On the same day that a Hawaii judge blocked the administration’s second travel ban for six Muslim countries, Vice President Pence made a heartfelt, impassioned case for his Irish grandfather’s immigration to the United States.
“He was right about America,” Pence told the audience at Wednesday’s 25th Ireland Funds dinner. “He was right to summon the courage, as generations did before and since, to come here and follow their dreams and make the contributions that they did.”
He recalled that on Inauguration Day, “I just kept thinking of that day in April in 1923. That was the day when Richard Michael Cawley stepped off the boat on Ellis Island. He was in his early 20s when he steamed into Upper New York Bay aboard the Andania, the ship that carried him here. I can’t imagine what the sight of the Statue of Liberty meant to him that day, holding aloft the torch of freedom.”
The vice president is named for his maternal grandfather, who emigrated from County Sligo on the northern coast of Ireland. The family legend is that Cawley’s mother told him that he needed to go to America because “there’s a future there for you.”
Pence’s grandfather was a bus driver in Chicago for 40 years; the two were “very close,” the vice president said, until Cawley died when Pence was in his 20s.
So it was a sentimental night for Pence, who was honored at the annual dinner for his service to his ancestral homeland. He brought along his wife, Karen, his sisters Annie and Mary, and his daughter Charlotte. His mother had planned to be there, too, but this week’s snowstorm prevented her from making the trip.
“All that I am, all that I will ever be, and all the service that I will ever render is owing to my Irish heritage,” Pence said. “I will summon what is the best of it as I serve the people of this country with the faith, the determination, the cheerfulness, the humility and the humor that is characteristic of the great people of the Emerald Isle.”
At the end of his speech, Pence was presented with a large framed copy of his family tree and a copy of the school attendance rolls in County Sligo when his grandfather was a student there.
More than 34 million Americans claim Irish ancestry, including half of the nation’s presidents. Pence said that “the story of the Irish in America is the story of America itself.” On a night awash in sentiment and nostalgia, there was no mention of the discrimination and suspicion that the Irish faced when they first arrived in this country.
Pence posted a tweet during the dinner:
“We may be separated by an ocean, but the American people have always been bound by kinship to the Irish people.”
Some students of history didn’t take it well.
“@VP uh, what? When the Irish first came here en masse they were feared and persecuted. It was thought that they wouldn’t assimilate,” responded one tweeter.
“@VP My grandparents emigrated from Ire. amid religious prosecution/terrorism/civ unrest. You’ve destroyed same opportunity for thousands,” wrote another.
The 700 guests at the National Building Museum included Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, Anne Anderson, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States, and former senator George Mitchell, who brokered Ireland’s historic peace agreement in the 1990s, aimed at ending the decades-long strife between Catholics and Protestants.
Kenny told the crowd that one of the issues he hoped to discuss with administration officials is undocumented Irish people in the United States. “They work hard, they give to America, they love America, and many have died for America,” he said. “They just want the chance to be given the opportunity to do their bit and have it recognized officially by the United States as part of overall immigration reform.”
Kenny had breakfast at the vice president’s residence Thursday morning and was scheduled to attend a White House reception with President Trump later in the day.
“The United States now gives another immigrant son the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of our common humanity,” Kenny said of Pence during the dinner. “I know, sir, that you will grasp that unique opportunity with both hands and open arms.”