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Niall O'Dowd: "The Voice of Irish America"

05/15/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thirty Years ago, Niall O'Dowd left Ireland. He arrived in America as an illegal immigrant, a construction worker. From humble beginnings, he went on to become a close confidante of the Clintons and an architect of the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Bill Clinton has called him "the voice of Irish America for this generation." How did this Irish immigrant go from pushing wheelbarrows of cement, to pushing international politics at the White House?

Niall O'Dowd's new book, An Irish Voice, opens with a vivid description of St Patrick's Day last year at the White House:

"The first ever black president of the United States, Barack Obama, is holding court for the Irish in the house that kept Irish and blacks out for so long. Yet here we are: one group who came as slaves, and so many of the other in coffin ships. This is our night, to celebrate with this young African American man who has capsized the stars."

An Irish Voice is a warts-and-all memoir of an extraordinary immigrant story. He unflinchingly recounts the Irish immigrant experience of the 1980s: the loneliness, the laughter, the inner struggle between the free-love of San Francisco and a stern Catholic upbringing; sleeping in a cold bed with your buddy because you can't afford your own place. He tells of playing Gaelic football; getting in to fights on constructions sites, getting drunk and womanising: trying to get by as an outsider is a strange land. It's a story familiar to Irish emigrants the world over, yet rarely is it written about so candidly.

The book is fluid and dynamic, the story remarkable. You can detect the influence of American writers like Hemmingway and Whitman. O'Dowd shares a similarly pure and eloquent writing voice: deceptively simple, but an art in itself.

I met Niall O'Dowd at a Dublin hotel earlier this month. The hotel's porter smiles and says he knows him. O'Dowd has stellar political contacts, but he keeps his feet on the ground. He will happily chat to the hotel porter, just as he will speak to the Prime Minister of Ireland at his book launch later that same evening.

He hasn't forgotten his roots, nor has he lost his Irish accent. He says, "when I arrived in America, what I loved was that the country was just so big: If I didn't make it in Chicago, I could just go to Boston or San Francisco; or maybe in the town of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, I'd find out what I should be doing!"

Catching the Greyhound bus from Chicago to San Francisco, he missed the telegram saying his father had died. He felt far from home, but stayed in San Francisco. His burning ambition to become a journalist provided the impulse to set up the The Irishman; a newspaper for the many Irish fleeing the economic disarray of 1980s Ireland. Some Berkley feminists would have preferred if he had called it the "the Irishperson". Yet the paper thrived. After a number of years on the west coast, he went to try his luck in New York City in the late 1980s.

In New York he set up the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America magazine. He got involved in politics, and founded the "Irish-Americans for Clinton" campaign in 1991. After Clinton's election as President, he asked O'Dowd to lead the American delegation to Northern Ireland in 1993.

All over the world, students of politics and international relations study the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Here's a former construction worker turned journalist, living off his wits, who just scribbled out the idea on beer mats and napkins in New York and Dublin bars in the early 90s: "one of the things I became convinced of was that for peace to happen in Ireland, there had to be an American connection. That had never happened before.

The world, he says, thought of the "terrorist community" in Northern Ireland as "a group people in a corner of Belfast who had just gone totally insane; but when you went and talked to them, you found that they were looking for a way out.

"They wanted America as an outside player. They needed an outside-the-box scenario, because every group within the box had been acting and reacting to each other for thirty years and nothing was changing.

"Drop the President of the United States in the middle of that and suddenly everything changes. You create a whole different nucleus around which everything begins to revolve."

He describes Bill Clinton's understanding of Irish politics as "astonishing", calling him "an informed politician, but also a jazz musician who knew how to riff at the right time, and when to make a change at the right time. In all the years I knew him I never saw him make a misstep as he walked through the minefield of Northern Irish politics...

"In 1995 Clinton made a speech in Dublin: 750,000 people turned out that day to cheer an American president. That's the same number who turned up to protest George W. Bush."

He laments how the Lewinsky scandal has overshadowed Bill Clinton's legacy, and praises the Clinton Foundation's work. He feels that the lessons learned in Northern Ireland can be applied elsewhere:

"In my last conversation with Hillary [Clinton], she was talking about how she wanted me and others to go and talk to Muslims in America, and other groups who have troubles in their homelands; and explain how the expatriate community can come in and help. They can help remove some of the mistrust of America; say [for example] in Pakistan, with the Pakistani-American community going there and selling the message."

Like many of his generation, he had much of his faith beaten out of him by the Christian Brothers, but he feels something spiritual in Ireland itself: "There is something there, something immutable and timeless about Ireland, something very old. You feel it and you touch it."

"Ireland is the touchstone" for the Irish Diaspora, he says, "Scratch the surface and you find an amazing history, beyond time."

Of the many ordeals undergone by the global Irish tribe, one of the more recent was 9/11. His book, "Fire in the Morning" explores this story. He recalls interviewing Irish American survivors of 9/11:

"I got a strange feeling talking to them. It was almost like it was visited on them because they could take it. Somewhere deep in the Irish identity there's that belief that trauma and misfortune will befall you, but you have to respond. They were the strongest, bravest people, the widows of the fire-fighters. I just ended up in awe of them, because of how they dealt with it. They hadn't collapsed, they weren't falling apart. They were raising their families; they were putting one foot in front of the other. It's that wonderful Irish spirit. Part of it is their religious faith, which is great; but part of it is [the idea that]:

'This is what we do as a race. We hang in. We fight, We're tough. This isn't going to knock us back.'

"Look what we did [in America]: we were the cops, we were the fire-fighters, we were the people who protected the public. Ron Clifford from Cork was in the WTC that day, and his sister was in one of the planes that hit. He describes these guys running past him: he knew they were going in to their deaths."

Yet O'Dowd is saddened at how 9/11 brought a culture of fear to America. He thought that the election of Obama would change things, but he's "disappointed how all those millions of foot soldiers who helped get him elected have just run to the hills."

Obama, he says, has "done a magnificent job" in terms of how America is viewed abroad. Coming to Ireland now and taking about Obama instead of Bush; it's like two different worlds."

He says: "the two most significant events in American [political] history were the election of JFK and the election of Barack Obama."

Of Ted Kennedy he says: "one of my saddest memories of Teddy was walking through the Kennedy library with him. There are these two guys (JFK and Bobby) in huge portraits up on the wall: frozen in history, good looking, young; millions worshipped them. And then there's Teddy: He's big, he's fat, he's out of control, but in some ways he did more than those two on the wall. It must have been an incredible burden to live in the shadow of his brothers."

Niall O'Dowd feels passionately that the Irish-American and African-American experiences should be understood as parallel: "Only the African Americans came in worse shape than us. We came in coffin ships, they came in slave ships."

He recalls his own grandmother recounting her father's memories of the Irish Famine of 1847 and says: "The night that Barack Obama was elected, I was in Harlem talking to a woman whose grandfather was a slave.

"We're not so far away from the past."

And yet how things change: His great-grandfather was illiterate; his father became a teacher; and O'Dowd is now adjunct Professor of Journalism in Columbia University. He lives with his family on New York's Upper East Side and runs Irish Voice newspaper, Irish America magazine and IrishCentral.com

His new book, An Irish Voice, offers a behind the scenes look at the Northern Ireland Peace Process; it also touches on the most personal issues, from his battles with depression and drink to love and family. Most of all, it offers a portrait of modern Irish America and proves that America remains a land of opportunity, even for the humblest immigrant.

If you want to understand Irish America in the 21st century, you must read this book.

You can purchase a copy of An Irish Voice here.

This article originally appeared in The Freeman's Journal