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Every St Patrick’s Day, I am reminded of my favourite book, The Hard Road to Klondike, and Micheál MacGowan’s poignant story of St Patrick’s Day in All Gold Creek in the Yukon. In case you’re not familiar with the book, it’s the translation from Irish of the oral memoir of Donegal native Micheál MacGowan’s adventures in Montana and the Alaskan Gold Rush. It’s wonderful.
I love the story of this impromptu St Patrick’s Day parade (probably Alaska’s first!), not least because it’s true. MacGowan’s tale captures the camaraderie, fun and poignancy of a good St Patrick’s Day celebration far from home. The story opens early on St Patrick’s morning with our hero, high in the hills, five miles from the nearest village, gathering a can of snow to melt for water for his breakfast.
As I stood there, suddenly I thought I heard pipe-music in the distance. At first I thought it was a dream but in a short while I heard it again. I straightened up then so as to hear it better but as luck had it, didn’t the piper stop playing as soon as I was in a position to listen properly. It was some time before he started up again but when he did he seemed to be closer and the music was clearer; and wasn’t the tune he was playing ‘St. Patrick’s Day’! I’d say that by then the piper was three or four miles away up in the hills behind us; there, then, was I, three thousand miles from home but, in the time it would take you to clap your hands, I fancied I was back again among my own people in Cloghaneely. My heart leaped up with so much joy that I was sure it was going to jump out of my breast altogether.
I ran back into the cabin and told my friends what was happening. They came out and when they heard the music, they were so overjoyed that one of them rushed around with the news to all the Irishmen in the neighbouring cabins. They too got up and when they also heard the pipe-music coming towards them they nearly went out of their minds. They went roaring and shouting around the place so much that you could hear the echoes coming back out of the mountains and valleys surrounding us. Everyone waited there until we felt the piper was coming near to us and then we all went out to meet him. Nobody was fully clothed and half of us hadn’t eaten at all but our blood was hot and despite the frost none of us felt the cold a bit! When we met him, we carried him shoulder-high for a good part of the way back. He was brought into our cabin and neither food nor drink was spared on him. And it was still early in the day.
When everyone was ready, he tuned his pipes and off we went four abreast after him like soldiers in full marching order. There wasn’t an Irish tune that we had ever heard that he didn’t play on the way down the valley. Crowds of people from other countries were working away on the side of the hill and they didn’t know from Adam what on earth was up with us marching off like that behind the piper. They thought we were off our heads altogether but we made it known to them that it was our very own day—the blessed feast-day of St. Patrick. On we marched until we came to the hotels and we went into the first big one that we met. Without exaggeration, I’d say that there were up to six hundred men there before us—men from all parts of the world. We were thirsty after the march and, though we hadn’t a bit of shamrock between us, we thought it no harm to keep up the old custom and to wet it as well as we were able.
We had a couple of drinks each and, as we relaxed, I stood up and asked the piper to tune up his pipes and play us ‘St. Patrick’s Day’ from one end of the house to the other. The word was hardly out of my mouth before he was on his feet…
The men drown the shamrock exuberantly at the town’s hotels, their day only briefly disrupted by the violent dispatch of an Orangeman who didn’t appreciate the celebrations. (We’ll skip that bit.)
As night fell, we all gathered ourselves together again and set off up the hill along the way we had come until we reached our own cabins again. We were tired out and it wasn’t hard to make our beds that night. The piper spent the night with us and next morning he bade us farewell and went off to the back of the mountain where himself and two friends of his were working.
A loyal good-natured Irishman, like thousands of others of his race, he left his bones stretched under frost and snow, far from his people, out in the backwoods, where none of his own kith would ever come to say a prayer for his soul. We heard that he had been killed in one of the shafts shortly after he had come to us to keep the Feast of St. Patrick with his music in All Gold Creek.
A bit of a sad ending there, but MacGowan himself had a much happier one. He went home to Donegal in 1901, travelling first class with the fortunes he brought from the Gold Rush. “I had seen enough of modern times in America; and it was like a healing balm to find myself under the old rafters again.” He decided to stay in Donegal, fell in love, married, and raised a family – and MacGowan, one of Ireland’s greatest emigrant adventurers, declared he would rather see one of his eleven children “gathering rags” than heading for America.
Happy St Patrick’s Day – I hope you’re parading where ever you are!
- You can read a full book review I wrote several years ago over at the Emigrant.ie website.
- I also wrote the entry on Michael MacGowan in Ireland and the Americas.
- You should probably buy the book.
The activist website Uplift.ie has begun a new petition campaign calling on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to end his refusal to hold a referendum on the rights of Irish citizens living overseas to vote in presidential elections.
More than 120 countries have provisions for their citizens abroad to cast a ballot. Ireland does not. Engagement with Irish citizens abroad has long been of enormous importance for Ireland. It has been a distinctive feature of efforts to bring a lasting peace to the island. It has built economic links resulting in trade, investment and tourism and the achievements of our citizens have enhanced Ireland’s profile and reputation internationally.
The issue of voting rights for citizens outside the State has huge popular support and was also recommended by the Convention on the Constitution. The Government recently considered their response to the recommendation of the constitutional convention but have now decided not to go ahead with the referendum needed to allow Irish citizens living abroad to vote in Presidential elections.
In their Twitter campaign promoting the campaign, Uplift.ie quoted yours truly in an infographic.
— Uplift (@UpliftIRL) March 16, 2015
The petition has 727 signatures as of this writing. Add your name at Uplift.ie.
Update: RTE has backed down from the decision to shut down longwave broadcasts. They will keep broadcasting for an additional two years, until May 2017. The Department of Foreign Affairs has also pledged to conduct a study focusing on the needs of listeners. Read more details at the IrishinBritain website.
There is now a petition up at Change.org asking RTE to postpone the move to shutdown longwave.
You might want to sign it, too. Here is the text:
We are requesting that RTE keep its broadcasting services to the Irish in Britain. RTE announced with one month’s notice that it would shut down its longwave service on October 27. This move was done with no consultation with its listeners, and will be a significant loss to the whole Irish community.
A wide section of the Irish community listens to RTE Radio 1 on longwave in Britain – people of all ages listen in their cars, sports fans hear GAA matches, and for many older emigrants, it is a treasured link with home. There are no adequate alternatives for many people: RTE advises listening online or via satellite, but these are not accessible to everyone. Listeners in Britain (and Northern Ireland) will not be able to use DAB, which RTE is also pushing as an alternative, as that signal is only available in parts of Ireland.
Older people are likely to be hardest hit by the shutdown, and many of them will lose this powerful link with Ireland forever. As the chair of the Provincial Council of the GAA of Britain, Brendie Brien, has said, longwave provides “a home from home – and the shutdown would be depriving them of that.” The shutdown will be “a massive setback to the whole of the Irish community…We have a lot of old people who wouldn’t be into modern IT – and who won’t have any access to Ireland whatsoever once that would go.”
RTE does not know how many people are affected by the shutdown of this vital service and have not released the amount of money this will save. The longwave transmitter is only ten years old.
We are asking for RTE to postpone the longwave shutdown until there are better alternatives for all the Irish in Britain.
The petition is being shared on Twitter and Facebook – please sign and share.
I have an article in today’s Irish Times arguing that RTE’s impending shutdown of its longwave service will be deleterious to the vitality of the Irish community in Britain. The oldest and most isolated are the ones who will be hurt the most, but the shutdown will actually affect a broad cross-section of the community.
I thought the chair of the GAA in Britain said it best:
Last week Brendie O’Brien, chairman of the GAA in Britain, described the impending shutdown as “a massive setback to the whole of the Irish community”.
“We have a lot of old people who won’t have any access to Ireland whatsoever once that [the longwave service] goes.” O’Brien described Radio 1’s role in the lives of many emigrants as that of providing “a home from home, and the shutdown would be depriving them of that.”
You can read the whole article on the Irish Times site.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is currently conducting a Foreign Policy Review, including a review of diaspora strategy. I submitted the following to the Review earlier this month, stressing the need for democratic engagement of Ireland’s citizens abroad and the effects of disenfranchisement on overseas citizens.
While Ireland seeks to be a leader in terms of its diaspora strategy, the issue of democratic representation is one in which Ireland lags – and with increasing numbers of states giving its expats votes, Ireland’s omission in this regard is all the more glaring. Irish and international attention to this deficit is likely to continue to grow, particularly with the recent EU Commission’s recommendations to the five member states, Ireland included, that restrict the voting rights of nationals who leave the country to live, work and/or study abroad.
Ireland’s overseas citizens are tied to the state in ways that can have powerful effects on their lives. There is insufficient attention paid to policies that affect emigrants – and this is both a cause and a consequence of Ireland’s refusal to allow emigrants a role in the apolitical process. Citizens can frequently be affected by policy decision in ways that can be life-altering, and there is far too little recognition of these effects by politicians, policy-makers and the wider public.
With no representatives to speak for them, the interests of overseas citizens remain uncrystallised and unarticulated, and the population of citizens at home has little awareness of and no reason to respond to them. Paradoxically, while opponents of emigrant voting declare that giving emigrants the vote would give overseas citizens the right to make decisions that do not affect them, the effects of at-home political decisions on overseas citizens are almost never discussed.
The policies that affect citizens overseas are numerous. For those who are planning to return, these include, but are not limited to:
- Economic policies – The rates of emigration and return migration tend to correlate with unemployment levels. A well-functioning economy, with relatively low unemployment rates, will be a necessity to enable the large-scale return that many of today’s emigrants are hoping for.
- Social welfare policies – Emigrants have been adversely affected by the way in which the Habitual Residence Condition has been implemented. Despite pre-implementation assurances that returning emigrants would not be adversely affected by the condition, thousands of emigrants have been prevented from obtaining assistance such as job-seekers’ and carers’ allowances.
- Education policies – Returning emigrants are affected by residency policies that determine pricing for third-level education, as well as placement in schools at younger ages.
- Spousal immigration legislation – Emigrants are affected by legislation that will affect their ability to return with their spouses or civil partners and families.
Policies that may affect emigrants whether they plan to return or not include:
- Taxation – Irish people who leave the country may be subject to several forms of tax. Anyone who is a homeowner must pay the relevant taxes, and people who retain money in Irish banks or pension funds are also subject to tax.
- Emigrant support budget – This budget provides funding for organisations working with Irish communities abroad, particularly the vulnerable and elderly among them.
- Broadcasting policy – Broadcasting policy affects whether emigrants have access to national stations from abroad. This is a particular issue for the Irish in the UK, who have been adversely affected by decisions made in recent years regarding both television and radio broadcasting.
- Contributory pension levels – Many overseas citizens are entitled to the contributory pension based on payments they made while working in Ireland. They are affected by adjustments in the level of payment and eligibility requirements.
- Consular service levels – Overseas citizens will at times require the protection of Ireland in the form of consular services. They may be adversely and disproportionately affected by cutbacks in consular staffing and embassy closure, or otherwise affected by decisions made concerning the level of support given both generally to citizens overseas and in individual cases. Consular protection levels can affect the convenience of citizens seeking to avail of everyday services like passport renewal, the welfare of those in legal trouble abroad, and the safety of overseas citizens in times of crisis in their host countries.
- Descendent and spousal citizenship – Changes have been made to limit the right for overseas citizens to pass on citizenship to descendants or gain citizenship through marriage, and those citizens most affected by this decision have had no say.
- Diaspora strategy – Irish people living abroad are strongly affected by policies regarding diaspora outreach and communications; funding of cultural and networking organisations abroad; economic engagement and other matters.
Currently, Irish citizens living abroad have no right to representation on any of these issues, and this has potentially detrimental effects on those living abroad. These issues and any ensuing detrimental effects will be unrecognized as long as they have no voice in the political system.
Current structures that allow for dialogue between Ireland and the diaspora tend to privilege the most successful among the diaspora. Initiatives such as the Global Irish Network and the Global Irish Economic Forum have an important role to play in engaging successful overseas citizens to work on behalf of Ireland – but one of the great strengths of the Irish community overseas has always been in the loyalty present at the grass-roots level, and by the way people at all socio-economic levels have engaged in developing the relationship between Ireland and the diaspora. There is a need for a broader, two-way communication that can only be provided through democratic channels, where the voices and concerns of all citizens can be heard and addressed.
While there have been many proposals for votes for emigrants in Presidential elections and the Seanad (and these are important and welcome), it is clear that Dáil votes are necessary to adequately address the issues affecting Irish emigrants. Dedicated representatives for overseas constituencies in the Dáil would be the most effective way of ensuring the democratic rights of all Irish citizens abroad. Because all Irish citizens are bound by the constitution, votes in referenda are also essential. To ensure proper representation at European level, Ireland also needs to facilitate the vote of Irish citizens living abroad for MEPs.
With the renewal of large-scale emigration, an increasing desire on Ireland’s part to engage its communities abroad economically, a well-connected citizenry, and a changing international climate in which democratic participation of overseas citizens is the norm, there is clearly a need for the Irish government to reexamine the laws that disenfranchise its citizens on the day they emigrate.
At the Constitutional Convention in Dublin yesterday, international comparisons of voting were presented. One of the points raised was that in a 2007 study, there were 14 countries that allowed their expats to vote only in presidential elections. Those countries were:
- Central African Republic
- Côte d’Ivoire
- Dominican Republic
In keeping with the global trend of expanding the franchise for expats, however, several of those countries have added new rights for expats. This is not a definitive list but countries that in 2007 allowed only a presidential vote but now allow votes in additional types of election include:
Ecuador – a new constitution in 2008 allowed votes for representation in the national assembly, along with mayors and governors. There are six dedicated representatives in the national assembly.
Dominican Republic – expats now have votes in the Chamber of Deputies. There are two regional deputies reserved for Dominicans living in the Carribean and Latin America, 2 for Europe, 3 for Canada and the US.
Tunisia – Tunisian expats now vote for 18 seats in the 218-seat assembly.
There was also something missed at yesterday’s discussions – the distinction between out-of-country voting and the right for expats to exercise their franchise if they return home. Ireland does not allow emigrants to stay on the voting register if they intend to be away for more than 18 months. There is no legal channel for them to come home to vote.
In many other countries that have no system of absentee balloting, however, non-residents are welcome – and sometimes given assistance with travel arrangements. These include:
Lebanon – tens of thousand were reported to have returned home to vote in 2009.
Israel has no absentee ballot but Israeli citizens can fly home to vote.
Zimbabwe – The diaspora vote is a contentious issue in Zimbabwe, and thousands were reported to have flown home to vote in July.
Maltese nationals have traditionally been assisted in flying home to vote with reduced ticket prices from the national airline.« Previous Entries