Niall O'Dowd, Publisher
October / November 2005
Publisher Niall O’Dowd Reflects Back On The Past 20 Years ♦
I will be forever grateful to this magazine for the incredible opportunities it has given to me over the past twenty years to meet, interview and become friends with some of the most amazing people on this earth. “I am a part of all that I have met,” Tennyson wrote, and in my case it has made me a much better person.
When Patricia Harty and I started Irish America magazine we did it on a dream and a prayer and really had no business expecting it to survive. I can still recall our nervous anticipation the first time we went to our post office box at Grand Central Station in New York. A month or so earlier we had done a major direct mail shot, promoting a magazine that no one had yet seen. Our future was in the balance on that hot day in August. What we found were thousands of replies, all so incredibly positive that I felt on top of the world. We had known in our hears that an Irish-American magazine was needed, and now Americans from all across the country were agreeing with us. Suddenly, that 90 per cent failure rate for new magazines did not seem so daunting.
Over the last 20 years there are so many incredible memories. Whether it was the Peace Process or finding a remedy to the issue of undocumented Irish in America, we were there playing a central role. Irish America was the first to write about candidate Clinton’s interest in the Irish question and the need for Irish-Americans to reach out to him. His role in the Peace Process, subsequent to our first article, is well documented. In my twenty years with this magazine there was no more magic moment than when President Clinton walked out on stage in front of Belfast’s City Hall. A crowd of hundreds of thousands, both Protestant and Catholic had come to greet him. The fact that he was there at all had a lot to do with Irish America.
Earlier, in August of 1994, I was sitting in a hotel room in Dublin, reporting for this magazine, when the announcement came down that the IRA had called an historic ceasefire. It was the dream of successive generations of Irish-Americans that peace would somehow come to their troubled ancestral land, and now I was there to witness a huge part of that puzzle come together. Today, we can all take great pride in the fact that the Irish Peace Process is considered a model for conflict resolution around the world.
Another memorable moment happened outside the central post office in Merrifield, Virginia in 1992. Again we were there with tens of thousands of people, who on this occasion were applying for the visa lottery which meant that up to 50,000 Irish-born could enter the U.S. legally.
Looking out over the crowd, I felt a sense of pride. This magazine had first brought the issue of undocumented Irish to the attention of Americans and had played a part in ensuring that thousands of them would never have to live in fear and shadows again. Merrifield was the culmination of a massive lobbying effort by Irish organizations and a welcome remedy for a problem that unfortunately has begun to dog Irish-born in America again.
Roll on the next Merrifield and Morrison and Donnelly visas!
No mention of civil rights is ever made without my recalling the great warrior of Irish America, Paul O’Dwyer, the great activist and lawyer. He will always be one of my all time favorite Irish-Americans.
In one of his final interviews, we met on his farm in upstate New York, where the rolling green hills reminded him of Ireland. He was the lion in winter then, looking back over his life. He talked of the struggle for civil rights in the South which he took part in, the search for peace in Northern Ireland, the great days he had seen at the pinnacle of New York politics, but mainly he talked about Bohola, the little town in County Mayo where he grew up, and the lessons he learned there.
As the evening shadows lengthened, Paul, at last tired of the subject, but he left me with a treasured memory of an interview that is at the very top of my list. He was a great man.
It seems that in twenty years there was rarely an issue published that didn’t include some story of the great Irish spirit. It was, for me, a special honor to do the first ever interview with Chuck Feeney (see page 54). If you don’t know the name, don’t be surprised. He is probably the greatest philanthropist of the 20th century, but he wished to remain anonymous.
A grandson of Irish emigrants, Chuck grew up in modest circumstances in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He made his fortune in Duty Free Shops all over the globe — and promptly began giving it all away. A reclusive figure, I had befriended him because of his great interest in his Irish heritage.
When he granted us his first ever interview, after turning down the New York Times, among other papers, it was a great moment. A few years later he broke his lifelong silence to be our guest speaker at our Business 100 luncheon. It was quite an occasion, prominently reported in The New York Times and The Daily News.
The motto of our magazine from day one has been “Mortas Cine,” Gaelic for “Pride in our Heritage.” Editor Patricia Harty and I decided to celebrate those that best represent the success of our Irish heritage with the creation of three features each with its own special event: The Top 100 Irish-Americans, the Wall Street 50 and the Business 100. It was our privilege to discover many Americans from all walks of life — from the President on down — who are immensely proud of the heritage that their ancestors brought to America.
Our Top 100 event was made even more special when, in 1996, our guest of honor was none other than the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.
Waiting in the wings to go on stage with the most powerful man in the world, and then witnessing the incredible ovation and reception he received, is a memory I will always treasure. It was an occasion when I realized just how lucky I was to be in this wonderful land of opportunity.
It wasn’t too many years earlier that I had arrived as an immigrant with no job and few contacts and here I was on this incredible evening introducing the President of the United States.
This year we presented to our readers the first ever listing of the scientific Diaspora, those Irish on the cutting edge of great breakthroughs in medicine and related fields. Again, it was another tribute to the extraordinary success that the Irish have achieved in this country.
It is difficult to imagine, but when we started the magazine many people were negative, saying that Irish-Americans had long since disappeared into the melting pot.
That theory was quickly disproved when, in the beginning years, I sat down with Don Keough, then the president of the world’s most famous corporation, Coca-Cola. I knew immediately that I had found a kindred spirit who loved his Irish roots dearly. Don continues to be a great friend of this publication and also a pathfinder in so many ways for Irish-Americans seeking pride in their heritage.
So many of these wonderful memories were made possible because of the support we received from great leaders and great companies. I can still remember celebrating our first national advertising account. Sheenagh O’Rourke, our then advertising director brought us the news that thanks to a wonderful president in New York called Bill Burke, Bank of Ireland had agreed to take our back page for a year. It was a huge breakthrough for our publication, one we will never forget. In more recent years, Bill Flynn and Tom Moran of Mutual of America have been great supporters of our magazine as they are of so many Irish causes, ranging from the Peace Process to the work of Concern Worldwide in the poorest countries of our world.
Other dear friends, such as former Grand Marshals of the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Denis Kelleher and Dr. Kevin Cahill, and so many more, have helped this publication not only survive but prosper. I particularly remember in our initial stages the strength of the support WVNJ radio host Adrian Flannelly gave to us. Somehow, through the work of our editor, Patricia Harty, and an incredible and dedicated staff, such as Kevin Mangan, Christine Rein and Trish Daly, we succeeded. And, of course, it has been an honor and a pleasure to share this fantastic journey over twenty years with you, our loyal readers.
So I am indeed a part of all that I have met, and look forward with the same enthusiasm to the next twenty years. See you on our fortieth anniversary!
Mortas Cine! ♦