Celebrating Joe Biden and the 2013 Irish America Hall of Fame Inductees

Vice President Joe Biden at the 2013 Irish America Hall of Fame luncheon. Photo: Sade Joseph.

Comhghairdeas to all of our inductees!

On Thursday, March 21 Irish America was honored to induct the 2013 class of honorees into the Irish America Hall of Fame. Vice President Joe Biden, art collector and benefactor Brian Burns, businessman and philanthropist Bob Devlin, hotelier and humanitarian John Fitzpatrick, and immigration reformer and former congressman Bruce Morrison were recognized and gave speeches at the 2013 awards luncheon in the Grand Salon of the J.W. Marriott Essex House in New York City.

After the 300 guest – including New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and her sister Peggy, Consul General Noel Kilkenny and Hanora O’Dea Kilkenny, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers, authors Edna O’Brien and Colum McCann and actress Fionnula Flanagan – filled the grand salon, the honorees were led in by a bagpiper to the tune of Danny Boy.

Bruce Morrison was introduced by Niall O’Dowd, Brian Burns was introduced by President of Quinnipiac University John Lahey (himself a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee), Bob Devlin by his son Michael, and John Fitzpatrick by Joe Byrne of Tourism Ireland. Each of the honorees received a ceremonial bowl from the House of Waterford Crystal.

Violinist Gregory Harrington (look for an interview with him in the April/May issue) serenaded the crowd with his eye-widening complex interpretations of Danny Boy and O’Carolan’s Concerto – highly poignant since both the composer Turlough O’Carolan (1670 – 1838) and Vice President Biden’s Irish great-grandfather James Finnegan were blind musicians.

Irish America’s co-founder and editor-in-chief Patricia Harty spoke to the Hall of Fame’s multifaceted mission – to honor the extraordinary accomplishments of men and women of Irish descent and to remember the brave, often unknown or unnamed ancestors who made the journey across the Atlantic, and whose determination paved the way for generations of descendants. She introduced Sean Reidy, CEO of the JFK Trust in New Ross, County Wexford (home to the Dunbrody Famine Ship and the Irish America Hall of Fame).

Former president of Coca-Cola Don Keough (whose immigrant ancestor also left the shores of New Ross for America) made a special presentation to former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Jean Kennedy Smith, honoring her diplomatic work on peace in Northern Ireland and her furthering of the Kennedy family’s distinguished legacy of public service. This year marks an important milestone in Kennedy history, as the 50th anniversary of both President Kennedy’s seminal visit to Ireland, on which Kennedy Smith accompanied him and of his tragic death. Celebrations honoring his 1963 visit will take place in New Ross on June 22.

After being inaugurated by Irish America’s founding publisher Niall O’Dowd, the Vice President spoke movingly for half an hour on topics ranging from his Irish heritage and the journey of the Irish in America to the current struggle of the 50,000 undocumented Irish in the U.S. and the 11 million others “living in the shadows,” the majority of whom are Hispanic.

He fondly recalled words of wisdom from his mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, who told him to always remember his heritage and see himself as everyone’s equal:

“All the stories. All the pride. All that created this sense of unity among Irish Americans. It’s an amazing story if you think about it. Why are we as proud as we are? Why would my mother say things to me like – and coming from very modest means – ‘Joey, remember, you’re a Biden.’ It’s like, what the hell’s a Biden, you know? But my mother, that was it. ‘You are every man’s equal, no man is better than you!’ It was like we were talking about some dynasty, but it was real. It was palpable, you could taste it, you could feel it. This sense of pride that we have, it is so strong.

He shared how she urged him not to bow down to anyone – not even the Queen of England or Pope John Paul:

“From the time I can remember, I had a stutter, and my mom would say ‘Joey, nobody, nobody, nobody is better than you. Everyone is your equal, but no one is better than you. Treat everyone with respect, but demand respect. Demand respect from everyone with whom you deal. Never bow.’ I remember I was going to meet the Queen of England as a young senator, and as I was heading to the airport, I give you my word, before I left the house I got a call from my mother. She said ‘Joey, be polite, but do not kiss her ring.’ I got the great honor of introducing my mother to Pope John Paul. My mother said ‘Joey, don’t kiss his ring.’ There was this thing about never bending. As my dad would say, ‘it’s all about dignity, all about dignity.’ Everyone, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity, and no man in any circumstance has the right to treat someone in a way that doesn’t honor their dignity.”

He spoke of his vision of America land of possibilities – a vision that prevails today, but one that requires a shift in immigration law to continue:

“The history of the journey in this country, in my opinion, has been that anything is possible. I know it sounds trite to say it, but anything is possible. I think that’s what’s attracted wave of immigration after wave. All those immigrants who have constantly infused this country with new blood, new ideas, new determination – a new certainty of continued possibilities. It’s what makes us such a great nation. I really mean that. It’s not just because I’m being honored here today, it’s what I’ve been saying for the past 30 years. And I think it’s the distinguishing feature, the distinguishing feature that sets America apart. But today our immigration system is broken. It needs to be fixed. It needs to be fair. It needs to continue to hold out the promise of possibilities. And that means we have to modernize the existing legal system to deal with the reality that 11 million + people are undocumented. Today our legal immigration system, though well-intended, has the effect of keeping families separated. America is about family. We Irish are about family. My great-grandfather, when he came a year ahead of his family, would not have stayed were he not able to bring his family, and I mean his whole family, with him. Because what did we do when we got here? We built communities. We weren’t a polyglot of individuals. We were about family, about neighborhood, about community. That’s who the hell we are. But today, a nationalized American has to wait a minimum of 12 years for the opportunity to bring his brother or his sister to join him. That’s a system that needs to be changed and can be changed.”

He advocated raising caps for the country-sponsored immigration system and adding extra visas to reunite families quickly. He lamented the great potential America loses each year when it sends home some 40,000 PhDs and Masters in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) upon graduating. He shared a compelling example Taoiseach Enda Kenny had raised earlier in the week at their St. Patrick’s Day brunch, and laid out the platform for processing the undocumented:

“The Taoiseach was at my home yesterday morning, and we were sitting in the library before breakfast. He said ‘Mr. Vice President, imagine not being able to go home for your mother’s funeral, for you know you’ll never be able to come back.” It’s not just the Irish. That’s the circumstance for Latinos, Asians, others. Every country has the right to secure its borders, and we are doing that. There’s less illegal immigration today than at any other time in recent history. But there needs to be an earned pathway to citizenship, it’s in America’s naked self-interest. . . Anyone currently illegally here must pass a national security background check, pay their back taxes, pay a penalty, go to the back of the line behind those who are waiting outside of the country, but they deserve a path. They deserve the certain knowledge that if they do this, it may take 10 or 15 years, but they’re on a pathway.”

He also highlighted priority for dreamers who enroll in college or the military. Alluding to the resistance and discrimination voiced by some opponents of immigration reform, he asked the largely Irish-American audience to not forget that the Irish were, at one time, the major immigrant group targeted by those against immigration:

“We were Catholics with all those kids, we bred like rabbits, we were drunkards. . . . In 1892 the New York Times wrote of our ancestors the following: ‘It is next to impossible to penetrate this mass of protected secluded humanity with modern ideas. Where they halt they stay, and where they stay they multiply and cover the Earth.’ . . . You’re incredibly successful men and women, but I bet you have felt that bite once in a while. It’s in that look, the [mis]-pronunciation of your last name, some joke about Catholicism. So the point is, we should know a hell of a lot better, we Irish, particularly you successful Irish. We have an obligation, every one of us in this room has an obligation because we made it. And why? Because we stood upon the shoulders of those who came before us. We stood upon those proud shoulders of our grandmothers and grandfathers who wouldn’t bend. Who came with nothing and for a hell of a long time weren’t able to achieve much of anything. Except maintain their pride and their dignity. They were proud and they stood tall, and now it’s time for us to stand up, not just for those 50,000 Irish in the shadows today, but for the 11 million Hispanics, who by the way are just as proud, just as noble, care just as much about their families as we do. Because like our for-bearers they possess the overwhelming potential to build this country.

Quoting Seamus Heaney, whom he called one of his favorite contemporary poets, the Vice President called upon Irish Americans to help secure a fair path to legalization for all 11 million undocumented Americans – the Irish and the non-Irish alike:

“In his poem The Cure At Troy he wrote, ‘History says, don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, the long-fought tidal wave of justice rises up, and hope and history rhyme.’ There are over 11 million people out there, good people, who are waiting for hope and history to rhyme. And I think we above all other people, who felt that brunt of prejudice, that disregard of our talent, the marginalization of our religion, the characterization of our families, I think we have both the capacity and the obligation not just to take those 50,000 Irishmen out of the shadows, but everyone out of the shadows.”

He concluded:

“I would have never dreamed that I’d be in this position. Oh, I wasn’t surprised that I’d be Vice President, but I am surprised I’m in the Irish [America] Hall of Fame. Thank you all.”

Read more about Joe Biden.

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