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What have the Irish ever done for us? Apparently, quite a lot

Fascinating book highlights the influence the irish have had right across the globe


A fascinating book from the pen of Cork author David Forsythe has highlighted the often little-known achievements of Irish people whose ground-breaking ideas and work have quite literally changed the face of the world.

Originally published in 2017, 'What Have the Irish Ever Done For Us?', which has been updated and relaunched to celebrate St Patrick's Day, details the incredible accomplishments of many Irish people who left home shores to seek fame and fortune. 

For example did you know that the contractor who built the first New York subway system, John B McDonald, was from Fermoy or that Paul Kane, one of the most important North American artists of the 19th century, was actually born in Mallow? 

It tells the incredible story of north Cork-born priest Fr Hugh Flaherty, 'The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican', who helped save the lives of thousands of people during the Nazi occupation of Rome during World War II.

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The book also tells how one of the first jobs ever undertaken by the late Pritzker prize-winning architect Kevin Roche, the man responsible for designing many of New York's skyscrapers and the extension to the city's Metropolitan Museum of Art, was to design a cattle shed at the Dairygold plant in Mitchelstown. 

These are just some of the intriguing stories contained in the book, which also reveals how Mary Elmes from Cork City - who is to have the new bridge in the city named after her - came to be the recipient of Israel's highest honour; how a doctor from Sunday's Well played a crucial role in eradicating leprosy; that a Kerry man is credited with being the father of modern economics and how the Irish invented Cheese and onion crisps, the submarine and chocolate milk.

It also delves into how the Irish inspired the Chinese economic miracle, revolutionised global agriculture, helped split the atom, brought water to Los Angeles, designed the first guided missile and built the White House.

Filled with quirky illustrations by artist Alba Esteban, the book recounts some of the many ways that Irish people and their descendants across the globe have made their mark throughout history. 

It contains stories of courage, ingenuity, perseverance and selflessness featuring well-known Irish people and some that readers will be surprised they have never heard of before. 

David said that despite its somewhat tongue-in-cheek title, the book is a testament to the fortitude and determination of the Irish diaspora and the positive contribution they have made to the wider world.  He said the seed for the book was sown during The Gathering in Ireland back in 2013.

"As a journalist I covered a lot of events associated with the diaspora. It stuck me that virtually every village town and townland across Ireland has some kind of intriguing story about one of their own who has done something amazing, or at least seriously impressive," said David. 

With this in mind he decided to put some of these stories together in a single volume. "For centuries the Irish have had a global impact far beyond what you might expect from a tiny nation on the edge of Europe," said David. 

"While there are lots of heavy books on Irish history or in-depth biographies. I wanted to put together something that was light, easy to read and hopefully interesting and entertaining," said David.


Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel of Rome’

Born on February 28, 1898 in the townland of Lisrobin between Boherbue and Kiskeam, Hugh O'Flaherty was raised in Kerry after his father took a job as a steward at Killarney Golf Club.

After finishing school he joined the priesthood, studying in Limerick and Rome before being ordained in 1925. Fluent in several languages, he became served as a Vatican diplomat in various countries, returning to Rome in 1934 to become a papal chamberlain and Monsignor.

Still stationed in Rome at the outbreak of World War II he was approached by an escaping Allied POW for help. Using his extensive network of contacts, he organised a network of accomplices including foreign diplomats, communist activists, Free French agents and a Swiss Count to spirit those on the run from the Nazis out of the city. These include downed Allied airmen, escaping prisoners and Jews.

While safe in the neutral Vatican, O'Flaherty came to the attention of the notorious SS Obersturmbannführer in Rome Herbert Kappler, who made it a personal obsession to kill of capture the elusive Monsignor and ordered him shot on sight should he set foot outside the Vatican.

Aware of the danger he was under, O'Flaherty continued his life-saving work, often going out in different disguises and earning himself the name 'The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican'.

It is estimated that by the end of the war he and his clandestine network help save the lives of more than 6,000 people.

O'Flaherty subsequently became a passionate advocate for German prisoners rights, even visiting his former foe Kappler in jail, and was honoured by the British and the Americans for his wartime actions.

After suffering a stroke in 1960 he retired to Kerry and passed away three years later.

A campaign, led by Holocaust survivor Tomi Reichental, is lobbying to have Hugh O'Flaherty recognised by Yad Vashem, Israel's World Holocaust Remembrance Centre as being 'Righteous Among the Nations'.


Paul Kane

Born in Mallow, in 1810 Paul Kane was one of the most important North American artists of the 19th century. He sailed for Canada with his parents when he was nine-years-old and the family settled in the city of York (now Toronto) on the shores of Lake Ontario.

His early working life was spent painting furniture and portraits before he decided to travel to Europe to gain an education in European art. Travelling to London, Paris, Rome, Florence and Venice Kane returned to Canada four-years-later ready to embark on a career as a professional artist.

On his return he met the American painter George Catlin, who was well known for recording the everyday lives of the native American peoples in great detail, something that inspired Kane.

Kane gained sponsorship from the Hudson's Bay Company and set out in 1845 on extensive travels across the north west of North America across the great plains and to the Pacific coast. He worked for three years sketching and documenting what he saw, later producing canvas paintings. He witnessed one of the last great buffalo hunts on the plains and captured the lives of ordinary people that were under threat from European immigrants. Kane was aware that he was among the last to witness the old ways before they were lost.

During the three-year expedition he produced more than 700 sketches as well as written journals and more than 100 oil on canvas paintings most of which were bought by the Canadian government and are on display in the National Gallery providing an invaluable record of life in the Pacific North West before large-scale European settlement. Kane settled down on his return and he married and had four children. He died unexpectedly at home aged 61 after returning from a walk.


John B McDonald

The first street cars in the world were developed in New York by John Stephenson who was born in Armagh in 1809. Stephenson's company was very successful in its heyday selling street cars to cities around the world but as Lower Manhattan became more and more crowded it was clear that a more radical solution would be needed - a subway.

The man for the job was one John B McDonald from Fermoy a successful engineering contractor who finished the Howard Street Tunnel in Baltimore a major railway project that had taken more than four years to complete.

That was enough to secure him the job of developing New York's first subway system, the tunnels for which would be dug by immigrant miners known as the 'Irish Sandhogs' -

The contract was awarded in 1900 and McDonald set about subcontracting for the massive project that was completed in less than four years at a cost of about $40 million - and the lives of some 120 construction workers.

The new IRT system was 20 miles long and included 48 stations, 33 underground.

The New York Subway would grow from McDonald's initial system to become one of the longest and busiest metros in the world and would prove vital for the development of New York itself. McDonald died in 1911 just six years after his IRT line opened for business; as a mark of respect the entire subway system stopped running for two minutes in his honour.

McDonald' s work in New York may have been over, but the Sandhogs became evermore vital for the growing city.

They continued to build the growing subway network and the major tunnels connecting Manhattan. Perhaps their greatest achievement though was building the water infrastructure that supplies New York City.


Kevin Roche

Born in Dublin in 1922, Eamonn Kevin Roche had an extraordinary career working with some of the most revered practitioners of the 20th century before becoming one of the world's most renowned architects.

His father, Eamonn was active during the War of Independence and Civil War and became a Sinn Féin TD. In 1925 the family moved to Mitchelstown, where Roche senior had accepted a job as manager with Dairygold.

Kevin grew up in Mitchelstown and attended senior school at Rockwell College.

He was accepted at UCD to study architecture and after graduating in 1941 his first commission was to design a piggery at the Mitchelstown Dairygold plant.

He worked in London for a while before being accepted by the Illinois Institute of Technology. He later became an apprentice under renowned Finnish architect Eero Saarinen

It was here that he also met his future practice partner John Dinkeloo.

In 1961 Saarinen died suddenly with a number of major projects unfinished so Roche, Dinkeloo and their colleagues set about completing them. These included the iconic arch in St Louis and the TWA Terminal at JFK Airport.

In 1966 Roche and Dinkeloo set up their own practise, their first commission being the Oakland Museum of California, They went on to design many iconic and ground breaking buildings. Following Dinkeloo's death Roche continued as head of the firm designing more than 50 major projects, including the tallest building in Atlanta, major extensions to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Dublin's convention centre. Roche was recognised with numerous awards for his work including the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, He passed away earlier this month at the age of 96.