Noreen Bowden – Content Manager for CIE Tours in New Jersey and Author of Ean.ie/GlobalIrish.ie took time out of her extremely busy schedule to share her past, present and future thoughts about Ireland.
Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and what are your Mayo connections?
I was born in New York, but my mother was from Glenisland, outside Castlebar, and my dad was a bus driver from near Freshford in Kilkenny. We grew up in a very Irish household, with the Irish program from WFUV on the radio every Sunday, and the Connaught Telegraph and the Kilkenny People coming in every week. My mother was so proud of being from the West of Ireland, so I grew up loving Ireland – I eventually wound up going to grad school to study Irish literature, which was an opportunity I really treasured.
And then I spent about 15 years in Ireland – mostly in Galway, where I worked on Liam Ferrie’s Irish Emigrant news service. but also a few years in Dublin, where I was the director of the Emigrant Advice Network. I left about 10 years ago, partly because my Dad was getting older – I first went to study for an MPA in Boston and then moved back to NY. My job now is working as the content manager for CIE Tours, which has offices both in Dublin and New Jersey – I spend a lot of my day writing about Ireland, which is a lovely job to have.
What are your first memories of Ireland?
My first trip to Ireland was when I was only 9 months old, but the first time I remember was when I was about four – the biggest thing was all the animals on my grandparents’ farm! My sister just loved them and was always collecting the eggs and “helping” to bring in the cows, but I was younger than her and afraid of them! I loved all the kittens and the dog though. I remember collecting butterflies with my cousins, and my grandmother helping. We had so much fun! We would spend hours sliding in the hay shed, and I recall my grandfather buying us sweets from the truck that used to come around as a mobile shop. Ireland seemed so special when we were kids. I have a niece and nephew and I was there for their first visit to Ireland about two years ago, and it was exciting to see them experiencing it for the first time.
What do you miss about Ireland?
I miss so much about it – the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean nearby, the fantastic landscapes, the rich culture and the fascinating history. I also think there is often a kindness in Ireland that is missing in America – not to overidealise Ireland, but there tends to be more social trust in Ireland, and this makes it a gentler place. There are many great things about America, but it can be brutal. I also miss Irish conviviality, and the chat and laughter.
Favourite Irish food?
The lovely fat chips are probably what I miss the most – and delicate, sweet Irish strawberries! I’m lucky in that I live in a very Irish area and I can get all the Irish staples like Tayto, Barry’s Tea, Cadbury’s chocolates, and soda bread in a nearby supermarket that carries a whole row of Irish foods.
What are your hopes for Irish emigrants in the future?
I feel so strongly about the relationship between Ireland and the Irish abroad – for a long time official Ireland didn’t appreciate that relationship enough, but it’s something that’s really developed in the last couple of decades. That’s why I love the Safe Home initiative so much – it’s such a vital role, to welcome returning Irish emigrants and help them settle back in Ireland again!
One change I’d like to see, of course, is for Irish people living abroad to have a vote in Irish elections, and it’s why I started VotingRights.ie with my colleagues Kevin Sullivan and former Senator Billy Lawless – It’s easy to think Irish people abroad aren’t affected by decisions made at home, but they are. The emigrant vote would benefit the relationship between Ireland and the Irish abroad, and I think it would be good for the Irish at home, as well. It really stands out how imbalanced Ireland is in not having any vote at all for overseas citizens, when most countries do.
What have the covid restrictions been like for you in NY?
I have been very lucky in that I’ve been able to work from home and not go out very much. It has been much less restrictive here than in Ireland, but most of the people I know have been extremely careful. Zoom has been a great help during the pandemic, and one of the things I’ve really appreciated is all the great Irish music and theater there has been online – Safe Home’s concerts have been a highlight, as well as fantastic plays from places like the Druid Theater in NY and the Irish Rep in NYC. I am hoping that we’ll never see anything like this pandemic again, but that maybe some of the innovations that really kept us going and connected during this crazy time might continue to help us all keep in touch in the future.