Last Word:
15 Years a Growing

By Niall O’Dowd
October / November 2000

Fifteen years is a mere flicker in the continuum of time, but for us here at Irish America it is a landmark and a measure of how far we have come.

Founding publisher Niall O’Dowd.

Back at the beginning when we were ready to launch Irish America in November 1985, it was just an idea and a dream. Many harbor such dreams – indeed, last year alone over 18,000 new magazine titles were launched in the United States.

The success rate is low, however. Fully 90 percent never make it beyond the first year, a sobering statistic for anyone with publishing ambitions.

There is an old Gaelic saying “Bíonn gach tosach lag” (Every beginning is weak) and we were no exception. Looking back now, we were hopelessly naïve about many aspects of publishing, not least the vagaries of finding an honest printer and distributor.

But we had one element on our side – the outpouring of support we received from Irish Americans everywhere. It is their support which has allowed us to publish the first successful Irish-American magazine in history.

The fact that we continue to do so owes an enormous amount to you, the reader. Right from the beginning, from our first direct mail effort, we knew we were slaking a thirst for knowledge about Irish America.

At least we know now in retrospect that we were. Back then, cofounder Patricia Harty and I anxiously awaited each day’s mail, often going personally to our box at the Lexington Avenue Post Office in Manhattan to gather up the new subscribers.

The tension of the first few days when we awaited the results of our first direct mail campaign was very real. The fact that we hadn’t even gotten an issue out when we made our first direct mail pitch made it even harder to predict the response.

We weren’t flush with money. Indeed, if the mail shot had failed, it is likely I wouldn’t be writing these words now. On such fragile missives are dreams launched.

The cover of the first issue, 1985.

We did know there was a hunger in Irish Americans to know about themselves and their story. It had never been properly told, and the warmed-over Paddywhackery that passed for Irish-American culture was anathema to most thinking Irish people.

We were betting on a welcome for a new kind of Irish-American message, one that stressed the real culture as against what had been pilfered from bad Broadway productions back in the days of vaudeville.

As it turned out, we were bowled over by the response from the mailing. It was the words of encouragement contained in countless notes that meant a tremendous amount to us, even more than the fact that so many of you subscribed.

Oftentimes after the early issues were published, we returned gleefully from the Lexington Avenue Post Office with bags of mail, pouring them out on our desks, reading the individual notes. We basked in the knowledge that you, the reader, liked the product we were offering, and it provided an enormous confidence boost.

I remember one letter in particular, from a woman in Indiana who told us after receiving her first issue that she had been waiting all her life to see a decent Irish magazine which reflected her heritage. She was the last of 12 children of an Irish Famine immigrant and she was now in her 90s. To have such an immediate link to the Famine made a deep impression on me.

Later there was a letter from a proud American Indian in Oklahoma who also had Irish lineage and who described the similarities between the Irish and Indian imagination.

Over the years we forged many such bonds and linkages with Irish Americans from all over the country. I am proud to say that those bonds have stayed firm through all of those 15 years.

During that time we have all matured and grown, as the magazine has, but the message remains the same as in our first editorial motto: Pride in Our Heritage, Mórtas Cine in Gaelic.

Back then we could never have envisaged that a president of the United States would grace one of our events, that stars like Gregory Peck, Maureen O’Hara, Liam Neeson, and Brooke Shields would attend our functions, that we would create the definitive lists of the top Irish Americans in every major field of endeavor in the United States.

Back then our ambition was to survive, to make it through the wasteland, which the first year of publishing always represents. Along the way we hoped that we would gather sufficient acumen to keep our dream alive.

Thanks to you, dear reader, we have not only survived but prospered to the point where we even have some imitators, which we take as the sincerest form of flattery. As we begin our second 15 years, I offer a sincere “Thank you” for your support, and as the Irish saying goes, “May your enemies never meet a friend.” Thanks again. ♦

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