Ireland’s first female ambassador to the United States has been recalling her childhood in Clonmel, where she was born and lived until the age of 8.
“I have very happy memories of growing up on Slievenamon Road”, Ambassador Anne Anderson told The Nationalist.
It was announced at the beginning of this year that she would succeed Michael Collins as the country’s 17th ambassador to the US in almost 90 years, stretching back to 1924. More significantly, she is the first woman to occupy the post.
“It’s great to have that footnote in history and there’s an amount of personal pride involved in all of this. But it’s not just about me. It’s the statement it (her appointment) makes about modern Ireland. It’s indicative of a changing Ireland, where women are slowly but surely achieving their rightful place”, she told The Nationalist from the Irish embassy in Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, where she took up duty earlier this month.
This being her fifth ambassadorial post, she has had a very varied career and the wealth of experience accumulated in her diplomatic and foreign service career has convinced her that she’s “pretty well equipped” for the job.
Anne Anderson has come a long way from her childhood in Clonmel. Her father Tom was originally from Roesboro, near Tipperary town, while her mother Margaret (who was better known as Madge) Griffin hailed from Kildimo in Co. Limerick. Her mother worked as a clerk in the post office in Tipp town and when Tom called one day to buy a stamp love blossomed and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tom was a psychiatric nurse and when he secured a job at St. Luke’s Hospital they moved to Clonmel, where Anne was born in July 1952. She attended the Sisters of Charity school and received her First Holy Communion in Ss Peter and Paul’s Church. At a time of little traffic on the roads, she remembers playing ball games outside their house on Slievenamon Road.
“It was a very happy time. We had no car and went everywhere on foot. We weren’t poor but we weren’t that well off either. We had very good neighbours, including the Carews and the Suttons. We lived across the road from John Kennedy, who was a member of the Corporation and Mayor of Clonmel. He would dress up as Santa Claus for the Christmas parade and when Santa came along on the float and recognised me in the crowd I couldn’t get over it”, she says.
The Andersons left Clonmel when her father was transferred to Kilkenny, which was followed by another move to Portrane on the north Co. Dublin coast when Tom was appointed deputy head administrator at the psychiatric hospital in Portrane, the biggest in Ireland at the time. Although he had moved from his home county, Tom remained “absolutely rooted in Tipperary”, according to Anne.
“My parents followed Tipperary hurling very closely and always cheered for Tipp, even when it wasn’t very popular among our Kilkenny neighbours!”
Her father’s sense of connection with Tipperary was so strong that every week he made the journey from Portrane to Eason’s in O’Connell Street in Dublin to buy The Nationalist, which he would read from cover to cover. The family still has relations in Tipperary, including the Walshs who moved to Ballymacadam outside Cahir.
Her parents (both of whom are now deceased) had what she describes as “a passionate belief in education as a passport to the future” and Anne studied at UCD, graduating with a degree in history and political science. She was barely 20 when she went to work in the Department of Foreign Affairs. “I thought I might try it for a couple of years and here I am, 40 years later!” She has enjoyed what she says has been “a fascinating and fulfilling career”. Something of a trailblazer, she has been Ireland’s first female in all of her prior postings.
Her travels around the world have seen her serve as Irish Ambassador to the United Nations, when she was in New York for four years before her current posting. Previous to that she was the ambassador in France for four years, and before that represented the Irish diplomatic mission to the EU (in Brussels) and to the UN in Geneva. “Amicably divorced”, she has one daughter, 28 year-old Claire, who is a literary agent in the United States.
As she prepares to get stuck into what she expects will be a very challenging job, her main priorities are immigration reform and deepening the economic relationship between the countries.
“There are up to 50,000 undocumented Irish people in the United States and we need to find some way to try and regularise their position. It’s an extra difficulty for Irish people to have a legal pathway to live and work in the US, so there’s a double challenge to try and address their status and find a path to legal immigration”.
With the period of austerity continuing in Ireland, she’s keen to foster even closer economic ties with the United States. “The US is a very important player, our biggest source of foreign investment. More than 500 American companies employ more than 100,000 people in Ireland. We want to maintain and strengthen that relationship and will be working with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to increase those figures”. Tourism is another target area, with the United States being Ireland’s second biggest tourism market. “It’s hoped that one million US tourists will have visited Ireland this year”, she says. The new ambassador also wants to maintain US government involvement in the “unfinished business” in Northern Ireland, and to expand the countries’ vibrant cultural relationship.