There is something about anniversaries that appeals to people. And it’s our 30th. If it were a wedding anniversary, pearls would be an appropriate gift.
There is something about the pearl that speaks to the story of the Irish in America.
Born out of grit, a grain of sand, an outsider makes its way into a shell and sets off a chain reaction that in time results in a precious gem. What could be a more appropriate symbol of those plucky early Irish immigrants – outsiders all – pushing past obstacles to gain a foothold and proceeding forward with grit and determination until they solidified as one of the true cultural cornerstones of American society?
As I review our 30 years of publishing Irish America, all the stories merge into a cultural capsule. For the early immigrants the going is tough, but mingled into their hardscrabble existence are also great moments of joy. And, in all their trials there seems a strength of purpose, a refusal to quit and an indestructible pride in heritage that carries them forward.
Looking back over the issues, I pause over every Civil War story – more often of late as the 150th anniversary is commemorated – and reflect on how this central event in American life was also a turning point for those early immigrants. Their brave fighting won them respect and more acceptance, but the cost was so very high in terms of lives lost.
My hand hovers over the front cover of the Famine issue with its image of “Anguish,” a sculpture by Glenna Good-acre. It was a painful edition to produce; the rawness of that seminal event is a scar on my DNA that still hurts, but here too are stories of survival, and overcoming against the odds, and of people who helped us in the worst of times.
And I fight back tears over the 9/11 coverage, reminded as I am at this time every year of the many we lost from the community. The traditional strongholds of the Irish in New York – the public service sector – firemen and police were decimated. And so many from the financial services industry – colleagues of those we honor in this issue. Our very first Wall Street 50 event was held at Windows on the World, a venue on top of the World Trade Center’s north tower. But again, with this story, we are reminded of the forebearance of the survivors and the unifying force of the tragedy that forever melded Irish and Irish American.
As I continue on my journey back through time, I’m often bemused by interviews with people who contribute to the sheer joy of life, reminding me that though those early immigrants had little in the way of material possessions when they embarked on their outward voyage into the unknown, they carried their music with them, and a love of dance, and a good story. And these gems of heritage have been passed down to future generations.
Perhaps one of our most precious assets became the ability to meld our tradition with change and other cultures.
Gene Kelly, the great song and dance man, in one interview talked about how Irish dance influenced American tap. In other stories we learn of Irish influences in country, folk, and other musical genres. And we see many cases of how our love of a good story gets carried onto stage and the silver screen by writers and actors and directors. The son of a famine immigrant, Eugene O’Neill would be the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1936, his work heavily influenced by his Irish heritage.
I’m also reminded of how lucky I am to be part of Irish America as I peruse these back issues. My position as editor afforded me access to some of the greatest minds of our generation. I sat down with Seamus Heaney shortly after he received the Nobel Prize, and such legends as Gregory Peck and Maureen O’Hara, and I interviewed business leaders such as Jack Welch, and, for this issue, Shaun Kelly. And political leaders including George Mitchell and Gerry Adams, both of whom would play such a vital role in the peace process.
I remember how thrilling it was to hear Adams, back in 1991, say it was time for talks and a political solution in Northern Ireland. I was privileged to see firsthand the role that Irish Americans would play in the years that followed – Bill Flynn, Tom Moran, Donald Keough, Chuck Feeney, and Ed Kenney, to name but a few, who in Heaney’s words made “hope and history rhyme,” and helped put a peace plan in place.
The North and immigration are two reoccurring themes over the years in all our issues. In the early days of the magazine, it was about the Morrison visas that threw a much-needed lifeline to the Irish as the economy struggled in the 80s.
We saw the Celtic Tiger come and go, and sadly, more recently, we are witnesses to another generation of young Irish who are forced to leave in search of work. But even as a recent survey confirms that one in six Irish people born in Ireland now live abroad, we can take comfort in our global ability to integrate with other cultures, and find success in all corners of the globe.
As our cover story attests, Shaun Kelly is a prime example of the successful Irish immigrant. His story also touches on Northern Ireland. Born in Belfast to an English mother and an Irish father, he grew up during the Troubles, and that experience had infused in him a desire for diversity in the workplace and purpose-driven life. As KPMG’s COO, Americas, he is involved in various projects and communities around the globe.
From all that I have gleaned from our pages, I’ve concluded that our very best quality – born out of our struggles – is the empathy we have with others. For what is our own story worth if it doesn’t serve as an inspiration to those struggling today and if we can’t reach a hand out to help? As we go to press, the good news is that Ireland, though still in recovery from the downturn in its economy, will take in 4,000 Syrian refugees. As President Michael D. Higgins said: “We have to decide at certain times in our life to do what is right and what is right is to come to the assistance of those who, like our own ancestors, were being lost in the sea of the Atlantic three generations ago.”