First encounters: Kevin Whelan and Tim O'Connor

‘We’re never shy of an opinion or three’

  ‘One earwig recognises another’: friends Kevin Whelan (left) and Tim O’Connor Photograph: Aidan Crawley

‘One earwig recognises another’: friends Kevin Whelan (left) and Tim O’Connor Photograph: Aidan Crawley


Kevin Whelan is Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Irish centre, based in Daniel O’Connell’s former house on Merrion Square, Dublin. He is co-editor of the bestselling ‘Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape’. Originally from the Co Wexford bit of Clonegal, he lives in Dublin city centre with his wife Anne Kearney and their four children – Bébhinn, Fionn, Ruaidhrí and Eamonn

Tim and I didn’t meet until later in our lives but the minute we met, we struck up a friendship. You know that Irish expression, one earwig recognises another? We recognised similarities. Martin Naughton had always said to me what a great guy Tim was. Subsequently Tim became Irish consul in New York, so we had a mutual interest in the Irish-American space.

Notre Dame is a huge brand in America and I saw very early that a reconnection between Notre Dame and Ireland would be good for this country. It’s not just looking at Irish-Americans and seeing dollars in their eyes, but looking at this as a relationship we need to work on. If we see it purely as an economic relationship it will fall flat on its face.

Tim has kick-started a national conversation; it’s what I admire about him: he’s somebody who makes things happen rather than being a hurler on the ditch. I think even Tim has been surprised at how well The Gathering has gone. He’s a very positive person who connects people. No one in Ireland has a better address book or set of phone numbers or is more willing and generous at putting like-minded people together.

We meet at least once every week for a coffee and a catch up, usually in the Merrion [hotel]. We talk through everything from our families to sport to politics to culture, bounce ideas, and brainstorm. Slightly unusually for Irish males, we’d be more inclined to meet for a coffee than a drink – I don’t drink alcohol – and we both like to prioritise family in the evenings and at weekends, as we are both away a lot.

Our monthly book club meeting is always a great social occasion – we’re very proud because we’d read Donal Ryan’s novel The Spinning Heart before it was Booker-longlisted. We’d often run into each other at theatre or at music events like Other Voices – Philip King is a mutual friend.

Tim and I both talk a lot, you really have to fight for your space. We have great respect for each other but don’t always agree – the spark of that is part of our friendship, and a there’s good bit of slagging. We’re never shy of an opinion or three. Some friendships form early but it’s great when you meet someone at a different phase of your life who enriches it.

Tim O’Connor, chairman of The Gathering, worked in the public service, his last position being Secretary General to the President. Most of his career was spent in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He worked on the Northern Ireland Peace Process and was Consul General in New York. He lives in Dublin with his partner, Yvonne. He has three children, two stepdaughters and two grandsons

Kevin and I met at the formal opening of the Irish Notre Dame Centre in 2004 in Merrion Square. I was invited by Martin Naughton [one of the founders of the Notre Dame Centre]. Kevin and I recognised we’d been on parallel journeys. First and foremost there is our common background as country fellas making our way in the capital. A lot flows from that.

One of the things I really like about meeting up with Kevin is that I know I’m in the presence of a fellow ‘Ireland groupie’ and don’t have to be dialling down. We seem to have a thing in Ireland about not talking openly about the fact that you could actually be proud of the country. It seems like it’s cooler to be in the Failed State camp.

Kevin is a brilliant scholar and I really admire his abilities in that regard. But I also like the very practical dimension running through his scholarship. I like bringing stuff to him from the field and running it by him, knowing I’ll get an interesting take, which will include the historical perspective but also have a practical dimension.

We’re both huge admirers of the Irish diaspora and the extraordinary story that is their journey – I love being able to kick around what all that means with Kevin, how we take it forward into the future.

There were two things I discovered living in New York: one was the sheer scale of Irish-America that I hadn’t been aware of, and the second was that there was something huge for Ireland here to be explored. My epiphany in terms of The Gathering is that the centre of our relationship with the diaspora rests with us here at home. My new phrase is that we are the custodians of a shared home place. We decide what the notice on the gate is, whether it’s stay out, don’t care – or welcome home. The first move rests with us.

Kevin and I are in a book club which meets in the Notre Dame centre on Merrion Square. Kevin and I are both talkers so you’d wonder how that would work – but it does, because the relationship is based on mutual respect and affection. We both know that talking over each other is not disrespect, rather a realisation that if we don’t get in the next point – quickly – which has just been triggered by the last one the other has just made, the moment could pass and an opportunity would have been missed to understand something better.

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