Mike Pence’s Ireland pride inspired by family, not always reciprocated
WASHINGTON – On a trip to Ireland as a young man, Mike Pence was helping out behind the bar at a cousin’s pub in the village of Doonbeg when he boasted about his Irish heritage to a customer.
“You don’t have to tell me, son,” Pence remembers the old woman responding. “You’ve got a face like the map of Ireland.”
That map is also seared into his heart.
Of all the foreign trips that the heavily traveled vice president has made in nearly three years, none will be as personal as his visit to Ireland Monday and Tuesday.
Michael Richard Pence was very close to Richard Michael Cawley, the Ireland-born grandfather whom he was named after.
And he sees the trajectory of a second-generation American landing in the White House as the embodiment of the American dream.
“It’s a testament not to that grandson, but to a great nation,” Pence said in April.
Charges of hypocrisy
But while many in Ireland are proud of the close connection, others are less enthused.
“We’ve moved. Don’t call,” a caricature artist from Galway tweeted in response to Pence’s announcement of his trip.
That the vice president could speak so frequently and emotionally of his family’s immigration story while President Donald Trump has taken such a hard line on migrants and refugees has struck some as hypocritical.
Those planning to protest his visit also want Pence to know that Ireland is not the socially conservative country it once was.
When, in 2015, Ireland became the first nation to legalize same-sex marriage through a popular vote, Pence was becoming nationally defined as an opponent of gay rights by backing, as governor of Indiana, a law that critics said would sanction discrimination against the LGBT community for religious reasons.
“If you’re serious about your Irish roots, if you think your values are grounded in some way in those roots, it’s worth considering where Ireland is now,” said Colm O’Gorman, the executive director of Amnesty International Ireland which is organizing a “disco” protest outside the Irish parliament.
During Pence’s meetings with top officials Tuesday, they may try to tap the vice president’s deep affection for their country to boost their appeals for help with Brexit-related issues and for more work visas.
“To have that affection for Ireland maintained by the vice president in the way he does is an asset for Ireland,” said Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the United States. “I know our (prime minister) will want to make him feel very welcome.”
Pence is also likely to be warmly embraced in western Ireland, his ancestral home on his mother’s side.
Some Irish value the connection
“We’re delighted that someone from our area has got so high,” said John Flanagan, chairman of Doonbeg Community Development.
The village, where Pence’s great-grandmother was born, is also home to the Trump International Golf Links & Hotel, where Pence is expected to stay.
The day after the 2016 election, the owners of Morrissey’s Pub, where Pence had once pulled pints, hung a “Make America Great Again” hat outside the door. Underneath, they pinned a note that read “Gone Celebrating.”
Pence is expected to drop by for an in-person celebration.
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The Cawley family legend
Pence is not expected to make it to County Sligo, where Richard Michael Cawley grew up. The family’s two-room home was just outside Tubercurry, a small town at the foot of the Ox Mountains.
“It’s rural Ireland at its best,” said Martin Connolly, the Sligo councilor who represents the area and who attended the same school Cawley had.
Some members of the Cawley family were popular local musicians, providing the dance music for “rambling houses,” the social events held at someone’s home, according to Connolly.
Economic opportunity, however, was not as easy to find as a good Irish tune.
According to family legend, Cawley’s mother walked her son up a hill, across the street from the cottage where he and his multiple brothers and sisters grew up, and looked toward the West. She told him his future was in America.
After arriving at Ellis Island in 1923, Cawley worked as a trolley and bus driver in Chicago where he married Irish-American Mary Maloney. The youngest of their three children, a vivacious redhead named Ann Jane who goes by Nancy, is the vice president’s mother.
“She reminds me of a lot of Irish women I know,” said Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S. “There’s a certain liveliness about her which we consider to be quintessentially Irish.”
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Bonding with his grandfather
Nancy Pence Fritsch, who is accompanying her son to Ireland, has kept up a correspondence with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar after they met in 2018 at the vice president’s residence, where Varadkar gave her an Irish scarf and pin.
Fritsch has recounted how her third son was a late talker, not speaking until he recited the words “You’re welcome” in Gaelic at age three. He’d learned the phrase from his grandfather, who also taught him the Irish words to “Humpty Dumpty” in his gentle brogue.
“He said I was the only Irishman born among the four boys in our family,” Pence said in a 2017 speech to The Ireland Funds, a philanthropic organization that backs Irish-related causes around the world.
Pence had hoped to travel to Ireland, after college, with the person he’s called “the proudest man I ever knew and the best man I ever knew.”
When his grandfather died months before Pence’s graduation, he made the 1981 trip with his aunt and cousin instead.
The photograph he snapped of the Cawley family’s cottage on that trip hangs in the vice president’s residence, along with the Bible verse, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
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A product of ‘legal immigration’
Pence often says that he was thinking of his grandfather when he raised his right hand on inauguration day and swore his oath of office. The first invitation he accepted as vice president was to speak at The Ireland Fund’s 2017 national gala, where he was given a framed copy of his family tree and a copy of the attendance records at his grandfather’s school.
The dinner was held the same day that a judge blocked the administration’s second proposed travel ban for six Muslim countries. And the group’s decision to honor Pence prompted the resignation of one regional board member, Irish writer Patricia Danaher, who called it a “stunningly craven move” given the administration’s immigration policies and “many Irish people’s long and painful experience” with immigration.
“I think what Pence is, is the worst kind of Irish American,” said Aodhán Ó Riordáin, an Irish Labour Party senator. “If he wants to come here and then talk about the Irish immigrant experience, meanwhile being a player in what’s happening in the states, well then he’s a hypocrite.”
When Pence talks about his family’s history, he emphasizes that he’s an American “because of legal immigration.”
Illegal immigration, he’s said, “tears at the fabric of society.”
“We need a system that is built on merit, on opportunity for all,” he told the Latino Coalition, a small-business group, in March.
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Evolution on immigration policy
As a member of Congress, Pence tried in 2006 to forge a compromise on the hotly debated immigration issue, invoking the words enshrined on the Statue of Liberty that his grandfather’s ship passed in New York Harbor. But conservative groups, used to praising Pence for his policies, labeled the bill amnesty for undocumented immigrants and attacked Pence for his betrayal.
“I was taken aback by the level of invective,” Pence told The New York Times that year. He called immigration a “test of the character of the conservative movement in the 21st century.”
Now, he’s part of an administration that has made it a top priority to deter undocumented immigrants and refugees from coming to the United States. The president has also denounced the legal practice of “chain migration,” the derogatory term used to describe the ability of U.S. citizens and green card holders to bring their extended family into the country.
When Pence’s grandfather entered the United States at age 20, he was joining a brother who had been able to enter because of an aunt living in Illinois, according to genealogy researcher Megan Smolenyak. Other siblings followed Richard Michael Cawley’s arrival.
Smoleynyak has written that the Cawley family’s path to America is “one of the tidiest set of chain migration links I’ve ever encountered.”
While the pattern is similar, Pence’s grandfather arrived before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which replaced a quota system based on national origin with a policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor.
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Mixed views on his visit
Dublin firefighter Dominick Gaughan says the criticisms he hears through the media of the Trump administration’s border policies have been exaggerated and he’s thrilled about Pence’s visit.
“I’m over the moon,” said Gaughan, who follows Pence and his wife on social media and says he would welcome them into his own home. “Mike Pence is like a grandson of Ireland really. I’m very proud of the connection.”
Irishmen with the opposite view can express that opinion at the “Disco at the Dail” event outside parliament that will include at least one large glitter ball.
O’Gorman, of Amnesty International Ireland, said the event is a chance to “celebrate the people who too often are the target of this administration’s pretty hateful policies” including migrants, refugees, women and members of the LGBT community.
Adam Long, advocacy and communications spokesman for the National LGBT Federation, said people in Ireland are proud of the fact that a country that was so conservative for so long has not only led the way on marriage equality but also voted overwhelmingly in 2018 to repeal a constitutional amendment that banned abortion.
“He should be very cognizant of the fact that he is visiting a country that has made significant strides on social issues,” Long said.
When Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar brought his same-sex partner to a meeting at Pence’s residence in March, Irish newspapers trumpeted the fact that he told Pence “We are all God’s children.”
It was Pence who had invited Varadkar’s partner to the breakfast, noted Mulhall, the Irish ambassador to the U.S., who doesn’t expect social issues to be a topic of discussion during the visit.
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How Pence can help Ireland
The meeting between Pence and Varadkar is likely to focus on Brexit. Specifically, whether the United Kingdom will leave the European Union at the end of October without agreeing on withdrawal terms. That could result in a closing of the border with Northern Ireland that was essentially abolished by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The agreement stabilized decades of violence between Irish nationalists and British loyalist paramilitaries.
During a trip to London in August, National Security Adviser John Bolton said the United States would side with the British government if it chooses a no-deal Brexit and could make its own trade deals with Britain to help.
Thomas Wright, a European expert at the Brookings Institution, said the timing of Pence’s visit is a big coup for Ireland, allowing officials to emphasize that the United States should not agree to any deal with Britain that would jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement.
“Generally, visits by presidents or vice presidents to Ireland aren’t very strategic. They tend to be more about heritage or symbolism or just friendship,” Wright said. “But I think this one is actually a little bit different because of the Brexit issue.”
When Pence meets with business leaders in Dublin, they’re also likely to discuss E3 visas. Ireland wants access to the surplus of the visas that were granted to Australia after its participation in the Iraq war. The Trump administration supports the proposal, but legislation hasn’t been approved by Congress.
Meanwhile, the employment opportunities for local residents have grown in Doonbeg, where Morrisey’s Pub has been turned into a high-class restaurant, said Flanagan, the local community development chairman.
Trump’s golf course has boosted the economy, he said. And there’s pride in the fact that a descendant of a local family is the No. 2 to Trump – or to any president. So they’ll let their American cousins fight over Trump’s policies.
“I know his politics could cause a world war, but it’s up to the people of America to be more concerned about his politics than we are,” Flanagan said. “We’re concentrating on the respect the family has for the area. We’re giving back the respect.”
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