St. Patrick’s Day

San Francisco, 1996

It’s a great pleasure to be in San Francisco. No rivalry. I like San Francisco — it’s a great city.

“A city,” Brendan Behan once said, “is the place where you are least likely to be bitten by a wild sheep.”

Thank you Frank – I feel safe here with an Irish Mayor in office – and there’s no sheep in sight. Maybe a panda or two – between the Mayor and Angela Alioto, the streets will be clogged with ‘em.

Some trepidation

The Irish: Adams – Tribe of Perdition
Johnson – A Fair Race …
Gogarty – “Irish Forgive their Great Men Once They Are Dead”

Curzin: Malignant Fate

[Kennedy – an obscure Irish-American family, well known around Boston]

And my family … Checkered.

My father’s speech at the St. Pat’s dinner in 1940: “when has there ever been a fight for freedom when the Irish have stood on the sidelines” That night they did not; weighed in from every side; is this a private fight or can anyone join in — near riot, chief of police and a judge involved if he had not been involved.

As Superintendent of the Mint under Truman, and State Chair of the Democratic Party, he was building it with Ben Swig, Cyril Magnin, Ollie Carter, Bill Malone, Jack Shelley and Pat Brown: I met them as a child. But my real fondness for this City dates back to my grandparents, when San Francisco welcomed them as she did so many other sons and daughters of that most beautiful and bedeviled and confusing island called Ireland. My grandfather was a protégé of Father Peter Yorke and found a job as a reporter on the old San Francisco Call. I like San Francisco. …But I am getting ahead of my story.… Let us return to the Ireland of the last century, a land wracked by political misrule, economic stagnation, misery and hopelessness.

There is a story that in 1871, Queen Victoria was having tea with Former Prime Minister Disraeli, and was reading about a recent election in her dominion of Canada, when she came across the name of the new Prime Minister of Victoria. His name was sir Charles Duffy. Disraeli informed her that, to his amazement, this was the same man who 23 years before had been transported to Australia for treason. He had been sentenced with seven other leaders of the Young Ireland Revolt in 1848. Donahue O’Gorman McGee.

All were sentenced to death. It was famous, unsuccessful, and noble revolt, as so many of Ireland’s were. Doomed to ignominious failure. But it was redeemed at the eleventh hour, redeemed by a speech from the dock given by Thomas Francis Meagher, forever after immortalized as “Meagher of the Sword.” The man who: “His Almighty hand hath been stretched forth to consecrate the flag of freedom, to bless the patriot’s sword!”

Before his sentence was passed, Meagher spoke for the 8 convicted felons. He spoke with eloquence and summoned the metaphor of Unsheathed Sword. He concluded: “My lord, this is our first offence, but not our last. If you will be easy with us this once, we promise on our word as gentlemen to try to do better the next time.  And the next time, sure we won’t be fools enough to get caught.” The courts passed the sentence of death! Passionate protests from all over the world caused the commutation of the sentence to a hated, but familiar one: exile!

Now, over two decades later, through escape, happenstance and good service, what had happened to the criminals? The list of felons was given to the Queen by the wily old minister, and on it were these names:

Patrick Donahue and Terence McManus, who were Brigadier Generals in the U.S. Army;
Richard O’Gorman was the Governor General of Newfoundland;
Morris Lyene was Attorney General of Australia, to which office Michael Ireland succeeded him;
Thomas McGee was the President of the Dominion of Canada;
John Mitchell was a prominent New York politician whose son later became mayor of New York City.

Last was the redoubtable Meagher, one of the leaders of the famous Irish Brigade in the Civil War. If you ever go to Leinster House in Dublin, the seat of the Irish Dail, you will see in the great stairway the flag of the Irish Brigade, presented to the nation and the President DeValera by President Kennedy. Emblazoned on it are the fields of honor and service and carnage, from Antietam to Gettysburg and beyond, places where so many of Ireland’s finest laid down their lives for freedom and their new land. Meagher led this band of exiles with springs of green in their caps and a gleaming eye, and went on to be appointed Governor of far off Montana. On the way there, he drowned in a strange riverboat accident.

So ends the tale of the 8 convicts – or does it?

The story of Queen Victoria’s request for the list may be apocryphal, a literary embellishment of a wonderful and patriotic true tale, but as the great director John Ford once had a character say: “when there comes a discrepancy between the legend and the truth, print the legend.” So it has always been in the Irish history.

Remember the sinkhole that can occasionally appear out of nowhere in an Irish bog, an historical abyss that can allow a man or an entire nation to drop in a freefall for centuries. I have saved something from that abyss. It is a simple trunk. But it is the most honored and revered of all inheritances in my family, and I’ll bet in the family of many here today. Let me describe it for you. It sits in the front hallway of my home in San Jose. Its top is scuffed and scratched from too many stairs, its ribs strain with a burden of epic proportions. Although it is empty, it carries the collective history of my family. In 1898, a young woman in her twenties packed all of her worldly possessions into a trunk and took a solitary train ride from Tralee to the Harbor at Queenstown, Cork, there to embark on a one-way voyage to another land of myth: America.

You all have that same story as my grandmother, the story of the trunk, whether the ebbs and flowers of your family actually left it in your possession. You carry it within yourselves wherever you go. It is an intrinsic part of being Irish. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said that being Irish is to know that the world will one day break your heart. In any perusal of Irish history, it is hard not to share that view and Joyce’s feeling that “history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake.”

The sorrowful portrait: coffin ships loaded with emaciated wraiths, the refugees from terrible economic and political struggles. These seem to dominate Irish history. Remember that the same dowager empress, who asked for the record of Meagher and the others, is known in Ireland as the famine queen, the titular leader of what Conor Cruise O’Brien called the Irish Holocaust. How clear and how painful that history can seem. Yet the journey of so many, from patriots like Meagher to our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, those journeys would never have occurred if things were a bit different. They should never occur.

From the Flight of the Earls to the Aer Lingus daily Boston run, for too long the myth of the wild geese has dominated the politics of Ireland and of Irish America. Legendary figures whom as Yeats said: “spread the grey wing on every tide.”

Our exiles are now sent not by an imperial decree, but by economic imperative. One is no more enviable than the other. Professor Joseph Lee in his recent work reminds us how the Irish, decade after decade, became inured to emigration and mediocrity. The Irish became used to the seeming nobility of failure – the death knell of any people.

Let me tell you today – there is a new Ireland. I have seen it. It is not an Ireland of cavaliers and banners, nor is it a land of bombs and battles. It is a place where the student and the teacher and the entrepreneur form the new pantheon of Irish history.

In San Jose last Friday, I presented the Spirit of Ireland award to a man called Dr. Brendan Hegarty. You probably don’t know him, but you should know of him. Brendan is the Chief Technical Officer of Seagate Technology, a leading Silicon Valley firm that has just opted to establish its flagship European facility in Derry. The year before we gave it to Dr. Gordon Moore of Intel Corporation, who established their major manufacturing plant and a seminal center for the Irish economy in Leixlip, just outside of Dublin. The year before it was Jack Lewis, CEO of Amdahl.

All this is part of a small but continuing effort through our Sister-City relationship with Dublin, to write a new and different page of history for a land earning a new title as the Gateway to Europe. John Hume told me last week that, if all Ireland does not link with the international economy, the world will pass it by.

That must not be allowed. Together, we must write a new history. Many of you know that, along with Apple Computer, the San Jose Tomorrow Foundation is beginning a project with community groups in West Belfast, called “Bytes for Belfast,” to reach 16-25 year old disaffected youth in the Falls Road and in Shankhill – God knows there are so many – and by teaching them new computer technologies, opening for them a new door to opportunity, and giving us the chance to teach and to learn. The youth of Belfast are so similar to the inner-city youth of San Francisco and San Jose. With a little help, they can see another future.

On both sides of the border, and on both sides of the Atlantic, there is a wave of New Thinking. America’s ties with Ireland are poised for an historic advance beyond the wonderful and enjoyable sentiments of St. Patrick’s Day. The day of Danny boy and Barry Fitzgerald and the Quiet Man, John Me. It is a time, as Lincoln said, “to think and act anew” in forging new economic and social cooperation with “the old country”.

For the most part, the stage is set. The Republic itself has been undergoing a period of self-examination and renewal. President Mary Robinson personifies the energy of the new Ireland, and its willingness to question elements of the Irish identity long unchallenged, such as the relationship of Church and State and the vexing issue of the North.

Irish voters showed a deliberate orientation to a new future with their strong vote last summer in favor of the Maastricht Treaty, reflecting Ireland’s growing international importance as a member of the 12-nation, single-market European Community and a trading partner of immense value to the United States.

A Northern Ireland solution along the lines contemplated in the Talks convened last year, involving all non-violent sides in North and South, offers a distinct possibility for an historic peace. Such a settlement could be a model for former Yugoslavia, or the myriad ethnic disputes now surfacing in post-Cold War Europe.

In Ireland, intentions can be, shall we say, “elastic.” But it can be done.

There is a special role for the United States, and a particular role for the Bay Area, beyond the history and poetry, as leaders in an attempt to help build the new Ireland.

We Irish, for all our grand literary tradition and our many famous wordsmiths, seems to be occasionally struck dumb or at least monosyllabic, when describing great events and eras. Genocide. The Famine. The Troubles. The Event WWII. The Emergency. And now the Talks.

Like Johnathan Swift, I have a modest proposal, for a title to describe the coming phase of Irish history, leading to the turn of the century. I say, let us call it: “The Opportunity.”

We have a rare chance to roll back the “grey tide” that has taken so many young men and women, the best and the brightest, away from the land in which they should be making their contribution. Although America has been wonderful to us Irish-Americans, nurturing us while we enriched our homeland, it is so clear to see: the flag of the Irish Brigade should not be a foreign banner hanging in Leinster House, and the collective trunks of the Irish of the 21st Century should never, ever be packed. These “wild geese” must remain at home. They are needed.

The noted Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley summed up the contrariness of our race when he said, in response to a leaden proposal from a pompous British statesman: “We Irish think otherwise.” This is a delightful way to summarize the assets and the complexities of our people.

This is a time to think otherwise. To summon all of our will and energy, to assist those of goodwill who are attempting to end the centuries old strife. To assist those who are reaching out to the young men of Belfast and Derry, and show them that the world can be changed by a computer as well as by a gun. That the misplaced creativity that can build a bomb can also produce a chip or a disk drive – a new blossoming of Science and Scholarship.

We must work to ensure that the bright faces we see in Grafton Street and strolling St. Stephen’s Green or walking Falls Road, do not have to accept the same fate as Meagher and the other ghosts of Irish history.

There is a popular ballad in Ireland by a favorite of mine, Mary Black that speaks of a new type of world. It concludes:

That somehow this black night
Feels warmer for the spark
To hold until the day
When fear will lose its grip
And heaven has its way.

At long last, perhaps it is time for heaven to have a free field of fire. We remember today the old saying, “A scholar’s ink lasts longer than a martyr’s blood.” There have been far too many martyrs for one small island.

Once Ireland was known as the land of saints and scholars. I have seen few saints in recent times – there, or anywhere for that matter. I agree with my South Bay friend, Ambrose Bierce, who called a saint: “A Dead Sinner, revised and edited.”

But the scholar still abounds. Perhaps as we leave here today, we can hope and work and dream of a new Ireland, a “land of opportunity.” A place for Bytes not bullets; a place where young men and women – someone’s future grandparents – will never have to pack a trunk.

In the words of Yeats again, it is time to “call them back again in all their loneliness and pain,” home again to a land that has no need of gunmen, no need for emigrants – call them to a free and peaceful Ireland, the home of Scientists and Scholars.


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