To the moon, and thankfully back

Over the air waves and across the waves: Sophie Colgan of An Meitheal relief project which provided aid to the needy during the pandemic surge in New York addressing the Big Irish American Campfire. Photo by Thomas McMullan, Belfast Media Group.


By Máirtín Ó Muilleoir

We expected a stellar event but not an astronaut gate-crashing the Campfire.

There had been torrential rain across Ireland in the days before the Big Irish Echo Campfire while the U.S. had been battered by Hurricane Laura so I certainly appreciated there might be problems lighting the Campfire on Friday.

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And so it proved.

According to our agenda, the sparks were to fly at 4 p.m. Irish Standard Time. It wasn't until last week, struggling with Campfire speakers spanning 11 time zones that I even learned the term Irish Standard Time existed!

When the clock struck four in Belfast, Connla McCann was in the director's chair at the NIAVAC studios ready to hit the switch to broadcast President Michel D. Higgins' pre-recorded opening message.

Our co-conspirators across America were waiting for the starting gun for the first live panel. It was 11 a.m. in Connecticut where moderator-cum-Spitfire Eileen Scully was ready with her questions; 8 a.m. in San Francisco where the wonderfully-named chair of the United Irish Societies (of which there are, appropriately, 32) Liam Frost was suited, booted and rarin' to go; and 5 a.m. on the Big Island, Hawaii, where Dr. Brett Carey was ready with a hearty Aloha.

In New Orleans, Louisiana, court clerks were enjoying a lie-in as Judge James McKay III, immediate past-president of the AOH, swapped his black robes for a golden-green tie and our Zoom conversation on "Irish American Societies Leading the Coronavirus Fightback."

Discussing the impact of Covid in U.S. were Profesor Christine Kinealy of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, Ryushin Paul Haller of the San Francisco Zen Center (and native of Andersonstown), healthcare expert Kevin Davis (in North Carolina) and LeAnne Howe of the Choctaw Nation.

But far from being linked across to my céad míle fáilte to get the show on the road, the 938 delegates who had signed up for the Campfire (the biggest-ever number at any event the Irish Echo has hosted) saw an old movie cartoon clip and spoof of the moon landing - over and over and over again. I was, as you might expect, on fire with my rousing introduction to our "attendees" only to learn afterwards that no-one could see me.

Cue panic and much colorful language - in Irish as well as English - in the Belfast control room before, 24 minutes later, the word came from the internet gods that we were ready to go again. And so it was Take Two for my presidential introduction. And this time we were off.

Seven hours later, midnight Irish-time, the most expansive and most-inclusive gathering of Irish American activists in a generation, featuring seventy speakers, mayoral messages from Boston, Philadelphia and Albany, musical interludes and VIP interviews, came to a close.

It had been made possible by many sponsors, led by Terry Cross of the new Hinch Distillery in County Down but including TG4, Foras na Gaeilge, Tourism Ireland, NI Bureau, An Solas Nua in Washington, D.C., the AOH, The Irish American Writers and Artists, the Irish American Partnership, EPIC - the Emigration Museum, Crescent Capital,, the Society of the Friends of St. Patrick, the Irish American Business Chamber & Network in Philadelphia, Joseph Aquino of JACRES in New York, and our many friends across the U.S.

Over the coming week, we plan to slice and dice the content into easily watchable portions on our Campfire website, but for now, if you register, you can see my double take on the opening and then treat yourself to some marvelous contributions from so many parts of the United States where the Irish are gathered.

You will emerge bleary-eyed for sure if you watch the whole seven hour Campfire marathon (Connla McCann remarked as we closed up that she felt like she had just gotten off a transatlantic flight).

You will also be inspired, buoyed up, and convinced that, true to our Campfire mission, Irish America will not just survive this awful pandemic, but emerge stronger and better while keeping the bridge to Ireland open.

So a big thanks to our speakers and guests and a special bow to those of you who chipped into the Irish Echo's GoFundMe appeal to keep the presses rolling. With your help, we smashed through our $10,000 target.

See you at next year's Campfire, when I will be armed with digital fire-lighters.

See below the address by President Michael D Higgins at the opening of the Campfire.