Consul General of Ireland in New York Visits Fordham Law School


In wrapping up both Irish Heritage Month and Women’s History Month in March, Fordham Law School welcomed two exemplary Irish leaders working in the United States—Imelda Maher, Sutherland Full Professor of European Law at University College Dublin, Senior Emile Noël Global Fellow at New York University School of Law, and the first Irish woman to become president of the Society of Legal Scholars (the oldest and largest learned society in the UK and Ireland), and Helena Nolan, Consul General of Ireland in New York. Maher and Nolan discussed Nolan’s career trajectory in foreign affairs as well as wider policy issues relating to the island of Ireland. The event, held March 29, was presented by the Irish Law Students Association, the Ireland Summer Program, the Feerick Center for Social Justice, the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, and Fordham Law Women.

“Dean Imelda Maher’s fascinating interview of Consul General and former Ambassador Helena Nolan was another extraordinary occasion in Fordham Law’s long relationship with Ireland,” said Dean Emeritus John D. Feerick ’61. “These two Irish women express the greatness of their country, one a leading scholar and the other a diplomatic voice for her country in the world and now in the United States.”

An Illustrious Career

Nolan is one of seven Irish Consuls General—soon to be eight this fall—living and working across the United States. She began serving as Consul General in August 2021 and currently represents the Government of Ireland in the states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia in her role.

Over the course of her 39-year-long career, Nolan has held a wide number of roles at home and overseas, most recently serving as Ireland’s Ambassador to Belgium and heading Ireland’s Partnership for Peace Liaison Office at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 2017 and 2021. She joined Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in 1990 after working in the Department of Education. She had also served for a number of years on secondment to the Department of Enterprise and the Office of Science and Technology for nearly a decade.

Nolan also served as Director for Disarmament and NonProliferation in the DFA’s Headquarters in Dublin and was a regular delegate to the United Nations in New York, Geneva, and Vienna. She has worked on four continents—specifically in England, Ireland, Belgium, Malaysia, and Tanzania, and now the United States.

Being Her “Authentic Self” in the Irish Diplomatic Corps

Nolan spoke about how becoming a poet and 2011 Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award winner for her collection, The Bone House, interconnects with her work at the DFA. She recalled receiving encouragement from Niall Burgess, former secretary general of Ireland’s DFA, for her writing, and earlier receiving support from the Department’s Training Unit to pursue a Masters in Creative Writing at University College Dublin, which would, as she pitched, help hone her speech-writing skills.

Nolan also spoke about how colleagues are now recruited into the diplomatic service and not all by the traditional route. “A lot of people work their way in by many different routes and very diverse walks of life, like nurses, geographers, and teachers,” Nolan said. “He [Burgess] was an amazing gender champion and brought the idea of gender equality and women in diplomacy to the fore. He was very open-minded about [melding]creativity with work and gave permission for all those kinds of conversations to happen—for all of us to be more of our whole, authentic selves at work.

“I owe a lot to the Irish Public Service and I will say [my experience]of having my further education part-funded was very typical,” she added.

(L-R) Consul General Helena Nolan, Dean Emeritus John D. Feerick ’61, and Imelda Maher

(L-R) Consul General Helena Nolan, Dean Emeritus John D. Feerick ’61, and Imelda Maher

Maher remarked how struck she was by Nolan’s journey as a diplomat. “On the one hand, you’re a woman who’s gone through the system, and then you have this other lens through which you view the world through your literary work,” Maher said. “You managed to maintain that aspect of your life as well and worked hard, studying part-time while working full-time. That multifaceted nature of your profile really shines through as we talk about what you’ve done and where you are now.”

Finding Equal Balance

In terms of gender equality within the DFA, Nolan stated that representation has improved in recent years. She emphasized the importance of keeping a close eye on the pipeline and checking as to why women or minorities may not be advancing within the field—or are leaving it altogether.

“[In the department] we recruit openly and blindly and end up recruiting, on merit, far more women than men. And yet, something was happening with the pipeline,” Nolan said. “At one point, around 70 percent [of new hires]were women, but only five percent [of those women]were rising to the top [in top positions].” She further explained that one contributing factor was that women were getting promotions elsewhere in the general civil and public service or finding jobs in the private sector or setting up their own businesses.

“But that’s not the case anymore,” she added. “We’re much better and much more evenly balanced now [at more than 30 percent]… through the three R’s that we used to shift the dial from making it a women’s issue to an organizational issue—resources, reputation, and representation—which really made all the difference.”

Nolan shared her own experiences about learning to balance life abroad and often away from her husband, Sami, and two children in Dublin. “Before you apply for entry into the foreign service, they do give you this checklist of questions like, “How would you feel about not being home for Christmas? Birthdays? Weddings?’” she recalled. “I missed nine Christmases in a row, but went home either in November or February to celebrate it then.”

“You have to be up for it as a couple, as a family, and you need to like that idea of never really spending more than a few years in one place. It’s a constant challenge,” Nolan said. “Just when you think you’ve become an expert, off you go and start again [somewhere else].”

Nolan also said that she has found gender-based judgment of colleagues to be less prevalent nowadays. “In my own career, when my kids were very young, I didn’t go forward for promotion for a few years. In the old days, there would have been a feeling of ‘Oh, she’s not going forward for promotion’ and you’d end up in a ‘B-stream’ or a ‘mummy track,’” Nolan said. “Now, if people need to step aside for whatever period of time or don’t go for promotion or need to defer going abroad for a bit, there’s zero judgment on that decision and all roles are open to them again as soon as they’re ready to come back. That attitude really transformed the career for women of my generation, and a huge number of us then came through and advanced into leadership and Ambassadorial roles.”


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