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Reflections on Irish Identity in 2023

Only one world leader is guaranteed an annual audience with the US president at the White House – An Taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland. Every March 17th since 1952, he (and it has only ever been a he thus far) has been invited to share centre stage at the White House. The solitary exception was in 2020 when the planned St Patrick’s Day reunion between Leo Varadkar and Donald Trump fell victim to Covid-19.

Pandemics aside, the ‘Shamrock Ceremony’ offers a golden opportunity every year for the two leaders to discuss the economic relationship between their countries, a relationship that was valued at about $680bn (€606bn) in 2018.

It is also part of the broader phenomenon of the global St Patrick’s Day celebrations that, over the last decade, has seen scores of major landmarks across the world to ‘go green’ in honour of Ireland’s patron saint. As well as the River Chicago, which has been dyed green since 1962, the line-up of sites that have gone green to date includes the Sydney Opera House, the Pyramid of Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, Christ the Redeemer in Brazil, the London Eye, the Nelson Mandela statue in Johannesburg, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Luxor Obelisk in Paris, the Lion of Judah in Addis Ababa, the Palestinian Museum in Ramallah, the ‘Welcome’ sign in Las Vegas and the new One World Trade Centre in New York.

Away from the greening, the crowds that the St Patrick’s Day parades muster looks especially astounding in the post pandemic world – two million in New York, one million in Boston, half a million in Savannah, Georgia – while the Milwaukee Irish Fest, the world’s largest Irish music and cultural festival, drew more than 100,000 visitors in 2018 and 2019.

On 17 March 2021, almost 700 sites in 66 countries went green to mark the occasion, including over 80 sites in the US. That so many cities and nations around the world have been prepared to play to the Irish pipe is, of course, an astonishing feat by Tourism Ireland. And yet St Patrick’s rise to global stardom did not happen overnight. Indeed, the greening is arguably the culmination of at least fourteen centuries worth of travel by Irish men and women such as those profiled in the pages of this book. For instance, the earliest recorded St Patrick’s Day parade outside Ireland took place in the then Spanish colony of Florida in 1601 and was organised by Ricardo Artur, the Irish-born Vicar of St Augustine.

About one percent of the planet’s population claim to be at least a little bit Irish. That figure rises to perhaps as many as forty per cent in Australia, twenty per cent in New Zealand, fifteen in Canada, ten in the UK and almost twelve in the US. In 2019,, the genealogy company, revealed that two-thirds of its fifteen million members who took a DNA test were at least five percent Irish. Over a million Irish-born citizens are presently living outside of Ireland, including about 633,000 in Britain (ie: England, Scotland and Wales) and 170,000 (including circa 50,000 undocumented) in the US. Large numbers of Irish ex-pats also live in cities such as Barcelona, Paris and Brussels, or further afield in places such as Beijing, Cape Town, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. As well an estimated global diaspora of perhaps eighty million people, there are at least six million Irish nationals living on the island of Ireland today.

The Irish government is not immune to the economic boost of a successful charm offensive on the Irish diaspora. A case in point is the Gathering of 2013, another tourism-led initiative that saw grassroots organisations across Ireland host almost 5000 events that were, by and large, aimed at attracting the diaspora. The number of overseas visitors swelled considerably in consequence, with a 15 per cent increase in the US market, an economic boost that helped Ireland find its feet after the economic collapse five years earlier. It remains to be seen how the diaspora might help bring the country forwards after Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, not least with the entire concept of globalisation in a state of retreat.

The romantic notion that those of Irish blood would help the old country has provenance. At the end of the First World War, Henry Ford ensured his Detroit-based automobile firm built its first tractor factory outside of the US in Cork, the county from which his father emigrated. By 1930, its workforce had reached 7,000, making it the second-largest employer in the Irish Free State after the railway.

In the 1960s, the impact of John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidency, and his return visit to Ireland, had a profound influence on Irish-American relations. Thirty years later, his youngest sister, the late Jean Kennedy Smith, arrived in Ireland as the new US Ambassador. She carved out her own place in the history books when she persuaded Bill Clinton to host Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams in the White House, thus paving the way for the 1994 ceasefire and the start of the peace process. In 2020, eager to perpetuate the connection to such an influential American dynasty, the relevant local councils voted to name Ireland’s newest and longest bridge by New Ross in honour of the Kennedy matriarch, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. The connection continues anew in 2023 with Biden’s appointment of former Congressman Joe Kennedy III, Bobby’s grandson, as US special envoy to Northern Ireland.

Could similar such ancestral links prove useful to Ireland in the future? With almost 900 US firms in Ireland in 2022, employing 190,000 people (or twenty per cent of the workforce), such connections can prove surprisingly tangible. When Twitter established its European headquarters in Dublin, it must have given a little genealogical thrill to Jack Dorsey, its former CEO, who reputedly descends from a family from Erry, near Clara, County Offaly. The surname ‘Dorsey’ is thought to derive from D’Arcy, one of the tribes of Galway.

That Google is such a massive employer across Dublin’s Docklands must likewise have gladdened the heart of Nicole Shanahan, the former wife of Google co-founder Sergey Brin; she is the great-granddaughter of emigrants from Ballylongford, County Kerry. Ballylongford was also home to the parents of Noreen Culhane, the current Executive Vice-President of the New York Stock Exchange. Descending from the Culhanes of Killeton, Noreen was the New York ‘Rose’ in the 1970 Rose of Tralee.

Does it mean anything to Elon Musk that his ancestors are said to include Richard Champion, a police constable from Cashel, County Tipperary?

And what of John Malone, the chairman of Liberty Global, the US multinational telecommunications company, and the largest individual private landowner in the US? His Irish roots assuredly played a role in his decision to acquire Humewood Castle and the Castlemartin House estate in Ireland. His financial support at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic also offered a critical lifeline to twelve prominent Irish hotels that he has a share in. Similarly, Ballyfin House, the beautiful country house hotel in County Laois, would feasibly be a ruin by now if it wasn’t for the deep pockets of its philanthropic American owner, the late Fred Krehbiel, former co-chairman of Molex, whose wife is from County Kerry.

Or what of Downpatrick-born Neville Isdell, the former CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, who fulfilled a lifelong dream in 2016 when he funded and launched EPIC – The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin. Telling the story of the Irish diaspora, the digital museum swiftly established itself as one of the most popular visitor attractions in the city, winning “Europe’s Leading Tourist Attraction” at the World Travel Awards, the Oscars of the travel industry, three years in a row in 2019, 2020 and 2021 .

Internal politics is another area in which the Irish diaspora has long sought to have an influence. In the US, the hue has primarily been nationalist. The United Irishman patriot Wolfe Tone was not overtly fond of Americans but he nonetheless honed several of his republican policies during his ten-month sojourn in Pennsylvania in 1795-1796. Tone’s close friend Thomas Addis Emmet, older brother of the doomed patriot Robert Emmet, became Attorney General of New York in 1812. Oliver Bond’s widow Lucy (née Jackson) settled in Baltimore, Maryland, where she died in 1843.

In the ensuing generations, many members of organisations like Young Ireland, the Fenian Brotherhood and the Irish Republican Brotherhood lived in the US where they found an audience keen to hear their dreams of booting the British out of Ireland and establishing an independent state.

That sense of nationalism was understandably strong among those whose American story began during the Great Hunger. In the context of the diaspora, the relocation of such a huge percentage of the Irish population in the 1840s was the biggest game changer in Irish history. Put simply, hundreds of thousands of Irish-born people were now living, and breeding, outside of Ireland, primarily in the US and the UK. Irish-American antipathy to the British intensified during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. Nationalist leaders Charles Stewart Parnell (who was himself half-American) and Michael Davitt raised a small fortune for the Irish Land League on fund-raising trips to the US in 1880-1881. To Davitt’s surprise, the biggest contributors after Chicago and Philadelphia were the citizens of Denver, which was home to a massive population of Irish-born miners (mainly from the Beara Peninsula) and railroad workers.

A generation later, the Easter Rising of 1916 would not have been possible without the funds raised in the US by Clan na Gael, an Irish-American organisation committed to the nationalist cause. In the spring of 1919, Éamon de Valera escaped from a British jail and was pronounced president of the fledgling Irish Republic. In May he sailed for New York, the city of his birth. A month later, he hosted a “Freedom Rally” at Fenway Park, the home ground of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, recently built by another Irishman. Over 50,000 people rolled up to hear his emotional plea:

‘If America fails the good people of small nations seeking to wrest themselves from tyranny and oppression, then, democracy dies or else goes mad.’ A correspondent for the Boston Daily Globe was greatly impressed: ‘In the vast audience you sensed this new dignity that has sunk into their consciousness, born of the knowledge that millions of men of Irish blood have been fighting the past four years for democracy as against autocracy and for the self-determination of Nations in the world”.

De Valera spent the next eighteen months in the US drumming up support for the Republic, as well as critical finances for both his government and his armed forces during the war of independence. At the same time, the American Committee for Relief in Ireland was founded in New York ‘to devise and consider ways and means of relieving the acute distress’ in Ireland on account of the war. When the British government finally sued for peace and brought the war to a close, one reason they did so was because of the pressure put upon them by the White House which was, in turn, under pressure from the Irish-American block in Washington DC. In 1924, the US formerly recognized the Irish Free State as a state with autonomous control over its foreign relations.

During more recent times, the civil rights movement in the US inspired and informed the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland in the 1960s. Irish-Americans also provided much of the financial support that enabled the Irish Republican Army to wage its war during the era of the Troubles. Founded in New York in 1969, NORAID, the Irish Northern Aid Committee, raised €3.5 million for republicans and the families of IRA prisoners before it was wound up in the early 1990s.

Friends of Sinn Féin, its heir apparent, raised €10.7 million between 1995 and 2014, with Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney as their biggest donor.  In 1996, Mr Feeney donated $240,000 to the establishment of Sinn Féin’s office in Washington. In March 2021, the organisation sponsored half-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as full-page ads in the Irish Voice and the Irish Echo, under the title “A United Ireland – Let the people have their say.” In contrast, the loyalist opposition to Sinn Féin nether sought nor received any significant support from the US.  Between November 2021 and November 2022, Friends of Sinn Féin raised over €1 million in donations, primarily from trade unions and construction companies in the New York area.

Needless to say, the nuances of all this are infinitely more multifaceted but the point is that the Irish American community have always had considerable influence over affairs in the ‘old country’ and they continue to do so to this day. In 2019, for instance, Nancy Pelosi, the then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, lead a Congressional fact-finding delegation to Ireland. Comprising of both Democrats and Republican, their common goal was to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure that those debating Brexit paid full heed to the wishes of the people on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Among Mrs Pelosi’s principal delegates during her 2019 visit was Ritchie Neal, chairman of the Friends of Ireland Caucus and head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Descended from emigrants from Counties Down and Kerry, Neal won re-election to the House of Representatives in the 2020 Democratic primaries.[i]

The Biden presidency has also kept Ireland firmly on the agenda. On the eve of the 2020 US presidential election, Joe Biden implied that any breach of the Good Friday agreement by the UK would have a negative impact on any trade deals negotiated between the UK and the US on his watch.  During his first round of calls as president-elect in November 2020, Biden made sure to call Micheál Martin, the then Taoiseach, shortly after he spoke with the leaders of France (Emmanuel Macron), Germany (Angela Merkel) and Britain (Boris Johnson) underlying his strong ties to Ireland. When the British government sought to unilaterally change how the Northern Ireland Protocol was implemented in March 2021, Biden confirmed his unequivocal support for the Good Friday agreement, describing it as ‘the bedrock of peace, stability and prosperity for all the people of Northern Ireland.’ In 2023, Biden is expected to be joined by the Clintons and George Mitchel for an event to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. That said, the onset of a new Cold War with Russia may drive Washington and London closer again.

In many ways, the very fact we have these curiously connected outsiders looking in, assessing our world from the perspective of their own adopted homelands, means we have also been inclined to reassess what it means to be Irish. It also allows us to indulge in a degree of old-fashioned celebrity gossip as we contemplate that ever-growing list of Irish-born people who have become household names in the global entertainment industry. In the world of music, one thinks of U2, Hozier, Enya, Van Morrison, Sinead O’Connor, Bob Geldof, Niall Horan, The Pogues. Perhaps less obviously, musicians such as Dusty Springfield, Bruce Springsteen, Ella Fitzgerald, Boy George, Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish (née O’Connell), Kurt Cobain, Mariah Carey, the Gallagher brothers of Oasis and three of the four Beatles have strong Irish bloodlines.

Likewise, the silver screen has been no stranger to Irish talent since the early days of the silent movies when the Moore brothers and Mary Pickford [p. XXX] were in their element. Take the Academy Awards, for instance, when Hollywood holds its breath before the annual distribution of the Oscar statuette which, as it happens, was designed by the multi-Oscar winning Dublin-born art director Cedric Gibbons. 2023 was an astonishing year for Irish film industry when five of the twenty acting nominees were Irish. With ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ leading the way, the country scored a further nine Oscar nominations that same year, including ‘An Cailín Ciúin/The Quiet Girl,’ the first Irish language film to be nominated for Best International Feature Film.

The best line I read about the golden haul of 2023 was by John Kennedy, the head of visual effects at Windmill Lane, a Dublin-based post-production hub, who stated:

“We no longer need to bang the drum of our long tradition of storytelling or that of the plucky underdog nation punching above its weight. This is a result of years of steady, sustained, strategic growth across the film industry from government, studio, educational and private sector channels.”

Prior to 2023, fourteen Irish actors and actresses have garnered 26 Oscar nominations between them since 1939, resulting in three wins for Daniel Day-Lewis, an English-born Irish citizen, and one each for Barry Fitzgerald and Brenda Fricker. Liam Neeson and Richard Harris were among the near victors, as was Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for ‘Belfast’ in 2022, was also the first person to be nominated for five different categories.

Saoirse Ronan earned four nominations before the age of twenty-five. Hopefully she achieves victory quicker than Peter O’Toole who was nominated eight times before he finally scooped a special Oscar in 2003 for his general contribution to the film industry. In other fields, Kilkenny’s Cartoon Saloon studio has received five Oscar nominations, including ‘Wolfwalkers’ in 2021, while Dublin costume designer Consolata Boyle has been nominated three times. At the 2020 Academy Awards, Eímear Noone from Kilconnell, County Galway, made history when she became the first woman to conduct the ceremony’s 42-piece orchestra.

For the people of Ireland, the presence of so many Irish surnames in international politics, business and showbiz often stirs a strangely anxious pride. During the Covid-19 pandemic, we generally cast a supportive nod at Sligo-born Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Programme, who headed up the team responsible for the international containment and treatment of the virus. (‘Speed trumps perfection,’ is one of his mantras). Among his core allies was Limerick-born healthcare executive (and former county hurler) Michael Dowling who was appointed by the then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead the effort to ensure that Coronavirus patients did not overrun New York hospitals. Professor Tess Lambe from Kilcullen, County Kildare, was among the co-designers of the Oxford AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, while Dublin-born Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at Oxford University, was joint leader of the overall Oxford Vaccine Group project. Ninety-year-old Margaret Keenan, who was born in Enniskillen, was the first person in the world to be administered the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on 7 December 2020, aka “V-Day”. (The first man was memorably called William Shakespeare.)

In the world of computer science, John McCarthy was the son of an emigrant from the fishing village of Cromane in County Kerry. McCarthy was one of the founding fathers of Artificial Intelligence – he coined the expression in 1955.

Ireland was one of the few countries in the world to enjoy economic growth in 2020 (3.4%), and the only one in Europe. (‘Our relative prosperity wasn’t built on gold, diamond, oil, gas or colonies,’ tweeted Leo Varadkar on 5 March 2021. ‘It is based on the goods and services our land and people produce and sell abroad.) In 2021, the economic growth rose to 13.5%. Also in play was Ireland’s seat on the 15-member UN Security Council, the most powerful body in the UN system, for the 2021-2022 term.

Irish people continue to thrive abroad. The CEOs of British Airways, Quantas and Northern Pacific Airways are, respectively, Seán Doyle from Youghal, County Cork; Alan Joyce from Tallaght, County Dublin; and Rob McKinney, an Irish American. In 2021, Macroom-born Dr Ann Kelleher became the first Irish person to be appointed executive vice-president of Intel.

The United Kingdom has long had a preponderance of Irishmen, or people of Irish descent, in its rank and file. In 2021, Dublin-born Vincent Keaveny was installed as the 693rd Lord Mayor of the City of London. Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, is the London-born son of emigrants from Cork and Armagh.  Liz Truss, the shortest reigning prime minister in British history, is married to Hugh O’Leary, who is presumably of Irish descent, as was her health secretary Thérèrse Coffey. In August 2022, Dublin-born Hugh Brady (a former President of UCD) became President at Imperial College London, ranked as the 12th-best college in the world. When the 2022 FIFA World Cup kicked off, Irish Central asked whether the ‘strong Irish roots’ of players such as Harry Kane, Kalvin Phillips, Harry Maguire, Jack Grealish, and Declan Rice were ‘reason enough for Irish fans to forget about rivalry and cheer on England.’

The Irish are, of course, everywhere on TV too from Ant and Dec to Graham Norton to Sharon Horgan. That said, the number of Irish-born residents of England and Wales is plummeting – from an all-time high of 683,000 in 1961, it fell to 407,357 by 2011 and then tumbled by a further 80,000 people, or 20 per cent, in the age of Brexit so that, as of 2022, there are just 324,670 Irish-born living in those lands. Once the largest group of non-nationals in the UK, the Irish are now in fifth place behind India, Poland, Pakistan and Romania.

So where does it go from here in the Covidean world? More Irish people crossed the Atlantic by plane in 2018 and 2019 than sailed to the Americas during the entire era of the Great Hunger. The major difference is that most present-day transatlantic passengers come home again. Such travel dried up when the pandemic struck but there will still be plenty of Irish who travel. In April 2022, the Nomad Passport Index ranked the Irish passport as the third-most powerful in the world, after Luxembourg and Sweden, with Irish passport holders allowed to enter 187 nations around the world without a visa.  It’s so desirable that 3,284 Americans applied for Irish citizenship in the first six months of 2022, more than double as the same period in 2021. Likewise, the Department of Justice showed a 1,200% increase in the number of Britons applying for Irish citizenship since Brexit. In 2015, only 58 Britons were granted Irish citizenship – that was up to almost 1,200 in 2021. Indeed, 2022 saw the greatest number of Irish passports in history, with 1,080,000 issued by the end of the year. Those numbers are unlikely to diminish in light of the Institute for Economics and Peace’s 2022 Global Peace Index, which named Ireland as the third-safest country in the world behind Iceland and New Zealand.

Over a million Irish nationals are living abroad today, including over a thousand missionaries who are running schools, clinics and sanitation schemes across Africa, South America and Asia. For those who return, the influence and experience of their global travels invariably brings a healthy, open-minded international flair to their future selves. And for those who opt to live their lives in latitudes far from their place of birth and family homes, they are but replicating the decision of many millions of Irish people who have gone before.