Why the Irish abroad should be given a vote in our general elections

Opinion: Skype exacerbates distance at crucial times for emigrants, tantalising us with contacts that cannot be consummated

 

Driving from Recess to Carna last week, I saw clearly how that part of Galway could never have supported the growing population that lived there before the Great Famine. For it is splendid but bleak country.

Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh was in Carna to unveil the foundation stone of a planned commemorative centre for emigrants. He is one of our own, whose parents were born in the West. The mood was massive.

We like to remember the famous ones, the wealthy and successful. We touch them for contacts and money. But they are a small part of the story.

People are still emigrating from Galway, and from all over Ireland. It is not just a western problem. As things stand, too few young people find work at home.

“Emigrant” is a bleak word. And the truth is that some who go away feel more like exiles. Others are glad to be out of here. But the Irish abroad, for whatever reason, still need support.

And we are not doing enough to respect them, to hear and help meet their needs. This State never did. It is easy to talk of the positives. Living abroad can be a relief, an opportunity. But it has real challenges too.

Liam Cosgrave, former taoiseach, was also in Carna last week. He and his brother spent some months at school there, more than 80 years ago.

Back then his father met a different US mayor, “Big Bill” Thompson of Chicago. Thompson was a man of dubious repute, a friend of Al Capone some say, but the Irish Free State courted him because we needed to do business with America.

When WT Cosgrave made his American trip in 1928, astonishingly large crowns of Irish emigrants greeted him in New York and Chicago. They lined the sidewalks, eight deep in places, and buildings were draped with Irish colours and pictures of Cosgrave.

It was the first trip to America by the first prime minister of the new Free State. Emigrants there hoped that his arrival heralded a new era at home.

Now as then, when a family member goes it scalds the heart. We look on the bright side, but we know that Ireland should have done better.

The dreams of those who mobbed the sidewalks of America to welcome Cosgrave have been recently betrayed, just when Ireland might have achieved a level of economic stability of which he and they only dreamt.

People will tell you it is easier for emigrants now. Sure aren’t there cheap flights and Skype? And that is true, up to a point. But Skype exacerbates distance at crucial times, tantalising us with contacts that cannot be consummated. And a journey by air, even in Europe, is a lot more complex than driving or walking down the road.

The Irish abroad should be given a voice by being given a vote in our general elections, as other states allow their citizens. Current proposals to “try it out” by giving the diaspora a say only in presidential polls are patronising.

And what of catches that deprive emigrants and their children of educational and social welfare benefits if they wish to return after living outside Ireland for some years?

For decades we could not even provide a radio link for emigrants to England. And we left it up to the Catholic Church to provide support services in Kilburn and Queens. That particular network is not what it used to be.

Visiting America since 1970, I have met many emigrants and their descendants across the US. In An Irish-American Odyssey I look at emigration through the prism of one particular family of O’Shaughnessys who worked in farming, the arts, media and law.

The O’Shaughnessys from Missouri (out of Galway) helped to found Chicago’s Irish Fellowship Club, still an important platform for visiting Irish politicians.

It was the club, working with Ireland’s first envoy in WashingtonTimothy A. Smiddy, that persuaded WT Cosgrave finally to take the risk of leaving a troubled Ireland in 1928 for the first visit of an Irish head of government to America. I devote a chapter to his extraordinary visit.

And this weekend I go to Chicago myself, at the behest of the Irish Fellowship Club to speak about emigration at the annual iBAM Irish festival in that city. I will not be too negative about the Irish state.

But I shall not pretend either than romantic gushing is any substitute for effective government engagement. Out of sight should not mean out of mind.

Dr Colum Kenny is professor of communications at DCU. An Irish-American Odyssey: the remarkable rise of the O’Shaughnessy Brothers is published by the University of Missouri Press.

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