Hurricane Herni pounded New York over the weekend — Central Park recorded its heaviest-ever rainfall — and Storm Delta has thrown a curve ball at efforts to curb the Covid-19 crisis. 

Nevertheless, I set out for New York tomorrow — my first visit to the offices of our sister paper the Irish Echo since February 2020 — with boundless optimism and undimmed faith in the ability of Irish America to bounce back from the pandemic.

I will have the great privilege of addressing the opening session of the Big Irish Campfire at 9:30am this Friday (1:30pm in Belfast) and hope to be joined by legions of Rebuilders from across the US. (You can follow proceedings online by registering here). 

Last year, the Campfire was wholly virtual and attracted Irish American champions from Hawaii to New Hampshire but this year the conference will be hybrid, with an in-person day of discussion and a gala dinner (with restricted numbers) in New York to recognise The Irish Rebuilders leading the way out of the Covid morass. 

Over eight hours on Friday, the Irish Echo will host panel discussions and presentations on the hard road out of the pandemic for Irish America. Of 60 speakers taking part in the Campfire, around half are flying into New York from across the US to join us, some from as far away as Seattle and Los Angeles. The remainder will be Zoomed in from Irish centres, theatre companies, sporting organisations, St Patrick's Day parade committees, Irish festivals and dance troupes across the nation to exchange experiences and give each other a shoulder to lean on. 

BIG APPLE: Duty calls in New York despite Covid pandemic. Pic by Julian Wan,

BIG APPLE: Duty calls in New York despite Covid pandemic. Pic by Julian Wan,

Of course, there is also much in the world of politics to consider since we last met in-person. The issue of constitutional change and the defence of the Good Friday Agreement — allied to support for a referendum on Irish unity — are dominating the Irish American landscape in a way which was unimaginable pre-Brexit. The peaceful reunification of Ireland has long been a touchstone of Irish America and Campfire attendees — who represent a community which made the peace process possible — and they are undoubtedly keen to play their part in both wining a Unity Referendum and in the research and planning for the period of transformation which lies ahead. 

In all this work, it’s imporant to listen to unionist voices. We're proud of the fact that the Irish Echo ensured unionist voices were heard in Irish America over this difficult period of effectively zero transatlantic travel. Indeed, probably the only 'direct' contact unionist ministers at Stormont have had with Irish America since March 2020 was via our virtual events. 

The other great transatlantic bond is mutual economic prosperity and the plans for a North Ireland Peace and Prosperity Investment Fund serving both the Six Counties and the Border Counties will excite much interest among delegates. Tom DiNapoli, Comptroller of New York State, has invested over $30m in start-ups to boost the peace so surely now is the opportune time for Irish American leaders to follow in the footsteps of this pioneering Italian American. All of this work could be enabled by the appointment of a new US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland — perhaps when President Biden has a little less on his plate.

No one should underestimate the challenges facing Irish America in the time ahead. But neither should anyone underestimate the Irish of America nor doubt their determination to best this awful virus. For they are — as captured, playfully, by the undertaker poet Thomas Lynch in his wonderful opus 'Booking Passage' — no mean people. As he says, Irish Americans are:

“possessed..of this full register of free-range humanity: the warp-spasms and shape-changing of their ancient heroes; their feats and paroxysms and flights of fancy, their treacheries and deceits, sure faith and abiding doubts — chumps and champions, egomanias and inferiority complexes, given to fits of pride and fits of guilt, able to wound with a word or mend with one, to bless or curse in impeccable verse, prone to ornamental speech, long silences, fierce tirades and tender talk. Maybe this is why the couple hundred million Americans who do not claim an Irish connection identify with the forty-million who do.”

Of this, then, we can be certain: we will have great company around the Campfire!