The US Ireland Forum: Don Keough’s Address

Donald Keough, Keynote speaker at the US Ireland Forum

February / March 2008

Does the Diaspora Matter?

Keynote speaker and principal honoree at the forum dinner Don Keough, chairman of Allen & Company and former president of Coca-Cola, gave a stirring speech that captured the essence of what the forum was about and what it could lead to.

This forum is asking an important question: Does the Diaspora really matter, and is it something that is really important? Is it just a pleasant thing or is it something we should really think about?  I think we should.”

After taking a look at the giant strides taken in Ireland over the past 25 years – from a struggling land losing its young to emigration and barely surviving to a country thriving – and the role that Irish America played in that transformation, Keough talked about the Diaspora.

“Let me tell you something.  It [the Diaspora] is not there to meddle, preach, lecture or pontificate.

It is there to gather a collection of loving, admiring people, respectable men and women, who consider Ireland an important part of their DNA, heritage, and lives to look to the future and raise questions. That is why I think this coming together is important for us and for Ireland.”

With the incredible growth experienced during the Celtic Tiger tapering off, Keough touched on the challenge facing Ireland and those outside the country of Irish descent.

“The Celtic Tiger is history. And the difficulty is going to be maintaining growth over the coming years. The 70 million people outside of Ireland who carry Irish blood move back another generation quickly, every 20 years. There are no more people moving into the Diaspora, the island becomes more mentally distant, so the fundamental question on the table remains: Are the 40 million people in this country who carry Irish blood really an important asset to the Republic? Is there a plan to strengthen that relationship between the men and women, boys and girls, and those not yet born who will carry Irish blood and their linkage to the Ireland of the 21st century?

“What about tomorrow? What about the 30 million Americans of Irish extraction who live in the States who are not touched by the government or the magazine or by the various societies, what about them? What about the Scots-Irish, who carried the name Scots because they didn’t want to be totally associated with Ireland? And now they can. Now they should. They want a home. Are we going to find them? Are we going to locate them? And make them want to come home. These are sensitive questions. Should the Irish government revisit the citizenship criteria? Does it make sense for the criteria for Irish citizenship to look back more than one generation? Should it be more inclusive, like that of Israel? Or is there a next better thing? A certificate of Irish heritage with certain rights and privileges in Ireland?”

Keough rounded off his speech with his ideal scenario for the coming years:  “I have a vision, and that is the biggest Welcome Home party in history. With 80,000 delegates filling Croke Park, coming from everywhere, from the United States, from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, from Argentina, from everywhere. Maybe in 2010? Filling the park, forming in effect Ireland’s own Commonwealth, which would bring political, economic, and cultural leaders to Ireland to discuss ways to strengthen ties to the republic in the years that lie ahead.”

Also honored at the dinner was dancer Michael Flatley. The Chicago native, who now lives in west Cork, also suggested ways of developing the global Irish family. “Why can’t we have a TV station that shows the best of what we are? It’s time to shed this leprechaun image once and for all. We are leaders in our field, every field we choose.  It’s time that the world knows that. Our greatest asset is our people.  Let’s stand shoulder to shoulder. Let’s scream and we will be heard,” he said to applause.

“We are standing on the shoulders of people like Pearse and Connolly. We have a responsibility to reach for the stars. And don’t tell me that we can’t.”

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