President's visit to Irish centres 'the most important I will make'

Thu, May 3, 2012, 01:00

THEY WAITED on the pavement outside the Emerald Isle Immigration Centre, waving little tricolours as President Michael D Higgins’s motorcade drove up in the rain. The borough president declared it “Ireland Day in the Bronx”.

Red-haired Niamh Marie O’Donovan, aged 3, had her picture taken with the visitor and burst into tears, terrified by the attention.

Mr Higgins received gifts: a green crocheted wrap for Sabina, the key to the city of Yonkers, the history of the Bronx and To Love Two Countries, stories of Irish immigrants, illustrated with black and white photographs by John Minihan.

“These visits I’m making to Irish centres are among the most important I will make,” Mr Higgins said.

Motorcyclists with “Yonkers police” emblazoned on their jackets escorted the presidential motorcade to the second stop, the Aisling Community Centre, in the heartland of GAA clubs. Joe Cunningham, a retired electrician born in Co Clare, who turned 100 on April 13th, gave the President the watercolour he’d painted of an Irish lake.

“We made our life here,” said Eileen Moran (76), who left Cork City at 16. “It’s wonderful to be acknowledged. It’s a real emotional jolt for us seniors.” Kathy Ryan sang a soulful Slán Abhaile accompanied by a fiddler. “This centre has been a safe home,” she said.

The centres have received $20 million in Irish government funds for the vulnerable, elderly and undocumented since 2004, “every penny of it well spent,” the President said. “What is important is the kind of solidarity you show; the care, the instinct to look at strangers as someone like yourself.” Caring about others was “one of the old values we are recovering” in the economic crisis.

Mr Higgins chatted in Irish with the Bronx-born Gaeilge group instructor Naomi McCooe and her students. “All of the other multi-cultural groups in the Bronx speak their language, and we have ours. That’s our identity,” Ms McCooe said.

“I am elected President for all the Irish. Wherever they may be, they will be always in my thoughts at Áras an Uachtaráin,” Mr Higgins said, continuing the tradition of the two Marys.

In Mr Higgins’s mind and speech, immigration stretched in a continuum from before the Famine, through what he called the “huge tsunami of post-Famine immigrants” to the tens of thousands of undocumented Irish in the US today. “It is very important that one wave of immigrants realises the needs of the others,” he said. Laura O’Brien, a psychotherapist at the Emerald Isle Centre, says about 10 of her patients are undocumented young Irishmen. “The numbers rose when the recession started. We see alcohol and drug addiction. They’re frustrated because they’re not able to get on with their lives, marry and have children. They’re depressed at being undocumented. They can’t buy property. They’re looking over their shoulders.”

The table of contents of the Mind Yourself pamphlet distributed at the Aisling Centre outlines problems that confront the community: “Talk to someone; Having Relationship Issues?; Dealing with Alcohol Problems; Drugs; Depression plus Suicide Awareness; Coping with Domestic Violence; Pregnancy . . . ”

There has been no progress on immigration reform during President Obama’s term, and two versions – one Democrat, one Republican – of a Bill that would provide 10,000 non-immigrant renewable visas for Irish people are stalled in the Senate. “I can keep the issue alive,” Mr Higgins said when asked what he could do. He praised Enda Kenny for being “very positive, very helpful” when they discuss the issue.

“The Irish here who are out of status are offering their work,” Mr Higgins continued. “They are willing to pay taxes. They just want to feel secure. They want to know that if they become ill, they are not facing deportation. If you take the labour of people, you should try and achieve their getting to a form of security, and in time such citizenship as is appropriate.” Mr Higgins has compared the policies of the British government in the 1840s, which were rooted in laissez-faire economics and aggravated the Famine, to the 20th century Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman and the ‘Chicago School’, whom he holds responsible for the present economic crisis.

Their ideology “has been a disaster not just for Irish economic policy but for global economic policy,” Mr Higgins said. “The biggest crisis globally, certainly in Europe, is an intellectual crisis.”

The President called for “an openness of mind and creativity, to provide us with new paradigms, to enable to close the failed chapter.” This afternoon, Mr Higgins will deliver a lecture on the study of Irish migration at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University. “Putting the emigrant experience at the centre of our Irishness is something we have yet to do,” he said.

The President said he “will try to put an end to this notion that we were a homogeneous people, that all suffered equally in the famine . . . I’ll be putting the word ‘complexity’ into it.”