Since I’ve come back to Ireland everyone asks me “what was it like?” What was it like?
It was great. Not just the speeches or the hoopla or the sense of occasion. For me the biggest and most significant aspect of that big and significant event was the people.
Some of them were on the train from New York to Washington. Elderly African-American ladies with packed lunches and woolly hats to ward off the cold. Old white guys with Obama badges on their backpacks. Young kids of all ethnic backgrounds.
In Ireland there would have been a sing-song. Here there was a quiet undercurrent of excitement.
When the train disembarked at Union Station in Washington, along with trains from all over the USA, the stream of passengers became part of an ocean of humanity making its way to the exits.
By now, the sense of excitement and good humor and expectation was palpable. Like an All Ireland Sunday. By fluke I found myself next to George Mitchell. I dunted him gently. He turned in surprise.
“Of all the gin joints in all the world Gerry,'” he exclaimed.
I meant to ask him about the media speculation that he was to get the Middle East job. But he was there with his family and in the good natured jostling and pushing I forgot.
It was chaos outside the station. Organized cheerful chaos. There were cops everywhere, and firemen. The roads around the station were chock full of people.
They included many young African American families. Our hotel was the same. And early next morning at the American Legion Club adjacent to Capitol Hill, where we were to meet our host Congressman Richie Neal, it was the same.
As we chatted with Richie’s other guests the plasma television screen showed images of Barack and Michelle Obama going into church. He waved at the cameras. The small group of grizzled African American veterans seated before the TV screen burst into applause. Watching them, I felt the tears well in my eyes.
And then it was out onto the sidewalk led by the intrepid Billy Tranghese from Congressman Neal’s office. Two hours later, accompanied by Dave and Chris Keaney, and Mike and Barbara Ashe from Springfield Massachusetts and the Blasket Islands, I was in our designated area.
Richard McAuley and Joseph Smith had long ago left me. They, irony of ironies, were in the Orange area. I didn’t care. I was in the seated area in Section 11. But when we arrived the seated area was packed and the passageway soon filled up.
“Sit down, sit down,” the people in the seats chorused cheerfully.
“Give us back our seats,” the standing up crowd chorused cheerfully back at them.
All the while huge screens beamed out images of former presidents, first ladies and other notables. Some got booed.
But every time the Obama clan appeared the crowd cheered. I made my way through the throng with my County Kerry compatriots. Soon we were in Section 7. A very good natured usher entreated us all to sit down. I hitched up my long johns, cast my Aran hat before me on the frosty ground and knelt on it. As I did so the sun came out, the breeze disappeared and the San Francisco Boys and Girls Chorus began to sing.
The next singer was Aretha Franklin. She sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” Marian Anderson had sung that song seventy years ago at the Lincoln Memorial after being banned from performing in The Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall because of her skin color.
Ms. Franklin was in fine voice from where I genuflected, a beat away from her. But the air of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” was vaguely familiar. I knew I had heard it before. It was the same as “God Save the Queen.” That put me off momentarily. I was glad I wasn’t standing. Unlike Richard and Joseph. In the Orange Section.
Joe Biden’s swearing in passed without incident and to loud applause. The John Williams composition which followed, on strings cello and clarinet contained elements of what seemed to me to be “Lord of the Dance.” It also passed without incident. Apparently it was mimed.
Barack Obama’s swearing in wasn’t, and I was reassured when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court stumbled over the words. Been there, done that. It keeps you grounded. When they concluded the crowd, and me, exploded with tumultuous cheers, Amens, and wild applause.
And then the new president made his speech and ushered in a new era in the U.S. and, hopefully, world politics. By now we were all on our feet as Elizabeth Alexander’s poem cast magic word pictures into the bright sunshiny day.
The Reverend Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, considered the dean of the Civil Rights movement, and compatriot of Martin Luther King Jr., gave benediction. He knew his day had come. He drew loud Amens and louder chuckles with his, “May the white embrace right. May the brown be around. May the yellow be mellow. May the Redman be the headman.”
And one American national anthem later and that was it.
A great moment in our shared history. I left immediately for Ireland and our United Ireland event back in Dublin in the Mansion House.
What did it all mean?
The cynics will say “very little.”
But cynics don’t believe. To believe you have to set aside disbelief. Cynics can’t do that. Cynics are giver uppers.
Fact is, the majority of the electorate in the United States of America voted for positive change. They elected an African American. That is significant in itself. But they also elected an African American – a U.S. president – who promises positive change. Will he succeed? Who knows?
The world needs change. We know that. Real change. In Ireland. In the USA. Everywhere. It’s a long time a-coming.
But we can hope. And I do. And we can wish the new president well. And I do that also.
For those interested in finding more about the First D_il event in Dublin last week, go to www.ancheaddail.com. And to read comments about the above piece, go to the Gerry Adams’ blog, “L