Our American cousins have a real love for Ireland, and we should embrace it, says Elaine Byrne
'WHY are you here, John?" The Notre Dame Ireland Advisory Council had just finished its meeting at Farmleigh and we were sitting together on the bus to the American Embassy on Friday.
John P Tynan is the president and founder of the TynanGroup, a Californian company that prides itself on having "more than $4bn worth of project experience".
In 2010, his "state-of-the-art healthcare" delivery service, real estate, wind power and technology ventures were ranked at number 58 on the prestigious Inc. magazine's top 500 list. This 50-something, unassuming guy is the head of one of America's fastest-growing companies.
He explained how Martin Naughton of Glen Dimplex and Don Keough of Coca-Cola had transformed Notre Dame's relationship with Ireland. Since 1998, more than 2,000 students from this top-ranked American university have studied or interned here because of the Keough Naughton Institute for Irish Studies. As a member of the Ireland Council, he was proud to be a part of this, he said.
"But why are you really here?" I asked. John went all quiet for a while.
"It's not difficult to come home," he smiled. He became very animated and talked enthusiastically about his family emigrating from Cork in the 1860s and used the word "heritage" over and over again.
Notre Dame was John's way back to Ireland. Even though he was third-generation Irish-American, his deep sense of belonging was absolutely central to his identity. "But what do Irish people think of us, the Diaspora?" he inquired.
For Dick Sweetman, the Gathering is going to act as an excuse for a massive reunion of the Sweetman family in their home place of Clohamon, outside Bunclody in Wexford.
A Notre Dame graduate in civil engineering, Dick made a fortune in road building and bridge construction in South Dakota. He is also the chairman of Ramkota Companies, one of America's largest hotel-management and equity firms.
Although he is second-generation Irish, he listens to John Murray on RTE radio every morning on his way to work. Dick sees Ireland as his home and says he has "got caught up in what we can do to help".
Andy McKenna uses the same language. The chair of the McDonald's Corporation and Schwarz Supply Source refers to the "contagious energy" that draws him back to "the small island" of his grandfather that has made an "extraordinary impact on the world".
McKenna is a part-owner of the Chicago Bears, one of America's most popular and successful professional football teams. The NFL is looking to host a championship game in Europe next year. This would be even more lucrative than the Notre Dame v Navy college game this weekend.
Like the GAA, college football in the US is run on an amateur basis. Apart from the injection of €100m into the Irish economy by the arrival of 35,000 fans here, the game was broadcast live on CBS and ESPN, with a potential 130 million viewership.
A professional NFL game in Ireland would not only serve as a major financial boost to the country but would prove that Ireland has the capability to host sporting events on the world stage, such as a rugby world cup.
Like Tynan, Sweetman and McKenna, Tom O'Donnell also serves on the Notre Dame Ireland Council. Tom is a retired partner of Oppenheimer investments, one of America's most influential investment banks. The Irish language chair at Notre Dame exists because of his endowment.
Tom's father was from Kerry and following his release from prison after the Civil War, he went to America.
Tom believes Irish America is changing because there are no more "Irish grandmothers" who pass down a particular sense of Irishness.
This sense of a changing Diaspora was what Tynan's question was really about.
The relationship with the Diaspora has traditionally been one-sided. The Irish public's engagement with Irish America is at a remove.
There is a curiosity and a welcome, but for the most part it is what Niall O'Dowd describes as "lip-service".
Many of the people I spoke to said that this Notre Dame v Navy game represented a different attitude towards Irish America than they had experienced before.
When the two teams last played in Ireland in 1996, there was a sense that they were just "visiting" Ireland.
This time there is a real feeling that they are "coming home", not just as guests but as part of Ireland. This was a theme the Taoiseach rammed home in his speech at the 02, which received a standing ovation. That subtle difference has occurred because of the concerted efforts over the last year by the Irish business, academic and sporting community to make this weekend happen.
This is how the soft power of the well-networked global resource of people like Tynan, Sweetman and McKenna, O'Donnell and prominent Irish businessmen, such as Martin Naughton, can become influential. Morgan Kelly's prophecy that "we can only rely on the kindness of strangers" has been articulated into a greater reliance on the potential economic impact of our Diaspora.
One concert example of that is a new initiative that was discussed in Farmleigh on Friday. The Notre Dame Provost, Thomas G Burish, wants to expand the Irish programme at his university to the business and technology sectors, not just language and cultural studies. He talks of an active "partnership" and "sharing of experience" with Irish stakeholders that would involve a focus on contemporary Ireland and the problems of the future.
This is not simply because of some historical obligation to Ireland but because "the problems you have are global and we can learn from them".
There is cautious pessimism, cynicism even, about different government strategies to incorporate the Diaspora into Irish life. The initiative by the Department of Foreign Affairs to issue "certificates of Irish heritage" received a mixed reaction in Ireland.
The Notre Dame pep rally in the 02 officially kicked off the Gathering. This "year-long celebration of all things Irish" invites 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry to "come home".
Privately, some of those involved in the backroom teams for this project are a little apprehensive that the Irish public will not embrace the Gathering to the same extent as the Diaspora. There is this instinctive rebuff to the "Oirish" or shamrockery connotations of Irish tourism.
But coming home matters. And they want to come home again soon.
Elaine Byrne is author of 'Political Corruption in Ireland 1922-2010, A Crooked Harp?' (Manchester University Press, 2012)