by Tom Mulvoy
When Claire (McLaughlin) Cronin, the majority leader in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, was sworn in as US ambassador to Ireland on January 19 of this year, she told the gathering in the House chamber that her leave-taking to represent her country in the land of her heritage had a tint of sadness to it: "I have always been better at saying hello than saying goodbye.”
Shortly after she presented her credentials to Ireland President Michael D. Higgins in Dublin three weeks later and formally became chief of mission at the US Embassy there, she began planning her “Hello” campaign with embassy staff members. “After about a month of getting to learn first-hand about how things worked here and of meeting the people who made them happen,” Cronin said in an interview with Boston Irish in mid-June, “I knew I had to get out and about. It was time.”
Per usual, Covid-19 intrudes on a big event
Time, yes, to launch the “Hello” drive, but not before dealing with a bout of Covid-19 in March that saw her in quarantine in Dublin while a cadre of Irish officialdom led by Prime Minister Micheál Martin was hailing Saint Patrick in Washington, D.C. “I was determined to visit all of the republic’s 26 counties before some scheduled time off in August,” she said. On the day of the interview, she reported that she had given countless “hellos” to residents and had interviews with officials in 20 counties, one of them being Donegal, where her family roots are deep. “I’ll make the 26 easily,” she said, “and have time to revisit a number of them.”
Making her rounds across the island while keeping close tabs on embassy affairs is heady stuff for the gregarious ambassador. “The Irish people show an intense interest in American politics. They are well informed,” she said. “and quick with questions. And, of course, a congenial, welcoming manner is straight from the population’s DNA.”
For those interested in following what Cronin is about at any given time, it’s likely to be available in text and living color on the embassy’s prolific Twitter account, @USambireland, which captures her every move, it seems.
Day-to-day life can be fast-paced and exciting, she said. “There’s lots for all of us to keep an eye on, with each day different in its own way. Five months into my time here, the teamwork approach in place is working well.”
Issues large and smaller dominate the days and nights
As to matters that demand constant attention, Cronin points to the now 24-year-old Good Friday Agreement as first in line. “The gains from that historic diplomacy must be preserved at all costs,” she said. “There’s no question about that.” As ambassador, Cronin is an interlocutor between business interests in both the US and on the island of Ireland, a task that mandates everyday attention. “More than 900 United States firms operate in Ireland, which is the ninth largest investor in the US economy,” she notes in describing her role in that exchange as “promoting the United States as an investment and exchange destination for Irish companies while advocating for the free flow of trade and investment in both directions.”
For all that, smaller-picture matters keep the ambassador and the embassy on the go. One such is the J1 Visa program that first was put in place in 1966 and has been reinstated this year after two years of cancellations due to pandemic restrictions. Its resumption will enable students from Ireland to travel to and work as interns in the United States this summer. The idea is that students will follow their occupational hopes while learning about the US first-hand, then return to use what they have experienced in benefit to the homeland’s culture and economy.
“These visas help to strengthen trans-Atlantic ties,” said Cronin, who noted via Twitter in early June that “she had met with some J1 Summer Work and Travel applicants and that the embassy had processed more than 4,300 visas already for this season.”
In the interview, the ambassador mused that the J1 program and others like it have many times “served those who are looking for love,” noting that after Brian Donnelly, a onetime Massachusetts legislator and later a congressman, had successfully sponsored a program similar to the J1 effort known as the Donnelly Visas, “my brother Hugh married an Irish woman who had come to the US on that basis.”
The ambassador clearly takes delight in describing how the embassy’s “open door policy” is playing out. “Every week,” she said, “we invite groups of people – students or a cross-section of citizens from all walks of life – who as a matter of course do not interact with the embassy and what happens there and with the ambassador’s residence in Phoenix Park to come and see things for themselves.
“Just this week,” she noted, “75 students were given extensive tours of both places, and afterwards they attended a town hall where embassy staff and I took questions from the group. Letting the Irish people know that these doors are open to them means a lot to me and to the embassy.”
Domestically speaking, the Cronins embrace Ireland
The Deerfield Residence, the ambassador’s home away from the family home in Easton, Mass., continues to leave her in awe. “It has so much history and majesty,” she said. “It’s the people’s house.” The Georgian-style mansion, the centerpiece of 62 verdant acres across from the Irish president’s home, was finished under the English in 1776, a year whose mention rings all manner of bells for her constituents in Ireland and at home. It served as the US embassy until 1927.
Cronin’s “you’re all welcome” approach has widespread application, and she constantly encourages her friends and colleagues in Ireland and from home to drop by and say hello. It doesn’t take much prompting for her to reflect on the history of her Irish American family and to wonder what her grandfather, who left Donegal for work in America and found it in a shoe factory in Brockton, would think of his granddaughter’s place in Irish life and society today.
The Residence is where the bustle of diplomacy recedes for the ambassador and her family. Her husband Ray, the founder of Benchmarking,a leading business intelligence firm for private clubs, continues to work his side of the domestic equation from the residence – flying to and from where he needs to be on business. He reports:
“Our daughters Kara and Kerry continue to live and work in Massachusetts. They were here and involved the first week to see Claire present her credentials and they’ll visit throughout the tenure. Both have fallen in love with Dublin and Ireland. We also see them on our various trips back to Massachusetts. For my part as her husband, it’s inspiring to support Claire as she discharges her duties and I love participating as the circumstances warrant.”
As summer days and nights beckons, the Cronins will maintain their pace in Ireland while anticipating some respite time in August on Cape Cod, where yet another home awaits them.
This story has been updated to correct an erroneous reference.