Wednesday 20 September 2017

Samantha Power: the triumph and sadness of emigration

Her father would have been very proud of what his daughter achieved as an Irishwoman in the US, writes John Crown

John Crown

Two prominent Irish people were recently embarrassed by controversial remarks they thought they had made in private. Our new Taoiseach's whispered attempt to re-define FF was rightly laughed off, and was in truth a minor transgression compared with Ronald Reagan's, who nearly precipitated thermonuclear holocaust by playfully announcing, through what he thought was a switched-off microphone, that the US was about to bomb Russia.

The second case was that of Samantha Power, the brilliant young Dublin-born Harvard professor, and foreign policy advisor to Barack Obama, who was forced to leave his campaign after she unguardedly, but perhaps not entirely inaccurately, referred to Hillary Clinton as a "monster," at the end of an interview with "The Scotsman" newspaper. Ms. Power, who was heavily jet-lagged, believed that she was speaking off the record, but was undone by an opportunistic reporter.

This remarkable young woman left Ireland at the age of nine with her mother and brother after the sad break-up of her parents' marriage, and has outlined the difficulties of settling in the US as a child who was "different" (something I related to, having made a similar transatlantic move in the opposite direction at a similar age, and in similar family circumstances).

But my word, did she settle in! Even by the standards of the Irish, the praetorian guard of emigration, she was a high performer, a simply staggeringly accomplished woman, who in her short life to date has already left a remarkable and positive impression on our world, as a journalist, academic and Pulitzer Prize winning author for her study of genocide, "A Problem From Hell".

Her removal was a tragedy. If America ever needed thoughtful, courageous, insightful foreign policy experts like Samantha, it needs them now. For eight years the United States has had a president who had never left his continent prior to his election, who thought modern Greece was inhabited by Grecians, and whose foolish and ill-advised invasion of Iraq not only plunged that country into sectarian turmoil, but also saved the Taliban and al-Qa'ida from defeat in Afghanistan.

Towards the end of a recent radio interview, Samantha spoke tenderly of her memories of her late father, a dually qualified medical practitioner and dentist who had stayed in Dublin after her parents' separation, and "who held court in Hartigan's pub". Suddenly the penny dropped.

When I was a young trainee doctor, Hartigan's was the watering hole for those UCD folks whose spirits had never migrated from Earlsfort Terrace to Belfield. It was not a place for "scoring", or for watching football or for eating pub grub, but was rather a licensed shrine to the slightly sozzled intellect. It would have sat at the opposite end of the Vintner's Federation spectrum from the café bar concept of Michael McDowell.

It also made for a fascinating anthropological study of pecking orders, with students sitting in the front near the street, junior doctors graduating to the narrow middle section between the bar and the side entrance, and the elder lemons of medicine, dentistry, law and the civil service gravitating to the rear of the premises. This latter group was blessed with more than its fair share of brains, often in truth, maintained rather less than scrupulously carefully by their owners.

They included amongst their ranks a now forgotten intellectual elite called the "440 men", those who as candidates in the old format Leaving Certificate had obtained full (ie 400) marks, and then an extra 10 per cent for sitting the exam 'as Gaeilge'. It being a pub, and we being Irish, it also saw its fair share of alcohol-related tragedy, of broken marriages, thwarted ambitions and what-might-have-beens.

Dr Jim Power, was the intellectual alpha male of the Hartigan's herd, a fearsomely formidable pub debater and commentator on the human condition, with a brilliant if acerbic turn of phrase, a man who saw off challenging younger bucks, leaving them staggering into the bush with one swish of his tongue. Sitting regally on a stool reading "The Daily Telegraph", he would deflate egos, demolish myths and dispense well-informed editorials on the affairs of the day.

Those who knew Jim recognised the melancholy that many separated fathers have, the sadness of separation from children, a melancholy that I'm sure my separated Dad often had, a melancholy that I was thankfully subsequently spared.

A daughter of Jim Power's was going to be smart and was likely to be unimpressed by a big and questionably deserved reputation, even Hillary Clinton's.

What would have happened to Samantha if she had stayed in Ireland? What would she have been doing? Would she have been influencing international policy and winning Pulitzer prizes, or would she have been forced through party loyalty to stand in the tent at the Galway Races (thankfully now defunct -- well done, Mr Cowen) and share pleasantries with the building industry?

Would she have been advising taoisigh on foreign aid, or responses to genocide or dealings with peak oil in a warming world, or would she instead be picking which incompetent to put in a given ministry in order to achieve regional electoral balance.

I think that Ireland could never have allowed her to thrive and grow the way that America did. Sad for Jim, but thank God she emigrated.

One thing I do know: Jim, who died in sad circumstances 20 years ago, would have been very proud of his wonderful daughter.

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