“[Derry] was home to the playwright Brian Friel and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney, both of whom were icons in our community,” Downey says. “I grew up in a home where there was a great love for books and poetry, and I have a tremendous fondness for William Butler Yeats.”
As war raged on in Northern Ireland, Downey also turned to American artists for comfort and a sense of emotional escape amidst the political turmoil.
“I would listen repeatedly to Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Greatest Hits’ album,” she says. “I would listen to a song called ‘America.’ It held up for me an ideal, a place you could come without a class system. America felt like the land of opportunity. Everything I learned about America I learned from the poetry of Paul Simon.”
Years later, after earning degrees from the UK’s Brighton College of Art and studying theater at Drama Studio London —“I experienced quite a bit of racism as an Irish girl living in England,” she recalls — Downey landed in New York City to become a Broadway actress, finally experiencing the country romanticized in song by Simon & Garfunkel.
|“America felt like the land of opportunity. Everything I learned about America I learned from the poetry of Paul Simon.”|
“When I first moved to New York and realized that at the grocery store when people asked me where I was from I could say ‘I’m Irish,’ I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” says Downey. “The very things that seemed to be reasons for people judging me [in England] were celebrated in New York. I’m deeply grateful to this country and the opportunities I’ve had here.”
But, as Downey says, “You can take the girl out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the girl.” The now Los Angeles-based producer exudes enormous pride for her Irish roots and heritage, returning for visits annually and focusing her efforts on several Ireland-related philanthropic endeavors.
In 2015, Downey donated $1 million to the Irish Arts Center in New York, and in April she received the inaugural Irish Diaspora Award from the Irish Film & Television Academy in Dublin.
“It was special to be honored in my homeland for both having success in the industry and having been a good ambassador for our country,” Downey says. “I have been very outspoken on Ireland. I grew up during the Troubles, with Protestants living on one side of the river and Catholics living on
the other, and I have tried to be a bridge builder. Today, there is no longer this division. The people of Northern Ireland have been through so much hurt, and now this is a time of healing and it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Ultimately, emigrating from Northern Ireland to the United States has provided Downey with a perspective on change that has informed and enhanced her life ever since – both professionally and personally.
“I look at my life in Ireland to England, England to New York, New York to L.A.,” she says. “I knew very few people in every place that I moved. It required courage. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s having the fear but still doing it. I’m continuing to do that. It’s been quite a journey.”
Photo of Roma Downey at Irish Arts Center’s Spirit of Ireland Gala in 2015