Michael Higgins, the new President General of the American Irish Historical Society (AIHS) in New York City, has responded to IrishCentral's May 3 publication of his claims that “many Irish are ashamed of Irish America.”
“I know many Irish people cringe when they think of Irish America and the tedious efforts to promote a hagiographic and triumphalist portrayal of everything Irish," Higgins said in his letter that was made public this week.
IrishCentral editors received the following correspondence from Michael Higgins on May 4:
I am writing to you as President General of the American Irish Historical Society.
I write to you in relation to a number of matters that require your clarification to your readers.
What you presented to your readers was private correspondence between myself and two eminent historians, without their permission or mine. The correspondence was not for sharing, but to be used solely to whom it was addressed. No one had permission to release it in any form, edited, or otherwise. It was not a public statement of any kind. Your usage of it constitutes a breach of privacy. My private correspondence has been abused, was inappropriately sourced and is being selectively quoted. I would like you to acknowledge this.
I would also like you to acknowledge that you have never sought to speak to me or receive comment for this or any other article you have ever published in Irish Central or Irish Echo.
I would also like you to apologize for the decontextualization of the letter and misrepresentation of my name and my role. I must clarify that my name is Michael Higgins and I am not a diplomat, but rather employed as a specialist advisor in the Irish Permanent Mission to the United Nations for the duration of Ireland’s time on the Security Council.
I would also like you to clarify that I did not characterize myself as an inheritor of Robert Emmet, but rather wanted to be “in keeping with the spirit of Robert Emmet.”
I would also like you to clarify to your readers that you (Niall O’Dowd) were a serving board member of the AIHS for many years, including serving in a vice-president capacity.
I sent the correspondence with a view to fortifying the AIHS by engaging highly professional and renowned leaders in their field so as to better share and celebrate Irish heritage. Our Society is determined to fulfil our historical and cultural mission to tell the “Story of the Irish in America.” We want the existing and coming generations of Irish Americans, whom we cherish, to be able to connect with the one of most valuable Irish archives in existence, that is held by the American Irish Historical Society. All of my efforts have been based on the importance of celebrating these archives and collections.
Response from Niall O'Dowd, founder of IrishCentral:
Mr. Higggins must know that once his correspondence was dispatched by him, there was a likelihood it would be leaked. He should talk to the two “eminent historians" he says he sent it to, or perhaps interview himself because, by his reckoning, one of the three leaked it.
He is the President General of the American Irish Historical Society, head of perhaps the largest Irish American non-profit which is involved in a major controversy and is under investigation by the New York State Attorney General. The current board he chairs has proposed selling the Fifth Avenue mansion of the AIHS for a sum of $44 million and moving the headquarters to upstate New York.
There was widespread opposition to those moves, including from the Irish government and numerous resignations from the AIHS board yet, the AIHS has refused to explain its actions.
He is surely not naive enough to expect a letter pertaining to such important matters about the society would not make it into public discourse after he circulated it. IrishCentral reported the story accurately. The issue for him lies with whoever leaked it, not with the publications that published it.
As for misrepresenting his opinion, he cannot deny he wrote that Irish people are ashamed of Irish Americans and that they often “cringe” at the behavior of Irish Americans. (“I know many Irish people cringe when they think of Irish America and the tedious efforts to promote a hagiographic and triumphalist portrayal of everything Irish.")
He also wrote, “Many Irish are ashamed of Irish Americans.”
Those are demonstrably hostile and patronizing comments, but ones that Irish Americans, have, unfortunately, often come to recognize as coming from an elitist Irish-born mindset.
In that context, it is very important that the opinions of the new President of the AIHS be known in the community that he will ultimately be working with. His unfortunate private thoughts on the matter are now well elucidated publicly.
There is absolutely no reason for IrishCentral to apologize for publishing his exact words.
I might add, the letter is disingenuous in the extreme, making no reference whatsoever to what the Society would do with the estimated $44 million for the sale of the AIHS mansion on Fifth Avenue if it is sold and failing to acknowledge that the Irish government is strongly opposed to the sale of 991 Fifth Avenue. Further, no mention was made of the Irish American community's opposition - more than 41,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the sale to be stopped.
As to calling Mr. Higgins a diplomat, we wrote he was working for the Irish mission at the UN which comes pretty close to an accurate definition. As for not revealing I have been on the board, I have freely acknowledged that fact in previous articles but omitted it on this occasion, so my bad.
I stand ready at any time to conduct an interview with you, Mr. Higgins, to discuss your plans for the AIHS, a beloved institution by so many, now the subject of a New York State legal inquiry. The 41,000 plus people who signed the petition calling for a full-scale investigation of the AIHS plans need answers, too, as do Irish Americans nationwide.
We absolutely stand by our reporting of your letter.