Home thoughts from abroad

view from the hills

It was a twofold mission — to do the best you could for yourself and to do the best you could for the folks at home. Margaret Craven was talking about emigration from Ireland the way it used to be in the 1960s. She knows. She left her native Letterard in Connemara as a teenager. She was then Margaret Connolly and, like thousands of others of her generation, the bells of emigration were tolling for her early in her life. She was speaking in Portland in the state of Maine in America last week. She is now a state representative for the Democrats in the state parliament in Maine; next week she will almost certainly be a state senator. She has an election next Tuesday and the bells are tolling for her Republican opponent. But last Monday it was the bells in the Church of St Dominick in Portland that tolled and told the story of the Irish in the state of Maine. And it brought together many elements of the Irish diaspora.

Margaret Craven remarked that the emigrants of old would hardly have ever thought that a grandson of Eamon de Valera and a minister in an Irish government would come to Maine to officially open a venue for the Irish. Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Éamon Ó Cuív was in Portland to cut the ribbon and speak about the role of the Irish diaspora.

The foundations of St Dominick’s go back to the 1830s when the Irish emigrants of that time raised the money to begin work on the church. But by the end of the 20th century it was closed because the numbers were no longer there to keep it going. But as the bells seemed to be finally tolling for St Dominick’s the Irish diaspora in Portland held onto it. The moment of truth came last year when the huge bell on top of St Dominic’s fell through the roof, causing great damage. The group working in Portland had to redouble their efforts and they raised $1.5 million to restore the building and turn it into an Irish heritage centre. It was there that this segment of the Irish diaspora came together last week — linking Ireland and America, the past and the present — with strong threads from the west of Ireland entwining all aspects of the occasion.

New links and new thoughts

Native Irish people who live in Portland such as Clare Foley from Loughrea, the Keanes from Furbo ( Mike and Peggy ), Patty McDonnell from Aughris in north Connemara, Vincent Coyne from the Carna area were among the natives of Galway there. The diaspora in America included such as Maureen Coyne-Norris (founder of the St Dominic’s Foundation ), Professor Michael Connolly (ancestors from Carna ) and many more. And in unison they all walked into St Dominick’s Church as the bells tolled again to signal a new dawn.

There are new dawns now in the links between Ireland and the United States. They differ from the time Margaret Craven talks about. The papers here had a story last week about the number of Irish companies that are locating some of their business in America. And that is being noted seriously in the United States. The deputy governor of the state of Massachusetts, Tim Murray, had planned to go to Ireland last week in order to search out business people who would come to that state. Galway was one of the stops. However, it was decided to postpone the trip because of the news about the Irish economy. Whether the bells are tolling the wrong way for the future of the Irish economy — and when Tim Murray will plan his visit again — is another matter. But it is an interesting ‘reverse action’ among the diaspora that an American state is seeking out companies in Ireland. In Ireland economist David McWilliams has been outspoken in saying that we should concentrate the minds of the Irish diaspora more on Ireland as the building boom comes to an end and the economy falters. No better way than to bring them back to Ireland to liven up the country again and spend money here according to McWilliams. The thoughts of Ireland Rural Affairs and Gaeltacht Minister, Éamon Ó Cuív, from Portland about the diaspora and how they might live “at home” were significant comments.

O Cuív sends message from Portland

How could members of the diaspora live in rural and Gaeltacht areas when they could not get planning permission? Wasn’t that an immediate practical problem because of restrictions on planning permission? “I don’t know how many of them would want to live in Ireland anyhow,” Minister Ó Cuív said. “But I would like to look at this issue in a broader way — and Connemara would be a a good example.” Minister Ó Cuív, in the Portland interview, said that communities closer to cities had strong populations but he was concerned about areas that are in decline further away from the cities. “I believe that anybody who wants to live long term in any of the Clár areas should be entitled to planning permission for a house in that countryside.” Should that be without any further conditions such as a job in the area? “Without any condition except you lived there — and that it was not a holiday home.” Minister Ó Cuív said that was Government policy anyhow. Clár areas are seen as areas in decline. In Galway we have Clár areas in part of the southeast of the county and part of the northeast as well as the whole of west Connemara. They have been losing population for a long time. Éamon Ó Cuív’s comments in Portland, Maine, about entitlements of planning permission in these areas are clearly significant as Galway county councillors are in the middle of preparing the new County Development Plan.

Margaret Craven returns for a visit home to west Connemara soon — a newly elected state senator in Maine. The national school where she attended has been closed for many years and the school with which it was amalgamated was closed this year. When that happens the bells are tolling for any community — and there are many other areas in the same boat. Will Minister O Cuív’s thoughts in Portland ring bells at home?

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