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Greg Harkin: Tip O'Neill family return to Irish home

IT was the Irish-American politician Tip O’Neill who coined the phrase "All politics is local" but there was a definite global feel to events last night marking the centenary of his birth.

Being in the Irish town where Tip’s grandmother was born was like “coming home” his daughter said as she led 80 relatives from America in a weekend celebrating the life of the former Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Susan O’Neill was in Buncrana to present the first Tip O’Neill Donegal Diaspora Award to Louth native and US publisher Niall O’Dowd.

The ceremony at the Inishowen Gateway Hotel was part of events leading up to The Gathering 2013, a Government-backed initiative to bring jobs and tourists to Ireland from the Irish diaspora.

“Coming here is like coming home,” said Susan O’Neill, “Tip’s grandmother Eunice Fullerton was born just outside Buncrana so we still see this place as home.

“When you’re an Irish-American, you never forget your Irish roots because it means so much about what we are and who we are.”

A statue of Tip on the seafront overlooking Lough Swilly will be unveiled by his daughter today (Saturday).

Niall O’Dowd said his award last night “means the world to me.”

He told the Irish Independent: “Tip O’Neill was one of my heroes because he typified an attitude among Irish Americans about picking up your bootstraps and getting on with things.

“It is a wonderful honour and for it to be presented in Tip’s name makes it very special.”

The award was presented by Pat Hume, wife of the former nationalist leader John Hume.

In a special tribute read out to hundreds of guests, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said O’Neill, who died in 1994 aged 81, is “remembered in Donegal and throughout Ireland as a steadfast and firm friend.

“He made a huge contribution to assisting the land of his ancestors, not least in terms of helping to bring peace and stability to this country as well as contributing to its social and economic wellbeing.”

He said he was particularly delighted that Niall O’Dowd was presented with the award, and that it was presented by Pat Hume, who with her husband John has built a friendship with Speaker O’Neill which had “achieved peace and prosperity in Ireland.”

The visit ‘home’ by 80 American relatives of Tip O’Neill was particular special for the dozens of cousins among the Fullerton clan who still live in Inishowen.

One of them, Carl Fullerton, told how the politician wept when he visited the 60-acre family homestead in the townland of Drumfries in 1979. A year later his family bought the farm as a present – and yesterday his descendants returned there.

“It was very emotional for them too,” said Mr Fullerton, “we are delighted as a family that we could come together this weekend to remember the life and contribution of a man whose ancestors began here. Tip never forgot his Donegal roots.”

The diaspora event was organised by Buncrana Town Council and Donegal County Council for whom the Director of Services Michael Heaney spoke of the “enormous benefits of reaching out to our cousins overseas.”

He told the Irish Independent: “We are talking to people all over the world every day in terms of tourism, and to people who want to bring their skills back to Donegal.

“It’s also important that we reach out to those who have left here in more recent years to let them know that we do care about them, especially the undocumented Irish.”