Saturday 25 October 2014

We have a lot to learn from can-do perspective

As the 50th anniversary of JFK's visit approaches, Colum Kenny says we should keep doors open

Published 23/06/2013 | 05:00

Michelle Obama with daughters Sasha and Malia in Trinity College, Dublin
Michelle Obama with daughters Sasha and Malia in Trinity College, Dublin

I could have stepped forward and touched JFK. He was passing slowly, in an open car, entering the Phoenix Park in 1963.

Security in those days, long ago before Lee Harvey Oswald and 9/11, meant little.

The US president looked happy. And we certainly were. Even as a boy I could sense that Kennedy's visit really meant something for Ireland. And it still does.

I was waving a little stars and stripes. He was sun-tanned like a film star.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive. There was Irish television just started. We were literally and metaphorically seeing things in a new way.

The great and good Pope John XXIII had thrown open shutters in Rome to let light into the Catholic Church. And now JFK was home to assure us that the Irish could make it.

True, it was not really his home. But it was his more than Michelle Obama's, who last week told us too on behalf of her family that it was "good to be home" in Ireland.

We made her feel welcome anyway, and that is OK. It is not just a matter of politics. It is good manners. And at a time when we have started to export our young people again, her visit was a reminder of global connections.

The Obamas have the measure of Ireland. And Irish politicians have the measure of the Obamas. It is about mutual respect and self-interest, votes and jobs with a dash of humour thrown in. What's wrong with that?

True there are moments when toes curl. Like the Obamas being welcomed to the famous Long Room in Trinity College's wonderful library with the words, "Welcome to Hogwarts". It diminished our heritage and patronised the Obamas.

I was in Ballyporeen when President Ronald Reagan showed up to play the Paddy and have a pint in Tipperary. But it was less excruciating than watching the National University of Ireland confer an honorary degree on him in Galway.

We want to be loved. And we want those American dollars. And it would be nice too if more of our emigrants were let stay in the USA. Sure aren't we special, closer to the US gene pool than anyone else? Once upon a time, maybe.

When Charles Stewart Parnell made the first in a line of political pushes by top Irish politicians on tour in America, he was paid the rare compliment of being invited to address the US Congress. And such Irish visitors have been feted and fed ever since.

Why would we not reciprocate? After all the US House of Representatives even let Bertie give it a lecture on the Irish success story. Ouch!

Now more than ever it would be good to keep doors open. Not everyone has a well-paid job in the Dail from which to condemn Barack Obama.

Ireland, "the old sow that eats her farrow" as James Joyce called it, is once more offering its young people emigration instead of employment.

We box above our weight on the world stage, and both we and visiting American politicians know it. The state of Missouri alone is twice the area of Ireland. Virginia has a bigger population.

But there are still tens of millions of Irish-Americans. The vast majority are not like those IRA sympathisers who got far too much attention down the years. And few are big into Irish dancing and music. But then neither are most Irish people.

The ordinary Irish-American has got little out of Ireland but is still proud to be partly Irish. One man whose parents emigrated very many years ago, recently applied for Irish citizenship. When his papers came last week he immediately emailed me and others to say, "So happy!" And he is a hard-nosed lawyer.

So many went. Maybe it hurt to remember. The parcels from America were welcome. So too the occasional visit when we can play the part of a cultured people who survived oppression.

But the game has changed. Our place in the world has shrunk. We have messed up.

We are in no position to feel superior to Americans and Irish-Americans when they come calling. Not just because we want their dollars, but because they may have something to teach us about the way forward. There is a lot to learn from the can-do attitude of a Clinton or an Obama.

I know where I was when I learnt that JFK had been shot. Watching a US TV programme on the new RTE service. It was interrupted by a newsflash. We are all a bit American now.

Down the decades I have visited most states in the USA, and have met many kinds of Irish-Americans with stories to tell. How often have we listened? They are partly our people too.

For years we could not give emigrants, even those in Britain, a proper radio signal let alone a radio service. We insult new ones now by promising them a vote only in presidential elections – in case their votes for the Dail might rock the boat.

Although some mocked her, Mary Robinson's decision to keep a light in the Aras window for the Irish diaspora was a nice gesture.

And when we roll out a red carpet for US presidents and their families in Ireland, we also remember the Irish abroad. For that reason alone, apart altogether from the financial benefits and sheer good manners, we should continue to offer them a hundred thousand welcomes.

Irish Independent

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