By Liam Ferrie
Special to the BIR
BUNCRANA, Co. Donegal –The late Tip O’Neill was no doubt looking down with a huge smile on his face on events in Buncrana on the first weekend of September. His lifetime achievements were being acknowledged by the people of the County Donegal town near which his grandmother was born and it was all taking place in the presence of his many descendants, including his sons Tom and Christopher and daughters Susan and Rosemary.
More than 80 members of the O’Neill clan, including spouses and prospective spouses, traveled from the US to participate in the celebrations and to meet their Irish relatives, who trace their ancestry back to the siblings of Eunice (Unity) Fullerton, Tip O’Neill’s grandmother, who was born outside Buncrana and emigrated to the US as a young woman.
Buncrana is proud of the O’Neill connection, and Donegal County Council decided in 2012 to launch the “Annual Tip O’Neill Donegal Diaspora Award” in his honor. The council, which actively connects with its Diaspora, wished to celebrate the life and achievements of the US politician on the centenary of his birth. The award will be presented each year to a member of the worldwide Irish diaspora and will be a recognition and acknowledgment, here in Ireland, of the success and achievement that he or she has attained in his or her chosen field.
On Fri., Sept. 8, before an invited audience at the Inishowen Gateway Hotel in Buncrana, the inaugural Tip O’Neill Donegal Diaspora Award was presented to the New York-based publisher Niall O’Dowd. In making the presentation, Pat Hume, wife of the Nobel Laureate John Hume, referred to O’Dowd’s success with the Irish Voice newspaper and other Irish-American publications, his campaigning on behalf of undocumented Irish immigrants, and his efforts to facilitate the peace process through his contacts with US politicians.
Mrs. Hume herself received a standing ovation when she stepped up to the podium, the audience recognizing the unsung role she played over the years while her husband devoted all his energies to bringing an end to violence and while improving the lot of all the citizens of the North.
Prior to the main event Michaela O’Neill Daniel, Tip O’Neill’s granddaughter, formally presented Irish American Partnership Bursaries to five primary schools in the Buncrana area.
After the formalities were over it was time to relax over a buffet dinner, make new friendships, take time to dance, or just listen to the music. Before the night ended John Hume enthralled those present with three songs, one in Irish, one in English and one in French.
On Saturday morning some 200 people turned up to listen to the first annual Tip O’Neill Diaspora Lecture, “Legacy, Leadership, Diaspora”, delivered by Professor Paul Arthur of Ulster University.
The professor of politics captivated his audience with his account of how Tip O’Neill and John Hume, with the support of a few other leading Irish American politicians, transformed Ireland’s relationship with the White House. While Irish America had become more influential on local issues over the decades, the White House always followed London’s lead when it came to political differences between Britain and Ireland.
According to Professor Arthur that started to change in 1977, thanks to the wisdom and influence of Tip O’Neill, who was being advised by John Hume. It was, he argued, that change in the relationship between the US and Ireland that ultimately facilitated a successful outcome to the peace process.
Those attending the lecture next made their way to the shores of Lough Swilly for the unveiling of a bust of Tip O’Neill. That night the celebrations continued with a function in the Red Door restaurant at Fahan. The O’Neills were there in force and so were the Fullertons and other Irish cousins.
A day later the focus had shifted to the University of Ulster in nearby Derry where a reception was held to honor Tip’s 100th birthday and John Hume’s 75th. Details were also announced of the University’s plans to establish the John Hume and Thomas P. O’Neill Chair in Peace.
At the end of a memorable weekend the extended O’Neill clan were clearly delighted with the welcome they had received from those still living in the area where their ancestor spent her formative years. The people of Buncrana were equally thrilled to have hosted the family of such an illustrious figure and they understood better just how influential Tip O’Neill was in US politics, how he had won the respect of politicians of all shades and of the enormous impact he had in bringing peace to an Ireland that lived under the shadow of the bomb and the bullet for some 30 years.
From Donegal and Derry the O’Neills made their way to Mallow in Co. Cork, the birthplace of Tip O’Neill’s grandfather, Patrick O’Neill. On Tues., Sept. 11, Tom and Rosemary O’Neill unveiled a plaque dedicated to their father in a park that has been named after him. Later the O’Neills planted a tree in his memory in the grounds of Mallow Castle.
The ongoing links between O’Neills and Ireland have been assured with the decision to make the award and lecture annual events in Buncrana. DonegalDisaporaAward.ie is looking for nominations for the 2013 award and stresses that it is open to members of the Diaspora with links to any part of Ireland.