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Taoiseach: 'St Patrick was a migrant to Ireland - a single, male, undocumented one'

Leo Varadkar used a speech at an Irish Diaspora event in Boston to tackle the issue of migration.

ST PATRICK WAS a migrant to Ireland – “a single, male, undocumented one”, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in a speech to the Irish-American community in Boston. 

Speaking at the Boston Harbour Hotel, the Taoiseach highlighted the trope that is mentioned often when it comes to migration into Ireland. He said the the issue of migration is an “enormous” topic of debate in the US, but also back home in Ireland.

Boston and New England has been a “safe harbour” for Irish immigrants to the US, many of whom were escaping hunger, poverty and discrimination, he said, pointing out that they were “seeking better lives for their families”. 

To applause from the attendees at last night’s diaspora event, Varadkar highlighted that the man who Ireland celebrates every year on 17 March was a migrant to the country.

The Taoiseach said St Patrick left his home by his own free will, stating that he was most likely British. Ireland was his “adopted home” – a home “which he brought some ‘dangerous foreign ideas’ such as the Roman civilisation and Christian religion.

“The story of St Patrick teaches us that migration is nothing new. It has always been
part of our national story,” he said.

Varadkar said nationality and identity “are far more complex and fluid than people often care to admit”.

The Taoiseach said it was important to reflect on the many Irish immigrant that came to the US for a better life, such as those that died on Deer Island in Boston.

In the 1800s, all famine ships due to dock in Boston Harbor stopped at Deer Island quarantine hospital, whereby Irish men, woman, and children suffering from disease were kept. 

“It must have been truly heartbreaking, the prospect of a new life, almost in reach, definitely in sight, but sadly never to be realised,” said Varadkar. 

A 16-foot Celtic cross overlooking Boston Harbor now honors the 850 Irish immigrants who died after arriving on Deer Island in the 1800s.

Varadkar also recalled the story of another migrant to the US, Patrick Collins from Fermoy, Cork, who travelled to Boston with his mother in the 1800s.

“Growing up he had an arm broken after an altercation with an anti-migrant mob here in Boston, who hated his very presence and what they believed was their country,” he said.

Collins went to Harvard, then the House of Representatives, and then back to Boston where he became the mayor in 1901. However, Collins never forgot the country of his birth, said Varadkar, stating that he often spoke Irish affairs.

“So as you all know, being Irish is one of the best things in the world. But it also brings certain responsibilities,” Varadkar said, adding:

“I think one of those is that we should have concern for others, we should seek to advance the freedom, the cause of freedom, and justice for all, and speak up for those who are silenced and oppressed. With our global Irish community, we can be a powerful voice on the world stage.”

The Taoiseach on a number of occasions on this trip highlighted how the world cannot stand by and watch what is happening in Gaza, with Varadkar telling reporters that Ireland will use it voice to call for peace.

Varadkar said he also hopes to raise the issue of undocumented Irish people in the US with the US President Joe Biden this week.

The number of undocumented Irish citizens in the US is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.

“I hope we’ll have time to touch on other issues, including immigration.”

He added: “There are a lot of Irish people here who are good people but are undocumented. Many working very hard, have children here, are contributing a lot to society here.”

The Taoiseach is in the US for the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations. He is due to travel to Washington DC today, ahead of his visit to the White House on Friday.

Political Editor Christina Finn will be in the US throughout the week for the Taoiseach’s visit. Follow @thejournal_ie and @christinafinn8 for all the latest.