As a pipe band played and Irish dancers twirled, over 500 community members stood to welcome President Mary McAleese who was visiting Long Island as part of a five-day visit to the United States.
The president had come to thank the New York Irish emigrant community for sustaining Ireland through good times and bad and for their contribution to the peace process in Northern Ireland.
On a day that the Ulster Volunteer Force had announced its intention to disarm, McAleese told the assembled crowd that peace in Northern Ireland would not have been possible without their support.
“We wouldn’t have got there without you,” McAleese told the Mineola audience to a standing ovation. As a group of children in blue-and-white Gaelic football jerseys fidgeted and whispered at the back of the hall, McAleese told the Mineola community that despite Ireland’s new economic prowess, their financial support over the years would never be forgotten.
“You were not millionaires,” McAleese said. “You sent money home to Ireland from tough jobs, from modest lives.”
Recognizing the enormous impact that Irish emigrant families in the United States had had on difficult lives back home, McAleese told the audience: “I wouldn’t have had a coat to attend Queen’s University if it wasn’t for my cousins in Philadelphia.”
At Irish centers across New York, the president brought the same message of gratitude and recognition and reminded emigrants that the sacrifices they had made in leaving Ireland were still deeply appreciated by the Irish
“When you get up and leave your country and you are an emigrant, you come with hope and curiosity. But now you have a problem. You have this heart — half of which is trying to grow a new heart for the place that we live in now and the other half still so deeply and emotionally attached to the place you’ve left behind,” the president told a group of seniors at the Aisling Emigrant Advice Centre in the Bronx.
“For the rest of your life you will live with that heart of two halves. It’s a very different way of living. It takes very special people,” she said.
Sitting in the audience listening to McAleese was sprightly Jimmy Clarke, a 100-year-old from Loughrea, Co. Galway, who came to the United States in 1927 and has had made his life here ever since.
Just recently Clarke received a check worth nearly $3,000 from the president — a new initiative by the Irish government to honor centenarians at home and abroad.
“That’ll buy you one heck of a party,” said the president to laughter. “I think you deserve one heck of a party when you reach a hundred years old.” In a poignant gesture of the great affection in which McAleese is held, the senior group presented her with a 32-panel patchwork quilt representing each of the counties in Ireland.
“It’s a project of love. It’s not perfect. It’s not meant to be,” said Pat Sheehy as she shyly presented the gift to a beaming McAleese.
Hours before her departure back home to Ireland on Friday, McAleese traveled to the historic black district of Harlem to forge relations with a new kind of constituency — the African American community.
At a meeting with Congressman Charlie Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and considered by many the most powerful black politician in the United States, McAleese discussed with him the challenges faced by a new Ireland seeking to forge unity and inclusion in a country dramatically altered by immigration.
Rangel who claims inspiration from leading Irish American politicians like Tip O’Neill, Robert F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy greeted the president warmly and praised Ireland’s recent economic transformation.
Now Irish people can come here because they want to come here. Not because they have to come here and I am so happy that under your leadership Ireland is just one of the most exciting countries in the world,” he said.
“It’s good to be with Harlem’s best. It really is,” McAleese told the congressman. “It’s wonderful to be in the company of a man who is such an inspiration.”