Here’s to Ireland’s unofficial ambassadors flying flags around the world

Celebrating the men and women flying flags for Ireland from Auckland to Rockland, Paris to Belgrade

Margaret Molloy

Ireland has a network of diplomats working hard for the country all around the world, but ahead of St Patrick’s Day this year, even though events and celebrations have been cancelled due to the Covid-19 crisis, we are tipping our caipíní to Ireland’s unofficial ambassadors, to share the stories of just some of the men and women wearing green jerseys and flying flags for Ireland wherever they live in the world, from Auckland to Rockland, Paris to Belgrade.

The dancing queen

Geraldine Ryan
Irish dancing teacher, Australia
Geraldine Ryan will turn 90 this year but has no intention of hanging up her dancing shoes. She has been teaching Irish dancing to people in Australia since she was 12 years old, and still travels up to 3,000km by train, bus and plane each week to teach in rural areas. "When I started it was a different era, only people of Irish descent took part, but these days it's much more multicultural, its people from all different countries," she says. "I still dance, have my balance, use my feet, although I'm much closer to the ground now and don't do the high jumps."

Ryan, whose family were from Cork and Clare, grew up in Melbourne in a home filled with Irish culture. She later married Pat Ryan, a piper whose family came from Co Tipperary. The couple continued Irish traditions with their three children. She says she has had her share of ups and downs – and she recently severely fractured her spine after slipping off a chair – but is grateful to always have had dancing in her life.

Geraldine Ryan (far left) with her dancing students in Australia.

Ryan, who still runs the O’Shea-Ryan Academy of Irish Dance, has taught “thousands and thousands” of people, including some of her former students’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and still loves it. She will accept an Order of Australia (OAM) medal “for service to Irish dancing” this month. “I’ve no plans for retiring, while the good lord keeps chugging me along I’ll keep going. It’s fun.” - RF


The film fan

Jas Kaminski
Belgrade Irish Festival founder and director

Jas Kaminski

The Irish population in Belgrade may be small but that hasn’t stopped Dubliner Jas Kaminski becoming one of the biggest promoters of Ireland in Eastern Europe. Kaminski’s father Jan, a holocaust survivor, moved to Ireland in the 1950s. Jas grew up in Clonskea, Co Dublin. He left Ireland in 2006, working as a development communication specialist in Asia and Africa, eventually settling in the Balkans with his family.

The idea for an Irish festival came to Kaminski seven years ago as he listened to RTÉ Radio One on a rainy Sunday, trying to figure out what he could do to stay in Belgrade. He heard childhood friends and filmmakers Ed Guiney and Lenny Abrahamson talking about their new film. "That was the epiphany moment. I said to myself, I could start an Irish film festival here," he says.

The Belgrade Irish Festival (BIF) has since grown into a 10-day celebration of Irish culture, the largest annual Irish arts event in southeastern Europe.

This year Dublin band Hothouse Flowers will open the festival, which will be their first time playing in the city. Irish director Jim Sheridan will open the Irish film week, and photographer John Minihan will talk about the famous series of photographs he took of Samuel Beckett.

“BIF came about by coincidence and as a very welcome way of staying in touch with my country and people,” Kaminski says. - RF

The language lover

James McDonald
Founder of Gaelscoil London and Gaelic Voices

James McDonald

Originally from Gorey, Co Wexford, James McDonald moved to London in 2005. Now working in film and TV – his company looks after archive footage, on films from Paddington to The Two Popes – McDonald's spare time goes into supporting and promoting the Irish language. In 2018 he started the Gaelscoil London playgroup at the London Irish Centre, and more recently the city's Irish language choir, Gaelic Voices, which will perform in Trafalgar Square for the St Patrick's Day Festival.

"I enjoy how our language and culture confidently cross borders, whilst connecting generations, creating friendships and opening minds," he says. "The Irish abroad have a perspective that has been of huge significance in Ireland's past, but with that comes a duty too: to give back to the culture and to the community both in Ireland, and the diaspora." Another project, The Song Collectors, which he runs with a friend, gathers and archives songs from the Irish Traveller community. - GT

The life-saver

Rebecca Skedd
Chief executive of Solace House, New York

Rebecca Skedd

At Solace House, a suicide prevention centre in New York, Rebecca Skedd offers counselling and support to people in need. "The service is unique in that it's completely free. We remove the financial burden that often prevents individuals and families from accessing critical life-saving services," she says. "A large percentage of our clients are Irish-born; we provide a home away from home through compassionate services, where we help them through difficult periods of their lives; such as isolation and loneliness, being away from home, and not having the core support of their families."

Originally from Tramore in Waterford, Skedd was directly involved in building Solace House from the ground up. Having arrived as an unpaid intern, she became chief executive at the age of 29. "We encountered many challenges but our passion and determination drove us." There are now two centres in New York, helping hundreds of people. "Irish people are undeniably among the most compassionate, supportive and generous," she says. "The sense of community that the Irish have built in New York is unbreakable. When someone is in need, the whole community rallies together." This August, Skedd is getting married – "we're both from Waterford, only 15 minutes apart, but we had to come all the way to NYC to meet." - GT

The fashionista

Margaret Molloy
Founder of #WearingIrish, New York

Margaret Molloy in New York. Dress by Niall Tyrrell Couture; earrings by Inner Island; cuff by Inner Island. Photograph: Katie Levine

The Irish-born, Harvard-educated, US-based marketing guru Margaret Molloy has been an Irish fashion super promoter, spreading the word about clothes and accessories from Ireland on her #WearingIrish campaign, (Instagram @wearingirish and Twitter @wearing_irish) for the past four years. A "passion project" aims to create awareness of "the untold story" of contemporary Irish fashion design, to get it the recognition and business it deserves on a worldwide stage.

Global chief marketing officer of US branding and design firm Siegel+Gale, and a member of the Global Irish Network, Molloy used her influential contacts both in the US and in Ireland to bring 10 Irish designers to New York in 2018 to introduce them to potential buyers. “No one says no to Margaret” was the comment of one visitor to the event.

The eldest of six, Molloy grew up on a dairy farm in Offaly and moved to the US in 1994, where she currently resides with her husband and two children. An indefatigable supporter of Irish design, she continues to post images of herself on social media wearing outfits from talented Irish fashion clothing and accessory designers.

"I like connecting all three interests – fashion, marketing and Irish heritage and I saw the opportunity for people to come together on social media to support Irish designers," she says. The recipient of many global awards including Overseas Irish Businesswoman of the Year in 2017, she was honoured by the Douglas Hyde Foundation last November. - DMcQ

The connector

Aidan Connolly
Director, the Irish Arts Center, New York

Aidan Connolly

Turning the slightly crumbling but nonetheless beloved Irish Arts Center in New York into a multi-million dollar performance space is Aidan Connolly’s mammoth task. Connolly was born in Connecticut to Irish parents: his father from Galway, and his mother Terenure in Dublin. “Ireland, first and foremost, is my parents’ home, and so I love it as I love them,” he says. Beyond that, “it is my own ancestral home and origin story. It’s fun to think about what my life might have been like had my parents met at a party in Dublin rather than in Connecticut. My dad drove a truck for Carton Brothers and sang in showbands before he left Ireland, so it’s feasible!”

Having worked as a singer with the Julliard Chorus, and on Al Gore's presidential campaign, Connolly is now director at the Irish Arts Center, creating opportunities for Irish artists and performers, including Thisispopbaby, Loah, Dead Centre, David Keenan, Martin Hayes, Camille O'Sullivan and Mikel Murfi. "At an enduring level, the Irish legacy of storytelling continues to make the Irish competitive at everything we do," says Connolly. "The reputation for hard work has given us a reputation for tenacity that leads people to trust us. The ethos of Irish hospitality gives us unparalleled standing to bring people of all backgrounds together." The new Irish Arts Center is due to open in Autumn 2020. - GT

The publican

Seamus and Caitriona Kenny Clarke
Owners of JP Clarke's, New York

Caitriona Clarke

J P Clarke's, on McLean Avenue in Yonkers, is home from home for many an Irish expat. It's owners' Leitrim origins can also be seen on the football field, as Caitriona and Seamus Kenny Clarke became the first business outside Ireland to sponsor a county team. "After 35 years in the US, Ireland still means home to me. I think I haven't changed very much in those years. I'm still very much a Paddy and my heart will always be in Ireland," says Seamus. "Through the bar, our lives are very much centred around the community and the various organisations we're involved in," Caitriona agrees. These include the Aisling Irish Community Center, which helps Irish immigrants in the area.

While Seamus says his proudest achievement is "convincing my wife to give up a permanent teaching job in Ireland and come to America, marry me and help me run the pub", Caitriona is also proud to have represented the Aisling Center as grand marshal of the McLean Avenue St Patrick's parade last year. "I think Ireland punches above its weight in terms of the impact Irish people make internationally, especially when it comes to human rights issues and charitable donations to countries that need help," says Seamus. - GT

The cultural champion

Gary Dunne
Cultural director of the London Irish Centre

Gary Dunne

At the London Irish Centre, Gary Dunne programmes work that redefines what Irish culture can be. Growing up in the midlands, he was immersed in Irish arts and culture. "I spent my college years and early 20s on Dublin's rich music scene," he says. "It was only after a number of years of living in London that I realised how much I missed that, and how much a part of my life and identity Irish culture is."

Ireland is changing, says Dunne: “politically, culturally and in terms of identities”. As a musician, he writes, records and performs, while at the London Irish Centre and the London St Patrick’s Festival, his work is about bringing the rich tapestry of modern Irish culture to London stages.

"Being centrally involved in the respectful redevelopment of a historic Irish Centre into a world-class cultural venue is a privilege," says Dunne. "I'm proud of the work I've done in connecting artists with social causes, whether it's Martin Hayes at the London Irish Centre, Damien Dempsey in Trafalgar Square, or an 80-strong community choir at the Ceiliúradh concert in the Royal Albert Hall." - GT

The mixed-race campaigners

Rosemary Adaser and Conrad Bryan
Association of Mixed Race Irish

In 2014, Rosemary Adaser founded the Association of Mixed Race Irish, a campaign and support group. “We came together when we realised that our childhood experiences of racism had never been recognised in any previous Statutory Enquiries, in particular the Ryan Report where the terms of reference excluded the issue of historic racism in the Irish Industrial School network, including Mother and Baby Homes a Magdalene Laundries and Reformatory Schools,” Adaser explains.

She has since worked tirelessly for the rights of mixed race Irish people wherever they live in the world, along with Conrad Bryan who is treasurer of the organisation. London became home for both of them – Adaser moved there in the mid-1970s, Bryan in the late 1980s.Adaser has led a delegation to the Dáil to present personal testimonies, and lobbied successfully to have “racism” included in the terms of reference for the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. Last December, she led the AMRI to the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. “CERD hearing our claims of historic racism against mixed-race women and children accepted our truth,” says Adaser.

Both she and Bryan are members of the Mother and Baby Home Collaborative Forum, established by Minister Katherine Zappone last August.

Bryan has also been treasurer of the charity Irish in Britain. "As Irish children of African fathers we were abandoned and the State simply looked away," Bryan says. "The State must look now and face up to this legacy so that it never happens again, and so they can help young people from all ethnic backgrounds to feel safe and proud to be Irish." - CK

The GAA star

Paul Rowley
Development co-chairman, Rockland GAA

Bruce Springsteen unknowingly changed the life of one Irish man as he performed to a crowd of more than 95,000 at Slane Castle in 1985. Paul Rowley, who grew up in Ballinalee, Co Longford, was inspired to move to America after seeing the singer on stage. “I promised my mother in 1986 if she’d let me go to America that I’d go back to college and I’d work like hell. She let me go to chase my dreams, and so I did,” Rowley says.

He loved New York from the moment he arrived at JFK Airport, but missed Irish culture and joined Longford Gaelic Football Club in New York City. In 1998 he moved to Rockland county, just outside the city, with his wife Jackie and their three children, where he joined Rockland GAA and became the development co-chairman.

Founded in 1972 by Sligo native John Crawley, Rockland GAA is now the largest GAA club outside Ireland. In 2000, they became the first GAA club outside of Ireland and England to buy their own grounds outright. There are now three Gaelic pitches with a Centre of Excellence, a club house that facilitates 800 children playing football, hurling, camogie, Irish dancing and music. Rowley owns companies in the air conditioning and refrigeration sector, and employs students and graduates from Ireland. "I've no plans to stop, it's great watching GAA inspire young Americans." - RF

The newsmaker

Katie Molony
Irish Studio, New York

Katie Molony

From The Irish Times to JOE Media, Katie Molony has always been in the news. Born in Sligo, and now in New York, she is currently co-chief executive of Irish Studio, the media organisation that connects Irish people and friends of the Irish internationally, through publications such as Ireland of the Welcomes, IrishCentral and Irish Studio Travel, with a combined global reach of more than 10 million people. "It's brilliant to see the great work and impact the Irish have across the globe," Molony says. "In the US, we are so well regarded and hold key positions in business. The community is very strong here and people are so supportive." Personally and professionally, she enjoys what Irish people bring to the table: "passion, hard work, integrity and a lot of craic." - GT

The tireless fighter

Margaret Geiger
Welfare adviser, Irish Elderly Advice Network, London
Margaret Geiger has quietly but relentlessly been fighting for the rights of elderly and vulnerable Irish people in London for more than a decade. The Carlow woman, described by friends as shy, selfless, modest and empathetic, is hesitant to talk about herself, but speaks through her actions instead. She is the senior welfare adviser and head of housing with the Irish Elderly Advice Network, a charity set up by Irish women in 1993 after three Irish men were found dead in their flats – each died alone and lay undiscovered for weeks.

Sally Mulready, chief executive of the charity, says Geiger helps vulnerable Irish people, often elderly men, who are homeless, in poverty or suffering loneliness and isolation: “I’ve witnessed Margaret accompany clients in their 70s as they move into their very first home. She changes lives and does so with compassion and to real and moving affect.”

Geiger reluctantly left Ireland at 18 when there was no work. She lives in London her with husband, who is from Switzerland. The couple have four children and two grandchildren. “There’s no greater motivation than seeing your clients moving from a life on the streets to a safe place to call home,” she says. - RF

The LGBT champion

Loretta Cosgrove
Founder of Sydney Queer Irish, Sydney

Loretta Cosgrove (left) with Consul General of Ireland in Sydney Owen Feeney, Lorna Markey Hennessy and Panti Bliss at the Sydney Mardi Gras

From her kitchen, Loretta Cosgrove set up Sydney Queer Irish (SQI) in 2010 as a place to socialise and celebrate all that it means to be Irish and LGBT while living in Australia. “I wanted to re-engage with a community of like minded people that I’d left when we moved to Sydney and who also identified as queer,” she says. Cosgrove’s parents emigrated from Ireland to Australia in the 1970s but after being overwhelmed with homesickness, they moved back to Galway. When Cosgrove was six they returned to Sydney. She’s been back and forth since.

The SQI president says homesickness is one of the issues the group helps its members through. SQI’s biggest event of the year is their Mardi Gras entry, which takes many months of planning and preparation. “SQI has provided a sense of belonging and home for those of us living down under,” she says. The group also campaigns on human rights and community issues, such as supporting towns affected by bushfires. She’s also one of the founding directors of Irish Film Festival Australia and is currently artistic director for Sydney’s St Patrick’s Day parade. - RF

The film buff

Kelly O'Connor
Irish Film, London

Kelly O’Connor

Born in Howth, where her family runs The Summit Inn, Kelly O’Connor set up Irish Film London, which turns 10 this year. “We run the Irish Film London Awards, and three other annual Irish film festivals.” She is also on the Community Advisory Board for the Mayor of London’s St Patrick’s Parade and Festival, and is a keen member of the London Irish community and its business networks.

"What Ireland means to me is so wrapped up in what I do for a living. I have the typical romantic notion of Ireland. It's the word 'Home' flashing on a cinema screen." O'Connor's work provides opportunities for emerging and established Irish filmmakers and actors in London. "It sounds like a cliché, but I'm genuinely most proud of being Irish," says O'Connor. "It's important to acknowledge that today's positive reception for Irish people internationally only exists because of those who paved the way for us, through much more challenging times. Those who persevered with the St Patrick's Day Parade and Festival in London during the Troubles era demonstrated the importance of Ireland's magnificent arts and culture in upholding our positive international image." - GT

The embroiderer

Rebecca Devaney
Embroiderer and costume designer, Paris

Rebecca Devaney

An award-winning Irish embroiderer making a name for herself in haute couture in Paris, Rebecca Devaney qualified in the celebrated Parisian embroidery school Lesage two years ago, and has since worked with Yves St Laurent, Chanel, Dior, Valentino, Louis Vuitton and Dolce & Gabbana, and on many dresses for the Met Ball.

Devaney is costume designer and children's workshop facilitator for the Paris St Patrick's Day parade, in association with the Irish in France association and the Irish Cultural Centre Paris, and is also preparing for an innovative Junk Couture meets Haute Couture event for the parade in 2021.

She is an authority on many aspects of textiles including her solo exhibition Bordados on Mexican hand embroidery. She was a contributor to the catalogue for the Embellishment exhibition at the Hasselt Museum of Fashion in Belgium, and is also one of the contributors for an upcoming book on Rebe, the husband and wife team who collaborated with Dior on embroidery and were subsequently written out of history. She has just completed an installation called The Tears of Aphrodite for an OECD conference on Ending Violence Against Women. - DMcQ

The chef

Marguerite Keogh
Head chef, The Five Fields, London

Marguerite Keogh

Head chefs at Michelin-starred restaurants who happen to be women are a bit of a rarity, but Marguerite Keogh fills that role at The Five Fields in London’s Chelsea. From Sixmilebridge in Co Clare, Keogh did her apprenticeship at Dromoland Castle, before heading to London at the age of 21.

Jumping in at the deep end, she worked first for Marco Pierre White and then joined Marcus Wareing’s brigade at Petrus and subsequently at Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, rising to sous chef during her six years there. In 2013 she launched The Five Fields with chef patron Taylor Bonnyman, and in 2017 it was awarded a Michelin star.

Keogh is included in the 2020 Murphia List, a collection of the most influential Irish people working in the hospitality and food and drink sectors in London. The list is published annually by Catherine and Gavin Hanly, who run the London-based eating out and restaurant review website, Hot Dinners. - MCD

The literary champion

Clíona Ní Ríordáin
Professor of English at the Sorbonne

“I was born in the Bon Secours Hospital, Cork – France was beckoning from birth,” says Clíona Ní Ríordáin. Now based in Paris and a champion of Irish writing, she teaches Irish literature and translation studies, and has published three bilingual anthologies of Irish poetry. “Ireland is home and a constant source of inspiration for me,” she says, adding that “Irish people have found a fine balance between pride in the local and an embrace of the global.”

Ní Ríordáin's students are mainly French, with a smattering of other nationalities. "They are attracted by modernist writers like Joyce and Beckett but go on to study more contemporary authors such as Sebastian Barry, Eavan Boland or Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin." Proud that "Ireland is becoming a more open, inclusive and forgiving society," Ní Ríordáin's new book, featuring poets who attended UCC in the 1970s, will be launched at the Poetry Festival in Cork on March 26th. - GT

The politician

Daniel Dromm
New York City Council Member

As finance chair of the New York City Council, Daniel Dromm has oversight of a $95.3billion budget. Born in Queens, Dromm's Irish connections are on his mother's side – with grandparents from Galway and Leitrim. "I represent what is probably the most diverse district in the world (Jackson Heights, Elmhurst), with at least one person from every country in the world living in my district," he says. Also the chairperson of the Council's Irish Caucus, and of its LGBT Caucus, Dromm is proud of the work he has done in four areas: "immigration, education, LGBT rights and criminal justice reform."

One of the leaders in the movement to allow Irish gay and lesbian groups to march under their own banner in the St Patrick’s Day parade, Dromm sees Ireland as “the land of equality and respect for all. One of the things that I was most proud of about Ireland was your vote for marriage equality. Ireland led the world by being the first country ever to vote for marriage equality in a referendum in 2016. Additionally, Ireland contributes significantly to culture, literature, music and theatre across the globe.” Bringing City Government delegations to Ireland last November, Dromm was awarded an honorary professorship at Queen’s University Belfast. - GT

The French connection

Nora Hickey M'Sichili
Director of the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris

“I’m from a long line of strong Irish women,” says Nora Hickey M’Sichili. “With a Kilkenny mother and a Wicklow father, who went against the tide, moving North in the Troubles …” Hickey was born in Belfast, where her father worked as Keeper of Art at the Ulster Museum. At the CCI, on Rue des Irlandais (named by Napoleon), she oversees a lively programme of music, literature, art and theatre. “The work of Irish artists is very well received,” she says. “And there is huge scope for further promoting it internationally.”

Artists who go to the centre on residencies speak warmly of Hickey's ability to make connections, creating a welcoming atmosphere where new ideas and collaborations are formed. In April, the centre will host the 57 heads of Paris-based cultural centres from around the world, and the major Parisian cultural institutions. "This is what the Irish are good at, throwing the best of parties and connecting people to make exciting things happen." – GT

The businesswoman

Jane Quinn
Chambers manager, Bankside Chambers, Auckland

Jane Quinn

From Ballyfermot to New Zealand, Jane Quinn has come a long way, but "Ireland, after nearly 32 years here still means home," she says. "It's the smell of the fresh brown bread, the warmth of the people and the never ending cups of tea whenever there is a problem." As chambers manager for New Zealand's largest set of legal chambers, Quinn works with 43 barristers, and is also a justice of the peace.

Irish culture, she says, particularly resonates with the Maori people. “We understand each other like no other group I have met.” Quinn also works hard on behalf of the Irish community in Auckland, as vice president of the Auckland Irish Society, and trustee for the Saint Patrick’s Festival Trust. Married to her Irish husband, Gerry, for 23 years, she also speaks warmly of the GAA, having played when she first arrived. “It is like an extended family, and the first place we all go to meet new people arriving, to see that they are okay for homes and jobs. It is great that we look after each other so well when we are this far from home.” - GT