US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley had to give up his Irish passport to take up the role of a diplomat. But, as he recounts to Dan Buckley, that doesn’t make him feel any less Irish.
WHEN Kevin O’Malley’s grandparents left Ireland in the early years of the last century, their pockets were empty but they had hope in their hearts, courage galore, and a shared vision for the future.
They would need it all as they trundled their seven children onto a boat in Cobh — then Queenstown — in 1907 and set sail for a new life in America.
It’s an image that O’Malley, US ambassador to Ireland since September 2014, carries with him wherever he goes, drawing on their memory and inspired by their resilience and spirit of adventure.
As a successful and highly respected lawyer in the US, O’Malley could have slid gently into retirement or taken the gentile legal lecture circuit — but where would be the fun in that?
US president Barack Obama asked and he accepted with pleasure and pride, seeing as a rare privilege the opportunity to represent his country in the land of his ancestors.
Even when subsequently required to suspend his Irish citizenship, he did not blanch. Like many Irish-Americans he had dual citizenship but retaining an Irish passport was not compatible with his new role.
“It did not and does not change who I am, whether I have a document or not,” he says. “My roots are Irish from both of my parents and from my grandparents.”
O’Malley’s Irish credentials are, indeed, impeccable. Both of his parents were Irish and his paternal grandparents emigrated from Westport in Co Mayo.
He came to Ireland with his wife Dena and, last April, he visited Mayo for the first time as ambassador where he toured the National Museum of Country Life in Turlough Park, Castlebar, with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
One of the many objects they were shown was an emigrant’s teapot, a typical part of the emigrant’s kit. The Taoiseach explained that millions of Irish would have brought a teapot like that with them on board a ship to the US.
“The ambassador was quite overcome by emotion at this,” says John Murphy from the embassy’s Office of Public Affairs.
He was equally moved when he visited Cobh and imagined his grandparent’s last glimpse of Ireland as they left on the emigrant ship.
“I was down for the Lusitania memorial,” says the ambassador. “It gave me an opportunity to walk that walk. They left with seven children and settled in Chicago and had eight more there.”
His grandparents were hard working but impoverished.
“My grandfather was a labourer and my grandmother raised 15 kids,” says O’Malley. “They had just completed their family when the Great Depression hit. Most of the older children had to work and my dad’s last day at school was in the week the stock market crashed.”
Education was the route chosen by his father to ensure his children would never experience the depravation he endured.
“My father emphasised the importance of education for his four children, an education that he was denied,” says O’Malley. “He never had the chance to finish secondary school so it was very important for him that his children were educated.”
O’Malley Jr made the most of it, choosing a career in law. He has been an adjunct professor both at Washington University School of Law and St Louis University School of Law. He is a nationally recognised author of a treatise on jury instructions that is used in federal jury trials throughout the US.
He now marvels at the fact that he has “the best job in the world” as US ambassador to Ireland, as he explains in an embassy video.
“I learned to love Ireland and all things Irish while seated at the feet of my parents and both sets of grandparents,” he says. “Ireland’s journey in the 100 years since my grandparents left is an extraordinary story. They would be so pleased at the highly innovative, globally focused, ethically minded country that modern Ireland has become. They would be so pleased to see that the United States has invested so heavily in Ireland and equally pleased to see that the Irish have invested heavily in the United States.”
He is acutely aware that the relationship between Ireland the US is not just based on nostalgia.
Our economic relationship is very much a two-way street, with Irish companies investing in the US as well as American companies operating here. Ireland’s total investment in the US reached a record $26.2bn in 2013.
He takes a lively interest in affairs in the North where the current political stalemate is a matter of growing concern to the US government, as well as to political leaders here and in Britain.
While the North falls under the jurisdiction of the US ambassador to the UK, O’Malley is keeping a weather eye on events north of the border, assuring his hosts that American interest in the peace process is not waning and that it remains engaged with it and ready to give assistance when needed.
“The US will continue to be directly involved in the peace process,” he says. “We are committed to that and will continue to have direct involvement as is appropriate.”
Like many international observers, he is, perhaps, a little frustrated by the apparent unwillingness of Northern politicians to engage directly with one another and sort out the impasse, aware of the dangers it poses to a peace.
“It is time for political leaders in Northern Ireland to lead,” he says. “The people of the North have, courageously, gone way past conflict but the politicians are lagging behind. It is time to close the deal.
O’Malley exhibits none of the coyness or mock self-deprecation of a career diplomat. As a speaker, he is refreshingly forthright, honed from decades as a lawyer in St Louis, Missouri, where his trial skills earned him fellowship in the American College of Trial Lawyers.
His home town is known as the Gateway to the West, symbolised by the iconic Gateway Arch on the banks of the Mississippi River. It is, as he likes to remind his hosts, “also home of the St Louis Cardinals baseball team and in the world of music was the early incubator for both jazz and the blues”. With a pedigree such as this, it is no surprise to find he enjoys a bit of craic.
I welcome him to Cork City, where he was attending the State funeral for Thomas Kent, visiting US multinationals, and attending the Sounds from a Safe Harbour Festival concert at the Opera House.
The four-day festival featured 450 artists at 70 different events and the US Embassy had been an official sponsor.
“We’re delighted that Cork Opera House chose such a talented US musician, Bryce Dessner, to curate the festival, and we’re proud to sponsor a festival that showcases a wonderful US-Irish collaboration and strengthens US-Irish creative linkages,” says O’Malley.
Assuming this was his first trip to the city was a big mistake on my part.
“I have been to Cork several times,” he chides, before adding with a twinkle: “Your surveillance of my activities is not very good. I have been all over this wonderful country and plan to do a lot more.”
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