Celebrating the 2013 Irish America Hall of Fame
The 2013 class of Hall of Fame honorees were inducted at a luncheon and ceremony on March 21, at the Marriott Essex House in Manhattan. Before a gathering of close to 300, a bagpiper led in the 2013 inductees: Vice President Joe Biden, art collector and benefactor Brian Burns, businessman and philanthropist Bob Devlin, hotelier and humanitarian John Fitzpatrick, former U.S. congressman and immigration reformer Bruce Morrison, and former ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, who received a special award for her work on behalf of Ireland. Enjoy these excerpts of insight, gratitude and humor from the inductees’ speeches, edited lightly for length.
Vice President Joe Biden
“All the stories, all the pride, all that created this sense of unity among Irish Americans – it’s interesting when you think about it: Why are we as proud as we are?
“Why would my mother say things to me like – and coming from very modest means – ‘Joey, remember, you’re a Biden.’ It’s like, ‘What the hell’s a Biden?’ It was like we were talking about some dynasty, but it was real. It was palpable. And I’ve often wondered as I’ve grown up [about] this sense of pride that we have. It is so strong. I realize it permeates other ethnic American groups as well, but there’s something about us Irish, about how we view ourselves and how we were viewed by others. I think we are at one the same time dreamers and yet realists. We have a combination of spirituality, and yet we’re doubters. We’re compassionate, yet we’re really demanding.
“My mother used to say ‘Joey, nobody, nobody, nobody is better than you. Everyone’s your equal, but no one’s better than you. Treat everyone with respect, but demand respect. Demand respect from everyone with whom you deal. Never bow.’
“I remember when I was going to meet the Queen of England as a young Senator. Before I left the house, I got a call from my mother. She said, ‘Joey, be polite, but do not [bow].’ I got the great honor of introducing my mother to Pope John Paul. My mother said, ‘Joey, don’t kiss his ring.’
“There was this thing, this thing about never bending. As my dad would say, it’s all about dignity. Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity, no man, under any circumstance, has a right to treat someone in a way that doesn’t acknowledge their dignity. And in the end, I think it really is about faith, and family, and country.
“I choose to believe that it was true that from the arrival of the first famine ships, like the Dunbrody, which set sail in 1845, to the ship the Finnegans sailed on, the Marchioness of Bute, which arrived in 1850, to the thousands of Irish immigrants that enter our country today, 50,000 of whom have not yet reached safe harbor. They’re here, they’re Americans, but they’re not citizens; they’re undocumented. We have to find a fair and effective and a decent way to bring them out of the shadows, along with 11 million other undocumented immigrants from all across the country, the vast majority of whom are Hispanic, many Asian as well, so that they can earn – earn – a pathway to citizenship.
As the great Irish poet Bono said (he’s an interesting guy by the way), ‘America is not just a country, it’s an idea.’ It’s an idea that’s been embraced by the Irish for the past two centuries. And because of that embrace, it’s an idea that has borne great fruit not only for us, but quite frankly for the whole world. And what we all know, is that there’s a never-ending need to continue to nurture that idea of America as a place that’s all about possibilities. . . .
“My friends in Congress are always kidding me because I’m always quoting Irish poets. Everybody thinks it’s because I have some scholarly bent – it’s not. I used to stutter so badly and my uncle Ed, who was a well-educated man and lived with us as a bachelor, had two volumes of Yeats on the bureau, and at night I’d put this little light on and stand in front of the mirror and read Yeats [out loud]. And I’d practice and practice and practice not to contort my face, just to try to breathe and get it done.
“One of my favorite contemporary poets is Seamus Heaney. And in his poem ‘The Cure at Troy’ he wrote, ‘History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, the longed for tidal wave of justice rises up, and hope and history rhyme.’
“There are over 11 million people out there, good people, who are waiting for hope and history to rhyme. And I think we above all other people, who felt that brunt of prejudice, that disregard of our talent, the marginalization of our religion, the characterization of our families, I think we have both the capacity and the obligation, not just to take those 50,000 Irishmen out of the shadows, but everyone out of the shadows.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is a rare privilege and a great honor, and I mean that sincerely. I would have never dreamed that I would be in this position. Oh I, I wasn’t surprised that I’d be Vice President, but I am surprised I’m in the Irish America Hall of Fame. Thank you all very very much.”
“I’d like to first bow to my wife, Eileen, who’s been an extraordinary partner and adventurer. Every time I think of taking on a project, she says, ‘What’s stopping you?’
“It was some eighty years ago that my dad was introduced to Joe Kennedy when he was the youngest judge and youngest professor at Harvard Law School. Joe asked him if he would join with him to form the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Roosevelt. . . Now my dad’s been dead for some 57 years but he left us all with a flame – we’re only here for a short while and we better get going, not waste our time. So I’ve tried not to do that, and causes in Ireland and for Ireland have really caught my attention.
“There’s one person I want to mention who has been my inspiration for many decades. Almost everyone here, I’m sure, has done great things for Ireland and haven’t forgotten their antecedents. But he is not only suis generis – no matter how many of us are honored, Donald Keough is primus inter pares, the first of all of us.”
“This is a great occasion and I am very grateful and honored to be part of a heritage that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. When I think of the beautiful Emerald Isle, and the spirit and soulfulness of the people there, and those that came to America under great hardship and distress, I am humbled. They brought with them values, talent, capabilities, and also commitments, that are just unbelievable – those values, and traits of loyalty, integrity, commitment, dedication, hard work, a love of family and friends, and certainly one with a wonderful and engaging sense of humor.”
“It’s important to note that the Irish America Hall of Fame is headquartered at the Dunbrody Famine Ship back in New Ross, County Wexford. This is very special to me as I was born in Wexford and spent most of my young childhood down in Wexford so I’m really looking forward to going back and visiting it. The museum’s location serves to remind us… of who first came here to escape that horrible Great Famine – they overcame a lot and helped to build America into the great country it is today. “
“I want to say a special thanks to Niall [O’Dowd] for twice giving me the opportunity that has led to this day. First, by christening that portion of my Immigration Act of 1990 as Morrison Visas, without which the brand would never have existed, and also for inviting me to be part of the Americans for a New Irish Agenda group to give us the chance to play that role [in Northern Ireland]. . . . I’d also like to thank the people of Connecticut, for choosing me once upon a time to be a member of Congress, and then choosing somebody else to be governor, which freed up my time to work on the peace process.”