Monday 24 October 2016

Irish in America are different now - and we need them home

Published 19/10/2015 | 02:30

The Boston Irish Famine Memorial. As Ireland recovers from the economic crash lets hope we can welcome home those Irish who were forced to emigrate due to economic difficulties
The Boston Irish Famine Memorial. As Ireland recovers from the economic crash lets hope we can welcome home those Irish who were forced to emigrate due to economic difficulties

My 23-year-old daughter, Catherine, recently joined the ranks of the thousands of young Irish who have moved to the USA.

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The majority of our young people who crossed the Atlantic in the last eight years did so due to economic necessity. Not so Catherine, who was hungry to have a taste of living in another part of the world and to gain experience in her chosen field. She went on a graduate visa for a set period of time.

We have very strong family connections in New York. In the 1950s four of my mother's brothers emigrated from their home village in Co Tipperary to the city. The eldest brother went first, followed by the next in age, etc. The fifth brother, the youngest, moved to the east coast of America in the 1960s after being ordained a priest in Ireland, and served in various parishes there until his retirement.

Sadly only one of my uncles is still living today.

A few weeks ago I visited New York, the mission to spend time with Catherine, and to catch up with my uncle and many first cousins. I was struck with the difference in the two generations of Irish diaspora.

My uncle's generation, who moved to New York more than half-a-century ago, are still steeped in Ireland. He has passed on his love of the country to his own children and their children too. As a younger man he was very involved in the GAA in New York and the Tipperary Association, and he showed me lots of pictures of him and his brothers at various dinners and events in the 1960s and '70s.

His own first cousin from home, who also emigrated in the 1950s, visits him most days - and neither have lost their Irish accents. They keep up to speed with all the action in the GAA, both despairing that Tipperary once again didn't make any inroads into the All-Ireland hurling championship this year. My uncle has RTÉ via satellite in his house, so is in-tune with all the goings-on at home. It felt odd for me to be watching Eileen Dunne on the nine o'clock news at 4.0 in the afternoon, and it sweltering hot outside!

This is a generation that made a huge contribution to America. My uncle served for two years in the US Army, based for a time in Germany. They paid their American taxes, worked really hard, and made great lives for themselves. They were part of a group who helped build the country.

What is lovely is that they never lost sight or touch with Ireland, proud of their roots. Yet if times had been different they probably would not have chosen to go away and would have stayed at home.

Fast forward 60 years and the latest generation of Irish in New York. Two extremely talented people I know, Mark Little, founder of Storyful, and Daire Hickey, one of the founders of Web Summit, are living in the city by choice - and are making a massive impact.

In contrast to when my uncles went, and when the Irish stayed together, Catherine and her two friends made a conscious decision not to base themselves in Woodlawn or an area where Irish live. They didn't leave Ireland to live in a mini-Ireland and wanted an American experience, which is how they have come to be living in an apartment in a brownstone in Brooklyn.

They are a generation with a confidence that previous emigrants leaving Ireland didn't have. They are slightly cocky, and rather than asking what America can do for them it is more a case of how they can contribute to America.

Approximately 35 million American citizens today report Irish ancestry, an incredible statistic.

There was a lot of sadness attached to emigration in the past, because leaving Ireland at one stage was the final goodbye. In the 1950s when my uncles left home the main passage to the USA was by boat and they knew that it could be some years before they got home to see their parents again.

For the generation today it is totally different. With new technology the world is a global village and in truth I am more connected and in touch with my daughter now (thanks to WhatsApp) than when she was living in Dublin.

Sadly some stereotypes still exist. We did an Irish Tenement tour on the Lower East Side while I visited, and myself, Catherine and her flatmate were the only Irish in the group. If we didn't know better we would have come away with a view that the Irish are still a lazy, drunken group of spongers who are an underclass in the city. This picture was probably justified at one stage - but I was a little cross that the tour guide omitted to bring the group up to speed with the contribution the Irish are making in New York today. The day of the signs "No Irish need apply" are thankfully long gone.

As Ireland recovers from the economic crash lets hope we can welcome home those Irish who were forced to emigrate due to economic difficulties. We need these people home with their experience to play a part in building our economy and to be part of a new and confident Ireland.

After eight years of emigration it would be nice if 2016, a very special year in Irish history, is the year when the number of people coming home will be bigger than the number of people who leave.

Too late for my uncle's generation but not for Catherine's.

Irish Independent

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