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Edna O'Brien and nun working on Gaza Strip among diaspora receiving awards today

Ten people, chosen from 148 nominations, are set to be honoured by President Higgins today.

Edna O'Brien
Edna O'Brien
Image: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

TEN PEOPLE ARE set to be honoured at the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for the Irish Abroad today.

The 10 winners, chosen from 148 nominations, have made significant contributions in charitable work, the arts, science, sport and business.

They will receive the awards from President Michael D Higgins at a ceremony in Dublin today.

The awards were established by the government following the 2011 Global Irish Economic Forum in order to recognise the contribution of members of the Irish diaspora, and the first awards were presented in 2012.

Speaking ahead of the event, Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said: “The diverse contributions of these individuals extends across six different categories.

“Through their work, they contribute to building an invaluably positive image of Ireland and Irish people around the world.”

Here are the winners:

Edna O’Brien in Britain (Arts, Culture and Sport)

Edna O’Brien (87) was born in Clare in 1930, and moved to London in 1954.

A renowned Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer, she published her first book, the Country Girls, in 1962.

She has published many other award-winning novels since then, as well as short story collections such as Saints and Sinners, plays, poetry and non-fiction books.

Her work has brought important Irish and feminist themes to the fore.

She has been recognised internationally and in Ireland for many years as one of Ireland’s greatest living writers and has won many awards in a long and distinguished career. In April 2018, she was awarded a Damehood by Queen Elizabeth II.

William Kennedy in the US (Arts, Culture and Sport)

William Kennedy (90) is an Irish-American novelist whose work has been recognised with the US’s highest literary honours, including the Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Fellowship, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the American Academy of Arts and Letters membership.

His Albany Cycle of novels is set in Albany, New York, and he explores themes of Irish-American heritage, culture and identity. His novel Ironweed was made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson. 

In establishing the NYS Writers Institute in 1983, Kennedy gave a platform to Irish writers in the US. In 2009, he was honoured with the first Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award from Irish American Writers and Artists, Inc.

Sr Bridget Tighe in Palestine (Charitable Works)

Sr Bridget Tighe is a native of Ballindoon, Co Sligo.

Over a span of over four decades, she has served almost 25 years in the Middle East, focused on support for the Palestinian people, providing care to the most marginalised, often in extremely difficult conditions.

Her first assignment was to Jordan, where she worked with Palestine refugees for almost 18 years. In more recent years, she has worked for Caritas Jerusalem – helping those in need, regardless of religious or political affiliation, in health and psychosocial care, social assistance, job creation, micro-finance, food security, youth work and drug abuse prevention.

In 2015, she was appointed Executive Director in Gaza, where she served for three years, supporting the provision of emergency medical care and humanitarian relief in the aftermath of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict. In January 2018, she was appointed General Director of Caritas Jerusalem and moved to Jerusalem, where she now lives. She continues to travel widely throughout the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Sr Mary Killeen in Kenya (Peace, Reconciliation and Development category)

Sr Mary Killeen is a Mercy Sister who arrived in Kenya in 1976 where she leads education, health and community services in Mukuru slum in Nairobi, which is home to over 600,000 people. Her work targets the most marginalised children.

Killeen is from Phibsboro in Dublin and worked as a primary school teacher before becoming a nun.

She developed the Mukuru Promotion Centre, starting with a primary school in 1985. This project now comprises five primary schools with 5,000 pupils, plus skills training in trades such as beauty, hygiene, catering and vegetable growing.

Sr. Mary Killeen Sr Mary Killeen Source: Mukuru Promotion Centre

It also includes a school for children with special needs, a secondary school with 660 students, health clinics, social work services, street children rehabilitation, a support group for people with HIV or AIDS, and business training.

Killeen’s work has helped to has educate over 170,000 people – many of whom are now self-sustaining. She has also been involved in the Mercy Development Support Office in Nairobi, which supports training centres, water supply, vehicles for projects and support for volunteers.

The late Tom Power in Australia (Irish Community Support)

Tom Power, who died in 2017 aged 87, was the man who envisioned the Great Irish Famine Commemoration monument in Sydney.

Originally from Tipperary, Power arrived as a priest in Sydney in 1956. On leaving the priesthood in the early 1970s, he worked as a parole officer with corrective services.

The Famine memorial remembers the one million people who died during the Great Irish Famine and the 4,000-pus Irish orphan girls who came to Australia during and after the this period. 

Power made significant contributions in many other areas and was a founding member of many Irish organisations. In 1988, he co-founded the Tipperary-Australian Association, serving as its chairperson for 20 years. 

In January 2014, Power was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for “service to the Irish community, particularly through the commemoration of the Great Irish Famine”.

Breege McDaid in England (Irish Community Support)

A native of Buncrana in Co Donegal, McDaid is the Director of Irish Community Care Merseyside (ICCM). She has worked with with ICCM since 1987.

The organisation now has 17 employees and caters for people of Irish birth or descent, including Travellers, across Merseyside, west Cheshire and Wigan.

Many of its clients are elderly people who may be in poor health and socially isolated. Support is provided with regard to job-seeking, benefits, housing, health and personal safety.

ICCM also co-operates with the Safe Home project, based in Mayo, which assists elderly people return to live in Ireland. 

Edward J Ward in the US (Irish Community Support)

Ed Ward, an Irish-American, founded the Milwaukee Irish Festival in 1980 and has been involved with the event ever since.

Under his stewardship, the festival has grown to be North America’s largest annual celebration of Irish music and culture, and draws an audience of some 130,000 people.

He has also founded the Ward Irish Music Archives, currently celebrating its 26th year. The organisation houses one of the largest public collections of Irish music in the US and plays an important role in documenting and preserving local Irish culture.

Beyond Milwaukee, Ward has played an important mentoring role across the US including establishing the Association of Irish and Celtic Festivals.

Margaret Murnane in the US (Science Technology and Innovation)

Professor Margaret Murnane was born in Co Limerick in 1959. She is Director of the STROBE Science and Technology Center on functional nano-imaging, a fellow at JILA and Distinguished Professor at the Department of Physics and Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Colorado.

She graduated from University College Cork before obtaining her PhD in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley.

Margaret_Murnane_portrait Margaret Murnane Source: JILA

Murnane is regarded as being one of the leading optical physicists of her generation. Her work has focused on the development of lasers which can operate at the fundamental limits of speed and stability.

She has won many prizes for her pioneering work, including the prestigious John D and Catherine T MacArthur Fellowship in 2000, and the RDS Boyle Medal in 2011. In 2016 she was awarded the Optical Society of America’s Frederic Ives Medal/Quinn prize and was the recipient of the 2018 Science Foundation Ireland St Patrick’s Day Science Medal.

Murnane has served as an external reviewer for the Trinity College Dublin School of Physics and has delivered many talks in Ireland on her work.

She is a strong advocate of supporting women in science and has been Chair of the American Physical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Physics.

Munira Hamud Mutran in Brazil (Business and Education)

Professor Munira Hamud Mutran is Associate Professor of Literatures in English at the University of Sao Paulo (USP) and has been a pioneer in developing Irish studies in Brazil.

The Irish Studies Programme at USP, which she established 38 years ago, has had a large impact nationally in Brazil and also internationally, supporting the development of Irish studies in other parts of Latin America.

She has taught Irish literature in the graduate programme since 1980, graduating 25 MAs, 20 PhDs and 1 Post-Doc. For 20 years she was the key organiser of Bloomsday celebrations in Sao Paulo, an event which has spread to other Brazilian cities.

In 1989, she co-founded the Brazilian Association of Irish Studies, and she is also the honorary Director of the WB Yeats Chair of Irish Studies at USP.

John L Lahey in the US (Business and Education)

Until his retirement this year, Dr John Lahey held the position of President of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut since 1987. 

He is a leading figure in the Irish-American community in New York, serving for many years on the St Patrick’s Day Parade Committee (including as chair). 

Lahey developed the Great Hunger Museum and Institute at Quinnipiac University in 2012. It is home to the largest collection of Famine-era material. This year he facilitated the display of the museum’s collection in Dublin, Cork and Derry.

‘Honoured’ 

Separately, cystic fibrosis campaigner and journalist Orla Tinsley was awarded The President’s Medal at the Public Relations Institute of Ireland today for her “tireless”  health campaigning.

Tweeting today, Tinsley – who in December last year received a life-saving double lung transplant – said she was “honoured” to receive the President’s medal, previously awarded to Gay Byrne, John Hume, Mary Davis, Chris Roche and Ed Walsh. 

“It’s the 5th time they have given out the award in their 65 year history and to me it belongs to my friends, my family, my donor, her family and the energy and fabric that holds me up,” the campaigner said.

Today’s award, she said, “knits together my place in the world. In a way attention to breath and attention to language carry the same importance.”

“They require a deeper listening, a more focused drawing in of what is in front of us and then a dedication to flow that outward into your arms, down your legs and out into that world, with the commitment and the understanding that we are rooted in this moment together.”

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Órla Ryan

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