Browsing Category


Genealogy, History, News

Rest in Peace: John Ruddy

Professor Bill Watson and Vince Gallagher. Gallagher donated the plot in the Donegal cemetery where John Ruddy will be buried on March 2.

Professor Bill Watson and Vince Gallagher. Gallagher donated the plot in the Donegal cemetery where John Ruddy will be buried on March 2.

The remains of John Ruddy, one of 57 Irish railroad workers who died at an area in Malvern known as Duffy’s Cut, will be buried on Saturday, March 2 in a donated grave at Holy Family Church in Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland—181 years after his death.

The remains were shipped to Ireland several weeks ago, said Professor William Watson of Immaculata University who, with his twin brother, Frank, discovered the remains of the victims who may have died of cholera—or were murdered by vigilantes—near a railroad embankment in the woods in East Whiteland Township.

Vincent Gallagher, a businessman and president of the Commodore Barry Club (The Irish Center) in Philadelphia, donated the grave in his family plot. The Watsons had hoped that Ruddy, who was believed to be an 18-year-old from Inishowen, would be buried near his own family, but the DNA tests on the body and a possible family member in Ireland have not been completed.

The remains of six other victims, including one woman, that were recovered from the site were buried in a donated grave in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Lower Merion last fall. Skulls of several of those victims exhibited signs of violence and a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist confirmed that one was shot through the head. The Watsons have speculated that the seven may have tried to leave the site after the cholera outbreak and were killed to keep them from spreading the disease, which is caused by a bacteria and is usually spread by consuming contaminated food or water.

Work is expected to begin this spring to unearth the rest of the Duffy’s Cut victims who are buried much deeper than the first seven and close to the Amtrak railroad tracks. Following the intervention of US Sen. Robert Casey and other legislators, Amtrak, which originally told the Watsons that it was too dangerous to dig up the remains so close to the tracks, finally gave permission.

The Smithsonian Channel will be airing the documentary, “The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut,” on March 7 at 8 AM and 5 PM, and again on March 15 at 10 PM.

History, News, People

Irish History’s the Star of Local Book Signing

Signing books: Marita Krivda Poxon and PA Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey.


Sister Polly McShain’s father, John, became a part of American history thanks to the business he inherited from his father, John McShane, an Irish immigrant from Og Hill, County Derry.

John McShain became known as “the man who built Washington.” He was, she told a crowd last Sunday at the Irish Center in Philadelphia, “the low bidder” on various projects in the nation’s capital: The Pentagon, the Jefferson Memorial, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Library of Congress annex, Washington National Airport and, in 190-51, the reconstruction of the White House. Just a few of the nation’s most iconic buildings. Later, McShain purchased Killarney House in Killarney, Ireland, where he spent a great deal of time. In 1979, he turned over the house and property to the Irish government and it has since been merged into Killarney National Park, a popular tourist attraction on Ireland’s west coat.

“All Irish should be proud of that story,” said Marita Krivda Poxon, the author of “Irish Philadelphia,” a new book about the rich history of Philadelphia’s Celtic sons and daughters, who stepped up to the microphone after Sister Polly. “It’s the story of America.”

Poxon—there are Finnegans in her line—was the guest of honor at this gathering at the Irish Center. Along with Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffrey, a Belfast native who wrote the forward to her book, and Irish Edition photographer Tom Keenan, who supplied many of the photos, she was signing books for the hundreds of people who stood patiently in line to meet her. With their autographed books in hand, they filtered into the Fireside Room for a dance demonstration by the Cummins School dancers and live music from Luke Jardel of the Hooligans and singer Rosaleen McGill and other local performers.

Peter Ryan, deputy Irish consul, traveled from New York for the event. “I feel very much at home here,” he told the crowd, clutching his autographed copy of the book. “You’re really blessed in Philadelphia to have the community you have.” Perusing the book, he said, he was surprised that so many Irish leaders and notables had visited the city, including Charles Stewart Parnell, an Irish Protestant landlord and member of parliament who championed the cause of Irish home rule; Countess Markiewicz, Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail politician and revolutionary, and Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish revolutionary and beloved of William Butler Yeats.

“Irish Philadelphia,” from Arcadia Publishing, is available in book stores, Irish shops and on


History, News, People

The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut Brought to Life

Dr. Bill Watson acts out a part in the Duffy’s Cut drama. Behind him, from left, Gerry Sweeney and the Rev. Dr. Frank Watson.

Some were murdered, bludgeoned to death or shot at point-blank range as they tried to escape. Others were buried alive, the disease they contracted—likely from stream water—causing their skin to go cold, their eyes fixed and glassy, like death, but not death. The nuns who came to tend to them were sent away, told they were not needed in this camp of suffering in a hidden corner of Chester County, where the dead and dying were thousands of miles from family and friends.

The written story of the 57 Irish immigrants who came to build a land bridge for the railroad—including one woman, the unwed mother of one who cooked and did their laundry—and died under mysterious circumstances is horrifying enough. But when it’s acted out, as it was on Sunday, October 28, at Philadelphia’s Irish Center, it is bone-chilling. Some people wept as the ghost stories were told by actors and participants in the archeological project that literally unearthed both the story and the victims of this 1832 crime, when disease and ethnic and religious prejudice intersected tragically. See a video clip of the presentation  by Lori Lander Murphy.

The two men who lead the Duffy’s Cut project—Dr William Watson of Immaculata University and his twin brother, Lutheran minister, Dr. Frank Watson—both took roles in the theatrical presentation which they co-wrote with Marita Krivda Poxon, a retired librarian who grew up in the Oak Lane section of the city and who has written two history books about the region. One, called Irish Philadelphia, will be released in January.

To turn this drama into theater, the writers drew on both written accounts, some speculation, and the stories of ghostly sightings in the area that were passed down through generations. Jerry Sweeney of Philadelphia played Patrick Doyle, one of those 19th century witnesses who claimed to have seen the dead workers, “saw with my own eyes, the ghosts of the Irishmen, hopping and a bobbing on their graves.”

Those stories passed into the 20th century. In the audience was Kathy Wagner, who lives not far from the mass burial site in Malvern. She said when her sons were young, “I used to tell them to go look for the railroad workers. We knew about them. And they were there all along.”

Project leader Bill Watson had his own ghostly encounters. “Bill saw a trio of ghosts and in the play, Patrick Doyle, sees three ghosts,” said Poxon, after the show.

Poxon, who studied literature at Trinity College in Dublin and had wanted to be a writer, didn’t start writing seriously until she retired. “And I love to write ghost stories,” she said, laughing, the white wimple on her head—she played Sister Pelagia, one of the Sisters of Charity who came to minister to the sick—bobbing like a seagull.

The work at the Malvern site was temporarily halted after seven bodies were recovered—bodies suspected to be the laundress and six workers who had tried to escape and were killed. Most of them were buried this year in a donated plot at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwd. One, believed to be a teenaged Donegal man named John Ruddy, is being held until DNA evidence confirms his identity. The Ruddy family still lives in Inishowen Peninsula, at the top of Donegal, where John was from; one family member came to the US to donate DNA for analysis by experts at the Smithsonian Institute. The Ruddy family has a genetic dental anomaly that was also found in the recovered skull; the family also report that there’s a family story of a young Ruddy who went to America who was never heard from again.

Work at the site won’t continue until Amtrak, which runs trains along the line, issues permits. The rest of the bodies are buried deeper and all work stopped because the mass grave is in close proximity to the train line.

Amtrak is expected to issue those permits, “but the weather has to behave,” said Dr. Frank Watson, who played 19th century journalist Julius Friedrich Sachse, who wrote about the Duffy’s Cut ghost sightings, and provided bagpipe interludes.

The bodies are buried about 30 feet down “at the original grade of the valley,” said Bill Watson, who wrote his own part—that of a young Donegal worker. “We’re going to need an earth mover in there before our team gets started.”

He said that the forensic scientists who helped the Watsons diagnose murder as the cause of death of some of the seven expect that the other 30 likely died of cholera, but that won’t be known for sure until the bones are brought up and examined. “We think that some of those people may have been buried alive because the cholera trance made them appear dead. Cholera has been known to turn people into living corpses.”

In March, PBS will present its second program on Duffy’s Cut in its true-life crime series, Secrets of the Dead.

And maybe, by then John Ruddy will be in his final resting place in Donegal. If it turns out that the bones don’t belong to Ruddy, he’ll still rest in peace in the land where he was born. Irish Center President Vincent Gallagher has donated a gravesite in his family plot in Ardara, County Donegal. “He’ll be right next to my grandparents,” said Gallagher.

History, News

A Final Resting Place for the Victims of Duffy’s Cut

Students who worked on the Duffy's Cut project carried the caskets to the grave.

They were buried for 180 years, but on Friday, March 9, five Irish immigrants were finally laid to rest at the West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd. When they died—or were killed—along the stretch of the rail line known as Duffy’s Cut in Malvern, they and 52 of their co-workers were unceremoniously dumped into a mass grave that wasn’t discovered until 2005.

This time, their caskets, hewn of pine, were carried reverently by some of the Immaculata University students who participated in the archeological dig that unearthed them and their stories after nearly two centuries. An honor guard from the Philadelphia Donegal Society and the 69th Irish Brigade re-enactors followed them. And the men who found them—Dr. William Watson, head of Immaculata’s history department and his twin brother, the Rev. Frank Watson, a Lutheran minister—brought their small seven-person pipe and drum corps to pipe them home.

The five, four men and a woman, likely a washerwoman who tended the workers, were laid to rest under a 10-foot tall Celtic cross carved in County Waterford, Ireland and finished in New Jersey. The foundation stone on which it sits contains the story of Duffy’s Cut as well as a carving of the John Stamp, the ship that carried them from Derry, and the names of all 57 immigrants and their homelands taken from the ship’s manifest.

Irish tenor, Tommy McCloskey, sang both the Irish and American national anthems, as well as “Danny Boy,” a song often thought to be a ballad for a young man either going off to war or lost to emigration.

Kevin Conmy, deputy chief of mission at the Irish Embassy in Washington stood in for Ambassador Michael Collins, who had been expected to attend but who had to return to Ireland after the death of his mother. The prayer service was conducted jointly by Rev. Watson, and Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishop Michael Fitzgerald.

Rev. Watson to the crowd of nearly 200 who gathered for the service that the Duffy’s Cut immigrants were victims of both “cholera and violence.”

Eight weeks after sailing to find work in the US in 1832, all 57 immigrants from Donegal, Tyrone and Derry, were dead, some from cholera, a bacterial infection spread through contaminated water or food, and the others, according to forensic analysis, by murder. The Watsons believe that they were killed by local vigilantes—possibly the East Whiteland Horse Company—who feared they would spread the disease to others in the community and who were likely also prejudiced against both the Irish and Catholics.

Janet Monge, an anthropologist who worked on the project, found signs of violence. One skull had what appeared to be a bullet hole. Others had signs of blunt force trauma, including what looked to be the blow of an ax or pick.

“It was anti-Catholic, anti-Irish prejudice, white on white racism,” said Dr. Bill Watson who, like his brother, was dressed in a ceremonial kilt.

Ghost stories and efforts by the Irish railroad community kept the immigrants’ memories alive for a time. But the story had faded like an old photograph by the time the Watsons came across some papers left behind by their late grandfather, an assistant to the president of the Pennsylvania railroad, that showed that the railroad had covered up the deaths.

The dig, which started in 2005, first found old glass buttons, shards of crockery, and clay pipes, including one stamped with an Irish harp and the words “Erin go Bragh,” or Ireland forever. Then, in 2009, the first body was discovered after the Watsons brought in a geologist with radar. It is also the only set of remains to be identified.

John Ruddy was only 18 when he sailed to the US from Derry in June 1832. He was identified initially from a missing upper right first molar, a rare genetic defect that affects other Ruddy family members in the Inishowen region of Donegal. One, Liam Ruddy, flew to the US to give a DNA sample. He himself has no upper right molar and neither do two of his aunts. There is even a family story of a young Ruddy who emigrated to the US and was never heard from again.

Ruddy’s body will eventually be buried in Donegal.

The Watsons had intended to remove all the remains, but most of them—likely the cholera victims–are buried deep near and under tracks still in use which may make that difficult if not impossible. Immaculata is establishing an institute to investigate other mass graves in Pennsylvania. The Watsons are also looking into the possibility that Phillip Duffy, the contractor who brought the immigrants over to work on the railroad, may be buried in St. Anne’s Parish cemetery on Lehigh Street in Philadelphia.

St. Anne’s pastor, the Rev. Edward Brady, attended the Duffy’s Cut ceremony. “We think Duffy, his wife, and either son or daughter are buried there, but there’s no tombstone,” said Father Brady, who serves as chaplain to the Irish Memorial, a monument to Irish immigrants that overlooks the Delaware River at Penns Landing in Philadelphia. “We’re going to have to verify it with funeral records. We’re looking into it.”

View our photos of the Duffy’s Cut funeral services. 



History, People

Will They Go No More A-Roving?

A scene from the film, "Settling Down."

They’ve had many names: tinkers, travelers, gypsies, Lucht Siuil (“the walking people” in Irish), and Pavee, in their own tongue. There are only about 36,000 of them in Ireland and they’ve traded their distinctive horse-drawn carts for gleaming trailers and, increasingly, houses, just as they’ve given up tinsmithing and seasonal farm labor as 21st life encroaches on their centuries-old itinerant culture.

On Sunday, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology will present the short film, “Settling Down,” a look at a small group of Irish travelers in Cork and how their identity and culture has been transformed as a result of bigger changes in Ireland.

Joseph Lennon, director of the Irish Studies Program at Villanova University, will be speaking about the film and the uncertain future facing the travelers. We spoke to Lennon this week.

What’s the film about?

It focuses on pretty localized incidents in Cork and right outside Cork City where the city corporation is trying to negotiate with a group of travelers about keeping some of their camp sites open and creating more open space and fields for their horses. One of the travelers asks many, many times, “Where can we go?” It seems like the big question in today’s Ireland. How are travelers going to find any place they can go? It’s a problem that endures. It’s about land. It’s about prejudice. There’s still a lot of fear of this pretty insulated community and what they do and what they’re about. As much as we know about them and studied them and talked to them, they’re a closed community with their own language, and people are fascinated by that.

Travelers are ethnic Irish. Why is there so much prejudice against them?

It’s half romanticism and half fear. Historically there has been this projection of the settled population, of us, onto this romantic itinerant group that seems to buck the rules of modernity. The truth is, for every incident of traveler theft there are hundreds of thousands of incidents of no theft, but things get magnified both in the media and our cultural imagination. You have to remember too that the population of Ireland had struggled to own their own land for hundreds of years after it was confiscated by the British. It was one of the goals of Irish immigrants to the United States and in Ireland to get land. They have a great passion for that; it’s seen as the most prized possession. For people who never aspired to that, there was a sense that they were the losers in life. Michael Hayes, a scholar in this area, calls it the dropout theory: They couldn’t make it in society so they dropped out. And as the documentary points out, the travelers were left out of Ireland’s economic boom times. They’re considered working class people who don’t have the same ambitions as settled people. They’re not seen as a different ethnic group or lifestyle, but a group that should assimilate and most travelers don’t want to assimilate. Their lifestyle and culture is to be on the road. Ireland has difficulty with multiculturalism. Only in the last 15 has Ireland had any immigrants. The immigrants who are coming to Ireland have brought awareness of the need for advocacy for the travelers.

What are their origins? I’ve read that they’re descended from ancient traveling poets or that they’re descendants of people turned out of their homes during the famine.

It’s difficult to say. There’s no absolute origin story for the travelers. Going back to the mid-17th century, there were these traveling bards or the Filid, people who would travel between districts or kingships as storytellers, bringing news, telling stories, acting as historians, doing genealogies, things that were very meaningful in those societies. It may be that the travelers picked up on that tradition, coopted it if you will, and picked up some of the stories and the oral culture. They are certainly more practiced in orality than, say, people who watch TV all the time, so there may be some truth to it.

I’ve also read that their language, shelta, can be traced back to that time.

Nowadays people have about 200 to 1,000 words of vocabulary and they mostly use it for bargaining. [Irish travelers trade in everything from dogs and horses to scrap metal.] A part of the language appears to be Norman Romany, a root of the language of Romany and what was to become English. Languages like shelta are actually what are considered “anti-language.” They’re there to obfuscate, to be intentionally not understood, which makes them useful in bargaining so people outside the community would not understand.

What do you think viewers will come away thinking after they’ve seen the film?

I hope they come away thinking that what’s going on with Irish travelers is much more complicated than they had guessed and the problems haven’t been solved for good reasons, including prejudice.


Monaco’s Search for Missing Brothers

Grace Kelly

Grace Kelly

The scholars who preside over Monaco’s audiovisual archives are looking for a few good men.

Local Irish will get the Monaco-Philly connection instantly, of course: the gifted actress and East Falls native Grace Patricia Kelly became princess of the diminutive principality upon her marriage to Prince Rainier in April 1956.

In particular, the Archives Audiovisuelles de la Principauté de Monaco is interested in photographs of the brothers of Grace’s parents John Brendan Kelly, Sr., and Margaret (nee Majer). The Kelly men include Patrick, Walter, Charles and Georges; and on the Majer side, Bruno and Carl, Jr.

The Archives “collect, restore, preserve and archive the audiovisual patrimony of Monaco, private and public,” according to spokesperson Sylvie Primard.

“We have in our collection documents from the early 30s, concerning Princess Grace’s childhood. Our present task is to index and archive these items, which means that we should try to describe these images as well as we can for future generations.”

The early childhood photos remain private and are not available for public view.

Missing from the Archives collection are photos of the Kelly and Majer siblings. Archivists touched base with this week in the hope that one or more of our readers might be able to help.

Should you know the whereabouts of any of these photos—hey, maybe your great-grandad went to St. Bridget’s on Midvale Avenue as a boy and left you with a stack of black-and-whites—let us know, and we’ll put you in touch.

Genealogy, History, News, People

Duffy’s Cut Victims Will Be Remembered, But Not Recovered

Duffy's Cut Memorial Cross Designed by Johnnie Rowe

From the beginning of the Duffy’s Cut project, back in 2002, Bill and Frank Watson knew there was a possibility that they would not be able to recover the bodies of the 57 Irish workers who died in 1832 under mysterious circumstances while building Mile 59 of the Pennsylvania Railroad. But the brothers—historians-turned-archaeologists—successfully located and excavated the first seven bodies, and the dream of finding and retrieving the rest of the workers looked increasingly realizable.

Until last week when Amtrak officials informed the team that the bodies in the mass grave were located too near to the tracks that are still in use today, and are therefore unreachable.

For 170 years, the story of Duffy’s Cut was simply an urban legend that had been passed down by locals through the centuries, the tale of railroad laborers buried alongside the Malvern Curve.  But when Frank Watson inherited a file from his grandfather, who had worked as an assistant to many of the railroad’s presidents throughout his career, the legend became a true life tale of Irish immigrants who suffered the reality of prejudice, cholera and murder before being deliberately erased from history.

The summer of 1832 brought the ship The John Stamp to dock in Philadelphia, plentiful with Irish laborers eager to find work. Philip Duffy, the man charged by the Philadelphia & Columbia Railroad to build the dangerous section of track called Mile 59, met them as they came ashore and offered them jobs. Within six weeks, all these men (and at least one woman) were dead, supposedly from the effects of cholera which had become an epidemic in the area. Consigned to a mass grave, these immigrants were quickly forgotten and the details of their deaths covered up.

Frank and Bill Watson, in possession of the original file amassed by Martin W. Clement, the last president of P&C Railroad before it was bought out, and then given for safekeeping to their grandfather, Joseph F. Tripician, began the arduous task of setting up an archaeological dig at the site. Over the past several years, their efforts have paid off beyond all expectations.

Artifacts found at The Duffy’s Cut site include buttons, bowls, forks and pipes from the men’s home counties of Derry, Donegal and Tyrone. Working with forensic dentist Matt Patterson, University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Janet Monge and geophysicist Tim Monge, plus a dedicated team of students, the Watsons recovered seven bodies buried on the site, yet set apart from the mass grave. These first seven were six men and one woman who tried to flee the quarantined camp, but were hunted down by a local vigilante group known as The East Whiteland Horse Company. All of these victims show the effects of murder, from blunt force trauma to their skulls to bullet holes.  It seems they were tended to by a local blacksmith named Malachi Harris, who built coffins for them and gave them their own burials.

Many details yielded by the bones of these seven have helped to provide clues to their identities. The body of one victim matched up by age to one of the immigrants listed on the John Stamp’s ship list; John Ruddy was the youngest of the laborers, and DNA testing is underway with descendants of the Ruddy family back in Donegal to see if there is a positive match. It turns out that John Ruddy had a distinctive dental trait: he was missing an upper right molar, a genetic quirk that is also shared by other Ruddys in Donegal.

The discovery that one of the bodies was a woman was another revelation. Several of the men on the ship were traveling with female relatives, and the bones seem to point to her identity as Catherine Burns, a 29 year old woman listed on the ship’s manifest. The condition of her stooped shoulders show that she was most likely a washerwoman, and certainly used to hard labor.

With the advance of technology, Tim Bechtel was able to use electrical imaging and seismic surveys to positively locate the mass grave where the majority of the laborers had been buried. But what his equipment showed is that these victims are buried 30 feet below ground level, level with the line of tracks as they were originally built in 1832.

“It’s a huge area,” Frank Watson explained. “So they’re all there together. But because they’re 30 feet down, there’s no way to safely excavate.  If we started excavating at any spot along there, it would probably destroy the memorial wall and could possibly undermine the tracks.”

The news that Amtrak was not allowing excavation at the mass burial site came as a disappointment to the team, to know that they were so close to recovering the bodies of the workers but that any serious digging in that location was off limits due to safety concerns.

They’re taking the frustration in stride, however, and the work at the site is far from over.

“We can stay as long as it takes,” Watson explained. “We’ve been working on this last body that was under a large tree. We have the skull and all but one tooth. The teeth are in great shape, considering that the roots of the tree went through his skull and more roots had broken through his jaw, separating the upper and lower, actually splitting the jaw in half.

“We also found pewter buttons buried with him, probably from a haversack, together with a Barlow pocket knife. These are likely some of the best preserved items from an Irish-American laborer’s grave from the 1832 era.

“We still have so much more work to do.”

That work includes proper burials for these bodies that have been rescued. If the body that is thought to be John Ruddy is proven to be part of the Donegal Ruddy family, it’s likely that he will be sent home and laid to rest. For the others, interment at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd has been arranged, and a Celtic memorial cross has been designed and built to commemorate the laborers. Johnnie Rowe, from County Laois, has created a hand-carved cross and ledger from Kilkenny limestone that’s been shipped over and will be placed at the graves of the Duffy’s Cut victims. The ceremony is planned for March of 2012.

So the work of the team will continue. In fact, they’ve been called in to investigate what is thought to be a Potter’s Field in nearby Downingtown. The back story is that possibly one of the men from Duffy’s Cut was able to escape from the camp, then went and infected other Irish workers in the nearby town, leading to another mass anonymous burial ground. The possible connection to Duffy’s Cut makes this especially intriguing.

Amtrak’s pronouncement that there will be no excavation of the mass grave site may be a disappointment, but ultimately it doesn’t detract from the importance of the discovery at Duffy’s Cut.

“The most important thing is that the story is being told,” Frank Watson affirmed. “After being ignored for all these years, they have definitely earned a place in the Irish American pilgrimage.”

Duffy\’s Cut Photos


History, News, People

The Rise and Fall of the Celtic Tiger

Dr. Sean Kay

Ireland is famous for its writers and storytellers, but these days, numbers, rather than words, are what tell the Irish story. Numbers like these:

• Between 2006 and 2010, the average family income in Ireland was cut in half.

• The average per capita debt is 37,000 euro ($51,544).

• Ireland lost 20,000 jobs between the years 2000 and 2006.

• The country’s debt now stands at 876 billion euro ($1.2 trillion).

Sean Kay, PhD, has been a regular visitor to Ireland since 1987. He traces his roots there and his wife is an Irish citizen. But until recently, his private and professional lives hadn’t meshed the way they do now. As Gershon professor of politics and government and chair of international studies at Ohio Wesleyan University, Kay had written about, in his words, “the big wars, global security stuff, and big international security issues,” the kind of thing that got him noticed by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign.

“I was asked to be part of a team advising Obama on issues related to Europe and Afghanistan, and because I had contacts in Ireland, I asked if I could also advise on Irish issues,” Kay explains. “I’m not a political person, but I was interested in getting involved and it was a good experience that I would never do again. But it got me thinking that there was a story to tell about Ireland and I wanted to tell it.”

That story is Kay’s latest book, “Celtic Revival? The Rise, Fall, and Renewal of Global Ireland “ (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011). He’ll be speaking about Ireland’s boom and bust, along with Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny, on Friday, November 4, at Temple University Center City. The program is sponsored by Irish Network-Philadelphia. For more information, see our calendar.

We talked to Dr. Kay this week about the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger” and what the future holds for Ireland.

In your book, there are a couple of lines that really struck me. “For a young generation that had never experienced bad times, a wealthy and comfortable Ireland was the new norm—and the expected future. Thus the desperate condition Ireland found itself in by 2008 came as a horrific shock to a country that had never previously experienced boom and bust.” Ireland is one of the “young” countries in Europe—that’s at least a quarter of their population and they’ve never known anything but prosperity until now. Where does this leave them?

By about 2001 an entire society for first time in history had disposable income, purchasing ability, all built on loose credit. It was a mirage. It wasn’t real. When it burst, you had an interesting set of layers going on. The first one is that this was brand new wealth. People got rich pretty fast and that was just gone. The second layer is that people under 35 who didn’t cause any of that are going to be feeling the effects for the rest of their lives probably, between emigration and having to pay back somebody else’s broken promises on debt.

What went wrong?

There were really good foundations for the original Celtic Tiger of the late 1980s and mid-1990s. [In the book, Dr. Kay writes that Ireland benefited from its well-educated population and low business taxes which attracted significant foreign investment largely by pharmaceutical, technology, and healthcare companies.] Then the politicians got so obsessed with the electoral rewards and manifestations of the idea of large growth. Instead of slowing economic growth to about three percent and going for strong, gradual growth, they wanted eight, nine, 11 percent annual growth. But the export market flattened as had the impact the foreign direct investment. Ireland had lost its competitiveness, which was the premise of the Celtic Tiger. The way they sustained it was by artificially inflating the economy by allowing de-regulation of the mortgage market. Then you got a microcosm of what happened here: people leveraging a mortgage to pay for two or three other mortgages and then there was less revenue for the budget. [In his book, Dr. Kay quotes Irish economist Morgan Kelly who captured the housing bubble fiasco succinctly: “We have spent the last five years learning to believe that exports and competitiveness don’t matter, and that we can get rich by selling houses to each other.”] But what has shocked me the most is how steep the decline Ireland’s education system has been. It’s off the cliff. It went from being one of the best education systems in Europe and now ranks at the bottom in how much the government spends for education.

One of the things I learned from your book was that U2, whose lead singer Bono is linked to African causes including hunger and AIDS, actually took its publishing arm out of the country when the tax laws for artists changed and they were going to be taxed on anything above a quarter million euro. I found that hypocritical and disappointing.

To be fair, they didn’t do anything illegitimate or illegal. They’re not tax dodgers. They still live there and pay taxes as individuals. They were taking advantage of a tax loophole that the government tried to rein in. In Ireland, artists lived tax exempt. Of course, the idea was to help struggling artists, not massive bazillionaires. It was to give them a leg up as they got started. When it changed, U2 packed up and left. That represented a loss of 40 million euro a year to the Irish people. There is a point to be made that keeping the tax rate friendly to business is a good thing. The problem is that U2 posture themselves as a moral business, their own countrymen are hurting and they’ve taken their money out. But lots of wealthy Irish people moved to Monaco and Cyprus, and that money has yet to come back.

You talk in the book about how the cultural lack of self-esteem and avoidance of talking about serious problems has kept Ireland from asking for help and for getting back on track in ways both economic and social. What exactly did you mean by that, and has it changed?

You know, when I mention that to people, everyone knows exactly what I’m talking about. Look at the church for example. For years, people never talked openly about the Catholic Church and the scandals they knew were in it. I spent some time talking to [singer] Sinead O’Connor about her ripping up the photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live [in 1992], something that was offensive to me and to many other people at the time. I asked her why she didn’t tell people why she was doing it. Americans didn’t understand, but people in Ireland knew what she was trying to say and they didn’t want to grapple with it. Now, with the child abuse scandal in the church and the economic crisis, all these things that couldn’t be talked about before are forced on people. Debt is not something anyone wanted to talk about, but now the whole country is in debt and it’s affecting everyone at the kitchen table level. We’ve picked that up in America too. The president didn’t even mention the oil spill in the Gulf in his state of the union speech this year and it was one of the biggest things we should be talking about—our dependence on oil. This is one place where the Irish are leading the world.

You’re sounding a little hopeful. Do you think things are going to get better in Ireland?

I see a ray of hope, but it’s different from what people might expect. It’s not going to one of getting back to where things were by any means. But there are
five key reasons there’s good reason to be optimistic about Ireland’s future. The first point has to do with fact that the Irish are being brutally frank now, demanding an accounting from their leaders and their banks and demanding transparency because of harsh lessons they’ve been through. Now they’re talking about it and even having some basic discussions of what it means to be responsible citizen in a democracy. Because of the church issues, you also see a real desire for justice and equality. You have [Taoiseach] Enda Kenny giving a speech where he says “this is not Rome, this is the republic of Ireland 2011.” And you see a major social transformation going on involving the face of Ireland. Walk around Dublin today and it’s not all white Irish-looking people you see. It’s multicultural, multi-religious, and much more progressive than most people realize. Ireland has much more progressive national legislation on civil partnerships, for example. Seventy-two percent of the population say they support gay marriage, so it’s not really the conservative country many people think it is.

What does that have to do with getting Ireland back on its feet?

This kind of thing sends a message to the world and to business that Ireland is open and welcoming. That’s really important because businesses want a good environment. I also think that they’re sending a message of peace out of Northern Ireland though I still think that needs a lot of work. That brings me to the fifth reason I’m optimistic about Ireland’s future. The country’s foreign policy has been very innovative and sends a signal of goodwill to the rest of the world. Ireland does peacekeeping, provides food aid in Africa and other Third World countries, and the Irish were the architects of the nuclear proliferation treaty. Those things provide a basic foundation on which a new economy and political and social life can be built. Their economy is not going to save them. It’s going to be these other things that make Ireland a role model for how to think about priorities. There’s much the Irish can do to teach the world. What’s going to get Ireland through ultimately is its classic sense of home, family, and community.