After our Peter Marcus checked in with the British consul general for our region Thursday, in the interest of geopolitical balance — and in honor of St. Patrick’s Day — it seemed natural to also reach out to the Irish Consul General in Denver for a chat.
To be precise, the office here in the Mile High City is an honorary consul-general — but the role is much more than symbolic.
It’s currently held by commercial trial lawyer James M. Lyons, who says he has the responsibility of “helping Irish citizens traveling or living in Colorado if they have any mishaps with their travel documents, and even issuing emergency paperwork if necessary.”
Many might be surprised to learn that Denver hosts an official representative of Ireland. After all, it’s been a long time since Irish immigrants played a major role in our state. The biggest waves of Irish in Colorado came in the late 1800s, many of them working the mines in Leadville.
Denver may have one of the biggest St. Paddy’s day parades in the U.S., but in comparison to cities like Boston, New York and San Francisco, recent immigrants from Ireland do not play a strong political or economic role here.
Lyons — in addition to being a descendant of Irish immigrants — has bona fide credentials working in the Emerald Isle. Those include his appointment by President Clinton as the U.S. observer for the International Fund for Ireland, and his succession to former Sen. George Mitchell as special adviser for the president and secretary of state for economic initiatives in Ireland.
The role of an honorary consul general includes promoting business interests, and I asked Lyons if Irish business is anything more than anecdotal in our state.
Lyons says he doesn’t have any hard data on how many Irish reside in Colorado, but that there is “considerable tourism both ways, from Colorado to Ireland and Irish coming to Colorado, not just related to skiing.” As for Irish exports, “the main exports to the U.S. are agricultural products like cheese, and medical and high-tech devices.”
As the child of Irish immigrants to the U.S. myself, I can attest to the fact that these days it’s largely seen as a positive thing to be Irish in America (that certainly wasn’t the case during the biggest waves of Irish immigration to the U.S., when “Irish need not apply” was a common line on job postings).
Lyons pointed out that, worldwide, a growing number of people want to claim Irish citizenship. In fact, in 2017 Ireland issued a record 733,000 passports — a staggeringly large number from a country with a population smaller than that of Colorado.
Some experts attribute the uptick in popularity of the Irish passport to Brexit, with many British citizens of Irish descent seeking a document that will give them continued access to the European Union after the UK pulls out.
Here in the U.S., Ireland is seen as the destination of choice for many people who’d like to flee Donald Trump’s America. The fact that Ireland makes it quite easy to get citizenship — all you have to do is prove that you have at least one grandparent who was born in Ireland — can make crossing the pond a relatively feasible option for some.
Given that Lyons is the representative of a country known perhaps more than anything for its history of emigration — much of it to the U.S. — I asked him for his take on the current immigration debate that’s dividing the U.S.
“I think it’s pretty clear that diversity of any kind is the history, present, and future of the U.S,” he said.
Having interviewed many diplomats in my day -— most of whom steer clear of directly responding to questions on hot political topics — I expressed surprise at Lyons’ willingness to take on President Trump’s position on immigration. But he said he doesn’t consider his statement to be political.
“It’s a fact. Immigrants are responsible for our present, they are responsible for our prosperity. They ought not be persecuted or hounded,” he said.