Friday 19 January 2018

Donal Lynch: The Dubliner who sits at Obama's top table

A Mount Anville school uniform was key in shaping Ireland's most powerful person

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

When Samantha Power was nine years old her parents split up. The trans-continental odyssey that followed with her Cork-born mother, who was training to be a doctor, took Samantha and her younger brother from their home in Ballsbridge, first to Kuwait, then to Pittsburgh and finally on to Atlanta, Georgia. On the very first day of the new term in the Deep South, Samantha's mother, who had no money for new clothes, sent the little girl to school in her old bottle-green school uniform. Green for Ireland. Green for an all-girls school thousands of miles away. You can almost hear the catcalls down the corridor. When I spoke to Power in Galway a few years ago, she explained – only half-jokingly – that the incident held one of the keys to her psyche. "It was totally humiliating for life; the shirt, the pleated skirt, the black patent shoes. If you really want to know how I got into working in war zones, you'd have to go back to that first day of school in America wearing the Mount Anville school uniform."

This week, as the 42-year-old became the most powerful Irish person in the world, Power was again drawn back to those formative first steps towards sloughing off her old identity. While Barack Obama and an audience of dignitaries watched Power publicly accept his nomination of her as US ambassador to the UN, the Dublin woman recalled those heady days in Atlanta. "For three months I came home from school and, as my mother can attest, my dad can attest, I sat in front of the mirror for hours, straining to drop my brogue so that I too could speak, and be, American."

In the end, of course, Power would regret this. Although she later became an American citizen, she would still end up standing out from the crowd, but for her intellectual brilliance rather than her Irishness. She was accepted to study law at Yale and, after graduating, travelled to the Balkans, where she worked as a journalist, covering the Yugoslav war for The New Republic amongst others.

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