Irish Americans need to reflect on their roots and their actions on St. Patrick's Day

This is the time in March when many of the 35 million Irish Americans don the dollop of green paint and go in search of a parade, a concert or a pub to celebrate their heritage.
The vast majority disappear back into the mist once the special day has passed.

More and more we in Irish America need to question what St Patrick’s Day is all about. It is time for us to do more than the shamrock trot.

The most modern and meaningful arc between America and Ireland today is not the annual St Patrick’s Day parade and its hoopla but Irish Americans reaching out a helping hand to Ireland.

Irish-American soft power has always been enormously important to Ireland. Back in the 1920s and up to the 1960s, emigrant remittances from America kept many thousands of households alive and paid for generations to be educated. The access to America and its jobs was vital for emigrants.

American tourism to Ireland keeps hospitality businesses in many towns and villages alive. American businesses are at the heart of the Irish economy, employing well over 100,000 people.

The end of large-scale Irish immigration to America following the 1965 Immigration Act here brought an end to an era. America is closed off for new Irish emigrants, barring comprehensive immigration reform. Achieving immigration reform and allowing Irish to emigrate legally would be a massive boost if Irish America could help achieve it.

Immigration reform

We need to be far more proactive on immigration reform by recognising the importance of a future flow of Irish to America. It is no secret that Republicans for a variety of reasons will listen to Irish far more than other groups.

That help can be as simple as an organised call to Congress in a day of action, organising a local Irish lobby group or joining with Hispanic heritage organisations to push for fairer immigration laws.
There are many examples of Irish Americans who have not forgotten their hardscrabble heritage or lost the will to help.

More than 1,000 Irish construction workers, Irish and American, fanned all across the Rockaway neighbourhoods in New York from the African-American to Irish enclaves during two recent Irish “days of action” there after Hurricane Sandy.

It was an example of Irish American power at its best and Taoiseach Enda Kenny has recognised it by committing funding to areas and congratulating those who took part.

Most of what Irish Americans must achieve in Ireland will be on a voluntary basis by giving philanthropic support.

This is where Irish America comes in, with its soft power and its traditional role of helping Ireland.
Irish American Chuck Feeney through his Atlantic Philanthropies has transformed third-level education in Ireland as well as funding numerous deserving charities to the tune of over $1.5 billion.

The American-Ireland Fund is one of the largest sources of private support in Ireland. Its hugely successful “Promising Ireland” campaign will likely surpass $150 million by the year’s end.

In recent years, under chairman Loretta Brennan Glucksman and chief executive Kieran McLaughlin, it has developed a tremendous young leaders’ subset and taken on many of the toughest issues in Irish life. It is inspired and driven by the great American tradition of philanthropy, one of this country’s greatest exports and instruments of soft power.

Next generation 

Actively seeking the next generation of Chuck Feeneys and major donors to Irish American groups like the American-Ireland Fund should become a top priority of Ireland and Irish America.

The end of the Troubles has given the next generation of Irish America the permission to become fully involved in Ireland in a way their parents often hesitated to.

Now is the time to ask them to step up to the plate after the St Patrick’s brouhaha has faded. “Giving while living” is the Chuck Feeney mantra adopted by Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among others.

Other Irish Americans can do that too for Ireland’s sake. What is needed is leadership, drive and year-round interest.