Green giants: 8 Irish emigrants who helped change the world

St Patrick’s Day is a national day like no other, a chance for ‘brand Ireland’ to show off to the world. But Ireland has been making a positive impact around the globe for centuries. In an edited extract from his new book, ‘What Have the Irish Ever Done For Us?’, David Forsyth takes a closer look at the men and women who’ve made waves.

Margaret Haughery

Margaret Haughery emigrated to the United States as a child to escape the ravages of the Famine in south Leitrim and, once in America, was orphaned when her parents were killed in a yellow fever outbreak. Her life was further blighted by tragedy when her own husband and only child also succumbed to disease. Despite her personal tragedies, she successfully managed and opened many orphanages in New Orleans, becoming known locally as ‘The Angel of the Delta’. When she died in 1882, her funeral was one of the largest the city has ever seen, such was her standing in the community.

William Mulholland

Without the efforts of Irish engineer William Mulholland, the city of Los Angeles could never have existed. Mulholland was the engineer responsible for successfully supplying the growing city with fresh water. He built one of the world’s biggest ever civil engineering projects to transport the water from hundreds of miles to the east to the city and the scheme still serves the needs of millions of people every day.

Mother Jones

Mary Harris, better known as ‘Mother Jones’, rose from humble beginnings in Cork City to become one of the most effective labour activists in the United States. Once described as “the most dangerous woman in America”, she was a tireless campaigner for the rights of the poor and the working class, particularly women and children. She once led a march of women and children from Pennsylvania to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt on Long Island to demand an end to child labour.

James Hoban

Among the world’s most recognisable buildings, the White House in Washington DC was inspired by an Irish building and designed and built by an Irish architect. The official residence of US presidents for more than 200 years and home to the president’s offices and staff, its design was the brainchild of a farm boy from Kilkenny named James Hoban, who based the design on Dublin’s Leinster House.

Mary Elmes

Cork woman Mary Elmes became the only Irish citizen to be honoured as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel. She joined the University of London Ambulance Unit in Spain to help the innocent victims of the vicious ongoing Spanish Civil War and later worked in refugee camps in southern France following the outbreak of the Second World War. At great personal risk, she saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children by smuggling them to safety, often in the boot of her car.

Eileen Gray

One of the most influential figures in the Modern movement of design and architecture was an Irishwoman from Wexford. Eileen Gray was little-known in her homeland during her long lifetime, but in recent times, she has been recognised as one of the most important and influential contributors to Modernism.

Vincent Barry

Cork doctor Vincent Barry played a vital role in developing a cure for leprosy – one of the most feared and misunderstood of diseases. He led a small team at Trinity College working on the related disease tuberculosis. In 1954, Barry was able to synthesise the compound clofazimine which would become a crucial part of the multi-drug treatment now used for leprosy around the world.

Ninette de Valois

Ninette de Valois was the stage name of Edris Stannus from Blessington, Co Wicklow. When injury cut her career as a ballet dancer short, she formed her own ballet company, performing in Dublin and London. The company she set up at the Sadler’s Wells theatre in London would go on to become England’s national Royal Ballet.

What Have The Irish Ever Done For Us? is available now in bookshops or online at

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