An American dream in a town called Lewiston

view from the hills

There was a famous fight in this town in the state of Maine, once upon a time. Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay — later Muhammed Ali — came to Lewiston to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. John Delahunty remembers the excitement in town. He now runs a legal firm. On this evening of November 4 2008 he is working in a voluntary capacity. He is keeping an eye on election polling stations for the Democrats. “Right across there in the town sports centre. That’s where it all happened,” says John. “It was the mid 1960s.”

But not much happened. It was a famous and an infamous fight. It placed big question marks over professional boxing. It was all over within a few minutes. Sonny Liston was down and in a semi sleep — or was he? Many thought that Liston did not fight the good fight and that he threw in the towel without any real reason.

“But there were many other big fights here, you know,” John Delahunty remarked as throngs of voters moved towards the door of the main polling station in Lewiston. There is one last chance to influence this electoral battle. Margaret Craven has been here since early morning. Handshake after handshake. “I’m Margaret Craven — thank you for coming.” Time is tight. “I have never seen so many young people coming to vote,” Margaret says. “We must have had about 500 from Bates College [the nearby university]. These crowds of young people are good for Obama and good for the Democrats.”

Margaret Craven is fighting for a senate seat in the state parliament of Maine. She has been a state representative in the Maine government for the past six years. Now she has her sights set on the principal arm of government in the state. Margaret is the strong favourite to win the senate seat in this region. But you can never make assumptions about elections. “I’m Margaret Craven. Thank you for coming.” Most people will not be aware of how far Margaret has come and the miles she has travelled to be at the door of this polling station in the heartland of Maine on this momentous night in the history of American politics.

Battles and ballot boxes

Born and reared in the townland of Letterard in Carna in Connemara, Margaret’s only formal education in Ireland was the local national school in Glinsk. She was Mairéad Ní Chonghaile on the roll book — Margaret Connolly. She emigrated to America at 17. Along the way she worked as a waitress and home help. She studied for a high school diploma, a university degree, and a master’s. She was active in assisting disadvantaged people and often brought these issues to the state parliament in the Maine capital, Augusta. The Democrats recruited her into the party and she was elected a state representative. This evening, as the crisp November air settles over Maine, she is on the verge of a state senate seat. But the fight is never over until the votes are counted.

But what about these other fights in Lewiston — besides the strange meeting of Liston and Clay 45 years ago. “Oh, you must go much farther back,” says John Delahunty. “It was the Irish against the French!” Many Irish people made their way up to inland Maine and worked and settled in Lewiston, now a town of about 50,000. They included a lot of people from Galway and Connemara. They had their own area in Lewiston. That would have been the later 1880s and the early 20th century. But the people of French descent from Canada came down too and they built their own church and planted their own flag. The Irish and the French sometimes fought it out on the streets… and there was no lying down either. These are great stories but they were rough times — the Irish fought battles like this in many places. Competition and conflict between various races and groupings speckle the history of America. On a broader scale, it was white animosity towards blacks. Nowadays, the Hispanic community, which is America’s biggest minority, tends to be at odds with the black community, so much so that Hispanic and black inmates are kept separated in prisons in some parts of the country. But something different seems to be happening on this November night. The majority of Hispanics in America appear to be supporting Barack Obama — a black man who has electrified this presidential campaign across America. This is a guy from very humble beginnings who is on the verge of being the first black president in the White House. It might not be the end of old fights but it’s a milestone along the way.

Dreams come

true for true fighters

“The old French/Irish fights were well over when Margaret Craven came here,” John Delahunty says. “She is fighting new battles for the community.”

Polling stations close and the final reckoning is at hand. An hour after the polls close the first indications come in. Barack Obama will win the presidency of the United States. The crowd at the Democratic Party election get-together in Lewiston sense it is their night. At 11pm Eastern Time, the television networks put the caption on the screens — President-elect Barack Obama. When the bedlam eases down the state results start to come through. Senator Margaret Craven — a girl who emigrated from a small place in the far west of Connemara. “I have to pinch myself,” she says. This is not Chicago on the night, but it has its own significance. Margaret Craven is probably the only Irish born state senator from coast to coast in America.

The American dream is still alive — for those who fight the good fight.


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