In February of 2018 I was nine months into my new role as Ireland’s Minister for the Diaspora and International Development and about to visit the United States. It had been an utterly fascinating nine months. I was only beginning to discover the many diverse elements of Ireland’s diaspora community, the people who worked hard to sustain an ancient identity, and the places that were precious repositories of our Irish culture.
At that point I had been a public representative for 14 years and being from a rural community in the west of Ireland, I had always had some sense of that deep connection with our people overseas. When growing up in that community there wasn’t one local family that didn’t have close relatives abroad. Indeed, only for the creation of a local Bord na Mona turf harvesting facility in the 1950’s, my Dad and my family could easily have found ourselves in Boston or Birmingham.
So as I embarked on that journey with some of my colleagues from our Department of Foreign Affairs, all of what I was experiencing in meeting Irish community members in New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut wasn’t exactly alien to me. But I wasn’t quite prepared for so many other elements of that visit. One thing that really struck me was how deeply felt that connection with Ireland really is, not necessarily Ireland the place, but more so with Irish culture and identity in all its expressions, “Irishness” as it’s often called.
One particular visit to the members of an Irish community in Connecticut moved me to my core and I will always be deeply thankful to them for giving me an insight into what makes our global Irish community so unique and worth protecting. The New Haven GAA Club has a fascinating history. The club members did some serious fundraising over 50 years ago and bought a clubhouse with a small playing field at the back, although one not large enough to host senior football or hurling games. There was the large problem of having a small mountain at the end of the field, which made an expansion seem impossible. Undeterred by this obstacle, they began fundraising again about a decade ago.
In 2017 they finally opened their new full-length pitch and as I walked it with them on a chilly February morning, they told me stories of rock blasting that went on for weeks until such time as there was sufficient room to complete the pitch, and club members rolling up their sleeves to work night and day on the project. They had literally moved a mountain, in 1,500 truckloads, to create their field of dreams. Their commitment to the GAA, to nurturing our national games, is similar to the commitment I see in my own club here in Galway, but for them it goes far beyond sport. It’s about identity, about expressing their Irishness in a meaningful way, in a huge country that is a remarkable melting pot of global cultures. It is their way of saying, “this is us, this is who we are, this is what makes us Irish”.
Many of the members of the New Haven GAA Club are Irish citizens and if you sit with them in their clubhouse over a cup of tea, you soon get a sense of how much their citizenship matters to them. It matters a lot. But because they have chosen to make a life for themselves and their families in the US, they are denied a right to elect our President, our first citizen who best embodies who we are and what we stand for, our one citizen who represents all of us worldwide. The Irish citizens of New Haven GAA Club are somehow deemed to be lesser citizens. That is a shame. It’s something we cannot stand over. It’s something that we need to fix.
My son lives in Philadelphia now, a three hour drive from New Haven. He is making a good life for himself there. Like many thousands of his generation he was not forced to emigrate. He chose to explore the world a little and to see where life takes him. In my time as Minister
for our Diaspora I met so many of that generation at events like the GAA Asian Games in Bangkok, a fundraising gig at the London Irish Centre, or an Irish business breakfast in Melbourne. These are our citizens, our sons and our daughters. Because of their talents and the incredible education they have received, they have so much to give in the future. And again, because they have chosen to make a life for themselves abroad, they are deemed to be lesser citizens, not deserving of a vote in our presidential elections. That is a shame. It’s something we cannot stand over. It’s something that we need to fix.
In 50 years from now, the world will be an ever more connected place with the option of omnipresent and instantaneous communication. Global communities will form in an instant. Physical borders will have far less significance. Those borders, arbitrary lines on an old map, will fade into the background as nationhood finds a new way of defining itself, not by where you are, but by who you are. Some of those digitally empowered communities will disappear as quickly as they arrive. Those who form around shared identity, values and culture will endure for a very long time and become ever more powerful.
Surely a global Ireland with over 70 million potential members is a powerful community waiting to happen. The people who are poised to begin building that community are our citizens, all three million of them who live globally right now. They need to know that they are valued. Let’s give them the privilege of voting in our next presidential election, of electing our first citizen. That can be our way of saying, “this is us, this is who we are, this is what makes us Irish”.
Ciaran Cannon TD is a member of Dail Eireann and was Ireland’s Minister for the Diaspora and International Development from 2017 to 2020.