Celebrating the 2016 Irish America Hall of Fame
By Adam Farley, Deputy Editor
March 30, 2016
President Bill Clinton received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Irish America magazine today, and Astronaut Col. Eileen Collins, Former Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Martin Dempsey, Writer Pete Hamill, and Mutual of America Special Consultant Edward J.T. Kenney were inducted to the Irish America Hall of Fame at the Metropolitan Club in Manhattan.
At a crowded Metropolitan Club in Manhattan, President Bill Clinton received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Irish America magazine during the Irish America Hall of Fame Luncheon today for his extraordinary role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland during his presidency.
“Today, we are honoring the former president’s central and catalytic role in the peace process in Northern Ireland. But in a world so fraught with strife and instability, we are also recognizing the qualities that are at the very heart of peacemaking and peace building,” Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson said introducing Clinton at the event, going on to highlight his leadership, engagement and persistence in dealing with the Troubles, and singling him out for visiting Northern Ireland three separate times during his presidency.
“No one who witnessed those extraordinary scenes in Belfast and Derry will ever forget them – the switching on of the Christmas tree lights, the bonding of the huge crowds, communicating so urgently belief in a better future,” she said.
“No recipient could be more deserving of a lifetime achievement award. And it is all the more resonant and meaningful for being conferred in this momentous year as we commemorate the centenary of 1916. The themes of commemoration – remember, reconcile, reimagine – are ones that chime precisely with Bill Clinton’s own involvement on our island.”
The event also saw the induction of four of Irish America’s greatest leaders from the military, the arts, and philanthropic sectors – Col. Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander; former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, essayist, novelist, reporter, and columnist Pete Hamill; and Edward J.T. Kenney, who is being honored for his role in the Peace Process and his work with the Irish relief organization Concern Worldwide U.S.
Clinton, who became the first sitting American president to visit Northern Ireland in 1995 (he later returned twice during the next 5 years of his presidency, and again in 2014), delivered the keynote address at the luncheon, threading together the legacy of the message of gender inclusion in the 1916 Proclamation with the poetry of W.B. Yeats, his experiences with the peace process in Northern Ireland, and contemporary questions of the global rise of right-wing nationalism.
Speaking of the Proclamation, he called it “a document that says that Ireland will be established for all people who believe in freedom in constitutional government without regard for their religion or their race or background. In other words, it calls for what we have been working for for the last 20 years and what the Irish have largely achieved through great difficulties. And the only thing that works in an interdependent world [are] inclusive economics, inclusive societies, inclusive governments. Nothing else over the long run is sustainable.”
“I think the lessons of 1916 teach us a lot about what’s happening all across the world in 2016,” he said.
Quoting Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” Clinton said, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. If the center does not hold, inclusive economics, inclusive societies, and inclusive governance all fall to the politics of blame.”
“It’s too easy to believe that the solution to the modern world is to hunker down,” he said. “It’s easy to turn away, but it’s better to go forward, because the enemies of freedom, the people who don’t really believe in diversity, they will always find a way to pierce the walls. So we need a stronger fence; we need stronger diplomacy. But we also need never to lose our willingness to reach across the barriers. And that is the great test.
“We are so close, ironically, in this country, to being back to the point where we can all go together again. We are much more likely to live together again – this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade for instance.
“But our great vice seems to be, having shed so much of our bigotry, we just don’t want to be around anybody who disagrees with us anymore. This is a problem in both parties – ‘There’s something wrong with you if you don’t see it my way.’
“Just remember, the Northern Ireland Agreement, the Good Friday Accord, institutionalized inclusive governance, a special relationship with both the United Kingdom and the Irish republic, a way forward for inclusive prosperity, for inclusive politics.
“We can never let our hearts turn to stone,” he said, in another Yeats reference to “Easter 1916.” “And we can never let things fall apart so much that we cannot build a dynamic center where the future of our children counts more than the scars of our past. That is the ultimate lesson of every single thing that has happened from 100 years ago when that declaration was issued, down to all that has happened since 1995. And I hope you will be the torchbearers for that message of hope.”
Following his speech, violinist Gregory Harrington and cellist Eleanor Norton paid tribute to Clinton’s legacy with a solo rendition of U2’s “With or Without You.” Harrington, who graduated from University College Dublin, is known for his unique mixture of classical influences of the likes of Bach and Beethoven with new arrangements of contemporary popular songs. “With or Without You,” he said, is the president’s favorite.
Singer Judy Collins, a fixture of the 1960s and ’70s New York and California folk scene and a former inductee to the Irish America Hall of Fame, welcomed in the 2016 Hall of Fame honorees with three of her most famous songs – “Both Sides Now,” “Beyond the Sky,” and “New Moon Over the Hudson.” NASA specially commissioned “Beyond the Sky,” which tells a dramatized story of Eileen Collins’s dream to go to space, for the 2005 Return to Flight mission, which Eileen commanded following the Columbia disaster.
Col. Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle commander, spoke of her family’s working class background – the Collins settled in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s as farmers, while her mother’s family, the O’Haras, worked in the railroad industry. If it wasn’t for her maternal grandfather managing the Elmira, NY station, she might never have been a pilot, she said, because that’s where the National Soaring Museum is located, which was the initial spark for her interest in aviation.
“All I wanted to do when I was young was go farther, faster, and higher,” she said.
“I used to be very focused on myself, and it was all about, “Am I doing the right thing? Do I look right?” We live on a ball that is spinning and the space station is only 200 miles above the surface,” she said. “The earth’s atmosphere is like an apple skin on the apple. That’s how thin it is when you look back.
“And if you look at the history of the space program, space flight leads to invention, it leads to discoveries, it is exploration, and it is adventure. So we are adventuring into a new world. We think about the Irish people like my ancestors who crossed the ocean so long ago, coming to a new world, think about how much courage that took. It took courage for them to leave their homes and families, first of all; it took courage for them to get in the boat and go across an ocean; and it took courage to set up a new home in a place that maybe you wouldn’t be accepted where you’re going.
“So I think the Irish people, and particularly Irish Americans, are people of adventure. And I believe that our Irish ancestors have something in common with the space program, and that’s a sense of adventure. So there’s a need to explore, there’s a need to learn new things, a need to do new things, and this is the hope of our space program, is the promise of our space program.”
Pete Hamill, whose parents immigrated from Belfast and whose career as a journalist has taken him from Vietnam to Northern Ireland and seen his writing in the likes of Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Playboy, spoke of his Brooklyn childhood and the multicultural shoulders to which he owes thanks for standing upon.
“In my case, most of my life has been an alloy, and I think that’s typical of New Yorkers. So I’m Irish, and proudly so, but I’m part Italian, too…. I was also part Jewish…. I was Latino too…. And I was also African American – I loved jazz music. I interviewed Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey; I became friends with Max Roach, the great, great drummer from Bedford Stuyvesant. And all of them, in one way or another, fed my writing,” he said.
“I got a sense that it doesn’t matter where you came from if you were in New York, the education was going to be there for you.”
Above all, he said, he had the Brooklyn Public Library, which gave him a sense of safety and surprise in what could be discovered through language.
“I sailed to Treasure Island for Christ sake; I hung out with the Count of Monte Cristo. What more could you want from life?” he said. “And in there was born whatever kind of writer I am.”
As the centenary year of the Easter Rising, the luncheon also paid tribute to the legacy of the Rising, and an original copy of the 1916 Proclamation was on prominent display on stage, brought to the event by Chris Cahill of the American Irish Historical Society.
Referencing the legacy of the Proclamation and his heritage, Concern Worldwide U.S. humanitarian and former Mutual of America head and FBI agent Ed Kenney, in his humble acceptance speech, acknowledged that the induction to the Hall of Fame was not an award for himself, but for all his ancestors as well.
“As I mentioned, I have difficulty conjuring up a believable rationale for why I am here sharing the stage with such esteemed company,” he said. “It’s impossible not to appreciate that we stand upon the shoulders of so many who lived through such hard times, who made great sacrifices. It’s an essential part of what it means to be an Irish American and anyone who comes my way, this is as much theirs as it is mine.”
He also spoke of his work with Concern, the Irish-based worldwide charity organization. Quoting Concern co-founder Aengus Finucane, he said the mission of Concern was to help “the poorest of the poor,” and to “do as much as you can, as well as you can, for as many as you can, for as long as you can.”
Martin Dempsey, who would sing the luncheon’s penultimate song, “The Irish Pub” by the High Kings” following his remarks, also called back to his antecedents.
“Like many of you, I reflect back on my ancestors,” he began, “And if it hadn’t been for them, none of us would be here. But I guess that’s the nature of our country, and I never allow myself to forget that.”
He went on to share what he called a vignette from his time with President Obama, from a retirement parade for Leon Panetta, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
“I was sitting on a dais just like this with President Obama and Leon Panetta,” he said. “And as he walked off to be honored by the troops, President Obama leaned across to me – and when the president leans across, you pay attention, right? It’s just one of the rules of the road. So the president leaned across (Panetta had been sitting in between us), he leaned across and he said ‘Can you believe the three of us are here?’ That’s all he said. And he didn’t have to say anything else, because I knew what he meant was ‘African American, Italian American, Irish American.’ And it was one of the most powerful moments of my entire time with the president.
“Now I’ve been wondering about my grandmother in Ellis Island, standing there with her mandatory one suitcase and a couple of Polish fellows behind, chatting it up, and I’m just guessing that at one point she turned around and said, ‘You just pay attention now because at one point my grandson is going to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.’
“That’s only possible in America – really. I’ll never forget that and I’ll never forget this award.”
Dempsey’s grandparents emigrated from counties Donegal, Sligo, Roscommon, and Mayo.
Those in attendance also included Irish Ambassador to the United States Anne Anderson; former New York City police commissioner Ray Kelly; singer Judy Collins; Gary Hanley, senior vice president, Americas, for Invest Northern Ireland; Norman Houston, director of the Northern Ireland Bureau; Guy Smith executive vice president at Diageo and Emma Giles, Brand Director for Guinness at Diageo, who delivered the official Guinness toast at the event; Stella O’Leary, president and founder of Irish American Democrats; and Sandra Lee, author and chef and partner to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
Additionally, the event also marked another upcoming anniversary with the first-time meeting of the descendants and relatives of Annie Moore, the first person to pass through Ellis Island when it opened January, 1, 1892, including Irish tenor Paul Linehan, who closed out the evening with a final song, “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears,” a ballad chronicling Moore’s experiences of immigration.
Moore, who was born in County Cork, was only a teenager when she passed through, became a mystery soon after immigrating. Genealogist Megan Smolenyak spent ten years researching Moore, and was the first to discover she had been misidentified several years ago. Her account of this research, including the discovery of her descendants, appears in an article in the April / May issue of Irish America. ♦
The 2016 Irish America Hall of Fame is sponsored by:
Mutual of America / The Coca-Cola Company / Guinness / Tourism Ireland / UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School / The American Ireland Fund / CIE Tours International / House of Waterford Crystal / 1-800-Flowers.Com