Thank you Mr. Flynn for your kind introduction and for packing the dais tonight with so many Gonzaga graduates. It is a tremendous honor to be given a membership to this Society and to be here tonight with so many distinguished Americans.
To Archbishop Wuerl, to Cardinal McCarrick, Bishop Knestout, and Father O’Connell, President of my alma matter, Catholic University. To General Casey and all of the distinguished commanders and people who have served in our Armed Forces.
It is a great honor to be with all of you, as well as the distinguished representative from the Irish Embassy who is with us, and also the Mayor of Galway, Mayor Conneely. Mayor, thank you very much for being with us. (Applause.)
We are joined by a number of Marylanders tonight – Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Senate President Mike Miller, Comptroller Peter Franchot, and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett.
It’s a great time in our country to be Irish, isn’t it? Let’s face it, it’s always a great time to be Irish. (Applause.)
Earlier today I had the honor to be able to visit the White House, and there was the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen welcomed in the White House, along with Vice President Biden, who of course claims Irish descent, as all of us do. And we’re in that house that was built by an Irishman, James Hoban. And it was also great to listen to our new President Barack Obama, as he proudly claimed his own Irish heritage. This is true. We have an Irishman in the White House again.
Barack Obama’s great-great-great grandfather was Falmouth Kearney and he was the son of a shoemaker in Moneygail, and he sailed here from Dublin to New York in 1850 at the age of 19 to escape the famine. He went to Ohio, where he married and had five daughters and three sons — never dreaming that a grandchild of his grandchild would one day become President of the United States. That’s a true story.
Now, gentlemen, we always knew that it was just a matter of time. It was just a matter of time before the Irish in America broke that final great barrier of acceptance and elected our very first Irish-Hawaiian-Kenyan-Kansan president. Give all of us a round of applause. (Applause.)
It is an honor to be here with all of you and I want to share just a few brief words. I underscore the word brief. Just a few brief words with you about what I think it means to be Irish. What it means to be Irish in America, especially in these challenging times.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I suspect that at some point in this day, we all found ourselves thinking of our fathers or our mothers or our grandparents. I had a number of people who came up to me and remembered my father Tom O’Malley. (Applause) Thank you.
Well, this is the time we remember all of our dads, we remember all of our mothers, all of our grandmothers and our grandfathers. The Irish poet John O’Donohue once wrote that, “the human person is a threshold where many infinities meet. There is the infinity of space that reaches out into the depths of the cosmos and the infinity of time reaching back over billions of years.”
As we gather here tonight, we carry with us centuries of struggle, interwoven with a distinct commitment towards justice and to service which has always been at the heart of what we stand for — it’s what we stand for as Americans, it’s what we stand for as a people of Irish descent. And in this way, the circle is unbroken and our journey continues.
When Falmouth Kearney’s generation came here 159 years ago, they fled economic conditions that few of us can even imagine. The had a courage demanded of few today.
They came to this new continent, they shook the clay of Ireland off their boots and they went to work. They went to work to build America. To build a better future for their children.
And when the war came, even though they had been Americans for just a few short years, they showed a patriotism and courage and a love of country and a willingness to sacrifice that was larger than the prejudice and hate directed against them.
In Maryland, on September 17, 1862, the deadliest day of America’s Civil War took place. On this day, the Irish Brigade led their famous charge on Bloody Lane at Antietam, shouting this motto: “fág an bealach” which is Irish for “clear the way,” as they charged behind the green flag with a harp raised beside their own beloved stars and stripes.
540 Irish were killed or wounded that day. John Savage’s poem, Requiem for the Fallen Irish Brigade, records it thus:
“Proud beats the heart, while it sorrowing melts
O’er the death-won fame of the truthful Celts
For the scattered graves, over which we pray
Will shine like stars on their race away,…”
Who were these men, who came from villages by the River Shannon or Lough Derg and traveled thousands of miles? Men who hadn’t traveled more than a mile or two in their lives before now followed the path of history over thousands of miles, across whole continents. They came here even before the potato died and famine became a tool of genocide, long before the troubles — to build a new life with their families.
And they brought with them the history of a people who conquered successive invaders by their courage, by their wit, by their love, by their special talent for turning their oppressor’s tongue into “sorcery of their own.” So powerful was this inter-marrying Irish culture that invaders made it illegal to play Irish music, to speak the Irish language, to even possess the Irish harp.
This is Our Story
And this, my fellow Irishmen, is our story, it’s our experience, it’s our great tradition, it’s our responsibility, and I submit to you it’s also our hope and it’s our aspiration.
We stand on their shoulders. Look at your hands. If tonight they are smooth and clean, it is because theirs were rough and dirty and worn. Our lives can be long and happy because theirs were short and hard. Our souls are stirred by the divinely inspired spirit that drove these brave men and women to our shores. For the circle is unbroken, the struggle continues and the journey carries on.
And what’s best about that story, I think, is that it’s not just about what we did when we had the power, but what we did and how we acted when we did not have the power. When signs in shop windows read, “No Irish need apply.” When Know Nothings caricatured us as apes and ridiculed our faith. And when Irish immigrants, with nothing more than those strong hands and sturdy backs and God’s grace, helped build the greatest nation ever to exist on earth, a beautiful nation that desperately needs us now, for the circle is unbroken and the struggle continues.
You see that struggle in the public arena, you see that struggle in our ability to bring unity in times of division. Sympathy for the unpopular in the face of oppression, the gift to create common aspirations for disparate people, the ability to heal that which had been broken. The circle, though, is unbroken and the struggle continues.
And in these challenging times we must shout again like that Irish Brigade of old fag an bealac, “clear the way.” In the face of tough times and recession, we say clear the way. For the sake of generations to come, we say clear the way. Against the threats to our security, we say clear the way. Against the forces of bigotry and intolerance, of nativism, immigrant-bashing, gay-bashing, poor-bashing, we must say clear the way.
The circle is unbroken. That circle that began not 50 years ago or 100 or 150 or 1,000 years.
And how fortunate we are to have been born of the sons and daughters of Ireland. How blessed we are to hear the songs, to know the poetry, remembering the past fondly, but gazing into the distance with sense of wonder and adventure. Harboring a healthy skepticism, but always moving forward with hope.
Living our faith. Treasuring our families. Enjoying our friends. Remembering our fathers. God bless you. God bless Ireland. God bless America.