Perhaps more than ever, this year’s Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day Parade Essay Contest winner found the perfect audience for her work.
Diaspora and heritage are often themes of winning essays, but when 17-year-old Mary Lauren Golden read hers to the Irish Chamber of Atlanta’s annual breakfast, Ireland’s minister for immigration was in the crowd.
Of course, Minister David Stanton is responsible mainly for inbound migration into Ireland, but Miss Golden’s work resonated with him in a few key ways.
Not only does Ireland invest maybe more than any other country on engaging its diaspora communities — some 33 million strong in the U.S. alone — but it also puts particular emphasis on codifying its own hospitality toward new arrivals on its shores, partially because of the welcome the Irish people have received around the globe in times of trouble.
Indeed, Mr. Stanton’s title includes equality and integration, reflecting its commitment to paying forward the benefits its people have received.
Miss Golden’s essay (printed in full below with permission) poignantly describes how her 92-year-old grandfather has preserved Irish traditions for the family, giving her an appreciation for the culture that drove her pioneering great-grandparents to American shores. Not only did they brave hardship en route to the U.S., but they were also, like many immigrants, asked to change their name to hide their “Irishness.” When she sees the shamrocks of St. Patrick’s Day, it’s a reminder that the American dream is often a story of sacrifice.
Miss Golden pointedly frames these recollections with a recounting of her second visit to Ellis Island, 10 years after she first traveled there as a child:
Coming back as a 17-year-old, gave me the chance to not only appreciate the journey of my great grandparents, but of so many others. Many Irish experienced the same hardships of immigration and like me, their descendants’ lives have been made better because of it. This appreciation gave me the ability to see Saint Patrick’s day in a new light. I believe Saint Patrick’s Day is not only about honoring the Irish customs of the past, but also in the future. This day is a time for me to reflect on all immigrants and their journeys, as well as understanding how essential immigration is. This is yet another meaning I have found Saint Patrick’s Day to hold in my life and the lives of others.
Mr. Stanton, meanwhile, did his part while in Atlanta to point out how Ireland is working to produce similar stories within its borders. Now, one in six Irish residents was born abroad, he said.
The minister, who has a background in farming and as an educator, said at an Irish investment forum that the country is welcoming new citizens as well as asylum seekers, using their language and technical skills to benefit companies. With Ireland technically at full employment and its economy growing rapidly, it’s a necessity to find workers from the outside, he said.
“Many of these people have talents, they have abilities, and some of them are highly skilled, so we are exploring different ways of facilitating their contribution to our economy and allowing them to work,” Mr. Stanton said at the investment forum at Miller & Martin PLLC.
Many Syrian refugees, for instance, come with language and IT skills that have been welcomed by big companies, and Mr. Stanton has tasked agencies to help match new arrivals with firms that can use their skills.
“They tell me they have more jobs than clients,” he said.
Welcoming the foreigner and engaging with the diaspora are one part of the Global Ireland strategy, whereby the Irish foreign ministry is beefing up its diplomatic presence around the world, including by expanding the Atlanta consulate and opening a new one in Florida.
Shane Stephens, the Irish consul general in Atlanta, takes pride the way the Irish have maintained relatively positive attitudes toward immigrants, especially those fleeing adversity, even in the face of demographic change.
“We’ve undertaken that journey, that dramatic journey that would have challenged other countries, I think in the right way,” he said.
Mr. Stephens didn’t explicitly make the connection, but anxiety over immigration was one key driver of the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom, which will disproportionately affect Ireland, as it shares a land border with the U.K. via Northern Ireland.
But in Ireland, shared immigrant heritage is far more often a positive story of connection, especially given that about one in 10 Americans can claim some Irish ancestry.
Miss Golden’s essay made him think about his own experience reuniting with cousins from Boston who had lost contact after his great uncle, who had emigrated to the U.S., passed away.
“I have a photograph of my second cousin traveling to Ireland and coming to the family grave in a place called Kilcreene … He said the hair on the back of his neck was standing up as he approached this grave,” Mr. Stanton said.
Siobhan Tinsley, assistant general counsel at Cox Communications, who organizes the essay contest, said she had a similar experience in Ireland with her father, who drove her unexpectedly down a country path to see the grave of her great grandparents in a church cemetery.
Miss Golden encapsulated well in her essay a sense of indebtedness to history, and the family connections that can be felt across time and space.
“Their story is not rare, their story is not spectacular, their story is not even told that often,” she wrote of her great-grandparents.
“But to me, their story is everything.”
Miss Golden, a senior at Northgate High School in Newnan, took home $1,000 as the statewide contest winner, along with a place in the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade, which she joined with her grandfather.
An avid volleyball player, Miss Golden is set to attend the University of Georgia in the fall and hopes to study social work or special education. She read the essay aloud at the Irish Chamber of Atlanta breakfast and at a Dignitaries Breakfast on the morning of the parade.
Learn more about the contest here. Read the full essay below, using the arrows to leaf through the pages:What St. Patrick’s Day Means to Me - by Mary Lauren Golden