Irish echo logo 750x550

Proud of this place called Philly

Little did I think that many years later, I would be marching alongside a new generation of dancers and cheerleaders, part of the 225 groups and more than 20,000 people who take part in the Philadelphia St. Patrick's Day Parade.

The weather is not much better here in March, but Philadelphia's month-long celebration of Irishness puts Dublin's five-day festival in the shade.

Here in the first capital of the United States, St. Patrick's Day comes early. It may only be the first week in March at the time of writing, but we have been celebrating for weeks already, and some of the more hard core will carry on until well into April.

As an Irish immigrant, I find March to be a time of wonder. Everywhere I look, people are dressed in green and sporting shamrock, and I marvel at the goodwill towards Ireland, at the joyous celebration of my old country in my new hometown.

I have long believed that one of the greatest strengths of Ireland is our open and flexible sense of identity that embraces millions of people across the world and welcomes them as part of our culture. As Irish president Mary McAleese said, "The experience of emigration represents much more than a litany of loss. It is also a long proud story of opportunity, of courage and of bridging two worlds."

Yes, and it is the story of Irish America.

And so it is with pride that I march this year with the Irish Immigration Center, alongside the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the many other organizations that have worked to support Irish immigrants on their path to citizenship in the United States.

In the face of a global economic downturn, it is more important than ever to take comfort in the kinship of our shared traditions.

Following the demise of the Celtic Tiger, it is fitting that we welcome my old TD Mary Hanafin to Philadelphia.

As Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Hanafin's department is one of the most affected by the rise in unemployment in Ireland, while also benefiting, in cold financial terms, from the increase in emigration that helps stabilize the unemployment register.

A recent report estimates that Irish emigration from 2010 to 2015 may be as high as 150,000 people. But as we celebrate the achievements of the Irish in America this month, it seems unlikely that this new generation of Irish emigrants will be joining us here.

On Consul General Niall Burgess' recent visit to the immigration center, he noted that for every Irish person who travels to the United States, four travel to Australia, mainly because of Australia's flexible visa system that allows Irish people to work and travel across the country.

This is a huge shift in the traditional pattern of Irish emigration and one that could have a detrimental effect on the relationship between our two countries.

Ireland has long benefited from close links to the United States, from the money sent home by Irish immigrants during the times of famine and recession, to the business connections and expertise of the Irish diaspora that encouraged foreign direct investment in Ireland. These ties have been strengthened over the years by a continuous flow of workers, investors and family members across the Atlantic. But under the current visa system, we now have a generation of young Irish people with few opportunities to work legally in the United States. And, make no mistake, we are all the poorer for this.

The St. Patrick's Day Parade in Philadelphia, and the many others that will be held across the country, are testament to the incredible contribution of immigrants to the United States.

In Philadelphia alone, the contributions of Irish-born Americans are impossible to miss. From Commodore John Barry to our grand marshal this coming weekend, Seamus Boyle, we have helped shape the past of this great city just as we are still shaping its present.

And I hope that this St. Patrick's Day, in the midst of our celebrations, we will all be asking how we can give a new generation of Irish people the opportunity to help shape its future.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.