By Ed Brennen
For every one of the 4.6 million people living in the Republic of Ireland, it’s estimated that there are 15 more people of Irish heritage living around the world. These 70-plus million emigrants (and descendants of emigrants) are known as the “Irish diaspora.”
In conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, a pivotal moment in Irish history when an armed rebellion against British occupiers paved the way for the republic’s independence, Ireland’s government has rolled out the welcome mat for the diaspora this year in hopes of reconnecting them to their roots.
The Center for Irish Partnerships at UMass Lowell recently joined these efforts by co-hosting the Irish Diaspora Conference, a two-day event (May 19-20) that drew more than 150 academics, authors, policymakers and guests to the Letterkenny Institute of Technology in County Donegal, located on Ireland’s remote northwestern shores.
Two of the center’s co-directors, Victoria Denoon and Frank Talty, participated in the event, which was co-sponsored by the Donegal County Council and included a surprise guest: UMass President Marty Meehan.
“It was exciting to be part of an event like this,” said Denoon, the conference moderator, who hails from Northern Ireland and whose grandmother was born in County Donegal. “I’m a first-generation part of the diaspora, so it’s interesting for me to come back and talk to other people who have done that. … It’s great to have an event like this that encourages people to find their roots and learn about their family history.”
Talty, assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and co-director of the Center for Public Opinion, closed the conference with his presentation, “The Impact of the 2016 American Election on Immigration and Visa Policy.” He described the attendees’ mood as “apprehensive” about the upcoming presidential showdown between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominees for their respective parties.
“There was not as much questioning about the immigration piece of it, I think because the difference is so stark between the two candidates’ plans, but they wanted to know what the reality of the situation is, because they don’t believe some of what they’re reading,” said Talty, who offered a brief primer on the electoral college process to help attendees better understand how the election will play out in November.
“I wasn’t sure if they really cared about the detail,” he said, “but it really is important because they’re going to be hearing things like ‘Trump’s leading nationally by 2 points,’ or ‘Clinton is leading nationally by 1 point,’ which doesn’t mean anything in terms of the electoral college, as Al Gore can attest.
“I think I was a little bit of a bad-news messenger, however, because even if Hillary Clinton wins, the likelihood of any serious immigration reform occurring in the next few years is unlikely because of Congress, particularly the House of Representatives. It won’t be until the 2022 election before Democrats might see a majority in the House and Senate.”
The Center for Irish Partnerships was established in 2009 to strengthen the university’s — and Lowell’s — ties to Ireland through new education and research partnerships. The center has established relationships with seven educational institutions in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including Letterkenny, Queen’s University Belfast and Dublin City University, creating student and faculty exchanges and joint research opportunities.
“Our mission is to raise the profile of the university as a center for global engagement in a really meaningful way, so it’s not just ‘sign a piece of paper and nothing happens,’ ” said Denoon, senior assistant to the provost and special projects coordinator. “These partnerships that we have really do produce substantive conversations and actions.”
Denoon added that the center, along with Associate Director of Sustainability Ruairi O’Mahony, is working with Ireland’s University College Cork and other partner universities to hold a conference on sustainability this November at UMass Lowell. O’Mahony is a College Cork alum.
“The idea is to connect faculty members from UMass Lowell with faculty members in Ireland who are doing sustainability research, and to try and get some activity going as result of that,” Denoon said.
Other conference presenters in Donegal included Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen and Northeastern University Author in Residence Michael Patrick MacDonald. Denoon said Meehan took part in a panel discussion on diversity in Ireland today, while Joe McHugh, Ireland’s newly elected Minister for the Diaspora, also made his first official public appearance at the event.