The First Word: The Wealth of Our Heritage
As I write this, the end of the first year of the new millennium is closing in. It’s November 1. Celtic New Year, a day when it was thought by the ancients that the layer between this world and the otherworld diminished and souls passed freely from one to the other. In the Ireland of my childhood on October 31. All Hallow’s Eve, the elders left out food for those visiting relatives from beyond (Irish immigrants brought this tradition to America and it became Halloween).
And in this issue too we honor the memory of out ancestors. The under-layer, or subtext to this Business 100 that is the very symbol of success and corporate power and attainment of the American dream, is the struggle of those early Irish immigrants whose determination and will to survive paved the way for future generations.
Unlike other lists such as those compiled by Fortune magazine we ask the participants in our Business 100 to fill out biography forms. The handwritten notes that pass my desk, speaking as they do, of grandparents and great-grandparents and that spot in Ireland from which they came, and the quotes on what their Irish ancestry means to them, gives one pause. Each one adds to the ever-evolving story of the Irish in America.
Joe Ford, president of Altel, in an interview in this issue, recounts the story of his relatives: “They sailed in December of 1850 and landed in New Orleans in January, 1851. They came up the Mississippi into Little Rock, Arkansas, because they heard you could get farmland there. My great-grandfather was a lad of 13 or 14. His parents died not too long and after the family got here so they kind of raised themselves. One of his brothers died fighting in the Civil War.”
Ford’s poignant story, is one that many Americans can relate to. It was immigrants such as these who made this country into a continent.
They faced discrimination and hardships, fought and died in the Civil War. Helped build the great transcontinental railroad, worked in the steel mills, organized labor movements, went wherever there was work, and brought their music and dance with them, influencing American music and dance as they went and giving us Tap and Bluegrass, and George M. Cohan’s show tunes.
They married into other ethnic groups, more than any other race, but yet somehow managed to maintain something that is essentially Irish. It’s in the humor of Kevin Kline, the music of Chris Byrne, it’s etched in the faces of the Sculley brothers.
They didn’t have money, or property to pass on to descendants but they passed on the hope of a better life, a sense of family, a belief in education and a determination to succeed.
Today, Joe Ford runs a $7 billion company that employs 26,000 employees. The total revenues of those companies represented in this Business 100 is over a trillion dollars – $1,164,456,000,000.
But the true wealth of our heritage lies elsewhere. Given our history, it is not surprising how many of our Business 100 not only run massive companies, but also spend time on the boards of foundations as United Way and the American Cancer Society.
Perhaps it some historic memory of hunger that’s imbedded in out DNA – each one of us the descendant of Famine survivor, that causes Irish and Irish Americans give more per capita than any other group towards world hunger relief. But lately our attention has been focused on raising money to build memorials to the Irish famine – they are springing up all over the U.S. and Ireland. A $3 million one is planned for New York.
As we build sculptures of metal and rock to commemorate our dead there is something we should remember – every 3.5 minutes someone dies of hunger – 75 percent are children.
A simple plaque on a wall saying that $1 million was donated to the relied of world hunger in memory of the Irish famine would be a more fitting way to go. What better way to honor out ancestors than to save a life.
This Celtic New Year leave out some food for the living and lay our ghosts to rest. ♦