January 9, 2008

Embracing our global roots is key to success

Posted in Ireland · 10 comments ·
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At first you do a double-take. The look is both familiar and unmistakable. Here in the parched Pampas, south of Buenos Aires, deep in gaucho territory, the strangest sight is the Irish gaucho.

Dressed in the traditional gaucho uniform of wide brimmed felt hat or outsized Basque beret, checked shirt, cravat and heavy-duty riding trousers, the descendants of Irish emigrants stand out.

Squinting against the harsh sun, these blue-eyed, pink faced and freckly gauchos look as if they are tourists dressing up for some garish heritage theme-park extravaganza.

But they are not. They have the swagger that marks out the gaucho. They gesticulate like Latins, speak in the rapid-fire slang of rural Argentina and devour red meat in a carnivorous orgy that would terrify a cardiologist.

In the agricultural heartland of Argentina, the gaucho is king. The gaucho and his steed rule the roost, offering a glimpse of a rural tradition that has not changed in over 100 years.

It is macho, dirty, muscular and unforgiving, but it is a tradition that has withstood the political and economic rollercoaster which has been Argentina’s lot for the past 50 years.

The Irish gauchos — part of the 500,000 Argentineans who consider themselves Irish — are very much part of this scene.

Most of these Irish Argentineans are Irish, literally, in name only. From the “for sale” signs on the main highway, one can see that the biggest auctioneer in this part of the Pampa is one Santiago O’Keefe while, the runner-up at the local rodeo last Sunday was a Jose Farrelly.

For many, the Irish root is just part of their history; like the millions of Italian Argentineans, French Argentineans and Jewish Argentineans. They are the grandsons of immigrants in this huge immigrant melting pot.

However, there are others who have remained distinctively Irish, who have kept Irish traditions alive and who contribute voluntarily to the vibrant Irish Argentine community.

These people are our people and yet we, the Irish State, have turned our back on them.

One such woman is Patsy Hynes-O’Conner. From an emotional perspective, her story is heartwrenching, and from an economic viewpoint, her story reveals a monumental waste of resources for the Irish economy.

Patsy Hynes-O’Conner is one of six sisters, all granddaughters of an Irish emigrant. She has cousins in Monaghan and Galway who have been over and back to Argentina, and the Hynes’ ancestral home is in Co Clare. All six sisters acquired Irish citizenship and Patsy has visited Ireland on a number of occasions. Here is where the story gets tricky.

The children of five of the sisters also have Irish passports. However, because Patsy applied for an Irish passport in 1989, later than her sisters and after the amendment to the law governing the children of Irish citizens, her children are not entitled to Irish citizenship.

The amendment states that only children born after, not before, a foreign-born member of the Irish diaspora gets a passport is entitled to claim one.

So, here we have the bizarre situation where some of the great grandchildren of Patrick Hynes are Irish and others are not. The only factor determining their Irishness is not their legitimate and obvious ethnic bloodlines but the date their parents applied for citizenship. Therefore, Irishness has become time-specific.

The Hynes children applied in 2002 to the Justice Minister to have their case examined as an exception. The department rejected the three Hynes-O’Conner children as they had “no exceptional association with Ireland or its people”.

Wait a second, if your great grandparents are Irish, your grandparents have Irish passports, all your aunties are Irish and so are over 20 of your cousins, how can you have no “exceptional association with Ireland”? This is clearly nonsense.

The time has come to include the Irish diaspora in the story of the Irish Republic in a meaningful way. It is up to us to make concrete their feeling of Irishness, which has been so crucial to us for centuries.

Now that we are rich, we should give something back to the descendants of those who, in bad times, kept this country afloat with monthly remittances.

The crux of the argument is not simply an emotional one: it is an economic one. The key to success in the future will be access to markets, contacts, networks and knowledge.

A good way to look at the new global economy is the phenomenon of ‘Wikipedia’ — the online encyclopaedia.

This is how the knowledge economy of the future might work. It will be a sharing, open, democratic framework where groups of individuals, driven by a common goal or interest, come together online to create a new economic system.

The country that can organise these global networks most effectively will have a huge advantage.

Consider the children of Patsy Hynes-O’Conner who live in Mendoza in Argentina and are involved in the wine business. One of the children, Pablo Hynes exports wine to Ireland.

The Mendoza region is the richest agricultural part of this huge, important country.

Now imagine Irish companies trying to sell agricultural machinery into this booming, recovering economy. Remember, Argentina is one of the biggest agricultural producers in the world and the price of food, unlike the price of computers, is rising.

Starting from scratch, with no contacts, the Irish company would apply to Enterprise Ireland for a grant. It would spend a fortune on marketing, need to hire local staff, train its own managers in Spanish, investigate the tax regime, understand the transport links, as well as warehousing and storage possibilities and then start the hard sell.

And this is before it understands the commercial culture of the country.

Such an approach is the total opposite of the Wikipedia economy. It is old-fashioned, hit and miss, and expensive.

The diaspora is our greatest global commercial resource and the Irish passport is the cheapest way of accessing it.

In a Wikipedia world where nothing is straightforward, the sunburned Gaelic gaucho might just be Ireland’s economic ambassador of the future.

Embracing the diaspora is an inventive economic solution staring us straight in the face, if only we’d open our eyes.


  1. Thanks for this. My colleague and I started a small all-Ireland tour company in the north) 10 years ago. One of our Scottish competitors laughs that we treasure every contact – Irish roots or no – like a jewelled egg. It makes me smile when I see this or that industry boast of its “Ambassadors” – the internet has ensured that each and every one of our clients (mostly American) are our best agents. And I follow it up with two arduous treks across USA each year to cement the relationships, whilst my colleague tours Ireland 15 times a year, working with our suppliers.
    Results: an invaluable network of friends, clients, agents, referees -and not a single night’s hotel bill. You have made the point eloquently – we are just doing what we do best; what we have always done best. And it works. QED.

  2. VincentH

    The Irish State has had its issues with giving the vote to those outside the state from the very beginning. Not for us the idea of the ex-pat, they were just to volatile, to working class. They were after all the very people who fought on the wrong side of the civil war. People, like the mother of Martin Sheen, who left Tipperary during the Twenties, in part due to the designed economic conditions of the time. People FF of the time were more than delighted to see the back.
    Ireland has always used its diaspora, used it to build churches and St Peter’s sized seats for the Bishops. Used it to prop up the professions and their unusual fee structure. But held as a threat by the professions to grip their position, they could always move. Ditto the civil service and the pegging their terms and conditions to the imperial in London.
    Your idea of a Right to return is the thing of nightmares to many of the establishment. They see only those who would cost the exchequer and those who might fuck up their middle class home and farm owning utopia, Ha. And if you think that the current lot is going to be any better then look at the likes of Blackrock with its over-subscription. Why not make all the schools better.
    On that, the speedier that the Irish Times provides a reasoned view of the schools the better. While waiting for the Dept or the teachers to do some sort of table, hens will have teeth.

  3. John Q. Public

    I still don’t understand your obsession with Argentina or whether viable trading routes could be established between it and Ireland. I agree with the passport issue though considering so many illegals mostly Nigerians, have been allowed to stay in Ireland contributing nothing to the place. I’m not ignoring the huge contribution that legal immigrants make but for the amount of money it takes to house these people and give them benefits (hundreds of millions) it might be better to bring home our own illegals from the USA, the present generation diaspora and help them here instead. They had to leave here and would deserve help more than anybody else.

  4. Callan

    With all respect John I don’t think you’re making a lot of sense. I haven’t seen any figures from any source suggesting that foreign nationals are receiving social welfare benefits to the tune of hundreds of millions, and I haven’t heard any anecdotal evidence to this effect either. And how is it costing us money to house immigrants? They make up an important section of the rental market, maybe the most important part.
    The problem about Irish illegals is that they don’t want to come home, and any help they get is to regularise them, not to repatriate them. If David is right there’s a significant pool of immigrants of Irish heritage in Argentina who want to return to the land of their ancestors, but current government policy isn’t allowing them to. If, as some forecasts suggest, the economy will need hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the coming decades then it would be in our interest to attract immigrants with some attachment to the country. With food prices and Chinese beef consumption rising, the Argentinian Pampas could well be on the brink of an agri-boom. Companies like Kerrygroup could benefit from contacts on the ground, as could less well known medium sized agricompanies around the country. If I was looking to drum up business in Argentina I’d take a sales team of natives over an Enterprise Ireland delegation anytime.

  5. Liam

    Possibly a facetious (protectionist, old fashioned etc,etc,etc,)comment but here goes.

    I’m all for actually honouring article 2 of the constitution
    “….Furthermore, the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.”

    I don’t think the 27th Amendment about defining citizenship lessens our statement of intent above …but how much we will actually do in real terms to “cherish” our Diaspora and descendents apart for letting them come over and spend on their holidays.

    27th Amendment:
    “…Notwithstanding any other provision of this Constitution, a person born in the island of Ireland, which includes its islands and seas, who does not have, at the time of the birth of that person, at least one parent who is an Irish citizen or entitled to be an Irish citizen is not entitled to Irish citizenship or nationality, unless provided for by law….”

    As long as our Global clan don’t bring in Brazilian (or Argentinean beef…let’s call it Diaspora beef) we’ll be grand. Seriously trade works both ways and if David is encouraging and fostering more links with Diaspora nations and the Republic, I’d be interested to see how we “natives” will handle situations where Diaspora products come in direct competition with “Irish” products. Cherish be damned I say would be policy on this one.

  6. John Q. Public

    Callan, do you read newspapers? Balbriggan and other areas of the Northside of Dublin. Ring any bells? Nigerians getting council houses before Irish nationals waiting on a list, disgraceful. Charity begins in the home. Maybe our own people would come home if we could help them.

  7. About people going back to their countries I can give you my point of view.

    Going back to my country is just my last option. If there is nothing left I’ll go back because I have a certain level of resources there I could use (family, health services, repatriation help…) but I wouldn’t be doing that full of joy or hope, because it’s the last resort.

    I have moved to Ireland to find a better future and to stay. I want my children to grow here and I would like to stay for a very long time.

    I suppose most of the Irish diaspora feel like that, those who didn’t are probably back in Ireland, so it’s not about helping those people to come back, but about helping those people to stay in those countries (as long as they want) and continue to feel Irish. You could call them a beach head.

    Those people are a great resource for Irish companies. They can go to Argentina and contract a 3rd generation Irish which speaks English with Irish accent but at the same time knows the local culture and understand the local people and, what’s more important, they can consider him/her one of them at the same time you can consider him/her one of yours. Not many countries have millions of those beach heads all around the world, you do.

    The problem I think David complains about with those Argentinians is that if they can’t become Irish nationals (to be exact, if Ireland doesn’t consider them Irish) in the long term those people will no longer feel Irish and therefore that advantage will be lost. I perfectly agree with that point of view.

  8. I agree with David.
    As an Argentine citizen of old Irish stock (First arrived in 1826), I can assure you, you must not fear an invasion of your diaspora children. Most of us would not want to return to Ireland, if we can avoid it. Our families live here, our friends do too. We love this country, with all its pros and cons. We also love and feel proud of our origins. But sometimes we feel, that because of your new found wealth and the fear of having it taken away if we share it, like a child with his toy, this argument does nothing to help us help you, to help you help us. We both do better in the end.
    I think David´s idea of streetwise ambassadors in the field is a very powerful argument, for both to grow.
    Argentine Irish would stay in Argentina doing their job for you, and you would help us make this a better country too.

  9. [...] the home country and this is a resource which can be tapped into for Ireland’s benefit. Now, David McWilliams has been arguing for a long time that Ireland needs to embrace the soft power of it… in the same way as Israel benefits from the global Jewish community. There is certainly something [...]

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