IN THE summer of 1978 a young man from Drogheda named Niall O’Dowd had just graduated from UCD with a BA degree but in unemployment-ravaged Ireland he felt his prospects lay elsewhere.
Over the following three month he travelled across the US - from New York to San Francisco, via Chicago - in search of work and after the summer he decided to stay as an illegal immigrant (this being before the Morrison and Donnelly visas were introduced ) and take his chances.
Over the course of the past 30 years O’Dowd has become an American citizen, risen to prominence in the Irish-American community through his Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine, and has been instrumental in getting the Northern peace process on track. His is a story of perseverance and sheer determination to make a difference.
Many of O’Dowd’s experiences over the past three decades are recounted in his recent autobiography An Irish Voice (O’Brien Press ) and it gives an insight into how difficult life as an illegal immigrant is.
“I’ve always been aware that very few Irish emigrants write about their experiences,” he tells me over the phone from his New York office. “I had it in my mind for a long time to write a book about what it’s like to come to America as a 23/24-year-old and the reality of what it’s like adapting to a new country.
“I’d lived a fairly controlled, easy-going life in Ireland but what emigration does is it kind of shakes you out of your old existence. You have to stand on your own two feet and you have to use whatever talents you have to best effect. I was a reasonably OK Gaelic footballer so I got involved in the GAA over here and it was a great starting point in terms of making contacts. Through that association people gave you the start you needed.”
Niall worked various jobs on building sites in Chicago and San Francisco but what he really wanted to do was write. He decided to set up a newspaper The Irishman for his fellow Irish workers and for Irish-Americans in California so they could have regular updates on what was happening at home. He didn’t think for a second that the venture might fail.
“I was quite naïve,” he admits. “When you’re 26 and living in a new country you don’t see the downside to any plan. If it didn’t work out you’d just go to the next thing and because the country is so big you could go to Boston or New York or wherever and start all over again. It was refreshing.”
Eventually The Irishman ran into financial trouble but by that time he had already decided to move to New York. When he arrived in the Big Apple he found it entirely different from his life on the West Coast.
“I loved life in San Francisco but when I came to New York I knew I had to change,” he states. “There a photo of me from around that time and I’m wearing cowboy boots and have hair down to my shoulders. So, I had to clean up my act.”
Frank McCourt and Angela’s Ashes
In October 1985 O’Dowd and his then partner Patricia Harty co-founded Irish America magazine and two years later they rolled out the Irish Voice newspaper. In his early days in this new city O’Dowd would often encounter a schoolteacher from Limerick named Frank McCourt and they would talk about their literary aspirations.
“He was a wonderful guy,” O’Dowd says. “I knew Frank ‘the teacher’ McCourt before he became Frank ‘the Pulitzer Prize winning author’ McCourt and I can tell you that he didn’t change one little bit with the fame game. I think Angela’s Ashes is true to life because we have subsequently found out about all these awful things that were happening in 1940s and 1950s Ireland in terms of institutional care and all that.
“Frank was very honest in his writing and if you’re being honest and people get offended then so be it. Over here he stayed involved with people and he helped out a lot of aspiring writers. You can’t pick up a book by an Irish-American or Irish writer over the last 10 years without a quote from Frank McCourt on the back. That was his way of saying ‘I’m going to help you’ and he did help many Irish writers.”
There is no doubt McCourt would have provided a quote for O’Dowd’s book had he been well enough but he was battling terminal cancer when O’Dowd was writing his drafts. Instead former US president Bill Clinton has provided the glowing recommendation.
“Niall O’Dowd played a hugely important part in the American role in the Irish peace process. He is the voice of Irish America for this generation,” the former US president said.
O’Dowd was instrumental in getting a group of Irish-American business and political leaders such as Bruce Morrison, Chuck Feeney, Ray Flynn, Paul O’Dwyer, and Ted Kennedy together to beseech newly-elected Clinton to take an active role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
“Through those people we were able to get Gerry Adams to the White House to meet with Bill Clinton and that was a pivotal moment,” O’Dowd says. “The group we put together were tremendous advocates for peace and reconciliation and just did fantastic work and had incredible determination to do their best for the people of Ireland.”
The Kennedy family is seen as the ultimate Irish-American success story. They have been prominent in American politics for many decades and are known as America’s royal family. In August last year they lost their most senior member when Ted Kennedy passed away. O’Dowd had many meetings with ‘The Lion of the Senate’ down through the years.
“He was a very old-fashioned Irish politician and he understood the game in a way that very few politicians do,” O’Dowd says. “He was very well-read on Irish issues - both in terms of the North and on the immigration issue – and he was a natural leader. When Teddy passed away it signalled the end of the Kennedy era and it was a very sad day for the Irish in America.”
Niall himself comes from an Irish political family. His brother, Fergus, is a Fine Gael TD for Louth. Another brother, Michael, was mayor of Drogheda. O’Dowd has no political aspirations himself but says “I admire people who are in politics because it’s not an easy life”.
Niall O’Dowd will read from his new book An Irish Voice at Hotel Meyrick on Friday July 16 at 6pm as part of the Galway Arts Festival. For tickets contact the box office on 091 - 566577.