Over in Erin

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday celebrated around the world by people who share a love of Ireland and its culture. Millions of Americans can trace their roots back to the great waves of Irish immigration, but starting in the 1990s, during the economic boom known as the “Celtic Tiger,” many Irish-Americans headed back across the Atlantic and settled in the old country.

This week, The Leader-Herald tracked down two people raised here in Fulton County who emigrated to Ireland in the 1990s and have established homes, families and careers there.

When Ann Donnelly graduated from Gloversville High School in 1981, she was eager to leave her small hometown for the excitement of the big city. Little did she know then that a business career in New York City would lead to life on a small family farm in rural Ireland.

“I was in New York City working for a big company that had offices around the world, and I got transferred to London in 1994,” Donnelly said. “There I met my husband, whose family are from Ireland.”

A few years later, she and her husband inherited the family dairy farm in County Cork from his elderly bachelor uncles.

“We were thinking about settling down and having a family, and we thought Ireland would be a great place,” she said. The Donnellys’ three children, a girl and two boys, all were born in Ireland. Since her husband has a London accent and she has an American accent, she said, “People always used to joke, ‘What accent are the children going to have?'”

The farm is in Lisavaird, a community of just 150 souls near the larger town of Clonakilty, in southwest Ireland. Modern communications technology allows Donnelly’s husband to run an international accountancy practice, and she manages the firm’s online marketing operations.

Beyond the boiled

She says one of the biggest lifestyle differences between Ireland and the United States is the food. The rumor that the Irish eat a lot of potatoes is not greatly exaggerated, but the fare goes far beyond the bland and the boiled.

“There are some great local producers of really good food, like cheeses and fresh veg, and the Irish beef is beautiful,” Donnelly said. “There’s a lot less large-scale [food production] here than in America.”

Connelly said corned beef is rarely served in her region. Clonakilty is famous for its black pudding – a rich, dark blood sausage stuffed with grains, the taste for which she has not yet acquired.

She says it’s true that Ireland gets a lot of wet weather, but the countryside is indeed as gorgeous as it looks on the travel brochures.

“It does rain as much as people think it does, and it is as green as people think,” Donnelly said. “We’re on the Atlantic, and there’s a lot of beaches nearby. It’s very beautiful, and the climate’s very mild, so we’re very lucky.”

Americans’ popular notion that Ireland is a nation of charming drunks is a caricature, she says, but it is based somewhat on reality.

“The people are very friendly, and there is a lot of drinking,” she said, but the Irish are concerned about the stereotypes and don’t generally condone “Paddywhackery” – ostentatious celebration of Irish culture that involves dressing up like a leprechaun or festooning one’s home with shamrocks.

Making peace across borders

Matt Cannon, a native of Johnstown, lives with his Irish wife and three daughters in Limerick, a city roughly the size of Schenectady, N.Y.

“The community reminds me a lot of Johnstown,” he told The Leader-Herald in an email interview this week. “It’s a tight-knit community where everyone looks out for their neighbor.”

Cannon graduated from Johnstown High School in 1990 and studied at Syracuse University before moving to Ireland to pursue his doctorate in international relations and conflict.

“I had spent some time in London and was fascinated after having met some Northern Irish politicians,” he said. “I was interested in Ireland, its people, history and its experience of conflict during ‘the troubles.'”

After completing his Ph.D., Cannon served as chief executive officer of the Irish Peace Institute, a nonprofit organization involved in grassroots peace and reconciliation projects.

“I worked at that for over 10 years and was fortunate to see many small victories that helped support the larger political process,” he said. Since then, he was applied his peacemaking experience in other areas, such as curbing gang violence in Limerick city and resolving conflicts around the world. He now teaches at the University of Limerick and works with an organization that helps the large number of people who immigrated to Ireland during its economic boom.

That boom period ended about five years ago with the onset of the world financial crisis and the bursting of a housing bubble in Ireland. Now, unemployment is high at about 14 percent – double the jobless rate in the U.S.

“Ireland as a country has fought hard to try and reverse this trend and is putting a lot of effort and investment into attracting high-tech companies such as Google, PayPal and Twitter to set up European operations here,” Cannon said. “Even when faced with the difficulties of the harsh austerity measures imposed on the Irish people … there remains an indomitable spirit and a desire to prove to everyone that ‘you’ll never beat the Irish.'”

‘Cead Mile Failte’

Tourism has long been an important industry for Ireland, and visitors often are pleasantly surprised at the warmth of their hosts.

“The Irish people are naturally welcoming,” Cannon said. “It’s something they do very well, and it comes across in the way they treat visitors and tourists.

“It’s amazing, when you think of it, that this small island of a little over five million people has an international holiday that is celebrated around the world. I think it’s the fact that so many Irish have emigrated, traveled and/or lived abroad that makes them welcome visitors with open arms and ‘Cead Mile Failte’ (a hundred thousand welcomes).”

St. Patrick’s Day is a bigger holiday for Irish-Americans in the U.S. than it is for the Irish themselves, Cannon says.

“There is no green beer in Ireland!” he says. “They do know how to throw a party. Guinness in Ireland is still much better than anywhere else, and the ‘craic’ [Irish for conversation and merrymaking] is great …”

Donnelly said she remembers St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal when she was an Irish-American child growing up in Gloversville.

“We loved St Paddy’s, wearing green, dreaming of going to New York City for the parade and being proud to be Irish,” she said. “Now, living in Ireland, it’s more about celebrating what it means to be Irish and how such a small country has made an impact on the world over the years … With such economic hard times and a forecast of more austerity, Irish people will come together in their towns and cities in Ireland and across the world on Sunday for Mass and parades and celebration of what we all still have – hope and love of life!”

Missing home

In the 19th century, when people left Ireland for new lives in the United States, their friends and relatives would send them off with an “American wake” – a farewell that acknowledged the emigrant was not likely to ever see home again. These days, air travel and the Internet help diminish the distance, but ex-patriots such as Cannon and Donnelly still feel pangs of homesickness.

Donnelly’s parents are deceased, but she still has family in the U.S., including her sister, Elizabeth, who lives in Mayfield. Donnelly said she last visited her hometown for a family wedding three years ago. The trip was a rare treat, as flying from Ireland to New York can cost more than $1,000 for a round-trip ticket.

Cannon, whose mother lives in Johnstown, says he doesn’t get back to the States as often as he would like: “Social media and Skype have made the distance a little less difficult, but still there are days when I would trade a thousand Facebook status updates for a few beers in Johnstown with friends and family. It is always around St. Patrick’s Day that I’m reminded of the many people I have had the good fortune to know in Johnstown and in Ireland, and to raise a pint of the black stuff in their honour – Slainte.”

Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at features@leaderherald.com.