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Meet James Sharkey: he is the Irish ambassador to Switzerland--home to an estimated 4,000 Irish nationals--and a historian with a passion to let Swiss and Irish know about events that link both countries.


His voice was unmistakably forged in the Derry air, and has lost none of its strength despite his nomadic existence as part of the Irish diplomatic corps over the past four decades. Swiss News spoke with this genial man whose erudite yet conversational style retains more than just a touch of his previous career as a teacher.

As a boy, James Sharkey attended St. Columb's in Derry--a school that counts two Nobel Prize recipients in John Hume and Seamus Heaney among its Alumni Illustrissimi.

His interest in the past led him to train as a history teacher, and it was not a quantum leap from there to sitting the diplomatic service exam in 1970.

"I had the honour very early in my career of being the first Irish representative in Moscow. I was Charge d'Affaires and I will never forget the feeling of turning the key in the door that first day, of starting something completely new."

Sharkey presented his papers as the Irish ambassador to Switzerland in September 2007. But this is not his first opportunity to live here, thanks to his work--prior to his Moscow assignment--with the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in Geneva in the early 1970s.

What are the biggest changes he's noticed since his last Swiss sojourn? "The country has become more diverse and is even more developed."

He hopes to bring something unique to Switzerland during his time here--namely a foundation to celebrate the connections between Swiss and Irish.

"I regard myself as someone who always leaves behind something special. In Tokyo I helped organise the first ever St. Patrick's Day parade. There are now many such parades throughout Japan. In Scandinavia I was involved in a project that led to the construction of a replica of an actual Viking ship which successfully sailed back to Ireland last summer.

"In Switzerland I would like to develop a foundation to celebrate the historic connections between the two countries, but one which would allow contemporary cultural, academic and artistic exchanges to take place."

A big part of forging those connections is his latest project, marking the flight of the last of the Irish princes.

The Earls in Switzerland

The Irish earls were forced to flee their lands in Ulster in 1607 as a consequence of losing the Battle of Kinsale against the English. They always hoped to return with foreign allies to reclaim what was theirs, and as part of their journey they crossed the Swiss Alps bound for Italy. It is this part of their history that will be recalled in the upcoming 'Flight of the Earls' celebration.

Sharkey says Irish nationals are well represented in the large international communities like Zurich, Basel and Geneva. "Our citizens here will be reaching out to their Swiss hosts as part of the celebrations."

For the earls, who were devoted Catholics, the outcome of their flight was sobering. They never made it back to Ireland and the settlement of their former lands by Protestant colonists from England and Scotland laid the foundation for today's divided island.

Even so, the ambassador says the princes' passage through Switzerland is a good story for Swiss and Irish:

"It resonates with me, coming as I do from the same part of the country as the earls. For those who had never heard of it, it's a fascinating story as there are many romantic and tragic elements to it."


For example, as the Earls crossed over Devil's Bridge near the St. Gotthard Pass on St. Patrick's Day 1608, the pack horse carrying the gold fortune of Earl Hugh O'Neill fell into the ravine. They recovered the horse, but the gold was gone forever.

"It is surely only a coincidence that Zurich soon after became an important financial centre," Sharkey adds with a twinkle in his eye.

Peace in Ireland today

The earls' departure was a seminal moment in Irish history, because it created a situation where the English could seize their land and allow its settlement by Protestants from Britain.

The repercussions of this were felt in Ireland for centuries, he says, and "it is only now that there is hope that this seemingly intractable dispute can be resolved".

That hope stems from the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which laid the foundation for a power-sharing assembly that meets in Stormont in Belfast.

The road to peace has been a rocky one, but the sea change is reflected in the relationship enjoyed by First Minister Ian Paisley (Democratic Unionist Party) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein), once bitter enemies.

Speaking at the White House in December, McGuinness said he and Paisley were "set for a new course ... We never had a conversation about anything--not even the weather," until the 26th of March of 2007, he added, but subsequently worked together for seven months without an angry word.

It's a good example of what can be achieved, Sharkey says:

"Other countries around the world which are involved in similar conflicts may be able to draw lessons from this latest hopeful chapter of Irish history."

Swiss-Irish links

"On a political level Ireland and Switzerland are both neutral countries which emphasise the peaceful settlement of disputes. Ireland has a proud history of involvement in the United Nations Peace-keeping Force and Switzerland has long been involved in conflict resolution."

Swiss immigrants to Ireland have brought pharmaceutical companies along with smaller horticultural companies based largely in the west and south while, in Switzerland, more than 2,000 people work for affiliates of the Irish Cement Roadstone Holdings group, he says.

"Culturally, Switzerland has been home to the three Irishmen named James. James Joyce was a Swiss resident on three different occasions and is buried in Zurich. The flautist James Galway lives here too. I recently closed an exhibition of the Irish painter based in Basel, James Harte. Traditional Irish music seems to be very popular with people here, with some groups composed entirely of Swiss people playing Irish music."

Swiss highlight

I asked James Sharkey to select one Swiss memory he personally treasures.

"A highpoint of my time in Switzerland happened quite recently. A few weeks ago I was up in Andermatt teaching my granddaughter how to ski and I cast my mind back to about 1975 when I taught my then young son how to ski in Gstaad. It was immensely satisfying to have had this experience in Switzerland, one I could share with two generations of my family."

And in case you've been wondering throughout the interview, yes, he is a close relative of singer and musician Feargal Sharkey!

The Flight of the Earls or imeacht na nlarlai

In 1607, the last Irish princes (or Earls to the British) were forced to leave Ireland as a consequence of their loss to the English at the Battle of Kinsale several years earlier. They left in the hope of returning to free their land with the help of their Spanish allies but their luck ran out on two fronts.

First, they landed in France, not Spain. And secondly, during their time at sea, relations between Spain and England improved. The Earls were warmly greeted upon arrival in Milan in 1608 (then under Spanish control), but their hosts were instructed to keep the Earls away from Spain. Rome, not Madrid, became their final destination where the majority perished of illnesses shortly after arrival.

Swiss connection

These historic events are another bridge between both countries. In March 1608, the Earls and their entourage of approximately 30 people entered Switzerland, crossing the Rhine at Basel. From there they travelled on to Lucerne and crossed the Alps before arriving in Bellinzona en route to Milan. It is this part of the journey which will be commemorated throughout March.

"Through these events we will be engaging with people here and allowing Irish and Swiss communities to be part of marking this shared aspect of their history in a festive way," Sharkey says.

The travelling exhibition shows Irish involvement in Switzerland down through the centuries. There are many historical links through Irish missionaries to Switzerland such as Saint Gall and Columbanus. Many important Irish manuscripts, written in Latin, Greek and Old Irish, are housed here, particularly in the city of St Gallen. The exhibition features copies of early medieval manuscripts and objects relating to the Earls.

The Zurich leg of the exhibition will run at the James Joyce Foundation and there will be a tour of the play Making History by Brian Friel "who is one of Ireland's leading dramatists and an expert on finding contemporary lessons from historic events," says Sharkey.


Commemorative events in Switzerland

February 27-March 9, Basel: Flight of the Earls exhibition, concert on March 7, and the play Making History on March 8--all at the Museum Kleines in Klingental

March 13 & 15, Geneva: Making History on March 13. Celebratory dinner on March 15.

March 14-16, Lugano: Workshops, recitals and concerts with some of Ireland's top traditional musicians and dancers

March 15, Bern: Making History

March 16 & March 18-April 2, Zurich: St. Patrick's Day celebration on March 16 in the Carlton Restaurant. Flight of the Earls exhibition at the James Joyce Foundation from March 18-April 2.

March 17, St. Patrick's Day, Andermatt: Commemorative ceremony including a crossing of the Devil's Bridge, plaque unveiling by John Hume and James Sharkey, and Brian Friel's play about the Earls entitled Making History.

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Title Annotation:Interview
Author:White, Dermot
Publication:Swiss News
Geographic Code:4EXSI
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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