DREAM JOB Kevin O’Malley said last week in Knockranny House Hotel he was honoured to be President Barack Obama’s representative in Ireland over the past number of years. Pic: Michael McLaughlin
As US Ambassador to Ireland Kevin O’Malley prepares to vacate his post, he spoke to The Mayo News during his final visit to Mayo
On his final visit to the home of his grandparents in his role as US Ambassador to Ireland, Kevin O’Malley stares out at Croagh Patrick’s snow-capped summit. When Donald Trump is inaugurated as US President on January 20, Ambassador O’Malley and his wife Dena will vacate their residence in the Phoenix Park and return to their home in St Louis, Missouri.
He has been to Mayo many times since becoming US Ambassador in April 2015 but it is the first time he has seen snow on Croagh Patrick, and he marvels at its beauty. Sporting a green-and-red Mayo tie, he is in Knockranny House Hotel, Westport, where he is to host an informal function for a small number of friends to thank them for their hospitality during his stay in Ireland.
Mr O’Malley is the grandson of Michael and Elizabeth O’Malley, who emigrated from Westport to Chicago in 1910 with seven of their children. Another eight arrived in the US, including the ambassador’s father.
Returning to his grandparents’ home country to represent the United States was, according to the ambassador, an enjoyable and ‘humbling’ experience.
“I would describe the job as a dream position,” he told The Mayo News. “To represent your country is really quite humbling. To represent your country in the land of your ancestors, the land of my grandparents and aunts and uncles is really a thrill. To be the personal representative of President Obama was really a great honour,” he explained.
A lawyer by profession, Mr O’Malley began his career as a prosecutor with the US Department of Justice. For the first part of his career he was based in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Washington, DC, working for the Organised Crime and Racketeering Section. He returned to St Louis in 1979 to work as an assistant US attorney and four years later entered private practice.
When Mr O’Malley’s name was first nominated for the role of ambassador, little was known about him in Mayo, despite his grandparents coming from the county. Mr O’Malley explained that his grandparents did not speak much about their family circumstances in Ireland, and as a result he knows very little about that side of his ancestry.
“My grandparents, like many immigrants from Ireland, did not talk about those things. It was very difficult for them to discuss life in Ireland. When I would ask them questions they would shush me away.
“They were proud to be Irish, but it was difficult for them to pick up and leave their own fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and never see them again … I got a lot from them so I can’t be miserly about it; if they wanted me to know they would have told me. I can rest content about it,” he said.
Being Irish was still very much part of O’Malley’s upbringing, however.
“I would listen to them [grandparents] talking in heavy Irish accents and watch them in my youth. It was fun. I grew up with them, and my aunts and uncles, not thinking about Ireland as a distant place with a big ocean between us … I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a place. I thought about it as who this flesh and blood in front of me was.”
Ambassador O’Malley has paid as many as 20 visits to Mayo since moving to Ireland, and acknowledges that it holds a special place for him. He was honoured to be present when US Vice-President Joe Biden visited the county last June.
“I was watching the people of Mayo react to the Vice-President, and it was fun to watch. He is very much a person who loves to be surrounded by people, a very personable individual. He likes to talk to people and for people to talk to him. He enjoyed everything about this visit. He told me it was a trip of a life time for him.”
One of the major aims of O’Malley’s role as ambassador was to copper-fasten the cultural links between the two countries, especially among young people. Among his achievements is the establishment of a programme called Creative Minds, which aims to bring together young American and Irish leaders in the worlds of culture, technology and business.
While he says that the links between the two countries remain as strong as ever, he feels those links should not be taken for granted.
“As Ireland and its young people look more globally and as the young people in the United States look more globally, I just want to make sure we don’t miss each other. There have been centuries of inter connectivity between Ireland and the US, and over these generations new relationships and connections have been forged. I just want to make sure we keep doing that.”
Mr O’Malley was an early advocate of President Obama and campaigned for him when he first declared his candidature in 2007. He lists off many of the characteristics which attracted him to the Obama camp, characteristics many would say are a complete opposite of what Donald Trump possesses.
“I thought then and I still think now that he has a huge intellect, a small ego and a very warm heart. And he is tremendously calm. That is from knowing him all these years. He has been a great leader too.
“He has led the United States with a lot of internal opposition with nothing but class. He has been a real role model to people on how governance can be done with civility and determination. I think President Barack Obama’s legacy and his standing will grow each day.”
As the world looks at the arrival of the Trump administration with uncertainty, Mr O’Malley does not believe that the strong links between the US and Ireland will deteriorate under the new regime.
“I’m not a prophet or part of the new administration that’s coming in, but I don’t see anything which has been said or done that will adversely affect Ireland. I’m going to spend my time working to make sure we continue to move forward both the cultural side of things with programmes like Creative Minds, like the J1 Visa and the Fulbright Scholarships, and great tourism. I want to spend my time promoting Irish trade in the US and US trade in Ireland because its mutually beneficial,” he explained.
As he bids farewell to Ireland as ambassador, Mr O’Malley says it won’t be long before he returns.
“I think you can count on it. You have not seen the last of me.”