On the trail of the Rosetta Stone in NY

By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

Chris Cahill, Director of the American Irish Historical Society – which boasts palatial headquarters on New York’s most exclusive stretch of real estate, Park Avenue – reckons that the person who cracks the way to link the Scots-Irish diaspora and the Irish American diaspora will have found the Rosetta Stone.

For while no-one in America wears a funny hat with “Kiss Me I’m Scots-Irish” on it, nor indeed subscribes to business or cultural organisations focused on the Scots-Irish, there is a huge constituency in the States which traces its roots to the Ulster planters.

For many in the US, Irish equates to Catholic and Famine emigration. But in fact the Scots-Irish can trace their roots back much further and their stamp can be clearly seen in town names and family surnames across America.

And while the peace process has brought descendants of the Planter and the Gael together – using those terms in the broad as there are quite a few Ulster-Scots in republican ranks, including this Millar – we haven’t had the same coming-together in America. On Monday of this week, Martin Luther King Day, as we knocked this conundrum around in the offices of the American Irish Historical Society – bought for $20,000 in 1940 and now worth about $20m — we decided that we would be the generation to put this wrong to right.

Or at least, we’ll take the first baby steps when Chris addresses our annual New York-New Belfast conference on June 13-14 on the theme of ‘Changing the Narrative’. It should be an interesting contribution but, of course, the people who can really reframe the debate about what it means to be Scots-Irish in America are the unionists of the North.

To date, they’ve been wary of the US and the embrace of Irish America. And not without reason – the couple of times I’ve been in the White House on St Patrick’s Day, the President’s bash starts out as an event for all with nods to all the politicians from the North but by night end it’s a celebration of Irish Catholic America. That can change if they join the debate.

 

IT’S HARD not to be overwhelmed by the breadth and depth of Irish America, and it can be thrilling too. A few hours after chewing the cud under the priceless works of art in the American Irish Historical Society, I was being serenaded by the Emerald Pipe Band of the NYPD at the opening of the Shannon Rose bar and restaurant in Ramsey, New Jersey (there’s an Ulster-Scots name if ever I heard one). Ramsey is, as the Yanks say, about 40 minutes from downtown Manhattan but I felt like I was sitting in Kelly’s, surrounded as I was by Irish faces on every side.

I was commiserating with the remarkable owner of the Shannon Rose, Ed Doherty, about the tough job of having to manage the now three Shannon Rose hostelries in New Jersey. “I’ve got a handle on it now,” Ed told me, “after all, I also own another 91 restaurants.” Turns out, Ed owns a clatter of the popular Applebee restaurant chain  outlets and a healthy sandwich chain called Panera Bread (it sounds Italian and is meant to, but it’s a word created by the marketing guys).

The Shannon Rose is the real thing – right down to the large sign outside ‘Ceadúnaithe chun Deochanna Meisciúla a Dhíol’ – and that’s the bill above left.

 

IT WASN’T all beer and skittles in New York, though, where our Irish Echo newspaper is celebrating the launch of its iPhone app and continues to go from strength to strength. I’ve also been swotting up on some areas where New York leads – in particular Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s digital roadmap for the Big Apple. This morning (Thursday), I plan to meet up with the Chief Digital Officer of New York, 27-year-old Rachel Stern, who is transforming this city. If I pick up any pearls of wisdom, I’ll be able to share them with fellow councillors in the Dome of Delight tomorrow morning when the introduction of WiFi to City Hall will be on the agenda. I’m flying back just for that important meeting and will be asking how long it will be before our digital roadmap for Belfast will reshape entire sections of the city  – the Cathedral Quarter, say, or the Gaeltacht Quarter – by providing free internet in every building and on every street in the area.

The canny Ulster-Scot in me reckons that’s an idea which could turn a tourist penny or two for our new city of Belfast.

 

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