This past week has been great for Irish American relations. Here in Waterford, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of our town twinning with Rochester, an old industrial city in the state of New York, headquarters of Bausch and Lomb which is Waterford’s largest employer.
The Mayor of Rochester, Robert Duffy, was in Waterford this past week to visit the Mayor of Waterford and the Bausch and Lomb plant, which employs 1,500 people and has been one of Waterford’s greatest success stories.
The bonds between Ireland and America are great in terms of trade, tourism, relationships and family connections.
The twinning has yielded much money for charity, having raised €400,000. Having strong American links is good for Waterford. The Meagher connection is great for the city. So also is Waterford Crystal good for the city. The emigration and tourism stories are also strong.
Taoiseach in Washington
Last week also saw the visit of outgoing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to Washington, where he had the great honour of addressing both Houses of Congress. He made a momentous speech and touched on the many links between the two countries. Ireland is almost a bridge connecting the USA to Europe and from which the friendship and kinship is genuinely warm.
It was a fantastic honour for him and his record of service to Ireland and the peace process.
We carry some of the key moments of the speech. Bertie Ahern noted that the bonds have been built, nurtured and refreshed over the centuries. America and Ireland have something that goes beyond a friendship between countries. To be an Irishman among Americans is to be at home, he said and having been there a number of times, many Irish including myself would concur.
He recalled a famous son of Wicklow, the son also of an American mother, Charles Stewart Parnell, who stood in that place 128 years ago, the first Irish leader to do so. Parnell turned to the United States, as have many Irish leaders since, as we strove to emulate the achievements of America and to vindicate the principles that inspired its founding fathers: the principles of liberty, equality and justice.
In the early part of the last century, Eamon De Valera went there seeking help as Ireland struggled for her independence.
In more recent times, many Irish leaders went in the quest for peace in Northern Ireland.
He said that when asked for help, America has always been there for us – a friend in good times and in bad. “From the very outset, Ireland gave to America presidents, patriots and productive citizens of a new nation”.
Beginning with the Scots-Irish in the 17th and 18th centuries, they came from all corners of our island and from all creeds. “The Irish helped to build America. The very bricks and stones in this unique building were quarried and carried by the hands of Irish immigrant labourers.
“It reminds us all of the shared values of democracy and freedom which inspired both our journeys towards independence – the values that shine as a beacon of light and that stand strong as a city upon the hill among all the nations of the earth. That statue also tells our Irish immigrant story – a story which is an indelible part of America’s own story of immigration, of struggle and of success”.
He refereed to the great waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century which carried millions to America in flight from famine and despair but with a determination to work hard and to succeed. It was a destiny.
“We see that same spirit in the New Irish at home today – the many people from beyond our shores who are now making new lives in Ireland. They too had the courage to come to a foreign place, to find their way and to provide for themselves, for their children and, in many cases, for their families far away.
“The New Ireland – once a place so many left – is now a place to which so many come. These newcomers to our society have enriched the texture of our land and of our lives. We shall address the inevitable implications for our society, our culture, our community and our way of life.
Illegal Immigration issue
“So we are profoundly aware of those challenges as we ask you to consider the case of our undocumented Irish immigrant community in the United States today. We hope you will be able to find a solution to their plight, to regularise their status and open to them a path to permanent residency”.
Many from the south east of Ireland are in this position, we know, and cannot come home for family events. It is a complicated issue that affects both America’s laws and her highest ideals.
Bertie Ahern referred to the great symbol of the freedom and the welcome of America that is the Statue of Liberty and the New York City skyline. “The promise inscribed there says so much about this country: Give me your tired, your poor,
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
“Annie Moore was one of those who heard that promise. She was a young Irish girl, aged only 15, from County Cork.
She was the first immigrant to pass through the Ellis Island Immigration Station when it was officially opened in 1892.
The Irish are to be found in the police departments and the fire houses, in the hospitals, the schools and the universities, in the boardrooms and on the construction sites, in the churches and on the sports fields of America. Their contribution is seen in much of the great literature, film, art and music that America has given to the world”.
The Taoiseach also referred to the September 11, 2001, massacre of the Twin Towers and the Irish connections. On that day, Father Michael Judge, the chaplain of the New York Fire Department and the son of Irish immigrants from County Leitrim, rushed to the World Trade Centre to help those who were in danger and to minister to the injured and the dying.
Along with so many other good, innocent people, Father Mike died inside the Twin Towers that day. He was officially designated Victim Number 1. Mr. Ahern referred to the day of national mourning in Ireland after 9/11.
Visitors to New York at the disaster site can see the names on the casualty list of the terrorist attack included Boyle, Crotty, Collins, Murphy, McSweeney and O’Neill, even Walshs – our names – the names of our families and our friends. There are many other names too, from many other nations.
Irish success and Europe
“Our experience of hardship and of forced emigration is at an end”, he declared. “For that achievement, too, we owe so much to America. Our two countries are reaping the rewards together. We are investing in each other’s economies, bringing together our entrepreneurial energy and creating employment across Ireland and across the fifty states of America. That is the true measure of our economic achievements together. It points to a friendship every bit as strong in the future as it is today. Our relationship is also part of a broader relationship between Europe and America.
“The Atlantic Ocean will always bring Europe and America together, put aside hostilities that led to countless wars over the centuries and to two world wars in the last century alone.
“We have created a European Union of 27 democratic states, committed to democracy, peace and freedom. We are committed to an open market and to a single currency that benefits hundreds of millions of European citizens. We all recall two great Irish-Americans – President Kennedy in 1963 and President Reagan in 1987 – standing at the Berlin Wall during the Cold War and calling out for freedom in Germany and in Europe.
“Along with Berlin, the great cities of Prague, Budapest and Warsaw have joined Dublin, London, Paris, Rome, Madrid and Vienna as capital cities within a free and democratic European Union. We are all citizens of the world. We must therefore develop a true spirit of global citizenship. We should care for our planet as much as we care for our country. We should champion peace, justice and human rights across the globe as well as at home. It is an affront to our civilisation that there are children, anywhere in this world, who will die of hunger or of a curable disease. Eradicating poverty, starvation and disease, countering international terrorism and containing nuclear proliferation are not national but international issues. Ireland is the sixth largest per capita donor of development assistance in the world”.
The Taoiseach referred to the Middle East, a central challenge to the world and a cause of pain and suffering to the Israeli and Palestinian people, for far too long. “We must succeed in our collective international efforts to secure a peaceful future for the people of Israel and of Palestine. This year, in Ireland, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It was a defining moment in Ireland’s history. Above all, the settlement of 1998 will flourish because of one simple and unalterable fact. It represents the will, democratically expressed, North and South, of all of the people of Ireland to live together in peace and harmony. That is far more powerful than any words of hatred or any weapon of terror.
“In 1981, in much darker days for my country, the Friends of Ireland in the United States Congress were founded. Their simple purpose was to seek a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland. The statement, placed on the Congressional Record during a session chaired by Speaker Tip O’Neill, read: We look forward to a future St. Patrick’s Day, one that we can foresee, when true peace can finally come and Irish men and women everywhere, from Dublin to Derry, from Boston and New York to Chicago and San Francisco shall hail that peace and welcome the dawn of a new Ireland.
“On St Patrick’s Day 2008, a few short weeks ago, I came here to Washington. That great day of hope has dawned. Our prayer has been answered. Our faith has been rewarded and come true. To you, to your predecessors and to all of the American leaders from both sides of the aisle who have travelled with us, we offer our heartfelt gratitude.
“We also recognise the steadfast support of President Bush, of President Clinton, their administrations, their envoys and of their predecessors. Beyond Washington, there are so many others, whether amongst the dedicated leaders of Irish America, or in the smallest towns and communities across this nation, who have supported us and who never gave up hope that a solution would be found and that peace would come.
“When we needed true champions of peace, when we needed true friends, when we needed inspiration, we found them here among you”.
It was a most moving speech that deserves to be read in schools around the country. Here are some more extracts: “Many of us found inspiration in the words of Doctor Martin Luther King, whose life we recall this year on the 40th anniversary of his death. We believed, to borrow Doctor King’s immortal phrase, that we would be able to transform the jangling discords into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. His dream, born of America but heard by the whole world, inspired us through its unanswerable commitment to justice and to non-violence. We discovered that peace can be found without suspending your moral judgement, without sacrificing your identity and without surrendering your most deeply-held political aspirations.
“Today, as I stand before you in this great democratic assembly, I struggle to convey the enormous good that was done by so many people in my country, with your help. Do not underestimate the good you have done. And if ever you doubt America’s place in the world, or hesitate about your power to influence events for the better, look to Ireland. Look to the good you have done. Look at the richness of so many individual futures that now stretch out before us for generations, no longer subject to conflict and violence. Look to the hope and confidence that we now feel on our island.
The healing of history
“We endeavour to help families and communities ravaged by a minority who engage in crime or deal in drugs. We strive to deliver quality, affordable healthcare to all our people. We want the best education for our children. We seek to provide social protection and security for our older people, to recognise what they have given to help create our successful societies. These are the challenges for modern Ireland, just as they are throughout America and across the developed world. These are the very essence of politics. That is why, with all our faults as human beings, we seek the honour of representing the people. We believe that diversity does not have to mean fragmentation or discord. We believe that wealth and prosperity does not have to be accompanied by poverty and inequality. We believe that evil or injustice need not – and will not – triumph. We believe – we insist – that all that is good and just is also possible. We believe in our republics and our forms of government, in which the sovereign power resides in the whole body of the people, and is exercised by representatives elected by the people.
“An American President once said: ‘The supreme purpose of history is a better world’. Making a better world is also the supreme purpose of representative politics in our two democratic republics. I will shortly step down from the office of Taoiseach after almost eleven years. I am honoured to have been elected by the Irish people to serve them in that great office.
“Tomorrow, as I journey home to Ireland for the last time as Taoiseach, I will travel to the great city of Boston in Massachusetts. There, I will join our great friend Senator Edward Kennedy and pay tribute to President Kennedy and to Robert Kennedy – great Irishmen, great Americans and great leaders. In doing so, I will pay fitting tribute to all the Irish in America. It is then home and onto the banks of the River Boyne in Ireland where, over three centuries ago, fierce and awful battle was waged between the Protestant King William and the Catholic King James. It was not just an Irish battle. It was part of a wider European struggle of power, of politics and of religion. For centuries after, the two sides on that field remained apart and remained divided. Today, both sides, proud of their history and confident of their identity, can come together in peace and part in harmony. They can offer each other the open hand of friendship. They will reaffirm again what Ireland has achieved and what we know in our hearts to be true. Centuries of war, of strife and of struggle are over, and over for good. The field of slaughter is now a meeting place of mutual understanding. Our children will live in peace. And their children will enjoy the fruits of their inheritance. This is the triumph of people and of politics. This is the achievement of democracy and of independence, which is so relevant to humanity.