The Irish Times
Irish Americans prepare for year of 1916 commemorations across US
Politician Richie Neal counters anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump
When US politician Richie Neal first ran for public office as an idealistic twentysomething, he had lofty ambitions.
One of his first campaign events seeking election to the city council in Springfield, Massachusetts was at the John Boyle O’Reilly Club named after the Irish-born journalist and Fenian who settled in Boston. The event was organised for Neal by women from Mayo and Kerry.
Like most other parts of the state, Springfield has a large generation of off-the-boat Irish who settled in this western part of Massachusetts, and many of them gathered that night for Neal’s campaign rally.
“I was so full of myself as a young man – I was going to solve every problem in the world,” said Neal, all of whose grandparents were born in Ireland. “I said, ‘well, how about some questions?’ Some woman in the room asks, ‘how’s your grandmother?’”
That is also the nature of retail politics in an Irish community like Springfield that Neal has represented for 37 years. He was mayor for five years in the 1980s and represented the wider area in the US House of Representatives for the past quarter century.
The club where Neal was asked those probing questions is the same venue where he heard veterans of the 1916 Easter Rising speak.
Several old IRA men settled in Springfield to escape prosecution in Ireland. They include Bob Fitzgerald, a man who features in that famous photo that adorns the cover of Tim Pat Coogan’s book, The IRA: A History, wearing a trench coat and hat and carrying a rifle.
Neal recalls a veteran describing Northern Ireland at one of those talks “as a criminal name.” The Rising is still commemorated every Easter Sunday evening in the city.
The Irish ties in Springfield are so strong that Neal will officially dedicate a new 1916 Garden of Remembrance in the city’s Forest Park. The garden will include seven Hawthorn trees representing the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation and a life-size typographical replica of the proclamation itself.
The memorial will open in time for the Rising’s centenary celebrations, one of many events taking place across the US. Next month Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan will travel to New York to launch a guide detailing
‘‘ He is certainly doing his best to scratch emotion but not to miss the point: immigration has been very important to America
all the commemorative events.
Neal says Irish immigrants helped shape the history of western Massachusetts and their influence is very much still felt today. His district is home to 131,725 Irish-Americans, according to the US Council on Irish Immigration.
Michael Carney, the oldest living native of the Great Blasket Islands off Co Kerry until his death in August at the age of 94, was a long time resident of the Hungry Hill Irish neighbourhood of Springfield. He penned a lively book about his life on the islands and in America.
The descendants of the most famous resident of the Blaskets, storyteller Peig Sayers, emigrated and settled in Springfield.
Neal says that the former Blasket islanders were easy to spot in Springfield: “They always had to walk in single file so you could always see them going into the funeral homes.”
He recalls Irish being spoken in these funeral homes and Irish diplomats attending official events in the city struggling to answer questions in Irish from native Irish speakers.
“Their Irish will be better than yours,” Neal had warned one beforehand.
In Washington, he often jokes with politicians from Ireland visiting him on Capitol Hill that he represents more Irish in his Massachusetts congressional district than they do in their constituencies in Ireland.
As the Democratic co-chair of the Friends of Ireland Caucus, Neal helps open doors and push policy in the corridors of power for the Irish Government.
His office in Cannon House Building is a required stop for visiting delegations and is one of just three offices on the House side to have a balcony with a stunning view of the Capitol Dome. From here, Neal watches the 2016 presidential race with horror, in particular Donald Trump’s angry anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“He is certainly doing his best to scratch emotion but not to miss the point: overwhelmingly immigration has been very important to America,” he said.
“The names are different now but where would many of us have been had Trump’s position been in place?” he said.
The new remembrance garden in Neal’s home town is not just commemorating the 1916 Rising but a long and important tradition of immigration from Ireland and elsewhere.
“The next parish over,” said Neal of Springfield, quoting Peig Sayers. “It is a pretty extraordinary connection.”