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Column: Why the Irish abroad threaten the status quo

US-based Irish publisher Niall O’Dowd says the Diaspora represents a financial, tourism and cultural juggernaut and yet is treated with ambivalence and disrespect – and its members made to feel less than Irish.

Niall O'Dowd

PROMINENT US-BASED IRISH publisher Niall O’Dowd withdrew his name from the Irish presidential race a week and a half ago. He wrote on his IrishCentral.com news site that he felt the logistics and financial challenges of running as an independent candidate were unsurmountable.

Writing today for TheJournal.ie, O’Dowd relates his belief that the power elites of Ireland don’t want to acknowledge the great contribution made by Irish emigrants to their native land – because to do so would be to admit that the State has failed them.

WITHIN A WEEK of announcing I was contemplating running for Irish president the Irish Times had two deeply hostile articles and the Sunday Independent one.

I think we Irish abroad threaten the status quo in a way that is quite surprising even to me.

The Irish Times did their readers the single courtesy of printing, unbidden, the pledge each person takes on taking American citizenship. Even though the Irish state recognizes dual citizenship, the august Irish Times clearly does not.

What on earth are they afraid of? Yanks under the bed?

The notion that I am less of an Irishman because I have lived abroad had never once occurred to me.

There is enormous ambivalence about emigrants unlike say Israel which utterly embraces its Diaspora. The notion that I am less of an Irishman because I have lived abroad had never once occurred to me. Yet it was thrown at me in the Irish Times, Sunday Times, Sunday Independent etc.

This notion that you somehow become less of an Irish person because you leave Ireland flies in the face of history, fact and reality. Since 1840 over half born on the island have left Ireland. Their descendants make up a Diaspora of 70 million worldwide. It is an incredible footprint, a financial, tourism and cultural juggernaut, yet the very notion of its existence is  clearly disliked by many in Ireland.

Not once in the 90-year existence of the State has there ever been a concrete acknowledgment of that Diaspora apart from lip service and pleas to send money and jobs.

There is no emigrant senator, no minister for immigrant affairs, quite the contrary, a determination to block any voting rights or any real participation in the  dialogue.

The Irish abroad soldier on regardless. In my own case it is a 24-hour seven-day involvement. Here from my diary are a few things I have done this past few weeks in terms of  my Irishness. Am I somehow less Irish for being away? Judge for yourself.

  • Raised $100,000 for Irish emigrant museum in Wexford;
  • Advised leading US entrepreneur on his plans to potentially spend about $2 billion dollars in Ireland, which included making some major introductions;
  • Advised leading business figure on his op-ed piece for Wall Street Journal comparing Ireland favorably to other European economies;
  • Met Ireland’s greatest philanthropist American Chuck Feeney who has invested $5 billion in education there, and discussed  his future plans for Ireland.
  • Oh and yes there are always the pleas for money for good causes from Ireland. In that time frame I arranged to meet several leading Irish people about a major fundraiser they wish to hold for a leading hospital in Ireland next year in New York;
  • Advised a newspaper publisher in difficulty on where there might be funding in the US for his publication;
  • Met and spoke to 25 graduates from Ireland in the US on summer intern courses – many asked about emigrating;
  • Spoke to and advised an Irish politician who has a major plan to help tourism in his province.

All of  this work was pro bono in addition to running four separate publications. It is work I do gladly. But somehow there are some in Ireland who don’t quite consider what I and thousands of Irish emigrants do on behalf of Ireland to be of  sufficient merit to be labelled as Irish.

It comes down to this. Is the person waiting to board the emigrant plane next week less Irish because they have been forced to leave? Of  course not. But perhaps the power elite needs to present them as such in order to justify their own failures.

Involuntary emigration, the power elites know, represents their own failure.

In a nutshell Ireland has been self-governing for about 90 years. During that time there has been about ten years’ maximum of good government and emigration has continued to cascade on a thirty-year cycle, the ’20s, ’50s, ’80s and now again. It tells its own story and why the failure to look outwards continues, especially among the power elites. Involuntary emigration, they know, represents their own failure.

Paul Hill of the Guildford Four wrote me an interesting letter after I withdrew talking about the importance of making the statement about the Irish who left.

It reads in part:

If you have done anything, it is to expose the  narrow mindset which seems to be prevalent at present at home, very sad for a nation whose sons and daughters, were unafraid to set sail in what may have been viewed by those left behind, as the ship of fools.

I worked with these men on the buildings of London, many lived in bedsits which were no more than hovels, yet every week the first port of call for these men was the post office, Ireland was never forgotten.

Those pointing the finger today never give those men a thought as they passed away penniless on the streets of London.

That is as eloquent a summation of  how  many of Ireland’s emigrants have been treated as I can muster.

In the end I did not run for president, because I quickly realized the race was not winnable, running against the vastly superior firepower of the major parties who set all the rules. Like a lot of things in Ireland  I discovered the cards are held where only the insiders can deal them.

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Niall O'Dowd

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