A passionate connection to where we came from

The multitude of St. Patrick’s Day events we witness each year, with their music, speeches, singing, and dancing, illustrates the passionate Irish-American connection to the land of Ireland where our ancestors were born.

The nearly month-long series of parades, parties, solemn dinners, “the wearing of the green,” official and unofficial visits from Irish politicians, Irish educators, and Irish businessmen -- all focused on celebrating Irishness and Ireland itself -- are public manifestations of deeply held feelings and loyalty to who we are and where we came from.
There is a place in most every Irish American’s heart and soul that connects his or her spirit with Ireland. A former prime minister of Ireland once said to me, “We are the envy of nations throughout the world to have such intensity on our side.”
The hundreds, probably thousands, of parades across the United States, Canada, Australia, and Dublin that were held last month tell only a small part of the story. One million Americans visited Ireland last year, and at least that number, and maybe more, will do so this year. I know many Irish Americans who have purchased second homes in Ireland to firmly fasten themselves to their heritage.
From where I sit, as part of a national charity that organizes Irish Americans on behalf of Ireland, I have become keenly aware of the remarkable affection that many Irish Americans have for their heritage.
In a small mid-western town, a wealthy Irish-American farmer, now 75 years old and nearing the end of his life, has been thinking about Ireland more and more seriously for several years. He knows the country fairly well for having traveled there every year for some time. Three years ago, he contacted us and began donating significant sums to us to be used in assisting Irish education. No strings attached, he keeps saying. “Just continue helping.” He is four generations removed from Ireland yet remains quietly and intensely Irish American. He is deciding now about a huge seven-figure additional investment in Ireland. No parades, no awards, no $10,000 a table dinners, just a connection to the old country.
For six and a half years, we received $30 each month from a not so wealthy gentleman from Pennsylvania. He must have felt very good about his generosity because he kept to the monthly schedule. We don’t know how many other Irish activities he participated in, but we are sure he loved Ireland.
We received a letter about 10 years ago from a law firm in Texas stating that a Catholic monsignor who was pastor of a small Texas parish, had died and left our organization a $15,000 bequest to be used for Northern Ireland’s Catholic schools. He had been a modest donor for several years, but we had never been in contact with him other than by mail. After discreet inquiries, we created a list of six small Belfast schools and delivered $2,500 checks to each school in his memory. I’m sure that each of the schools still remembers his caring and generosity since without exception they were all amazed that an American priest cared that much about small Catholic schools so far away.
I could go on for pages and pages listing the acts of selfless generosity on behalf of Ireland that I have witnessed over the years. Our first real benefactor in the United States, Mr. Charles F. Feeney, has, with his foundation, given hundreds of millions of dollars to Ireland. He devoted his life for many years to help solve the violence and bigotry in Northern Ireland while also helping to build and grow several Irish Universities that could never have done it by themselves. And all of it anonymously until very recently.
Closer to home, three members of our board of directors have vacation homes in Ireland and give their valuable time and support to our activities.
St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are worthwhile expressions of our affection for Ireland and our heritage, proud statements on behalf of the Irish American community. And there are many other less well-known but effective and important Irish activities that also honor Ireland. They should all be encouraged.
Joe Leary is president and CEO of the Irish American Partnership.