Journalist and activist Niall O’Dowd talks with NY1’s Budd Mishkin about brokering peace and his love of horses in the following "One on 1" report.
When Niall O'Dowd first came to the United States in the 1970s, he had a few bucks, a four-month work visa and a lot of dreams.
But he never could have foreseen what was to come.
"When the White House announcer announces, ‘ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States with Mr. Niall O'Dowd,’ and so you think, ‘wow, this really is something,’” recalled O’Dowd.
That president was Bill Clinton, who has called O’Dowd "the voice of Irish America for this generation."
O'Dowd is the founder of the weekly newspaper Irish Voice, the magazine Irish America and now the website IrishCentral.com.
“The Internet and the Irish Diaspora were made for each other because it's very easy for me now to reach the guy in Kansas City or the guy in California who I couldn't get my newspaper to,” he said.
One of the biggest issues being discussed in O'Dowd's publications is immigration reform. But is immigration reform really an Irish issue?
“I hear that [question] a lot,” said O’Dowd. “White Europeans aren't supposed to be coming to America in an undocumented fashion, but in fact, they are."
According to government figures, Irish are emigrating away from Ireland and its troubled economy at a rate of roughly 1,000 people a week. O'Dowd's political clout has attracted prominent politicians to Irish immigration rallies.
But some non-white immigration activists have criticized the situation because the politicians stay away from their rallies.
O'Dowd believes they are all in the fight together.
"We'll do what we can,” he said. “If it means we get [New York Senator Charles] Schumer and [Secretary of State Hilary] Clinton in the space, we'll do that. They will do what they will do. They'll put a million people on the streets at some point, which they did. So from my point of view, it's, ‘whatever leverage we can get, we get.’”
O'Dowd has an impressive record of success in difficult projects. His first two startups are now in their third decade, and he confronted one of the 20th century's most intractable problems: the troubles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
"You develop a confidence about your ability,” said O’Dowd. “I started my first newspaper with $900 and it succeeded. And then my magazine, with about $20,000. And so, when those things succeed, I began to believe that if you believe enough in something, you can actually make it happen."
Armed with that confidence, O'Dowd convinced a group of leading Irish-American businessmen to join him in his effort to produce a ceasefire in northern Ireland, often meeting in Midtown at the Fitzpatrick Hotel, a center of Irish activity in New York. The group eventually met with a presidential candidate who had first become interested in northern Ireland as a student at Oxford University in the late-1960s – Bill Clinton.
“Right after that meeting I said I would put together a group called Irish Americans for Clinton,” said O’Dowd. “We convened here in this hotel and if you were to believe people in the Irish community, there were a thousand people at that meeting. There were actually 21, because we counted every one of them."
O'Dowd spent years pushing Clinton and other leaders to broker a ceasefire in the decades long conflict in northern Ireland. And he got to know Gerry Adams, the head of the political party Sinn Fein. There were those who considered Adams a terrorist for his ties to the IRA, including some in the State Department and the British government.
But O'Dowd's connections to President Bill Clinton and Senator Ted Kennedy helped convince the administration to grant Adams a visa to the United States.
"He is a man I have huge admiration for because what he did was take an armed revolutionary movement and turned into a political movement, which in Irish history is usually a fatal thing to try and do,” said O’Dowd.
When the IRA finally announced a ceasefire on August 31, 1994, O'Dowd was in a hotel in Dublin.
“The loudspeaker goes, ‘Senator Kennedy line 2 for Mr. O'Dowd!’” laughed O’Dowd. “And the whole hotel stopped and looked at who this Mr. O'Dowd was!”
In 1998, the two sides signed an historic peace agreement.
"I've been in restaurants in Belfast and people will come over and will say, ‘thank you for all you did,’ and that's very, very heartening because you’re talking about people’s lives,” said O’Dowd. “You're talking about thousands that would've been killed if that conflict had continued."
O'Dowd wrote about the peace process in his 2010 memoir, "An Irish Voice." But he also wrote about a teacher who beat him in school, getting mistreated by his fellow Irishmen as a new immigrant here, a drinking problem . . . and depression.
Not everyone in his family was pleased.
“We tend to want to be macho and go to the pub and have a few drinks and not talk about that stuff,” he said. “So I think talking about going to a great Jewish psychiatrist, that's not a very Irish thing to do."
O'Dowd grew up in a family of seven kids in Tipperary. His family he remembers fondly.
His thoughts on the Ireland of his youth are less kind.
"It had this veneer of innocence and a sort of rural, beautiful idyll,” said O’Dowd. “But, in fact, it was terrible. It was awful for young people. It was a place where priests and brothers and people like that were abusing thousands of kids."
In his early 20s, he left for the Chicago, Illinois. After his four month work visa expired, O'Dowd stayed.
He got on a bus to San Francisco, missing by two hours a telegram informing him that his father had suffered a heart attack.
"If I hadn't made that journey, my life would've been totally different,” he said. “But frankly, there's nothing I could do about it. It was fate, and I'm at peace with that."
After a decade in San Francisco, O'Dowd moved to New York in the mid- 1980s, where he would eventually become a leading voice in the Irish community, work with powerful public officials, and contribute to the peace process that changed his native Ireland and northern Ireland.
There were harrowing moments along the way, like a ride in Belfast to a pre-arranged meeting with the IRA.
"I was looking out the window constantly to see strangely what color were the curb stones because if the curb stones were green and orange I was okay and if they were red and blue that means I am in a Protestant neighborhood and somebody has just intercepted me. That was a very scary moment,” he said.
O'Dowd is married and has a young daughter. He speaks in quiet but passionate tones about his work and his role in New York's Irish community.
But he is most animated when talking about his horses. He is co-owner of two horses that race back in Ireland.
“They win the Irish Derby every year. It's the easiest money in the world,” he said. “No, they won't come over here. They’re undocumented.”
O'Dowd has become an American citizen. He says that everything good that has happened to him, happened because of America's can-do spirit.
"I wanted to leave behind the insularity of Ireland,” said O’Dowd. “You know, [Alfred Lord] Tennyson, ‘we are a part of all that we have met.’ And that's what I wanted to be in America: a part of everything I met there. And California, Chicago, New York, the peace process, any of these things were just part of the journey. And I think that's really what I wanted to do, is undertake that journey on my own."