The First Word:
Now and in Time to Be
“I knew that we were Irish and I knew that Irish was the best thing to be.”
– Novelist Alice McDermott
When I immigrated to this country I had no idea of the history of the Irish in America – indeed, I had the idea that only someone born and raised in Ireland could call themselves Irish.
A Greyhound bus ticket at a cheap student rate that lasted three months and allowed limitless travel changed all that. We traveled around (three Cork girls and myself from Tipperary), north to Quebec, south to New Orleans and as far west as San Francisco, and everywhere we went there were signs that other Irish had gone before.
They had given their names to towns and streets, left their traces in ghost towns, mining museums, and graveyards. A huge Celtic cross on Grosse Île marks the spot where thousands of famine Irish are buried. In San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, a stone commemorates an Irishman killed by vigilantes.
Though many of the Irish Americans that we met had never been to Ireland, they felt an emotional attachment and a hunger to know more about the place of their ancestors, and we were celebrated because we were Irish, the real thing, from “home.”
In Walzenburg, Colorado, they took our photograph for the local newspaper. I still have a copy. A young man in a cowboy hat, Robbie, points to a map to show us how far we’d traveled. Ireland, just a tiny speck on that map, is a long way away in miles, but not distant in the geography of the heart.
The people I met on that trip, all those years ago, were the Irish we wanted to reach when we founded Irish America in 1985. Theirs was the story we wanted to tell.
And what a story. In 108 years from the birth of George M. Cohan to the death of James Cagney (featured on our inside cover), the Irish went from exclusion to being the most successful of all immigrant groups – proudly patriotic like Cohan, but proud too, as he said, of “all the Irish blood that’s in me.”
The story of the Irish in America is about neighborhood, family, church, education, and politics. It is about ordinary, yet extraordinary people, such as William Kennedy’s “Two Grandfathers,” and Mary Higgins Clark’s “Wild Irish Mother.” In these, and the other personal essays, written by the best American writers who also happen to be Irish, I know you will find nuggets of your own family story.
We have sought to bring you the best interviews over the years and in excerpts in this issue we hear again what it means to be Irish from today’s Irish Americans such as coach Pat Riley and TV host Rosie O’Donnell, and we remember those who, sadly, are no longer with us, such stalwarts of the community as civil rights lawyer Paul O’Dwyer, Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, the grand dame of theater, Helen Hayes, and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
In our cover story, yet another great interview, we bring you Martin Sheen, who in his interest in community and outspoken support for issues that concern us, personifies the best kind of Irish American.
We hope that the Irish continue, as we have down through the ages, to be rebels with a cause.
Back in 1985, when Irish America was first published, the story of the Irish in America had largely been undocumented. Mentors such as Eoin McKiernan, the late Dennis Clark, and the books of William Griffin, helped me to more fully understand the contribution that the Irish have made to this country, and over the years, you dear reader, have been a great source. Your input has been invaluable and I thank you.
I thank publisher Niall O’Dowd for his vision, and for inviting me to be part of this great adventure. It also behooves me to mention The Irishman, a little newspaper with a great heart (Niall’s first publishing effort), in whose office in San Francisco, years ago, the seeds of Irish America were first planted. Back then, when we took the idea public, the general consensus was that a magazine aimed specifically at an Irish-American audience wouldn’t survive. We were told that the Irish were assimilated and had become so successful that they no longer identified with their heritage. Your response to the magazine proves that Irish Americans have not vanished into the mainstream, but are now, and will continue in time to be, a vibrant group. We salute you, and we say, “God bless America” – for giving us a home. ♦