It is more than half a century since our relationship with America reached peak sycophancy. Just months before he was assassinated, John F Kennedy spent four days in Ireland. He dazzled, charmed, and inspired on a Herculean scale. He was fondly welcomed and reciprocated, because he was, however tenuously, one of our own. He inspired, because, in the dour, blinkered Ireland of 1963, he seemed an emissary from the future, a prophet of sorts. He, and just a few others, made it possible for energetic, but frustrated Irish people to imagine something beyond an agrarian theocracy. And so it transpired. JFK’s great Irish durbar was a highwater mark, in a process that began almost 175 years ago, when the Famine provoked a mass exodus, an emptying out that, at one stage, took 20,000 souls a month. Their shift across the Atlantic was the foundation of the security-blanket notion of a 35m-strong Irish diaspora. Today, that torrent has subsided to a trickle. Now, maybe a few thousand Irish people become legal emigrants to America each year.
That Irish people, today better-educated or at least better-qualified than ever, have other choices is to be celebrated, but it also means that, within a generation, the positive influence, the old-country loyalty and generosity that have been, along with the European Union, such a force in Irish society, may be greatly diminished. A new diaspora is in the ascendant, so it is hard to imagine another Chuck Feeney, who gave €1.1bn to Irish causes. At one stage, he subsidised the University of Limerick Foundation to the tune of €1m a month. It is hard to imagine another American contribution, and presence, in trying to resolve the eternal differences afflicting this island, as forceful as those led by Bill Clinton. Would there have been a Belfast Agreement without George Mitchell?
This loosening of the ties that once bound is already apparent. Some 37% of Irish-Americans under 45 have not visited Ireland, according to a recent NYU/IrishCentral/Amarach. Only a third have joined Irish groups. Half had been to Ireland once. They reported that there has been no marketing effort to reach them, to revive fading loyalties.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar began the traditional St Patrick’s week visit to America yesterday, and his visit will look like any other in recent decades. The drums will roll, the Marines will stand to attention, some American politicians will sport a too-bright green tie, and the odd American cable channel might offer The Quiet Man. US President Donald Trump, like his predecessors, declared March to be Irish-American Heritage Month.
Our need for a strong relationship with America has never been greater.:700 US companies have a presence here, while 160,000 people work directly for American firms in Ireland, another 100,00 indirectly, making up 26% of the workforce and contributing €400bn to the economy. That this relationship began because of Irish America is unquestionable, but it has thrived because of our tax laws. Those laws will, whether we like it or not, change, so we must reconnect with today’s Irish America. Make the phonecall, send the email; this is a mutually valuable relationship, well worth preserving.