From Ireland, a challenge to Irish Americans in a time of crisis: Stand up for your ancestral values of justice

Tim Kirk, a software professional, and his wife, Raphaelle, a nurse, left Needham, Massachusetts, last December and settled permanently in Dublin. He has sent along his impressions of his first few months of residence there as the viral pandemic spread across the world.


DUBLIN, Ireland – Former Irish President Mary McAleese famously described Ireland as “a first world country with a third world memory.” Ireland is unique in the EU in that it never conquered its neighbors or colonized other countries around the world.  It never had a world-wide empire with a triumphant capital city.   Even small countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and Serbia all had grand empires at one time, and they have the beautiful but absurd victory arches and grandeur to prove it.  The only self-serving grand columns, obelisks, and monuments in Dublin were built by a delusional British empire in what they called the 2nd City of the empire.  Most Irish consider Dublin an English city.  Ireland is a modern, relatively rich country now, but remembers its experience on the conquered and colonized side of the imperial equation and identifies with the developing world at a deep level.  

Late last month, Ireland expressed this singular perspective by quadrupling its financial support to the World Health Organization in direct response to President Trump’s petulant and reckless decision to cut off funding from the United States to the WHO during the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is not a surprise that Trump would once again disgrace himself and the once-proud country of which he is accidentally chief executive by blaming the WHO for the unfolding virus-driven catastrophe in the USA. His incompetence and malevolence know no bounds.  What might be a surprise to some is that tiny Ireland had the bravery to stand up to the global bully in solidarity with the poor and developing countries around the world who depend on the WHO.  Moral leadership takes courage.   Confronting the United States under the influence of the unpredictable menace, Donald Trump, is the latest example of Ireland being true to itself and to its experience. Before the Covid 19 crisis, Ireland lowered the requirements for immigrants and refugees to move to here and become citizens just as the UK and the USA moved to close their borders to immigrants and refugees. 


In Dublin where my wife works as a nurse at the largest public hospital in the country, the solidarity healthcare workers feel from the people, and from the government is real. In the early days of the crisis, the government nationalized private hospitals for the period of the pandemic, they cancelled all St. Patrick’s Day events, closed 7,000 thousand pubs across the country, all schools, and almost everything else.  Irish nurses and doctors working abroad or retired volunteered to come back in a government-sponsored “Call to Ireland” program, a reference to Phil Coulter’s famous ballad. 

“Ireland Ireland

Together standing tall

Shoulder to shoulder

We’ll answer Ireland’s call”

The community support that medical staff receive goes beyond the applause and occasional free bus rides at the sight of a nurse’s badge. Medical staff are also afforded the true dignity and respect they deserve.  Nurses and doctors who complain about the lack of access to PPE, the quality of the equipment hastily imported from China, the paucity of tests, and the government’s lack of investment in staff levels before the crisis do so without fear of retribution, unlike their American counterparts. Medical workers have taken to social media to say openly that they appreciate the applause, but quality PPE and more staff would be preferred.  Solidarity is different from charity and philanthropy because it assumes an essential equality between human beings who are free to express their views without fear.  The Irish feel that we are all in this struggle together against a virus that is killing people around the world by the hundreds of thousands.

A discerning cultural memory

Mass death and the possibility of extinction are not theoretical concepts to the people of Ireland.   The scars of centuries of colonization, dispossession, enslavement, and depopulation inform the opinions of everyone in Ireland from bus drivers to prime ministers.  This is especially true of trauma of the Great Hunger of the 1840s.  Triggered by a catastrophic potato crop failure, it was fundamentally the deliberate destruction of the native Irish and their language and culture by the British.  The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the world with cruel death that targets the weak and vulnerable. The economic depression that will follow has the potential to decimate the livelihoods of the working poor and the economic disruption may go on for years. To the Irish, that story sounds very familiar and they know instinctively whose side they are on.


Ireland understands deeply the experience of the poor and exploited and they are not afraid to fight for what they believe. In addition to a keen sense of justice, the Irish have two other valuable assets to make their voices heard: (1) the 90 million strong global Irish diaspora and (2) a cultural fearlessness, a temerity that bullies like Donald Trump cannot understand. General Robert E. Lee after the battle of Fredericksburg described his opponents, the all-Irish born Fighting 69th known as The Irish Brigade like this: “Never were men so brave.  They ennobled their race by their splendid gallantry.”


Challenging Irish America

To whom is Ireland speaking when it shames Trump on his indefensible defunding of the WHO and other issues?  He will not listen. The country is speaking to its sons and daughters around the world.  It is crucial that the ears of Irish America are listening because Ireland is challenging Irish Americans to be true to their heritage.

The Irish exiles of An Gorta Mor set out on an arduous journey to America in the hundreds of thousands, bringing with them the grievance of their accumulated history of abuse and death at the hands of foreign invaders and callous landlords.  In addition to that sense of injustice, the Irish also brought an ethos of solidarity with other oppressed people and a desire for justice. For generations, Irish Americans from Mother Jones and the Molly Maguires to Al Smith, the Kennedys, Ed Markey, and Richie Neal have drawn upon their Irish roots as inspiration to fight for justice and equality. For some Irish Americans, this changed in the 1980s.

Ronald Reagan's magic trick

President Reagan did a lot to undo this instinctual siding with the underdog by Irish Americans by performing an astonishing magic trick:  He convinced a significant number of generous, devout, middle- and working-class people, many of them Irish Americans, that government programs that help the poor actually hurt them by breeding dependence and that destroying the labor movement would help working people. Reagan asserted that the real problems were (1) a hopelessly corrupt government and (2) “welfare mothers” who were bankrupting the country. In that same time frame, Michael Douglas’s character, Gordon Gecko, declared that “greed is good” in the film “Wall Street,” Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers’ union, tore down Jimmy Carter’s wimpy solar panels from the White House roof, and bombed Libya. 

Irish Americans were key swing voters among the “Reagan Democrats” who set the direction of the country from then until now. 

Some Irish Americans turned away from Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy and their mantra to “make a difference” and voted for Reagan, the Bushes, McCain, and, most disastrously, Trump.  Irish Americans like Steve Bannon, John Kelly, and Mick Mulvaney surround the president (until they are summarily fired).  For decades now, influential Irish-American media personalities like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity have been part of an elaborate Fox News-centered grievance machine that is the modern Republican Party. O’Reilly and Hannity understood the grievance part of the Irish story from their ancestors, but somehow the solidarity, love, and humor was lost to them through the generations. 

Irish Americans are right to remember the hardship, humiliation, and heartbreak of the Famine, and the cruel welcome of “No Irish Need Apply” Protestant America. We should remember the lives lost and destroyed and the indignities endured, but we should draw upon that memory as an impetus to greater humanity and solidarity to our fellow human beings in Haiti, in Mexico, or anywhere, and not be consumed by the injury, as Blake wrote in the “Poison Tree” – ‘And I watered it in fears, Night & morning with my tears.’

Whither the anger from COVID-19?

The death toll of Americans from the pandemic, almost 70,000 in the first week of May, with who knows how much longer to go, will be enormous.  For the moment, the country is in a state of shock, but there are already signs that shock is morphing into an anger that will be visceral and powerful, a gathering storm of disorganized and directionless rage.  Will this fury be put to positive purpose to stand in solidarity with our fellow human beings at home and around the world (in Chelsea as well as Iran) to fight for justice? Or will it be harvested by the authoritarian, autocratic, racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic right-wing brigade?  

The modern Republican Party is purpose-built to create, curate, distill, refine, and promote outrage, anger, and hatred.  Even Reagan’s friendly smile and “Morning in America” message obscured the fact that Reagan formed his coalition of Wall Streeters, John Birchers, NRA members, religious zealots, Southern bigots, and conservative Catholics around their shared hatred of the Soviet Union.  Reagan’s “Kill the Ruskies” platform brought his disparate coalition together. A decade later, Newt Gingrich, with the Soviet Union gone, redirected that same anger toward an internal enemy of “coastal elites, Ivy league liberals, and eggheads.”

For his part, Trump did not bother with dog-whistling racism; instead he opted for pure “Mexicans are rapists, killers and drug dealers” bull horn racism.  Shamefully, he won the presidency not in spite of his obvious and demonstrable racism and misogyny but because of it.  Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and OANN (a new-ish right wing lie machine described as ‘foxier than Fox’) are willing and capable partners in the grievance/ gaslighting machine that is the modern GOP.  

America's trauma-induced mounting anger might be vectored into a powerful organized force by Trump's blaming of the Chinese, the media, the WHO, immigrants, Europe in general, the French, Hillary Clinton, liberals, among others?  If most of the victims in America are black, brown and poor, which it appears they will be, Trump will surely blame them for their own fate. His allies will drive wedges between ethnic and racial groups to distract citizens from Trump’s failures.  

Irish Americans should follow the example of their ancestral homeland and faith and have the courage to confront injustice directly and without fear, to embrace love, and to imagine a new world built on a foundation of solidarity and a shared desire for justice. 

The first step is to deliver next November a governing majority for Democrats in the House and Senate and remove Trump from office electorally.

Virtues and vices

Human cultures throughout history and around the world have identified traits that are admirable, laudable, and transcendent in an amazingly consistent manner.  The first nations of North America transmitted for thousands of years the “7 Teachings of the Great Spirit’”–  respect, honesty, love, courage, wisdom, humility, and truth.  It was the Choctaw tribe that, having survived its forced removal by President Andrew Jackson along the Trail of Tears 16 years earlier, donated $170 to the Irish famine relief program in 1847.  Solidarity does not require great wealth.

Closer to home, a handy checklist to evaluate virtue and vice are the seven “cardinal sins” in the Catholic catechism of my youth:  vanity, wrath, greed, sloth, pride, gluttony, and lust.  Unfortunately for all of us, they basically represent Donald Trump's daily menu of possible responses to any input. He responded slowly and incompetently to the current crisis, he sowed racist ideas, lashed out at everyone, blamed others, and praised himself incessantly.  No matter what happens, he will default to his favorite sins, blame others, and try to pull voters to his side.

Which brings us back to courage and the Irish challenge to Trump and to Irish America.

Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others” are words attributed variously to Aristotle, Samuel Johnson, and Winston Churchill.  It is time again for the Irish diaspora to have the courage to stand true to their heritage and to stand in solidarity with the poor and dispossessed. US Representatives Richie Neal,  Stephen Lynch, Bill Keating, Joe Kennedy and many of their Irish-American supporters should link arms with AOC, Illan Omar, Rashida Talib, Ayanna Pressley and others to demand a dramatic increase in taxes on the wealthy, forgiveness of college debt, a universal basic income, freedom for non-violent offenders in US jails, freedom and reconnecting with parents of incarcerated undocumented children, the elimination of ICE whose agents prey upon the undocumented,  the immediate expansion of Medicare to cover all citizens, a full embrace of the Green New Deal, and a redoubling of support for the WHO and the UN.  Taking these bold steps now will align these Irish Americans with the justice for which their Irish forebears fought and died.