By Patrick Markey
Mapping out her hopes for the future of economic and cultural exchange between the two nations, Irish president Mary McAleese met with Irish America last week on her first visit to the United States since being elected last year.
After brief stopovers in Washington and Boston, McAleese arrived in New York Wednesday to meet with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, with businesses leaders, the city’s Irish-American representatives and even managed a brief foray into New York’s largest Irish community in Queens.
On Thursday, addressing a gathering of U.S. and Irish businesses executives and representatives of the Industrial Development Agency, McAleese said at a time when both countries were experiencing growth, she welcomed America’s contribution to Ireland’s booming trade economy, especially in the field of software.
It was a time of opportunity, she said, when the United States represented Ireland’s third-largest national export market.
As part of her visit, the president headed into one of the city’s largest Irish enclaves in Woodside, Queens, where she visited the area’s Emerald Isle Immigration Center.
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Despite his father’s death, attorney and Emerald Isle chairman Brian O’Dwyer greeted the president at the center as she was given a tour of its facilities.
In introducing McAleese, O’Dwyer, whose father was former New York City Council President Paul O’Dwyer, said he could not help but wonder how much her visit would have meant to his father – a Northern women as president visiting an Irish center in America, while peace was being brokered in Northern Ireland.
“I can think of no better testimony or legacy that my father would have wanted for his Ireland or his Irish American community,” O’Dwyer said.
McAleese praised the center for its outreach work and remembered her own time studying in the United States in the 1970s and the intuitive sense the Irish have to reach out to their own, and to other people.
There was, the president said, a noble tradition ingrained in the Irish people of helping the new arrivals. The center, she said, was a symbol of that tradition.
After meeting with guests, McAleese was presented with a plaque giving her status as an honorary immigrant, and a framed copy of the original plans for the Brooklyn Bridge as a symbol in her efforts.
With the New York Police Department bagpipers playing over the rumble of the overhead No. 7 train, the McAleese entourage headed back into Manhattan and off to Broadway to watch a production of “The Beauty Queen of Leenane.”
As she left Woodside, outside watching from a short distance behind the president’s security detail, Austin and Kitty Lyons, and their daughter Lisa, could help feel a touch of pride. The County Mayo family were on holiday visiting their older daughter, Margaret, who had just cooked some of the delicacies served up to the president inside the center.
“It’s an honor to have her cooking for the president,” said the father. His wife agreed: “I think it’s great, I never expected to see her in New York,” she said.
Standing nearby, Shane Moynagh, manager of Shane’s bakery, which supplied some of the scones to the presidential group, said: “It’s great for the Irish community for her to come here; this is one of the last great Irish neighborhoods in Queens.”
Not all were so enamored with the Irish premier’s first fleeting visit to Woodside, however.
“She should have come and talked to her own people,” said John McConnon, who is from Monaghan. “We’re all here working for peace, we all want peace. When Gerry Adams came here he shakes a few hands.”
Longford woman Tanya McEntire agreed. “All she had to do was shake a few hands outside here,” she said.
In Washington earlier in the week during his first meeting with McAleese since her election, President Bill Clinton said that he would remain committed to Northern Ireland’s peace process. White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Clinton and McAleese had a productive meeting.