Hilary Beirne – Letter to Hon. Catherine Martin TD. – Hon. Colm Brophy, TD

Hon. Catherine Martin, TD
Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media
23 Kildare Street, Dublin 2 D02 TD30

Hon. Colm Brophy, TD
Minister for the Diaspora & Overseas Development
Department of Foreign Affairs
Iveagh House
80 St Stephen’s Green
Dublin 2. D02 VY53

Dear Minister Martin and Brophy,

We are writing to express our disappointment that the Irish State has not held an official centennial event honouring the role of Irish emigrants in the creation of the Free State as part of the Decade of Centenaries programme. We find this omission lamentable given the enormous contribution of Irish emigrants during the critical years of 1916 to 1922 – and ironic given that Easter Proclamation makes an explicit reference to being “supported by her exiled children in America.” We recognize that much has been done to commemorate the Decade of Centenaries and you are to be commended for your many efforts, but the omission of the role of emigrants is striking. Emigrants would like to be written back into Irish history.


For over two centuries emigration has been a defining feature of Irish life and society, and it continues to be so. Yet traditionally little consideration has been given to the plight of those who may feel forced to leave the country. Many have noted how citizens living outside the state have long been treated with ambivalence by politicians and policy-makers – an ambivalence still evident today, resulting in the continuing exclusion of all citizens living outside the State, including those in Northern Ireland, from the political process, and from voting for an Irish President, who represents all Irish people.


Even though Ireland is a very new democracy we fear that it is fast becoming a complacent and parochial one. An unstated hierarchy of Irishness exists in Irish political culture which defines Irish-born citizens living outside the state as second-class citizens. It’s hard to promote a shared Ireland when your own citizens aren’t allowed to vote for their own President. A shared Ireland must include emigrants whether they live in London, Manchester, or the Gulf States.


The current electoral system enshrines this second-class status: emigrants who do not intend to return within eighteen months lose their right to vote the day they leave (unlike most democracies in the world), and postal voting is so restricted that few of those who maintain the right to vote in theory can avail of it. Geographical gerrymandering restricts voting rights, and a century after Partition, citizens living just over the border have no direct, meaningful voice in the Republic, even as their numbers grow.


Ireland is an outlier when it comes to meeting E.U. voting rights norms for emigrants. Our overseas voting system is the most restrictive in Europe- both in terms of national and E.U. Parliamentary elections. Ireland’s unwillingness to expand voting rights for those living outside the state stands in direct contradiction to the core E.U. principle of freedom of movement.


To dismiss the contribution of the Irish abroad in creating the Republic is an enormous historical omission. There would be no Republic without the robust and constant support of her overseas children. As President Higgins stated in his Mansion House address in January 2019 on the 100th anniversary of the first seating of the Irish Dáil:

The First Dáil drew its support not only from the will of the people of Ireland, but from Irish people across the world. We are, and we must never forget, a migratory and diasporic people. Indeed, at the turn of the last century, there were more Irish-born people living abroad than in Ireland. Throughout our War of Independence, Irishmen and Irishwomen in the United States of America would demonstrate, time and time again, their solidarity and support for the cause of Irish freedom, even if they differed as to the means by which it was to be achieved.

While the Centennial programme lists “Ireland and the Wider World” as a major theme, there seems to have been little invested in this theme, save for a symposium held in honour of John Devoy in 2019 and a recent celebration of that foremost literary emigrant James Joyce. The contribution of emigrants to Ireland in the last century is undeniable. Notable Irish who lived abroad have included:

  • Sam McGuire born in County Cork, immigrated to London where he became an outstanding “footballer and played in three All-Ireland Finals, in 1900, 1901 and 1903, captaining the London (Hibernians)” according to the GAA. McGuire was also a key member of the IRB and in 1909, recruited Michael Collins to the republican movement. Collins had also emigrated from Cork to London and worked for ten years as a postal clerk. Collins joined other London Volunteers who returned to Dublin in February 1916 to participate in the Easter R


  • Emigrants in America led by Fenian leaders John Devoy and Jeramiah O’Donovan Rossa sustained the Irish Independence movement for over 50 years. The funeral of Jeramiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915 attended by 50,000 people in Dublin was seen as a prelude to the 1916 Revolution. The gravesite oration given by Patrick Pearse at O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral is considered one of the great speeches of the Irish independence movement.


  • Thomas Clarke and James Connolly were sons of Irish emigrant families. Both would return to Ireland to lead the Revolution and sign the Easter Proclamation. Clarke’s connection to Irish America was so vital to the independence movement that a specific reference was made in the Proclamation to the “exiled children in America.” Connolly, the founder of the Irish Citizen Army, was born to Irish parents in Edinburgh, Scotland.


  • The Kimmage Brigade: One of the first Volunteer units to enter the GPO was made up of emigrants from Liverpool, London, Manchester and Glasgow who came to Dublin to fight in the Rising. Over sixty members of the GPO garrison were emigrants. Michael Collins, a London Volunteer, was a member of the Kimmage Brigade along with Joe O’Reilly who would become Collin’s most trusted aide.


  • Seamus Robinson was one of 16 volunteers from Glasgow who fought in the GPO. He was later commander of the South Tipperary Brigade in the War of Independence and a member of the Soloheadbeg Ambush in 1919. He was elected to Dáil Éireann in 1921 and served 8 years in the Seanad. John, Patrick and George King were three brothers who fought in the Rising as members of the Liverpool Volunteer Unit.


  • Margaret Skinnider joined Cumann na MBan in Glasgow, Scotland and took an active part in the 1916 Rising serving as a messenger and sniper. Skinnider was one of a small group of women who participated in the Rising and an early champion of women’s rights. She was a member of the Irish National Teachers Organization and became its President in 1956. She is one of only three women buried in the Republican plot at Glasnevin Cemetery,


  • In the run up to the Rising and in the War for Independence Volunteer Units in Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and London were critical in providing weapons, ammunition and intelligence to carry on the fight. Irish merchant seamen in Liverpool and Manchester transported weapons to Dublin as well as from New York City.


  • Manchester Volunteers provided the safe house for Eamon De Valera after his escape from Lincoln Prison in 1919. A book entitled the Hidden Heroes of Easter Week explains the untold story of the 14 Manchester Volunteers who fought in the GPO including Liam Parr and Larry Ryan.


  • Eamon De Valera’s eighteen month visit to the United States from June 1919 to December 1920 raised a total of $5.5 million dollars, the modern equivalent of $55 million. Over 300,000 Irish Americans subscribed to the Bond Certificate floated in January 1920 and immense rallies were held in Boston and New York City.


  • Emigrants Remittances Saved Ireland According to Evan Comerford in his essay written for citizneshippapers.ie: “Between 1854 and 1923 monetary aid to Ireland was in the region of $5 million annually. In today’s money it’s estimated that at least £4.9 (GBP) billion was sent back to Ireland from emigrants in North America between 1848 and 1900. Even during the 1950s, emigrant remittances continued to make up a staggering 3% of total national income in Ireland. A total of £4.8 billion was sent back by Irish emigrants in the UK between 1940 and 1970.


Emigrant contributions didn’t stop a century ago:


  • Jack Charlton and the Boys in Green: Ireland in the 1980’s was once again struggling economically forcing 200,000 citizens to emigrate. The appointment of Englishman Jack Charlton to be the Irish football manager in 1985 would lift the Nation both on and off the field. Charlton made effective use of the “granny rule” to recruit players from the English and Scottish football leagues who were born into Irish emigrant families such as Ray Houghton, Chris Morris and Mick McCarthy. These key players would enable Ireland to reach the European Championships 1988 and allowed Ireland to qualify for both the 1990 FIFA World Cup and the 1994 FIFA World Cup. Since then scores of players, born in England and Scotland, have used the granny rule to play for the Republic of Ireland


  • Niall O’Dowd came to America in 1978 and helped to organize Irish Americans for Clinton in 1991. As publisher of the Irish Voice and Irish America magazine, Dowd was one of the key Irish American leaders who persuaded President Bill Clinton to become involved in ending the Troubles For his services he was presented the President’s Distinguished Service Medal by President O’Higgins in 2020.


  • In response to the Great Recession the Irish government would organize four Global Irish Economic Forums and create a Global Irish Network made up of business leaders of the broad Irish diaspora from forty nations to help Ireland through the economic crisis. Yet this initial effort to reach out to these business leaders has since dissipated.


  • Billy Lawless left Galway for Chicago in 1998 and created a successful restaurant business and became a leader in immigration reform. Billy was chosen to introduce President Obama when the President announced his DACA immigration reform plan. Billy was appointed to the Seanad in 2016 by then Taoiseach Edna Kenny becoming the first Senator to represent emigrants and the wider Diaspora. Billy received the President’s Distinguished Service Award in 2021.


  • The GAA is one of the great global institutions of the Irish Nation. In 2021, Larry McCarthy became the first emigrant in the history of the GAA to become its Uachtarán. A native of Bishopstown, Cork McCarthy moved to the US in 1985 where he became a member of the Sligo Gaelic football club in New York and went on to become Secretary to the New York GAA Board from 2003-2009 and then New York GAA Chairman from 2009-2011. He is an Associate Professor of Sports Management at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.


  • As a result of the financial crisis in 2008, hundreds of thousands of Irish citizens emigrated, 70% of whom were in their 20s. Many of these young emigrants were in the forefront of efforts to pass the same sex-marriage referendum and Repeal the 8th Amendment. They would successfully organize two @HometoVote social media campaigns to encourage emigrants to return to Ireland to vote in the upcoming referendums. The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign of over 1,000 women was particularly effective.


Ireland must give Irish emigrants the recognition they well deserve as founders of the Republic and recognize the crucial role they continue to play in sustaining Ireland’s economic and political interests globally. America’s success in building a green wall against Brexit to protect the Good Friday Agreement is a powerful example of how their soft power is helpful in advancing Irish interests. America’s unyielding stance on Brexit and the GFA is a direct result of Irish America mobilizing and working with President Biden and the U.S. Congress in a bipartisan fashion to prevent a hard border and protect the peace process.


We encourage the political leaders of all parties to end their century-old political ambivalence toward Irish citizens living outside the state. The hundreds of thousands of young people who left Ireland in recent years and those about to leave are an immense source of creativity, energy and good ideas. Why exclude and deny them their voting rights when so many want and will return home to Ireland?  Irish politics needs to move from the local and the parochial to a new, richer and deeper understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a more inclusive modern Irish Nation. We believe Ireland will be a more equal and democratic nation if all citizens, regardless of where they live, are allowed to vote for the President of our country.


While time is short, we hope that some effort can be made to officially recognize the role of emigrants in this centennial year. Possibly the State could engage the EPIC Museum to be of help in mounting such an event. Centennial committees in Scotland, Manchester, Liverpool and London would surely be eager to help. Should the Department of Foreign Affairs hold another Global Civic Forum for emigrant and diaspora leaders that might be an opportunity as well.

Hilary Beirne

Chairman of the Saint Patrick’s Day Foundation & C.A.O, of the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. New York City

Billy Lawless

Former Senator for the Diaspora. Co-founder www.votingrights.ie

Kevin J. Sullivan

Co-founder www.votingrights.ie