An Irishman's Diary


In the mid-1930s my parents ran a weekly newspaper in the small town of Pawling in New York state, writes Anthony Glavin

My father was publisher, and my mother editor, a division of labour which meant my mother got to photograph my father shaking the hand of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when FDR visited the town on a presidential campaign stop. Clearly this was a snapshot destined for the family album, only my mother had neglected to check if there were any film in the camera.

While that whistlestop photo-op preceded my birth, I clearly remember being taken into Boston at age six in 1952, to see the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson sweep by in a Cadillac, en route to a massive electoral defeat at the hands of General Ike Eisenhower. For her part, my older sister Kathleen swears she got to sit at age eight on Jack Kennedy's lap, when our Aunt Kate, a Washington lobbyist, took her to visit the then Massachusetts congressman.

We've no photograph of that encounter either, but there's little doubt we were being raised as devout Democrats. What's more, I can still picture hearing for the first time my father curse, as he stood up to his waist in a Massachusetts lake, discussing Vice-President Richard Nixon with my mother, herself equally ardent in her dislike of Tricky Dick. We even had a cat named Kennedy at that time - the late 1950s - well before anybody thought Catholic Jack had a snowball's chance in hell of reaching the White House.

Thus reared, it's hardly surprising I volunteered over the years on behalf of various Democratic hopefuls - among them Boston's Mayor Kevin White, whose opponent's slogan - "You Know Where I Stand" - was a coded rejection of school desegregation. Seated in a telephone bank, I rang prospective voters on behalf of Mayor White, introducing myself as "Dennis McInerny" to any voter with an Irish-American surname, and as "Joe Vytale" (the only Italo-American kid in my neighbourhood) to those registered Boston voters named Frisoli, Trioli, or Censale. After 10 minutes of this carry-on, the Italo-American women volunteering to my right gently informed me: "It's not Vytale - but Vitale - with a soft 'i'."

Other campaigns included working for Charlie Pierce, an Afro-American candidate for the Cambridge, Massachusetts School Committee - which was Tip O'Neill's first elected office - and Father Robert Drinan, an anti-Vietnam-War Jesuit, who was successfully elected to Congress in 1970, where he served on the judiciary committee whose investigations into the Watergate scandal helped to finally see off Tricky Dick.

Other close encounters of the presidential, or presidential candidate kind, included cheering Eugene McCarthy in a crowded Fenway Park in Boston in the spring of 1968, and shaking George McGovern's hand in a Boston sitting-room, McGovern to my mind being one of the best presidents that America failed to elect. Or meeting Mike Dukakis at a bean supper in the Massachusetts town of Maynard, back when Dukakis was still a Brookline state legislator best known as a champion of no-fault auto insurance.

Better yet, in the fall of 1995, Adrienne and I took our younger daughter down to College Green to cheer President Clinton who had come to Ireland following his successful participation in the Good Friday peace agreement. What's more, earlier that same morning we had trundled my 85-year-old mother, who had come to live with us, onto the Swords Road. Wrapped in a rug, and seated on a stool borrowed from our local pub, she had waved at Clinton sweeping past en route to Aras An Uachtarain. We also took a snapshot of her seated there, making sure this time there was film in the camera.

All of which brings me round, I suppose, to last week's presidential encounter of the two-mile kind. Which is to say, I was among the several hundred Dubliners who boarded a bus to Belfast to join the thousands who marched on Hillsborough to show their opposition to this president and this war. We weren't allowed within sight of his war council with Tony Blair, whatever about earshot. But then neither were most of the media, which meant our march was awash with TV crews, including one from CBS who filmed signs such as, "Why Don't You Just Ask for the Oil?" and, "This US Patriot Says No to War".

Admittedly, this was the first time I ever set out to greet a Republican president. But as it happens, my opposition to this president and his war has nothing to do with American partisan politics. Rather, I'd like to think that all of us who protested in Belfast, all of those who opposed this war in Ireland, in the US, and in their millions around the world, might just be the first stirrings of a new political force: one that shakes off state boundaries, party affiliations and power blocs, a political force based, as Czech President Vaclav Havel sees it, simply upon human conscience.

If so, then other oppressed peoples might yet get to dance their joy, as we saw and welcomed in Baghdad, without the destruction and, above all, the largely untelevised slaughter of innocents that war brings.

Until then, as Steve Earle sings, come back to us now, FDR.