The Irish Times

Irish Americans prepare for year of 1916 commemorat­ions across US

Politician Richie Neal counters anti-immigrant rhetoric of Trump

- Simon Carswell

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.

IRA veterans

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.

Blasket connection­s

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.”

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