April May 2011 Issue – Irish America https://irishamerica.com Irish America Magazine Sat, 20 Jul 2019 03:40:28 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.10 82361074 Dr. John L. Lahey: 2011 Irish American of the Year https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/dr-john-l-lahey-2011-irish-american-of-the-year/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/dr-john-l-lahey-2011-irish-american-of-the-year/#respond Sat, 30 Apr 2011 15:38:07 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3316 Read more..]]> The president of Quinnipiac University is honored as a leading educator and keeper of our heritage.

When John L. Lahey was a boy, he once accompanied his father, a hard-working bricklayer, to a worksite. He wanted to see what his father’s job was all about, and to try it out for himself. His grandfather, Daniel Lahey, an immigrant  from Knockglossmore, Co. Kerry, had been a stone mason, so the craft was in the family.

After a few unsuccessful attempts by Lahey to learn the trade, his father asked him to stop. It was fairly clear that his future didn’t lie in masonry.  On the way back to their home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, the elder Lahey advised his son. “You’re smart,” he said. “I think your future is in education.”  As it turns out, he was right.

For the past 24 years, Lahey has been president of Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. During his tenure there, the university’s academic programs, facilities, enrollment, national ranking and prestige have grown at an unprecedented rate. One semester each year, Dr. Lahey returns to the classroom with his PhD in Philosophy, teaching a course on logical reasoning or social and political philosophy.  In addition to his work as university president, Lahey devotes significant time to his Irish roots. He has been involved with the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade since he was a child, and currently serves as vice chairman of the parade committee. Lahey has also worked thoughtfully and tenaciously to correct what he openly calls the “whitewashing” of the true story of Ireland’s great hunger from the history books and from cultural memory: namely, that it could have been prevented and that  idleness on the part of the British was largely to blame for the magnitude of the famine’s devastation. Though he may not have been very good at literal bricklaying, Lahey has proven to be a master at a more conceptual sort of building.

The university president is the first to admit that he has always been more intellectually inclined. Thirsty for knowledge from a young age, Lahey attended the Fordham Preparatory School in Riverdale. “In a way,” he reflected during a recent visit to the Irish America offices, “we studied philosophy without calling it philosophy: we took theology courses and asked where the world had come from and where it was going – great, essential philosophical questions. I had an interest in those big questions from an early age.”

He was also very involved in the community, spending each St. Patrick’s Day marching in the New York City parade under Fordham University’s banner. He loved New York and he loved St. Margaret’s Parish, the very Irish enclave where his family lived. But when it was time to choose a college, Lahey made the tough decision to leave his city and attend the University of Dayton, Ohio.

Lahey found his niche when he enrolled in his second philosophy course at Dayton. The class explored the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, and little else. “At this point,” he explained “it was still 1964 or ’65, and only certain types of philosophy were officially taught. Since Dayton was a Catholic university, they were still only teaching the traditional philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, upon which much of Catholic theology is based. There was a whole index of banned works they weren’t allowed to teach: essentially, anything that was deemed to be inconsistent with St. Thomas Aquinas or Catholic doctrine.”

However, Lahey wound up learning much more than the approved Thomistic philosophy. “Another student and I were asking a lot of questions in class,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to get Professor Balthasar in trouble, but we were curious about how to reconcile scientific thought with Catholic doctrine. One day, he asked us both to stay after class, and he said ‘Look, you two. I’ll give you an A for the course, you know what you’re doing in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas. You don’t have to come to class for the rest of the semester, but come to my office and I’ll teach you the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I can’t teach you this officially in the classroom but there’s nothing to prevent you from reading the books.’

“So he gave me two of his books: Phenomenon of Man and The Divine Milieu. And it was exactly what I had been looking for. The author, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was somewhat of a contradiction at that time: he was a Jesuit priest, a philosopher, and a scientist, and had written extensively about his belief that the creationist theories of how man, the world and the universe came into being could be reconciled with evolution; that Catholicism and the theory of evolution could co-exist. At the time, this was deemed to be totally inconsistent with Catholic teaching. But I was a young person, and evolution understandably had a lot of enticing aspects. Not only was it supported by a lot of scientists, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, but it was also a dynamic kind of philosophy that allowed for change. I had heard there was a contradiction between being a good Catholic and believing in evolution. But here was a brilliant scientist who was also a Jesuit priest! He used philosophical thought to combine the two things I wanted to combine in my own life. I was totally taken by it.”

Considering the carefully calculated percentages of students who meet with professors outside of class and student-to-faculty ratios in today’s college guides, this may not seem all that significant. But to Lahey, it was huge. “It’s harder to appreciate today, but back then, because of the time [the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement], the philosophy professors were among the most sought after teachers on any campus. They were dealing with war and peace; human rights and civil rights. For me it was a transformative experience and it was what led me to major in philosophy.” It also led him to stay on at Dayton for a master’s degree in the field, and then to the University of Miami, where he earned his PhD.

Lahey’s first teaching post was at a small college in Alabama. At this point, he had been away from New York for 13 years. In addition to all the philosophy he had studied during that time, he had also learned that he missed the Northeast and wanted to go back. A tough decision was in store as the professor of philosophy began to realize that it was  unlikely he would return if he remained at the mercy of the tough academic job market. Determined to stay involved in the academy in some way, he returned to New York in 1977 and enrolled in a master’s course in academic administration at Columbia University. Upon graduating, he was quickly hired by Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he steadily climbed the ladder until he was named executive vice president.
After ten years with Marist, at the age of forty, Dr. Lahey was hired as President of Quinnipiac. It’s telling that, when asked what he is most proud of from his 24 years with the university, Lahey cannot name just one thing. “We’ve come so far,” he said with pride. When he started at Quinnipiac, it was still Quinnipiac College – a small, quiet commuter school. Today, it has a student population of about 8,000, with close to 6,000 undergraduate students, 2,000 graduate students, and 500 enrolled in the law school.

The law school is another of Quinnipiac’s great achievements. It was established under Lahey’s lead, when the law school at the University of Bridgeport closed and was restored by Quinnipiac. Lahey has also had a hand in the athletic teams’ entrance into the NCAA Division I Northeast Conference; the establishment of the highly regarded Quinnipiac Polling Institute; the wide expansion of the campus; and the school’s overall transition from a small college to a competitively ranked, nationally recognized university.

The next project is a medical school, which will employ the same philosophy the president has seen implemented in the school’s other programs: an emphasis on the actual practice of the subject being taught. “Take the law school, for instance,” Dr. Lahey explains. “Many of the top-ranked law schools in the country teach their students all there is to know about the law, but not as much about how to actually practice it. In a lot of cases that’s fine, since a significant number of their graduates go on to teach rather than practice. But I think it’s important that students know how to apply what they have learned to practical situations. That’s why the medical school will put an emphasis on primary care.”  
There’s another thing that makes Quinnipiac stand out from the crowd. In the campus’s Arnold Bernhard Library, a special room designed to mimic the inside of a ship, houses the Lender Family Special Collection, one of the country’s largest collections of art and literature pertaining to An Gorta Mór – Ireland’s Great Hunger. It contains 700 volumes, historic and contemporary texts, and a growing number of works of art that portray or respond to the loss of more than 1.5 million Irish lives between the years of 1845 and 1852.

This is the common ground on which Lahey’s work as an educator and his commitment to his Irish roots come together. Growing up, he had always been aware of The Great Hunger and the shadow it cast over Irish history, but this was more of a peripheral awareness. “I knew about it, I had heard it talked about, but it was always called ‘The Famine,’ which doesn’t point to the truth of what happened.

True, there was a famine, the potato crops did fail for a few years, but that [alone] could not have caused the widespread death from starvation and related diseases. The untold story is that there was more than adequate food produced in Ireland during the years of the famine that could have been used to feed the Irish. But since Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, the ports remained open for export.”

Lahey became fully aware of these facts in 1997, when he was honored as Grand Marshal of the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It was also the 150th anniversary of Black ’47, the deadliest year of the Great Hunger. Wanting to learn more, he read historian Christine Kinealy’s The Great Calamity, which revealed many facts about the Famine Lahey hadn’t known before.

“[She] really blew the lid off all of the inaccuracies and the dramatically downplayed scale of the tragedy,” he said. “She documented all kinds of food exports and found that the shipment of food out of Ireland actually increased during the years of the Famine. She also argued that much of the guilt and self-blame felt by the Irish was misplaced. For the greater part of 150 years, the world and the Irish believed that the Irish themselves had played some role in bringing about the famine. But the conditions of poverty and the disproportionate dependence on a single potato crop were imposed, over time, by the British. We now know that this was the greatest tragedy in 19th century Europe, and probably the greatest catastrophe in Ireland’s history, and it is all the more tragic because it was largely preventable.”

As an educator and an Irish-American, Dr. Lahey became determined to help correct the record. He used all of his speaking engagements as Grand Marshal to talk about the Great Hunger, and jumped at the opportunity when the brothers Murray and Marvin Lender (of the Lender’s Bagels family), who had been deeply moved by Lahey’s account, proposed forming a collection at Quinnipiac dedicated to An Gorta Mór.

With the Lender Family Collection and his advocacy of introducing a Great Hunger curriculum into public school systems, Lahey’s aim is to correct and accurately communicate the history of the Famine. “This is not just about commemorating what happened,” he emphasized, “we have to rewrite the history books and we have to rewrite the story that has been passed down from generation to generation of the Irish.”

One of the most notable components of the collection is its artwork. Within the Lender room, sculptures inspired by The Great Hunger are prominently displayed, and more are dispersed throughout the Bernhard Library. While Lahey is involved with all aspects of the collection, he takes a particular interest in the art, and reminisced about carrying the first piece he acquired for the collection, Roan Gillespie’s “The Victim,” with him on the flight back from Ireland. “It’s such a powerful work,” he said. “I didn’t want to let it out of my sight.”

For Lahey, art is a vital tool in re-shaping our understanding of the Famine because of its ability to impart essential information across many barriers. “In the long run history and education are extremely important, but there’s nothing more powerful for me than art. Art, like music, is a kind of universal language. You can bring anyone of any nationality or language into the Lender room. If they don’t speak or read English then they might not understand the words, but they can look at those images and the sculptures, and understand everything instantly.”

The Great Hunger collection continues to grow, and will soon be moved to its own space on Whitney Avenue, the main road that runs right from Hartford to New Haven. Lahey looks forward to this: “In its current location, the collection is in the middle of campus, a bit out of the way for anyone who wants to stop by and see it. It’s going to be so important for the whole collection to be on display in its own building. After all, its purpose is to educate, so the more accessible it is, the better.”

As vice chairman of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, he keeps a very busy schedule in March. But his love of the parade runs deep – back to the years in high school when he marched behind Fordham’s banner. He has been volunteering with the parade for 30 years, and has held his current position on the committee for the past ten.

Dr. Lahey’s favorite thing about the parade is that its history mirrors that of the Irish in America. “It reflects how long the Irish have been a presence here and how far we have come.”

Though its history is of great significance, Lahey also feels that the parade itself has never been more important than it is today. “When I was a kid I thought everyone was Irish,” he said with a laugh. “This was because I grew up in a very Irish neighborhood. All my teachers were Irish, the police on the beat were all Irish, the firefighters were Irish, the other kids we played sports with were Irish, and so on. In that environment there were a lot of ways in which the Irish were able to pass on their history, culture, values and traditions to their kids, to the next generation in these Irish neighborhoods. But today, neighborhoods like that don’t really exist in New York in the way that they did then. Because they don’t, the parade is, at least for me, the single most concentrated event every year that brings the Irish together. It allows us to remember, celebrate, and pass on to the next generation what it means to be Irish, and what our struggles and accomplishments have been over the past 250 years in this country.”

His point is valid. But it must also be added that with people like Dr. John Lahey around, we won’t be forgetting our past, values, or traditions any time soon.

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Dr. Kevin Cahill: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/dr-kevin-cahill-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/dr-kevin-cahill-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#comments Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:40:57 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3336 Read more..]]> Several buzzwords, not all of them kind, have been used to describe the current state of health care in America. The word that guides Dr. Kevin Cahill’s nearly 50-year career in medicine is ‘solidarity.’

“Solidarity is a wonderful Latin American word that means “Are you willing to get down in the mud with people?” he says. “So that’s why I stay practicing medicine.”

Solidarity – more than pride or even sympathy – is what Dr. Cahill, 74, feels most strongly when he reflects on the countless people he has met and cared for during his time as a physician in some of the most war-torn places on this earth. Dr. Cahill has cared for patients in 65 countries and at his practice on 5th Avenue in New York City. Drafted into the U.S. Navy Medical Corps early in his career, Dr. Cahill first completed a degree at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before being assigned to the Naval Medical Research Unit-3 in Cairo, Egypt. Along with him came his wife, Kate, who would visit 45 countries with Dr. Cahill until her death in 2004.

Almost instantly in their travels, they witnessed heart-wrenching examples of great suffering and chaos during times of famine, drought, and war. While undertaking field investigations in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Turkey, and across the Middle East in the Navy Medical Corps, Dr. Cahill “became increasingly aware of the extra-medical complex demands one faced in dealing with the trauma of natural and man-made disasters in areas where there were few resources.” He began to realize that “medicine offered an almost ideal platform for preventive diplomacy.” From the ‘corridors of tranquility’ in Southern Sudan, where de facto ceasefire zones could be established even during a bloody civil war, to the tree under which children and mothers could safely play in refugee camps, medicine allowed people to have peaceful interludes even as it afforded a unique view of the infrastructural collapse that often accompanies a humanitarian crisis.

Since his discharge in the mid-1960s, Dr. Cahill’s résumé has grown inconceivably long with titles, accolades, and achievements. From 1969-2006 he was Chairman of the Department of Tropical Medicine at The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where he taught over 4,000 medical students over the course of his career. In addition, he has been Director of the Tropical Disease Center at Lenox Hill Hospital, Clinical Professor of Tropical Medicine and Molecular Parasitology at NYU Medical School, and Consultant in Tropical Medicine for the United Nations Health Services. Through all of these positions (to name just a few), he has maintained a strong connection to his Irish background. He currently serves as President of the American Irish Historical Society and has published, among a string of influential works that chronicle his experiences as a tropicalist and a physician, articles and essays on his love for Irish literature, art, and culture.
Raised in an Irish immigrant home in the Bronx, Dr. Cahill was taught from childhood the importance of Irish poetry from his own family members. The majority of his relatives established themselves in America and became policemen. His father, who as a physician was the exception to the rule, would buy up land in his native Rathmore, Co. Kerry, and give it to the family members who stayed behind. Cahill’s first visit to Ireland was when he was only 11 or 12, and since then he has maintained a strong connection to the country both through professional and personal work.

Indeed, in a room full of antique apothecary jars, old-fashioned medical instruments, wall-to-wall diplomas and accolades where we had our interview, Dr. Cahill pointed excitedly to the one item that was not immediately recognizable. It was the original print designed for the cover of Irish Essays, a collection of works on Irish literature and culture that Dr. Cahill published in 1980. A simple image of two groups of vaguely human figures come together to make one mass as they float across the white background. It’s amazing to think that someone who has traveled to 65 countries, many in states of war, degradation, and suffering that are impossible to put into words, still would have time to express his passion for Irish culture, or that he would even want to. But this expression, Dr. Cahill explains, has actually been strengthened by the humanity and joy that transcended the horrors of war during his travels. “I think being grounded in your own ethos allows you to see and appreciate other cultures and be more sensitive…I come away with tremendous admiration for them. The Dinka in the Southern Sudan have a culture that to them is just as proud and rich as our Irish culture.”

Dr. Cahill’s life has been so full, so jam-packed with humbling experiences that, at best, it can only be uncovered and described anecdotally: “I remember one time in Somalia coming back from way up country…in those years there were [only] 12 miles of paved roads, so when we traveled 400 miles across the desert, we found a disease that had never been recorded in Africa. I went to the American Embassy – I was a young naval officer – and I said, ‘We found the cause of this disease that is killing large numbers of people.’ And I was told that the American ambassador was busy. How you can be busy in 1963 in Somalia I don’t know…[but] I had the obligation to try to help save lives. So I walked across town and gave that information to the World Health Organization office. They gave it to China, which got the right to bring in the antibiotic and got the right to build the roads.”

Dr. Cahill’s great passion and driving influence has clearly not just been the practice of medicine, but its ability to lift a barrier between countries, factions, and cultures and reveal our basic humanity. “When I first started teaching in Ireland in 1969…that was the year of Bloody Sunday. Throughout the 70s I would go up to Belfast and lecture. I had good medical friends, both Catholic and Protestant, who had members of their families killed because they dared to make house calls. It wasn’t always easy, but through The College of Surgeons in Dublin we made certain that doctors in Belfast were invited down to conferences, and that you made rounds in the hospitals with them. So I think medicine does allow you to do that if you’re not judgmental.”

Dr. Cahill tells me that the codes of neutrality and patient confidentiality are traced back to Hippocrates, a practice that “goes back to a long time before our country was founded. That goes back to the very essence of what we try to do as a profession.” Despite some flare-ups at times (he has been stopped by American Immigration more than once and asked to divulge details of his visits with people at odds with American policy), Dr. Cahill says, “Medicine has its own traditions and you can’t go out and use your position to spread a rumor or detail. Patients get to know very well if they have your confidence.”

This confidence also provides a unique conduit for education and mediation. Dr. Cahill has written widely, particularly in his book Preventive Diplomacy, that the methodology of public health offers an opportunity to combine diplomacy with humanitarian solutions. “I used to think I was the most important person in the camp as a doctor. But the first thing a mother or child wants is a place to play. That becomes very important because it’s the protected area you can use to teach children better nutrition or how not to step on a landmine.”

At the core of Dr. Cahill’s understanding of humanitarian crises is the need for education. His recent book, Even in Chaos: Education in Times of Emergency, teaches how the field of medicine can provide unbiased insight. “At the launch of the book at the United Nations, someone asked how long it took to put the book together. I said 30-40 years, because I think I’ve been thinking about it that long, how important education is in the life of a child. [Medicine] has to be a very broad field, embracing anything that interferes with the welfare of the people you’re trying to serve.”

Sometimes, as Dr. Cahill points out, there’s only so much nations can do to give aid, and amassing large amounts of money is not the answer to the multifaceted problems that developing and war-torn countries face. “I think the focus purely on individual diseases and not on the infrastructure and health needs in developing countries is probably a mistake… [With] a lot of the chaos in revolutionary areas, health services are almost always the first thing to break down. It’s very artificial to think that diseases or aid works within barriers. Mosquitoes don’t know where the barrier is.”

A medical consultant for the United Nations, Dr. Cahill says the organization is crucial in coordinating all the players and countries who want to help during a natural or man-made disaster, including the United States. “America has every right to be proud of what it’s done historically, but whether it’s all done in the best way is sometimes constrained by politics,” he says, referring to how aid allocation is shaped by foreign policy in the United States. “We are a fairly major player, and every citizen should feel that they can participate, individually or through donations…I think that’s something that enriches them as well as the people they serve. But it’s not all money.”

Dr. Cahill’s work in changing this attitude towards health and infrastructural needs has been so effective because he has led by example. He has been instrumental in the creation of an educational program in the field of humanitarian assistance at Fordham University. Now, for over 20 years, Fordham has offered both a post-graduate master’s degree and undergraduate minor in this field, which combines public health, medicine, law, security, technology, and even anthropology and philosophy. To date, over 1500 students from 133 nations have graduated from this unique, multidisciplinary program that is changing the way we approach complex humanitarian crises.

“[The program is] trying to develop a cadre of people who are professionals in this field. It’s not a field for amateurs…You deal with many, many factors that no one talks about. You deal with corruption. You deal with incompetence. You deal with theft, with people making profits out of disasters. It’s not a field where having the feeling that you’re doing good is its own rationale. That really doesn’t change a lot of things unless you can change the system.”

Despite the immense challenges, Dr. Cahill is extremely confident in the abilities and compassion of these humanitarians, who will shape, moment by moment, individual by individual, the way organizations and even nations approach future humanitarian crises. Dr. Kevin Cahill has been a luminary for this noble cause of peace and diplomacy along the way.

“I think the fact that I’ve been privileged to serve poor and oppressed people is my greatest achievement. That really is the satisfying thing that continues to drive me.”

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President William J. Clinton: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/president-william-j-clinton-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/president-william-j-clinton-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#comments Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:39:52 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3343 Read more..]]> Politician, peacemaker, and hero to millions of Irish.

As a major supporter of the Irish peace process, Bill Clinton moved mountains.  The 42nd President of the United States took the strongest position on Irish issues ever taken by an American president. In 1994, he granted a visa to Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, fulfilling a campaign promise and stating “the U.S.  cannot miss this rare opportunity for our country to participate in the peace process.”

Then in November, 1995, President Clinton became the first sitting American president to visit Northern Ireland.

I was there and wrote the following account of the occasion:


Belfast: November 30, 1995: It was an evening that dreams were made of, a crystal clear Belfast night, the winter air crackling with anticipation. On the soundstage adjacent to City Hall, Van Morrison was blasting out his “There’ll Be Days Like This,” the unofficial anthem of the  peace process. A huge and enthusiastic crowd, later numbered at 100,000, was rocking along to the music.

All day long the people of Belfast had streamed to this spot, mainly from Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods abutting the downtown area. They had filed through thenarrow downtown canyons under the shadow of the tall buildings bedecked with American flags before collecting in their tens of thousands in the areas surrounding City Hall. As far as the eye could see, back up through the shopping malls, down the narrow sidestreets and along the pedestrian areas, the crowds had gathered.

Even Van Morrison was not holding their undivided attention. Every ten minutes or so a chant would pass through the crowd like a ripple. “We want Bill. We want Bill.”
The rumor had spread that he would play the sax with Van the Man, so every stranger arriving on stage was closely scrutinized. Several times the rumor ran that he was about to make his appearance, and the full-throated roars of the crowd were stilled only when it proved to be another false alarm.

On such a clear night every sound seemed magnified. The tolling of nearby church bells swelled in the evening air. The chants of the crowd carried like a relentless drumbeat, the strains of Van Morrison seemed to carry back even to the furthest regions of the crowd, who were cheering and stomping and waving plastic American flags thoughtfully supplied by the advance team. We all knew we were witnessing something special.

When the long-winded Lord Mayor of Belfast, Eric Smyth, threatened to go on forever during the introduction, he was drowned out with chants of “We want Bill.” Quickly the mayor skipped to the end of his speech.

A few moments later the President and First Lady finally arrived at the podium. It had been a long day for him; his aides stated later that he was feeling tired and jet-lagged. But the crowd lifted him, their extraordinary welcome lasting several minutes. A New York Times reporter later wrote that Clinton had that “suffused look of ecstasy” that politicians acquire before adoring crowds.

Clinton had earned the huge reception. As he had done throughout the day, he appealed over the heads of the politicians to the people themselves.

“The people want peace and the people will have peace,” he pronounced, pounding the podium for emphasis. The people promptly went wild.

I was sitting near a Protestant community worker from the Shankill Road. She had a careworn face, like so many in Belfast, old beyond her 40 or so years, the impact of far too much worry and stress.

“We’ve had so little to celebrate in the past 25 years,” she told me. “When someone like the American President comes and shows he cares about us it means so much to all of us.” Her eyes seemed ready to tear up.

She told me that she and her husband had been to Dublin for the first time ever a few weeks before to see Riverdance, the Celtic dance spectacular. “It was brilliant,” she said, “and we’re going back soon again. We’d never ever have thought of going during the Troubles.”

In front of her, a few seats to the left, sat Joe Cahill, a revered Republican figure who was once spared the hangman’s noose only by a last-second reprieve. Cahill’s journey to America on the eve of the IRA ceasefire had been a critical step in ensuring its success. Only he, it was reasoned, could convince Irish American hardliners that the new peace was worth a try.

“Did you think we’d see days like this?” I asked Cahill, paraphrasing the song.

“No, not like this,” he answered. “This has been a real high point for all of us. It is marvelous, really special, to see the President here.”

The sentiments they expressed from both sides of the divide were echoed everywhere throughout the two-day trip. The groundswell for peace and the evident goodwill for Clinton – who had, after all, taken risks for peace no American President ever had – was clear. Now he had come to their own beleaguered land, a place where during the Troubles some commentators had derided those who lived there as subhuman.

But they, like everyone else, just needed the acknowledgement that they are no better or worse than citizens in New York, Washington or London.

Everywhere President Clinton went in Ireland was a triumphal progress. From the huge crowds in Belfast, Derry and Dublin to the intimate moments such as those with Nobel Prize-winner Seamus Heaney at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Dublin, the President had the perfect pitch, understanding just where the line between American interference and positive involvement lay.

Upon assuming power in January 1993, President Clinton had set about building a new “special relationship” with Ireland, which in several important instances had eclipsed the historical tie with Britain when the two have come into conflict.

“No president has ever invested his prestige and his concern for the people of Ireland and for the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the way Bill Clinton has,” Bruce Morrison, the former Connecticut congressman, a key player in the peace process, said.

The New York Times called the Clinton visit “the best two days of his presidency.” The President himself was clearly ecstatic that he had struck such a chord with a country weary of war and desperate for peace. Clinton had made the Irish peace process his own. Indeed, without him it is unlikely it would have happened at all.

We can take no less an authority than the IRA for that. In a secret IRA memo revealed in the Sunday Tribune newspaper in Ireland on April 23, 1995 the reasons for the IRA ceasefire of August 31, 1994 were detailed. Among the three key reasons given was the support of President Clinton for the new peace process.

Once the peace process began, Clinton threw the full weight of the White House behind it. When the process was lagging, his White House Economic Conference on Ireland in May of 1995 provided an important boost. Clinton became the first ever U.S. president to deliver a major speech on Irish issues when he addressed over 1,500 delegates.

Held at the Sheraton Hotel in Washington over a three-day period, the conference was the first time that any American President has committed his administration to that kind of direct economic and political involvement in the affairs of Ireland since the dawn of the American republic. The future was there in that conference. A future for Northern Ireland that promised peace instead of bloodshed. “The good that he has done here will last long after him in Ireland,” Donald Keough, president emeritus of Coca-Cola, predicted.

In March, 1996, President Clinton, whose ancestors the Cassidys are believed to have emigrated from Ballycassidy, County Fermanagh, was Irish America’s  Irish-American of the Year. We are delighted to induct him into our 2011 Irish America Hall of Fame.

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Mary Higgins Clark: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/mary-higgins-clark-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/mary-higgins-clark-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#respond Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:38:32 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3357 Read more..]]> A bestselling author who is proud to call herself “an Irish girl from the Bronx.”

The oldest living resident of New York died recently at age 111 and in a New York Times article only months earlier, she told the reporter that she had kept her mind alert by reading Agatha Christie and Mary Higgins Clark.

A Higgins Clark novel keeping someone alive? Usually someone dies in the first few pages, but once you pick up a Higgins Clark book it’s impossible to put it down (or it seems, die) until you’ve found out who done it, and as often as not, it’s not who you think it is.

Higgins Clark is one of the most admired and popular writers alive today – her novels frequently top the best-selling charts. She is also one of the highest paid authors. But it wasn’t always so.

Mary always wrote, but the untimely death of her husband, Warren, made selling her work a necessity in order to support her five young children. Every morning she got up at five and wrote until seven, when she had to get the kids ready for school. She supported her family writing short historical clips for radio and flooded the publishers’ offices with her short stories. She received lots of rejection letters but her stories finally started appearing in popular magazines, and in 1975 her first suspense novel, Where Are the Children? became a bestseller. Some 40 novels later, Higgins Clark is still keeping readers on their toes.

“The Irish are by nature storytellers,” says Mary, whose father was an Irish immigrant from Co. Roscommon and whose mother was first-generation American. She considers her Irish heritage an important part of her life and will serve as Grand Marshal of this year’s New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade. “As the parade goes up Fifth Avenue I will be thinking of the father who came over with five pounds in his pocket and who died when I was only eleven, the mother who encouraged my dreams of being a writer by treating every word I wrote as though it was scripted by the angels,” she wrote in a foreword to her recently re-released memoir Kitchen Privileges.

Mary, whose many honors include the 1997 Horatio Alger Award, numerous honorary doctorates, and the Grand Prix de Literature of France, is married to John Conheeney, a retired Merrill Lynch CEO whom she met on St. Patrick’s Day,  1996. When she is not writing, she likes to spend time with her children and grandchildren. “I have five children and six grandchildren. John has four children and eleven grandchildren. People say we must have great reunions. My answer is, we don’t need them. We see the children and grandchildren all the time. Most of them live within a few miles, none more than 45 minutes away. But on the big holidays, we’re all collected in our home in Saddle River, New Jersey along with nieces and nephews. We doubled the size of the kitchen/family room so we can set tables for forty with room to spare.”

I sat down with Mary at her apartment in Manhattan in early February. And talk quickly turned to her writing. Her latest novel is I’ll Walk Alone, which will be in stores in April.


Do you write every day, what is the process?

The process is sloppy. Between now and April [when l’ll Walk Alone hits the stores] I don’t write. A, I’m exhausted. B, I want to give my brain a clearing. But I will start the next book by April. In the meantime, I might be writing down ideas, I will do biographies of characters. I’ll give them names and then they often change, because ‘he’ doesn’t look like a Jimmy, he doesn’t sound like a Jimmy. I have pages of notebooks and a bunch of outtakes from other books that I’ve kept because someday I might do a factual book on writing the novels from conception to publication.


You describe yourself as an Irish storyteller.

Yes. I’ll leave it to other people to decide whether I’m a writer or not. What I am is an Irish storyteller. And another thing, I love to go to parties. I’ve said that I’d climb out of my casket to go to my wake. The other thing I’ve said is be sure to put a big spiral notebook, a couple of pens and a glass of wine into the casket with me because I’d miss not writing.


Do you believe in an afterlife?

Of course I do. How can anyone think this all stops? I don’t know what it is but I know there’s a God and his plan is there. And I do think there is perfect peace and perfect happiness [in the afterlife]. I believe in it. I absolutely do.


Does that come from your Catholicism?

Oh sure, my Catholicism is very much a basis for the way I live and think.


Tell me a bit about growing up. 

My father had a bar and he worked hard to make it successful.  He used to leave at eleven in the morning and come home at five for an early dinner, and then go back to the place. The only night of my life I remember him being home was the night he died. He came home with chest pains and he didn’t say anything but he leaned against the fireplace, which was typical when his chest pains were bad, to put his arm over the mantel. And he died in his sleep that night.

We lost that middle-class security that we had, with my father dying at 54. My mother was the same age and she had three kids, my brother Joseph was 12, I was 11 and Johnny was 7 and she had $2000 and no other money. So that’s when we moved downstairs. For the next five years we had boarders. We had a couple evading bankruptcy, they had had a car dealership and it folded; another guy working on his PhD, and a teacher who couldn’t afford an apartment so she had a room. She tried to teach me the piano but I was lousy at it. I’d ask her to tell me about her boyfriend Howard who had come home from the war and was in a nursing home. His lungs were gone. She always cried when she told me the story.


Your mother encouraged your writing.

She thought everything I wrote was wonderful. And she’d make me recite it for the relatives when they came. I wrote skits and I’d have my brothers perform. And I wrote plays for the neighborhood kids. I was always writing.

Whenever I speak to parents or teachers I always say, “see where the creativity is, whether it’s a drawing, a poem or a little skit, praise it to the skies. Because in the case of the writer, the editors will be happy to tell you how lousy you are later on.”
My mother would’ve thrown herself across the tracks for the three of us but she adored my brother Joseph, the firstborn. I found something that she wrote, a sort of journal that she kept. And in it she wrote, “I never left Joseph that first year, he was the most beautiful baby. I was so afraid he’d slip away. The other two had allergies.” So much for the other two! But then my brother [Joseph] died at 18. He was only six months in the Navy and he got viral meningitis. I remember she said, “God wants him more than I do.” And six months later when I graduated from high school she said, “Joseph had a party last year. You’ll have a party.” So she took off all the heavy mourning and had a party for me.

She was 81 when she died. Her two sisters lived for much longer. They were in our house all the time when I was growing up. That’s where I got the Irish stories. They’d sit around the table with endless cups of tea and it would be, “Oh remember when this one…” or, “Oh poor darling, no wedding dress…” and “She could have had anyone and she married that one.”

My first book, which was about George Washington, was published a few months before my mother died, so she got to see that, which was wonderful.


And she was there for you when your husband Warren died.

Warren was 45, I was 36, when he suffered a heart attack and died. My mother-in-law dropped dead when she saw Warren was dead. She said, “I do not want to survive my son.” They took the bodies out and then the funeral director came back to the house and I was picking out shoes for Warren. My mother said, “Mary, it’s a half-casket [viewing], you don’t need shoes. Someone else could use them.” I said, “Mother I’ll buy them a goddamn pair of shoes if I have to, but I’m putting shoes on Warren.”  
You have to see the humor in a situation. And you have to carry on. You don’t have a choice when you have children. I had five children. Also Warren was funny, he was not just witty; he was funny and witty. And I wanted to keep that spirit alive in the house.


And you found love again.

I was very blessed. Fifteen years ago on St. Patrick’s Day, John and I met. As I say, I had a prince at the beginning and a prince at the end.

John had retired as Chairman of Merrill Lynch Futures. And he was invited to be on the board of the New York Mercantile Exchange where my daughter worked. When she met him, she said something about Mrs. Conheeney. And he said, “No, my wife died two years ago.” Then she found out he lived in Ridgewood, which is four miles from where I was living. And she called me and said, “Have I got a hunk for you.” I was planning a cocktail party to celebrate  the publication of my novel Moonlight Becomes You and she said, “I know he’ll come, he’s read a couple of your books.” So he came, and ten days later he called me on the phone and said “I want to invite you out but I haven’t had a 
date since I was 23.” He was engaged at 23, married at 25. But he took me out and that of course was it. And then in June he said, “Mary, would you like to get married in a couple of years?” I said, “John, how old do you think we are?” So we were married the day after Thanksgiving.

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Chuck Feeney: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/chuck-feeney-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/chuck-feeney-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#comments Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:37:18 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3362 Read more..]]> The billionaire who selflessly and quietly gave it all away.

Charles “Chuck” Feeney has amassed billions of dollars in wealth. However, he doesn’t own an opulent house, a car or a Rolex. He prefers taking cabs, riding the subway, or just walking when he’s in New York. He flies economy, even on international flights. And since the 1980s, he has given away his fortune to humanitarian and educational causes throughout the world. Preferring to give it all away while he is still alive, Feeney wants to better the lives of people around the world in the here and now.

From New Jersey to France

Chuck Feeney was born in 1931 and raised in a working class section of Elizabeth, NJ during the Great Depression. His father, the son of an immigrant from Co. Fermanagh, Ireland, was an insurance underwriter and his mother was a nurse. In 1948, at age 17, Chuck enlisted in the United States Air Force, serving for four years in postwar Japan and Korea. After his military service, Feeney received a GI scholarship and enrolled at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. It was at Cornell that Feeney’s flair for business was first discovered. His GI scholarship funds were sent to him in monthly installments of $110, scarcely enough to cover the Ivy League university’s tuition. To make ends meet, he began to sell sandwiches that a fellow classmate would make, earning a decent income.

Upon graduating from Cornell in 1956, Feeney still had four months of scholarship funds left and no idea what to do with his degree. He decided to study political science at the University of Grenoble.


After studying in Grenoble, Feeney decided to travel to the south of France. He eventually landed in Villefranche-sur-Mer, and began running a summer camp for children from the U.S. fleet stationed there. On a trip to Barcelona, he ran into Robert Miller, a fellow Cornell alumnus. Feeney had an idea: sell goods to the fleet duty free – without tax. Miller and Feeney partnered up and began selling perfume, tape recorders and transistor radios.

In 1960, the partners founded Duty Free Shoppers (DFS), opening up duty-free shops in Honolulu and Hong Kong. When the Japanese government lifted travel restrictions on its citizens in 1966, the company found success. Feeney learned Japanese and arranged deals with tour guides to bring groups through the shops. DFS became a global retail giant with duty-free shops all over the world, and made the partners incredibly wealthy.


Forbes estimated Feeney’s wealth to be $1.3 billion in 1988, landing him in the top 20 of its 400 richest people list. However, he was actually worth less than $5 million. Six years earlier, Feeney transferred his 38.75 percent interest in DFS to a charitable foundation. As he said in a previous interview with Irish America, “I did not want money to consume my life.”

The impetus for Feeney’s charity career was a $700,000 bequest to Cornell University in 1981. After the bequest, Feeney was bombarded with requests for donations. Wanting to do something but on his own terms, he turned to his friend Harvey Philip Dale for advice. Dale’s advice was to set up a foundation to carry out all future donations. Feeney proceeded to found The Atlantic Philanthropies, a collective of separate foundations, in Bermuda in order to avoid disclosure requirements that a U.S.-based organization would have to meet. Unlike many philanthropists, Feeney wanted anonymity. The foundation did not, and still does not, bear his name, and he never took tax deductions on his philanthropic work. The anonymity allowed him to walk down the street unrecognized and keep his family safe. However, it also prevented him from being able to correct any inaccuracies

This anonymity spread throughout the Atlantic Philanthropies. Rules were established within the foundation. Any unsolicited requests for money were rejected, and all donations were given via cashier’s check. When he was an honored guest at events, Feeney would bring his own photographer, who would pretend to take pictures without any film in the camera.
The anonymity did not last. In the mid-1990s, Feeney decided to leave DFS. He wanted more cash flow for the Atlantic Philanthropies and foresaw the decline in duty-free shops. The LVMH Group, owner of Louis Vuitton and Moët & Chandon, purchased DFS in 1997, resulting in the foundation being worth $3.5 billion. However, Feeney’s partner, Robert Miller, objected to the sale. As a result, their partnership ended, with Miller filing suit against Feeney. Knowing that he and the Atlantic Philanthropies would be exposed in court, Feeney decided to let the cat out of the bag himself. In January 1997, he called two reporters, David Cay Johnson and Judith Miller, and revealed everything. The news shocked everyone, especially his former partner.


Feeney’s desire to help extends beyond the philanthropic to the humanitarian. His interest in Ireland originates in his Irish- American background and was nurtured through his business trips to Ireland during the 1970s to purchase whiskey for DFS. However, he did not begin to get involved with Ireland and Northern Ireland until November 1987, when he witnessed the aftermath of the Enniskillen Remembrance Day IRA bombing while visiting London. In researching how he could help, Feeney came across the Irish American Partnership, founded by then Fine Gael TD Paddy Harte and based in Dublin. He met with John Healy, then the partnership’s head. After talking, Healy told Feeney that the Irish American Partnership could use funds to establish an office in New York. Feeney mentioned that he knew of an organization that would possibly consider a proposal for funding. Healy sent in the proposal and the funds arrived, anonymously of course, from the Atlantic Philanthropies.

This was only the start. Feeney became interested in reconciliation, and when the Americans for a New Irish Agenda (ANIA) formed, Feeney was one of its key members. The group traveled to Northern Ireland numerous times with the goal of encouraging Republicans to lay down arms and begin negotiating. Likewise, they also worked to convince the Clinton administration to reach out to Northern Ireland. Today, Feeney modestly places the group in the big picture. “Clearly we weren’t players in the action…We were not dumb enough to think that we were a motivating force.”  Yet, the group did play an important and influential role.

Feeney’s involvement was not one-sided. He funded for three years a Sinn Féin office in Washington, DC, an action that resulted in criticism from the media. Yet, he also personally funded loyalist groups desiring to stop the violence in Northern Ireland.

At the same time as he began his involvement with the peace process, Feeney began aiding Irish universities. The same day he met Healy for the first time, the two had lunch at the University Club in Dublin. Sitting at the table next to them was Ed Walsh, president of what was then called the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick. Healy introduced him to Walsh, and Feeney became a major benefactor of the National Institute, which is now known as the University of Limerick. In keeping with his beliefs, Feeney’s name does not appear on any buildings at the university.

Giving It All Away

In 2002, the Atlantic Philanthropies announced it would spend down its endowment within the next twelve to fifteen years. What was at the time a highly unusual action has become a growing trend, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation being the most prominent charitable organization to set a closure date. Though far from widespread, Feeney’s belief in giving while living is starting to find a wider audience and more practitioners.

Today, the Atlantic Philanthropies no longer gives grants to universities. Instead, the organization is focused on the issues of health, aging, children & youth, human rights and reconciliation. As of December 31, 2009, the Atlantic Philanthropies was worth approximately $2.2 billion, including $814 million in already committed grants. Over $5.4 billion in grants had been given out, lifetime, by the end of 2010.

Feeney has found immense pleasure and satisfaction in giving away his fortune. He believes that by giving the money now, it is already accomplishing good work.

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Michael Flatley: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/michael-flatley-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/michael-flatley-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#comments Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:36:41 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3370 Read more..]]> The man who brought Irish dance to the global stage.

He’s been the world’s most famous lord for the past 15 years. Now Michael Flatley is poised to become a movie star . . . and a 3D one at that.

The Chicago native always had it in the back of his head that his wildly successful stage show, Lord of the Dance, would translate well to film, given the right circumstances. But re-creating the raw energy and electricity of a live performance proved elusive until the widespread popularization of 3D movies these past couple of years.

Finally, Flatley was ready to make his move, and he did so in more ways than one. Not only did he film Lord for a big screen 3D experience, but he also took himself out of retirement to reclaim his starring role in the show. The decision required months of getting his body back into fighting shape for a sold-out European tour in the autumn/winter of last year, which showed once again why Flatley is one of the world’s most captivating performers.

When Flatley sets his mind towards a goal, it’s an excellent bet that he’ll thrive in spectacular fashion given his track record at the helm of the planet’s two most successful Irish dance shows ever, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Lord of the Dance 3D, opening nationwide on St. Patrick’s Day, seems tailor made for a three-dimensional experience, with its breakneck Irish jigging, dazzling stage design and overall non-stop action.

Flatley has legions of fans who will undoubtedly savor the chance to go to  their local theater, don a pair of large glasses and feel like they’re right on the cusp of the stage.

Lord of the Dance, since its Dublin debut in 1996 – about 18 months after Flatley and Riverdance parted company – has played to more than 60 million fans in 60 countries . . . grossing more than $1 billion in the process. That’s not to mention sales from DVDs, CDs and other merchandise. Flatley’s vision about how Irish dance could be freshened up and showcased to a global audience in a bold and exciting way has brought him fame and fortune beyond his wildest dreams, and though he likes to think big – really, really big – he’s never, ever forgotten how the seeds of his success were planted.

His parents, Michael Senior (a native of Co. Sligo) and Eilish (from Co. Carlow), made the difficult but necessary move across the Atlantic to the shores of America back in 1940s, and in typical immigrant fashion, Michael and Eilish worked hard to create a prosperous life for their five children. Digging ditches, working construction sites, doing whatever needed to be done  . . . all those life lessons clearly rubbed off on their second eldest, Michael Junior, who didn’t start formal Irish dance lessons until he was the ripe old age of  11. Michael was a quick learner, though, and for good measure he also mastered the flute and even became a top-flight amateur boxer. Put it all together and you get someone who was hyper-determined to make his mark on the world, and that’s exactly what this multi-talented entrepreneur has done with his Lord of the Dance franchise.

Though performing has always been such a vital part of his life, it’s certainly not all work and play for Flatley. In 2007 he married his long-time dance partner, Irish native Niamh O’Brien, in a lavish ceremony at his Co. Cork mansion, Castlehyde. Flatley bought the historic property back in the 1990s and spent millions restoring it to its former grandeur. The following year the couple welcomed their son, Michael St. James Flatley.

Michael Junior is the light of his father’s life, it’s safe to say. The world used to center around performing and jetting here and there for business, and many other bachelor pursuits as Flatley himself freely admits, but these days it’s all about Michael Junior and Niamh, who have without a doubt made Flatley’s world truly complete.

Flatley recently spoke with Irish America about his new film, his career triumphs, and his plans for the future, which include induction into the magazine’s Hall of Fame this month.
“Oh, it’s such an honor for me to be recognized,” he said. “My parents are going to be so proud!” Spoken like a son who has always stayed true to what really matters.
Seeing Lord of the Dance live is amazing enough. But seeing it in 3D has to be even more spectacular. Was doing a feature film of the show always in the back of your mind?

I had been approached a few times to put the show on film, but I was never really tempted because you can’t get the energy that you get in the live show, and I didn’t want to dissipate the energy, you know, or the brand in any way. I didn’t want it to look less than. But now with these new achievements in 3D, to me it was a remarkable opportunity to do something great.

I went and took a look at the process and really liked what I saw. So I imagined my show and I decided that I was going to film it. There’s a really great punch off of it. You can feel the energy. To me, I think it’s very special. 
I saw it for the first time finished in a big theater in London two days ago and I came out of there buzzing. As you know I’m my own worst critic. But I think it’s terrific. The dancers look sensational and the whole show has a great feel.


Do you think the film is almost like being at a live show?

Yes it is. You can feel the energy of the audience. We filmed in London, Dublin and Berlin. It’s a seamless transaction. I’m thrilled with it. I hope it will give a big shot in the arm to all of us Irish.  

How involved were you in the filmmaking? Film is a new experience for you.
That’s true, but you know me – I was telling them where to put the cameras, where to shoot the shots. I’m terrible like that! But I have to be. It’s my little baby and it’s what I worked all my life for. So I know how it should look.  I know how to edit it and I know how to shoot it.  


You started dancing again last year after a lengthy retirement from the stage so you could star in the movie.I can see you dancing until you’re 80!

(Laughs) Oh, you know, probably!  I’ll look like an old guy, but I’ll still do it! I really enjoyed coming back. I had a great time. I really wanted to do something in 3D, and I trained eight months for this.

It’s got to be hard to keep yourself at such a peak physical level when you’re performing. 
Well, you can’t do it forever.  I’m just blessed to be able to still do it. Can I jump as high as I used to? I doubt it. Can I tap as fast? You know, that’s probably debatable. But my heart doesn’t get any smaller.


Michael Junior must have seen your live shows and loved them!

Yes, he comes running up to me at halftime and says, “Daddy, go off and beat up the bad guy!”


Lord of the Dance has been so phenomenally successful for you.

It is. We are so lucky, less than 20 percent of our audience has any Irish connection now. But our demo is age 5 to 95. It’s all over the place.


What is it about Lord of the Dance and Riverdance that has made them such cultural touchstones?

We are so blessed. I just think the gods were favoring me somehow. The harder we worked for it, the more luck we got. You know yourself, some of our dance numbers, they’re 30 seconds long, but you work on them for hours. It’s not easy, but if you do it right and build it to last then it will last. 
I think that both of those shows are built to last.


Where are you living these days? I’ve read that you are based in Beverly Hills.

We were in Beverly Hills for a couple years, but we really didn’t like it. I’m more of a New York guy than an LA guy. Right now we’re living in London  – actually we’re splitting our time between 
London and Castlehyde, a place which is heaven on earth. Little Michael rides his little red tricycle up and down those hallways. He has more energy than me!


Is Michael Junior showing any inclination to dance given those amazing genes he has?

Yeah, he definitely has movement there. He’s spinning around the house all the time. Any time any kind of music comes on he’s up on the floor shaking it.  I told him, take up something safer like cage fighting!


Where will he go to school?

It’s hard to say right now. The big problem is that I just cannot be away from him. I have to be close to him all the time and all my offices and businesses are based in London, so he might have to go to school in London, at least for the first two years. We just don’t know.


What do you make of the death of the Celtic Tiger Irish economy?

Well, it’s been heartbreaking. But money has never been the god of the Irish race. I don’t think a few rotten bankers are going to keep us down. It’s looking tough now, but we’ve gotten up from the canvas many times before.


What is next on your agenda? Your wheels are always turning.

That’s true. A new flute CD should be out by St. Patrick’s Day on iTunes called On a Different Note, and that’s kind of nice.  And we’ll be doing lots of promotion for the film. I’m counting on all of the Irish to come and see it. They won’t be disappointed!

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William J. Flynn: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/william-j-flynn-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/william-j-flynn-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#comments Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:35:10 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3376 Read more..]]> A leader in business and a force for progress in the Northern Ireland peace process.

When William J. Flynn was celebrated in a special issue of Irish America in 2008, the outpouring of praise from both sides of the Atlantic was immense. Irish President Mary McAleese, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness, Edward Cardinal Egan, Governor Hugh Carey, and many more came forth with words of great appreciation for Flynn and all that he has done. Though certainly impressive and meaningful, none of this was all that surprising.

To say that William J. Flynn has embodied the American dream millions of immigrant parents have for their children is true – but it also understates all that he has accomplished. His story is one of determination and care; of no possibility overlooked and no opportunity abandoned. He has been a leader in business, a catalyst for peace, and he has always been equally committed to his native country and the land of his ancestors.

The Boy With a Calling

One of four children of Bill Flynn Sr. from Loughinisland, Co. Down and Anna Connors from outside Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Flynn grew up in the East Elmhurst section of Queens. His childhood spanned the years of the Great Depression, but Bill Sr. was fortunate enough to stay employed as a stationary engineer, something the family never took for granted.

At a young age, Flynn felt he had a calling. After attending Cathedral High School Preparatory Seminary in Brooklyn, Flynn went on to the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, Long Island to prepare himself for the priesthood. There he studied theology, language and philosophy, but he also came to the realization that the life of a priest was not his path. His real calling lay elsewhere.

It first took him to Fordham University where, having received an expansive education at the Seminary, Flynn went straight into a master’s program and earned his degree in economics. Fascinated by and talented in the field, he was accepted into a PhD. program and started teaching high school mathematics in New York City.

The following four years brought many changes to the young economics student’s life. In 1949, the Korean War began and Flynn took a break from his studies to enlist in the Air Force, stationed in Texas and Washington D.C. In 1953, he married his sweetheart Peg Collins, the Bronx born-and-raised daughter of immigrants from Co. Kerry. The war over, the two newlyweds were soon living on Long Island and starting a family.

The Student Turned Businessman

With a wife and children to support, Flynn made the tough decision to leave his doctorate thesis behind and enter the world of business. His first job was with the Equitable Life Assurance Society. There, his background in economics served him in good stead as he quickly discovered his skill in the insurance industry – expertly calculating risk on retirement and long-term insurance plans and developing the now standard practice of Guaranteed Insurance Contracts (GICs). He rapidly climbed the ranks, eventually becoming senior vice president of pension operations.

Flynn’s approach to business was always a human one. Colleagues called him a fair leader, attuned to the customer’s needs and concerns, which allowed him to look at the industry in ways that eluded others. In his 2008 interview with publisher Niall O’Dowd, Flynn offered his sage, down-to-earth business philosophy, culled from his experience at Equitable: “Greed is the biggest problem…Look at the recent mortgage crisis and all the Wall Street firms that overextended themselves. It’s the same mistake over and over…My advice is, don’t get greedy, help the other guy, and stay in the real world.”  
This approach served him well in his next position: president and CEO of the National Health and Welfare Insurance Company. Under Flynn’s direction, the small, struggling company became Mutual of America, the insurance giant we know today. One of his finest accomplishments in this role was to steer Mutual’s attention towards the non-profit sector, where it now provides pension plans for the employees of more than 15,000 charities throughout America. He was also responsible for the establishment of the impressive Mutual of America Building at 320 Park Avenue.

The Humanitarian

Flynn was right from the start in thinking that he had a calling, though it didn’t lie with the church, as he first believed. Throughout his professional career, Flynn was a leader and innovator. But the scope of his influence has traveled far beyond the world of business. The Mutual CEO also used his position of power in corporate America as a force for peace, communication and understanding in the social and political spheres

With his guidance, Mutual of America took on a significant philanthropic role, sponsoring landmark events and discussions such as the “First Liberty Summit” in Williamsburg, VA, the subsequent “First Liberty Forum” in New York, and the international “Anatomy of Hate” conferences hosted by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity. These events brought Nobel laureates, leading intellectuals and involved citizens together for important meetings of minds.

Flynn’s personal involvement ran even deeper. He became a board member of the Elie Wiesel Foundation and joined the National Committee on American Foreign Policy (NCAFP). When the NCAFP encountered financial difficulty in the late 80s, Flynn came to the aid of the nongovernmental organization. Shortly afterwards, co-founder George Schwab  invited Flynn to assume the position of chairman, which he accepted and holds to this day.

Having already been party to many important conversations on the religious and political conflicts in the Middle East and South Africa, Flynn was drawn to and deeply affected by the troubles in Northern Ireland. As an advocate for human rights and peace, the son of two Irish immigrants couldn’t ignore the violence and discord.

In 1992, Mutual of America sponsored a conference in Derry, entitled “Living With Our Deepest Differences.” At this point too, many Irish political leaders were beginning to consider how Irish Americans could play a role in the path to peace. In New York, a small group began forming in response to Bill Clinton’s campaign promise that, if elected, he would devote attention to Northern Ireland. It was decided that in order to be successful they would need help from influential people within the Irish American community. Though he knew that public involvement could potentially pose a threat to his professional reputation and even his personal safety, Flynn became one of the Americans for a New Irish Agenda (ANIA), a group that included fellow Hall of Fame honoree Chuck Feeney, former congressman Bruce Morrison and publisher Niall O’Dowd.

In December 1993, the Downing Street Declaration granted the people of Northern Ireland the right to self-determination – to choose, by their own design, their sovereignty and political status. In the wake of this, Bill Flynn strove to facilitate what he wisely saw as the next vital step: communication. With the NCAFP, he decided to organize a conference in New York that would bring all of the major players in the conflict together, including Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Féin; John Hume, leader of the SDLP; John Alderdice, head of the Alliance Party; and two Unionist leaders: the Reverend Ian Paisley, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and James Molyneaux the head of the Ulster Unionist Party.

Nothing like this conference had ever happened before. 
It took place at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on February 1, 1994, attracting attendees, members of the press, and protesters from all sides. Though the Unionist leaders did not attend that day, the conference was deemed successful in its aim of establishing communication and negotiation as the way forward. Both Paisley and Molyneaux accepted invitations to speak at later dates.

The Peace Broker

A large part of Flynn’s efficacy was due to his businesslike, level-headed tactics: The Mutual CEO became, in a sense, a broker of negotiation and peace. He was invited, often with other members of ANIA, to Ireland both north and south for talks with the leaders of the various parties – all with an eye towards working up to a ceasefire.

In August of that year, the members of the group got word that they should return to Ireland for a meeting with the Sinn Féin leadership. In Belfast they met again with Gerry Adams, who announced to them that the IRA would soon be declaring a complete cessation of operations. 
In a true testament to Flynn’s non-partisanship, six weeks later he was also contacted by Gusty Spence and David Ervine of the Loyalist side. It was thus that the Catholic son of a man from Northern Ireland was invited to and present at the announcement of the Loyalist ceasefire, and was even consulted on its wording.

In the years that followed, Flynn remained an active part of the talks negotiations, often flying over to Ireland on a moment’s notice to help facilitate communication or smooth things. Martin McGuinness declared him to be  “one of the heroes of the peace process.” The accolades are many and they continue to grow: Flynn was honored as Grand Marshal of the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1996, he holds seven honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, and is the namesake of the recently launched William J. Flynn Center for Irish Studies at the University of St. Thomas. In addition, the businessman and peacemaker has also been a loving husband, father and grandfather. Flynn’s calling wasn’t confined to one area or institution; rather, he has been a leader in so many ways.

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Denis Kelleher: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/denis-kelleher-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/denis-kelleher-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#respond Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:34:56 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3382 Read more..]]> The Irish Immigrant who became a titan of Wall Street.

Denis Kelleher, the son of a shoemaker, immigrated to New York in 1958, at age 18, with $1.50 in his pocket. He was in search of a better life and determined to provide for his widowed mother back home.

In a matter of days the bright young Kerry man charmed his way into a job in Merrill Lynch. In less than a month he went from messenger boy to payroll clerk.

Kelleher had excelled in math, economics and accounting at St. Brendan’s in Killarney and, determined to continue his education, he enrolled in St. John’s University at night as he worked his way up the ladder at Merrill Lynch.

Although it’s over half a century since Kelleher landed in New York, he still remembers how awestruck he was by the city. “It was early in the morning and all I remember is thinking how beautiful the city was. The sun was glistening off the snow on the ground and on the rooftops. It was magical,” he recalls as he briefly glances out the 11th floor window of his Wall Street office, which overlooks the Hudson River.

He first settled in Brooklyn with help from an uncle who had emigrated before him. After some time there, he moved to the Bronx where he enjoyed an Irish scene that felt “just like home.” After establishing himself in a house with friends, he rolled up his sleeves and began his quest to become successful.

But he was soon asked by the U.S. military to put the pause button on his accelerating career. Kelleher spent five plus years serving in the Army at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

He returned to New York when his time was served and continued his career track in the  financial industry. He served in various high level positions, including  a stint as president of Ruane Cunniff & Co., Inc. and as vice president and treasurer of the Sequoia Fund.

Kelleher says there is no big secret behind his achievements and happiness. “I’ve always had the motto: dream big, work hard, learn constantly and have fun while doing so,” he says.

In 1981, he founded his own firm, Wall Street Access, and some 30 years later, he continues, as chairman and CEO, to provide the vision for the firm, which specializes in institutional research, trading and money management.

One would expect the office of such a highly successful Wall Street executive to be adorned with finance books and various accolades, but portraits of family and friends, and pictures of Ireland provide warmth and atmosphere.

Kelleher, too, is warm and welcoming. Though he is reluctant to talk about himself, he mentions his family at every opportunity. “Family is very important to me,” he admits. He credits his wife Carol, his three children (two of whom work in the firm) and eight grandchildren as the driving forces behind his perseverance.

“I enjoy what I do, but they keep me motivated,” he says.

When times were tough in his industry, Kelleher met any challenges head on and did the best for his clients. “I’ve always had the attitude that in a cyclical business like this you must save for the bad days,” he says.

He also believes strongly in helping others. In an effort to pass on his good fortune, he and wife, Carol, set up an organization called the Good Deeds Foundation. One recent endeavor was to establish a middle charter school for Mexican children living on Staten Island. He and Carol are also committed to funding suicide prevention efforts in rural Ireland. And, although he keeps it quiet, Kelleher was instrumental in working behind the scenes in advancing the Northern Ireland Peace Process.

“I’ve been fortunate in my life so it’s important for me to give back to those in need. But I couldn’t do it without Carol,” he says. He speaks movingly of the companionship she has shown him through the years and her dedication to the various charities and trusts they have founded together.

Kelleher experienced the pain of emigration early in life when his father had to leave the family for short periods of time to work in England.

“He couldn’t get leather [for his shoe-making business] in Ireland during the war so he went to England and ran a factory,” Kelleher recalls. “Times were very tough back then, Ireland was a third world country, but we got through it because my dad was a great man.” He adds that without fail his father sent a check home every two weeks to feed the family and keep them well.

He is very much in touch with the current economic situation in Ireland and the fact that many young people are once again facing emigration. He cautions those who may be relocating to American shores not to be “arrogant” and to enjoy what they do. “Anyone who enjoys what they do and perseveres at it will be very successful, whatever the odds,” he says.

When not working, Kelleher tries his hand at golf. He is well read and he and his wife enjoy attending the theater.

He also keeps himself busy with various boards. He is the director of The New Ireland Fund, a member of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and a member of the Staten Island Foundation. He serves on the board of trustees of St. John’s University, and served as the board’s chairman for eight years. In 1995, he was recognized with the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and in 2005 he led the New York St. Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue serving as the Grand Marshal. He was honored by this magazine as one of the Wall Street 50, and Business 100 and is included in the book Greatest Americans of the 20th Century, compiled by Irish America editor by Patricia Harty.

Although he is a few years past the standard retiring age, Kelleher said he is going nowhere fast. “I’ll retire 10 years after I’m dead,” he laughs.

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Jean Kennedy Smith: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/jean-kennedy-smith-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/jean-kennedy-smith-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#respond Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:33:23 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3389 Read more..]]> Activist, humanitarian, diplomat.

Often referred to as the shy Kennedy, Jean Kennedy Smith has quietly blazed her own trail while still holding true to the family legacy of public service. The last of the Kennedy siblings still living, Kennedy Smith has devoted her life to advocating for the disabled and working towards peace in Northern Ireland.

Early Life

Jean Ann Kennedy was born on February 20, 1928 in Brookline, MA, the eighth of the nine children born to Joseph Patrick Kennedy Sr. and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy. Her siblings were Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr. (1915-1944), John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963), Rosemary Kennedy (1918-2005), Kathleen Agnes Kennedy (1920-1948), Eunice Mary Kennedy Shriver (1921-2009), Patricia Helen Kennedy Lawford (1924-2006), Robert Frances Kennedy (1925-1968) and Edward Moore Kennedy (1932-2009). She was educated at a variety of Sacred Heart schools, both in the United States and England, where her father served as the US Ambassador from 1938 to 1940.

During World War II, Smith’s eldest brothers, Joseph and John, served in the Navy as an aviator and PT boat commander, respectively. After Joseph’s death in 1944 during a flight mission, she was chosen to christen the USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., a Navy destroyer named after her brother. In 1948, her older sister Kathleen was killed in a plane crash.

Jean attended Manhattanville College, at the time a Sacred Heart school and the alma mater of both her mother Rose and sister Eunice, graduating with a degree in English in 1949. While there she met and became friends with her future sister-in-law, Ethel Skakel, who married Bobby Kennedy in 1950.
On May 19, 1956, she married Stephen Edward Smith in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, where the couple eventually settled. The Smiths had four children: Stephen Edward Jr. in 1957, William Kennedy in 1960, Amanda Mary in 1967 (adopted) and Kym Maria in 1972 (adopted from Vietnam). They remained married until Stephen’s death from lung cancer in 1990.

On the Campaign Trail 
In addition to their legacy of public service, the Kennedys are known as being a close family who work together – the most well-known example is probably Robert Kennedy’s term as Attorney General during JFK’s presidency. Jean worked on her brother John’s political campaigns, starting with his 1946 Congressional run for office. In 1960, with the rest of the family, she traveled across the country: going door to door, talking to voters, answering their questions and gathering support for her brother’s campaign. In September, she left the campaign trail – her second child was due and born later that month. Two months later, JFK was elected president by one of the slimmest margins in history. In telling her campaign trail stories, Kennedy Smith recently recalled being asked to lend Jacqueline Kennedy a maternity coat for the official announcement that Kennedy had been elected president.
Her brother’s presidency would have a great impact on her life. Kennedy Smith, as well as her sister Eunice, traveled with JFK when he made his historic trip to Ireland in 1963. Together the three siblings visited Dunganstown in County Wexford, the place their great-grandfather came from. Later that year, President Kennedy was killed by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas.

Five years later, Sen. Robert Kennedy was running for president, and Kennedy Smith and her husband helped to run the campaign. They were at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Bobby was assassinated there.

Advocate for the Disabled

In 1964, Kennedy Smith was named a trustee of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in her brother’s memory and currently devoted to improving the lives of the intellectually disabled. That same year, she was named to the Board of Trustees of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a position she has been named to by every President since. In 1974, Kennedy Smith founded Very Special Arts, now known as VSA. Associated with the Kennedy Center, the organization is devoted to creating “a society where people with disabilities learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts.” VSA is an international organization, working with 52 international affiliates as well as a network of affiliates in  the Unites States. A major influence and motivation in Kennedy Smith’s work with the disabled was her older sister Rosemary, who was developmentally disabled from birth.

Ambassador to Ireland

In 1993, President Bill Clinton ap-pointed Kennedy Smith the U.S. Ambassador to Ireland. It was a thrilling honor and achievement for many reasons – particularly because it granted her a direct, active role in politics and made her and her father, Joseph Sr., the first father and daughter to serve as U.S. ambassadors. Additionally, as she stated in a previous interview with Irish America, “Next to President of the United States, Ambassador to Ireland is surely one of the best jobs an Irish American can hold.”
Kennedy Smith was appointed ambassador at a crucial moment in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Fighting and conflict had been frequent, but signs of change were apparent. In September 1993, John Hume and Gerry Adams issued a joint statement outlining the Hume/Adams Initiative, the goal of which was the creation of a peace process. Crucially, the IRA welcomed the initiative. The next important step would be the issuing of a U.S. visa to Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams. Kennedy Smith would play a crucial role in this task.

Since the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, the U.S. government had refused to grant a visa to Adams, whom they considered to be a terrorist. In early January 1994, Adams again applied for a visa. However, he presented himself to the U.S. Embassy in Dublin instead of the U.S. Consulate in Belfast. It was a crucial moment in Kennedy Smith’s ambassadorship. Having paid close attention to the events in the North since her arrival in Ireland, and having traveled there several times, Kennedy Smith believed that Adams and Sinn Féin were serious about the peace process. Ever the diplomat, before making any decision she contacted Taoiseach Albert Reynolds, who favored the granting of the visa. Then, she consulted with her brother Senator Ted Kennedy. He also got on board. Shortly after that, Hume also gave his support for the visa. Kennedy Smith made her decision: she sent a cable to Washington recommending that the visa be granted.

The U.S. government had a lot to consider before granting the request. Foremost was the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Britain. Yet, President Clinton had made a campaign promise to grant Adams a visa, and the Irish American lobby was pushing for it. The British government vehemently worked to block the visa. Everything came down to the wire. Finally, on January 29, 1994, President Clinton ordered the visa be granted. Two days later, Adams entered the U.S. and made an appearance on Larry King Live. The worldwide censorship of Adams and Sinn Féin was over.
Six months later, Kennedy Smith was faced with another important visa issue, this time with an IRA ceasefire hanging in the balance. Sinn Féin wanted to send Joe Cahill to America to talk with their supporters in the U.S. Cahill was 74 and had fought the British for most of his life. The IRA made a condition of their ceasefire the granting of a visa to Cahill. Kennedy Smith and Reynolds worked hard to convince the U.S. government to grant the visa. The president agreed and Cahill entered the U.S. The day after, on August 31, the IRA declared a ceasefire.

Throughout the remainder of her tenure as ambassador, Kennedy Smith played an important role in the peace process. In September 1998, seven months after the historic Good Friday Agreement, she resigned as ambassador. The late historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Arthur Schlesinger said of Kennedy Smith, “Jean may well be the best politician of all the Kennedy’s, but she needed this position to really show that.”
Recent Years

Kennedy Smith has always kept a lower profile in comparison to her siblings. Now 83, she rarely gives interviews, though she did give one to ABC News in January, on the 50th Anniversary of her brother’s presidential inauguration.

As ever, family is still a priority. In August 2009, Kennedy Smith chose to miss her sister Eunice’s funeral to stay by Edward Kennedy’s side as he was dying of cancer. Now, though she is the last of the nine Kennedy siblings, she does not dwell on that, focusing instead on the here and now.

Since leaving diplomatic service, Jean Kennedy Smith has received numerous accolades for her work to bring peace to Northern Ireland and for her work with the disabled. The government of the Republic of Ireland granted her honorary citizenship in 1998. She has received honorary degrees from multiple institutions. Most recently, Kennedy Smith was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for both her diplomatic service and her humanitarian efforts.

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Dr. James Watson: Irish America Hall of Fame https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/dr-james-watson-irish-america-hall-of-fame/ https://irishamerica.com/2011/04/dr-james-watson-irish-america-hall-of-fame/#respond Sun, 17 Apr 2011 01:32:36 +0000 http://irishamerica.com/?p=3413 Read more..]]> He helped map the structure of DNA. Next up is a cure for cancer.

James Watson helped unravel the structure of DNA, a feat so stunning that it is considered the greatest scientific achievement of the 20th century. A Nobel Prize winner as a result, Dr. Watson is deeply proud of his Irish heritage and is “very pleased” to be inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame on March 15th. Next up for Watson is a cure for cancer, and he believes he once again holds the key to that extraordinary breakthrough. And who can doubt him? At 82, he is as committed and hardworking a scientist as ever. He spoke to me from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Long Island, New York.


Tell me about your Irish heritage.

I’m a quarter Irish through my grandmother Elizabeth Gleeson who was born in 1861. Her parents came here  from Ireland, I believe it was Tipperary, around 1847 or 48 and went to Ohio for 10 years and farmed there and then moved to a farm six miles south of Michigan City, Indiana. It’s a decent farm which I believe they maintained through the 1930s.


You’ve been to Ireland many times, right?

Oh yes, I have accepted degrees from Trinity College and Limerick and Cork universities. I was there last September. I’m deeply proud of my Irish heritage.


I was amazed to read that in 1953 when you presented the paper on DNA, the major media barely covered it. It is now considered by most experts the greatest scientific breakthrough of the 20th century.

They didn’t cover it at all. Time magazine was going to run a story and photographs were taken, so we have photographs, otherwise we wouldn’t have anything. But Time never ran the article.
And then there was a very short notice in the News Chronicle, another paper at that time, which came out maybe in early June [1953]. In genetics, the discovery was thought very important but it didn’t have much impact on the way biology was done until about five years later, and then there were some experiments which sort of confirmed our main hypothesis that the strands would separate and that was through an experiment done in 1958. But I would say, it wasn’t until the early sixties when the genetic code was being worked out that people began to take it seriously. 
I wrote the first work about why DNA was so important and that came out in 1965 to mark the biology of the gene.


When you made the discovery, or co-shared the discovery with Francis Crick, were you aware that this was a Nobel Prize-winning feat?

Yes. I mean it was so obvious. I would say in less than a minute we knew that it was more than big.  I didn’t jump up and say, “We’ll get a Nobel Prize,” but it was pretty obvious to us that it was a big breakthrough. But the majority of people in science weren’t interested in how the genetic chromosomes and sources of information worked. It was a new way of thinking. The first person from the outside who saw the information [as a] breakthrough was the great Russian-born physicist George Gamow, who wrote a letter about it in June, 1953.
Amazing when you consider that today everybody talks about DNA.

DNA is sort of everywhere now in everyday life. People are always wondering about [the question of] Nature or Nurture, and what we can learn from our hereditary genes.


What’s the answer?

We don’t know but we should and I think we will. And I think  knowledge of DNA will eventually encompass all  medical knowledge about it, but it will probably take years.
The thing now is to learn the influence that DNA has on your medical history – we still know very little. When we do know it will be a huge breakthrough for our medical treatments. And this will be a huge, huge issue when doctors become literate and able to explain and decipher it.  
I had my entire genome traced but it hasn’t affected me at all, because we don’t know how to interpret that hereditary  information yet. So when we learn that, it will be a massive breakthrough. So now you have the map, but you’re not quite sure where it all leads or what it means.
In an immediate sense, medical records have to be digitized because if you ask most people “do you have your medical records since birth?” the answer is “no.” You probably have them with your current doctor and before that your previous doctor. But [earlier than that] they’re effectively lost.


A lot of your work now is on cancer. How do you see that going?

My main interest now is curing cancer. I think we just might pull it off over the next ten years. I’m sure we can cure most major cancers. We are hopeful now about [curing] a totally incurable leukemia. We think we know how to cure it. So I think we want to go ahead under the assumption we’re going to cure [cancer] over the next 10 years, not over the next 30. You generally hear from people that it’s 10 to 20 years away, whereas when I was in California trying to raise money for [research into] pancreatic and prostate cancer, I was saying, maybe we can cure [these diseases] in 10 years. But we have to work differently. I wanted a million dollars to do preliminary experiments on both the cancers based on the assumption we’re going to cure it in 10 years.
How do you think that will happen?
Well, because the thing we never thought of [before] is that cancer is a sort of failure of differentiation. You know, you have a blood cell, but you don’t make the products of the blood cell and if you converted a cancer cell back into a differentiated cell, that cell would live forever, it wouldn’t modify, and you wouldn’t have cancer. We think we’ve done this for leukemia. And I want to try it for melanoma. So, we’ll see!


That is incredibly exciting.

Oh it is very exciting and for the first time we can sort of write down on paper how we can do it.


Wow, so the idea that cancer can be cured would obviously be a real breakthrough.

Yes. I think that people might then treat scientists like, uh, basketball players.


And pay them as well.

I saw the Lakers in Los Angeles on Friday night. I thought, boy, what a basketball player that Kobe Bryant is.


He’s a great player. Absolutely. The Knicks are looking good too.



You have said that you’re an atheist, can you talk about that?

Yeah, I’m an atheist. [I’ve found] no evidence for God. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Jesus. I don’t think he’s son of God, but, you know, I was in a Catholic hospital in Santa Monica that was run by the Sisters of Charity. You know, of all the virtues, the greatest is charity. I don’t think the Crusaders were very good and the Inquisition was pretty awful, but the Sisters of Charity do wonderful work.
When people actually ask me if I am a Christian [I say that] I follow these beliefs. It’s a set of values. I don’t feel my values are any different from [Christian] people because I was brought up on these values.


So what’s after cancer? What’s left?

I’ll leave that to someone else, I think.


Time magazine had a piece recently saying that one could conceivably have a lifetime of 150 years.

I’d like to make 90 in good shape and then I’m willing to give up.


You seem like you’re in great shape.

I can still play singles’ tennis and I’m still hitting back, not super big serves, but hitting back. I’m still living as if I’m 30, you know.


Do you have a favorite possession?

I have this painting by Ireland’s best artist, Bobby Ballagh, which shows Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. So I personally own one of Ballagh’s most famous paintings. I bought it from a catalogue. He painted my portrait when I was lecturing on genetics at Trinity College and I’ve formally given [the portrait] to the college. I wanted it to be in Trinity so people realize that I’m as much Irish as I am Scottish.

My mother, I’d call her not an Irish Catholic, I’d call her always an Irish Democrat. She was a faithful member of  the Chicago Irish tribe. I have always followed my Irish side.  I know all about what has happened with the Irish economy. I know things are bad over there, the German bankers should have to endure some of that pain of the lost money they lent those Irish bankers. I mean it’s going to be tricky.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan promised to pay all the bankers off, but Ireland can’t pay those taxes and the realization has dawned that it is a case where you can’t get blood from stone. There was a level of irresponsibility, but now one needs a very good government.


Both the Financial Times and the Economist basically said the bondholders have to lose some money

Absolutely, absolutely. You have to renegotiate, and  it will take a year, but until it’s done, no one can move forward. But Ireland will survive. They are a tough people and have survived much worse. I’m sure of that. They are a wonderful people.


Thank you, Dr. Watson.

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