Home Thoughts from Abroad – Frank McNally on two emigrant stories, epic and otherwise

An Irishman’s Diary

A digital welcome from Neville Isdell, the founder of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin.

A digital welcome from Neville Isdell, the founder of EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin.

 

Courtesy of a friend who had two tickets (Remember that? We used to do it all the time in the old days, before the plague), I finally went to see EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin recently. It was every bit as impressive as people said.

The story has been well told in other places, but here it benefits from the powerful combination of an atmospheric old building on the waterfront, from where many actual ships sailed, and the spectacular technology of the “world’s first fully digital museum”.

In one tour-de-force, the surface of an air-hockey table turns into a moving graphic on the diaspora’s sporting achievements, unlocked by flicks of the viewer’s wrist. In another, mock books pulled from a library shelf activate stories of literary émigrés. Not the least impressive exhibit, meanwhile, is a digital welcome from the museum founder, whose life-size image greets you on the way in.

This turns out to be Neville Isdell, a name that might struggle to fit in the typical Irish emigration song, eg: “Goodbye Mick and goodbye Pat and goodbye Kate and Mary/The anchor’s weighed, the gangway’s up, I’m leavin’ Tipperary.”

But before telling the emigrant story, Isdell was part of it too, and one that defies stereotypes. Born in Downpatrick, of an Irish father and Scots mother, he moved to Zambia in childhood, went to university in South Africa, and is best-known for his years in the US, where he rose to be CEO of Coca Cola.

We may lament some of the resultant excesses, but it’s a rich reservoir we can draw from. Scotland rightly envies it

His grandfather had been an Ulster Orangeman. But his father, a pre-Troubles “fingerprint and ballistics specialist with the RUC”, refused to join the Order. As Isdell jnr puts it: “He had the somewhat dangerous view, which I inherited, that Ireland should be one country but only through democratic means.”

Isdell is himself therefore among the cast of thousands that, behind the special effects, give the Irish emigration story its extraordinary breadth, justifying the term “Epic”. Star names range from Reagan to Rihanna. But among the less famous, I was delighted to see that those mentioned also include another Zambian emigrant, and a man I once interviewed.

Father Michael Kelly features in a subsection on the work of religious orders abroad, as well he might. A life-long educator, he became globally renowned for his research on Aids, then ravaging sub-Saharan Africa. Vastly respected in Zambia, he was still a busy man when we met in 2013, but slipped gently into history earlier this year, dying in January aged 92.

Many countries have large diasporas, including Isdell’s maternal homeland. The difference – as a Scots government paper lamented once – is that other emigrants forget their origins within a generation or two – whereas the Irish do not. We may lament some of the resultant excesses, but it’s a rich reservoir we can draw from. Scotland rightly envies it.

Two days after visiting Epic, by sad but illustrative coincidence, I heard of the death of Philip Traynor, a man I never knowingly met, although he was from my hometown. His was the Epic story in microcosm. He drove trucks and made gates in his younger years. Then in the early 1980s, he left Carrickmacross for New York, where in classic style he made it big.

The season was blighted first by Covid-19 and then by Cavan-20, a rare but highly infectious outbreak of success for Monaghan’s deadliest rivals

His business was floors, and I’m sure he started on the ground one. But there are many floors in New York – like the sky there, they have no limit – and he covered thousands in his time. The website portfolio of his hardwood empire lists many glamorous addresses: “1 Sutton Place, Manhattan”, “1100 Park Avenue”, “300 Central Park West”, etc.

I’m told he also spent every Monday afternoon for 20 years making and distributing sandwiches to the city’s homeless. In the meantime, he never lost touch with Ireland, or with one of the great (and frequently lost) causes of his life, Monaghan football. Thus it was that last year, to the mystification of many supporters, the legend “All-Boro Floor Service New York” suddenly appeared on the county jerseys, as Traynor put his by-now-deep pockets at the team’s service.

The advertising hardly benefited him. It won’t have swung many contracts on Fifth Avenue. Nor was his timing auspicious. The season was blighted first by Covid-19 and then by Cavan-20, a rare but highly infectious outbreak of success for Monaghan’s deadliest rivals, now mercifully under control again.

But this year had been more promising so far. For the first time since the pandemic, the new sponsor was able to fly home recently for the Ulster Championship win over Fermanagh. Alas, that was also the last time he saw his team play.

He will be buried today (Wednesday) in Pearl River, New York, where a corner of a foreign field is now forever Monaghan.

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