President who brought special affection to the Irish diaspora

MARY Robinson popularised the notion of an Irish diaspora

MARY Robinson popularised the notion of an Irish diaspora. She understood that millions of Irish, whether born in Ireland and exiled from it or born elsewhere of Irish ancestry, felt a deep and abiding tie to the country.

She understood that definitions of Irishness do not stop at Ireland's shores, but that people as far away as Australia and the US can feel deep ties.

It could not be otherwise for the Irish. After all, a country that exported almost half its people since the Famine must become comfortable with different definitions of Irishness. Consider that there are an estimated 70 million people worldwide who claim varying degrees of Irish ancestry. Mary Robinson became the embodiment of what Ireland represented for millions of them, as against green beer, leprechauns, or armed conflict.

The Jews understood this exile state within a state, of course, and called it the diaspora, and the Israeli government has long sought to build the ties between Jews abroad and their motherland of Israel. The Irish never quite understood it until Mary Robinson came along.


When she was elected we were told that the office was essentially powerless, that she would be merely a figurehead; but she understood the power of symbols, which other Irish politicians before her did not, and she used them to wield a moral force abroad which made her one of the most effective Irish political figures ever.

IRISH Politicians paid lip service to the notion of a diaspora before Mary Robinson, but never understood the wellspring of emotion that many emigrants and ancestral Irish feel on this fundamental issue of their identity.

If you have ever stood in a bar in the Bronx or San Francisco for the singing of the Irish National Anthem before an All Ireland final, and seen the tears streaming down the faces of exiles, you will understand some of the rawness of this emotion.

If you have stood with an Irish American the first time he stands on the very patch of land his grandfather bade goodbye to before coming to America and felt his emotion, then you understand it. Mary Robinson also understood that.

"She make us proud," is the most common comment I receive when ask people how they feel about her. It is a simple yet profound statement about a woman who embodied the best of Ireland to them, who made them feel in their soul that there was someone in a high place in Ireland who cared about them who knew their story; who accepted that not all the migrant stories were success ones involving Yuppies on Wall Street; that the streets were not necessarily payed with gold in New York or Boston, and that the dreaming of a return to Ireland was not foolish but the natural longing for kith and kin and place that Seamus Heaney writes so beautifully about.

There was one night we will always remember when Americans, too, were very proud of her. The setting was the White House lawn on a hot Washington night last June. The occasion was the first state dinner for an Irish leader at the White House since Eamon de Valera in 1964, and the biggest state dinner ever held, with over 400 guests.

A vast media throng gathered in the press area, but for once they were not fixated on Bill Clinton rather, they were focused on the slender Irish woman who entered, escorted by the President, from the White House living quarters. Mary Robinson was centre stage and a quizzical American media, used to seeing their leader accompanied by elderly white male heads of state, were buzzing with anticipation. Here was a fresh face.

She would not disappoint. In a speech made without notes she struck the perfect pitch, eschewing the normal cliches so often used on such occasions and instead focusing on the real ties of kin that bind the US and Ireland, and speaking movingly of the Famine which was the catalyst for so many Irish people coming to America.

SHE also talked about the modern day Irish contribution to fighting hunger in Africa. There was also humour, when she mistakenly referred to President Clinton as President Kennedy (which pleased him hugely) and she talked about the time she shook hands as a child with Kennedy in Galway on his historic visit to Ireland. Unscripted, yet seamless, the remarks wove the perfect threads for the American audience who gave her several standing ovations. When it was over President Clinton remarked: "I hope that the President of Ireland feels very much at home and very much admired in America because she certainly is."

"The big thing is she brought with her the face of the new Ireland, getting rid of all this stuff about green beer and leprechauns for Irish Americans. She created the image in America that there is a new modern Ireland where a woman can become head of state, where a new generation has come alive. She embodied a new Ireland in the way John F. Kennedy, when he became president, embodied a new sense of America, a generational shift." The speaker is a female staffer on Capital Hill who observed President Robinson closely during her visits here and who understands the shift in perceptions about Ireland that occurred soon after she became President.

Congressman Peter King, a longtime admirer of President Robinson, agrees: "She was the first Irish President to understand how to use the symbols of the office to achieve results. She was the embodiment of the new Ireland in all its nuances, extremely articulate and intelligent."

She was clearly part of a time and a tide of new Irish consciousness, but she fashioned the new wave, made it her own, and came to embody it for the Irish in America. She will be greatly missed as President.