new awareness of the importance of the Diaspora has been given great credence by Taoiseach Kenny’s ground breaking decision to create a Minister for the Diaspora.
Looking at the array of talent beside me on this glowing night it is hard not to wonder why it took the Irish state so long to follow the Israeli example.
Dr. Kevin Cahill beside me is a world renowned physician but more, a committed Hibernophile who singlehandedly saved the greatest Irish building in America, the American Irish Historical Society, from closure.
The library there contains works of deep historical significance for the Irish American community. All is now safeguarded.
Further down is Mary Allen, sprite and sprightly at 84, a founder of the London Irish center, in 1954, and of the Irish cultural festival there. Through bad times during The Troubles she kept the flame alive of Irish community and culture.
Thomas Keneally is the author of "Schindler’s Ark," which became one of the greatest films of all time, "Schindler’s List," starring Liam Neeson in his greatest role. The Irish Australian novelist and Booker Prize winner has traveled 12,000 miles to be so honored.
Actress Fionnula Flanagan is another arts recipient, a leading lady in every sense of the world for the Irish in Hollywood and Irish culture in America.
There are Irish heroes from Korea, Dubai, Moscow, Brussels, Canada, all with amazing stories of achievement and commitment to Irish heritage.
Should I go on? Suffice to say I am humbled in such company.
There is nothing quite like being honored by your own, and the Irish do it well.
President Higgins remarks carry an extra edge reflecting his own belief in social justice. He asks us to imagine if like today, in many western countries, Irish Famine emigrants were turned away from America.
“What would have happened to the Irish people, had they been denied the possibility to emigrate to the New World in order to escape starvation at home in the mid-19th century? Today its diaspora is one of Ireland’s strengths.”
Where would they have gone? Where would we as a race have ended up? No JFK or Ronald Reagan no Irish thread in the great American tapestry. How the history books would be rewritten!
It is a sobering thought on a soaring night, a classic rejoinder from an eminent Irish politician that even as we celebrate we must do and think more.
Afterwards there is a splendid banquet at the government’s Farmleigh House addressed by Minister Deenihan and Minister Flanagan.
Minister Flanagan said it very well: “Tonight we shine a light on ten men and women whose passionate and selfless work has been of great benefit to the Irish people, communities and our nation as a whole.
“These people never look for our acknowledgement but tonight we recognise their endeavours which have been of tremendous service to our nation and helped build our reputation around the globe.”
Minister Deenihan stated “Tonight we are celebrating the diversity of the global Irish family...The recipients want the best for Ireland - for this small country with its global nation. And Ireland wants the best for each and every one of both the recipients and all our diaspora.”
It is indeed a night for flying our brightest colors, native and Irish abroad.
Conversely, I find myself thinking about America, the land that gave an arriving young emigrant such a great start in life in 1979.
What if I had been turned away?
It doesn’t bear thinking about and on this special night I won’t.
Life’s journey has many twists and turns. This night has been one of the most meaningful from a family and personal perspective.
I wished my daughter Alana had been here to witness it, my niece Kathleen and my beloved Rory, my nephew who died so tragically. Passing on my Irish heritage had never seemed so important.
I would just tell them they were born lucky.