Speech by President Michael D. Higgins Opening of St Patrick’s Academy in Dungannon
St Patrick’s Academy, Dungannon, 7th March 2019
A Árd easpaig,
A Leasthiarna Leiftenant
Baill den Bhord Gobharnóirí
Baill den Bhord Iontaobhaithe,
Foireann na scoile,
a dhaoine óga,
Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil libh as ucht an fíorchaoin fáilte a d’fhearadh sibh romham agus roimh mo bhean-chéile Saidhbhín. Is mór an phribhléid dúinn a bheith anseo libh ag Acadamh Naomh Phádraig inniu chun an fhoirgneamh nua seo a oscailt.
Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil, chomh maith, leis an Príomhoide Fintan Ó Dhonnghaile don chuireadh a thabhairt dúinn a bheith in bhur dteannta inniu. Is céiliúradh í oscailt an fhoirgnimh nua seo agus is caibidil nua atá á oscailt againn i scéal fada na scoile seo, scéal a thosaigh beagnach 130 bliain ó shin. Is cúis dóchais dúinn é chomh maith do na glúnta do chailíní agus buachaillí atá fós le teacht chun dul in aois i measc a gcairde, le thacaíocht agus treoir na muinteoirí san Acadamh agus a dtuismitheoirí sa bhaile.
I was so delighted last December to receive a letter from Principal Fintan Donnelly inviting me, on behalf of the Board of Governors, to participate in the opening of this new school building. Sabina and I are so pleased to be here with the school community on this day of celebration, when such wonderful facilities are made available to children – the adults of the future.
As we have just heard, St Patrick’s Acadamy has such a rich and interesting history reaching back almost 130 years, with its roots in two separate academies, one for boys and one for girls. Eventually the decision was taken for the Acadamy to become fully co-educational in 2003 and I understand that the then Uachtarán Mary McAleese was present to mark that significant event. I look forward to the day when every child across Ireland can have such facilities and in their diversity sit next to each other in their enjoyment of learning.
When I look around here today at such impressive facilities, over 1300 students and 142 members of staff, it is remarkable to think of the distance that has been travelled in the provision of education in Ireland.
As we have heard, not only in the late 19th century, but for long into the 20th century in parts of our island, secondary education was not free and it was not the norm for most boys and girls to proceed past primary level.
St Patrick’s Acadamy’s own genesis was the result of an Act of Parliament that facilitated the establishment of secondary schools for the Catholic population, but it was not until the Northern Ireland Education Act of 1947, and a similar move by the Dublin Government in 1966, when universal free secondary education was introduced, that it became the norm for boys and girls throughout Ireland to proceed to secondary school. I often think of what talent and contribution we lost by such an exclusive version of education.
On days like today we surely should acknowledge the struggle and efforts of those enlightened women and men who helped change these laws to give everyone an opportunity to continue their education and to meet their potential.
It is also a day to remember, with appreciation, the generations of teachers, nuns and priests who dedicated themselves to the welfare and development of their students in St Patrick’s over the past 130 years, and who brought the Academy to where it is today.
It is of course also appropriate today to acknowledge the achievement of so many in bringing about the completion of this new school building. Any project of this size is a huge undertaking, requiring an enormous investment of time and energy from all involved, much of which goes unnoticed and unacknowledged.
There are far too many people who were involved to name them all individually, but I would like to acknowledge the particular contribution of the staff of the Northern Ireland Department of Education, the members of the Board of Governors and the directors of the school and of course the contractors for the project, Tracey Bros.
In so many ways, this latest achievement is one of a long list of advances for St Patrick’s and it is in keeping with the school’s history and with its ethos. School is all about helping you to grow and to reach your potential. This includes your academic potential, but also your potential in all those other areas of life which you will be able to draw upon and indeed build upon when your leave here. Be it in sport, music, art or drama or the acquisition of the necessary skills in how to negotiate that trickiest part of growing up, which is interacting with other people. It is through others that we learn to establish our versions of self, our trust rather than fear in the other.
The successful completion of this new building and the facilities it provides, will allow St Patrick’s Academy to fulfil its potential in providing an environment in which students can achieve fulfilment. This building is a magnificent demonstration of the ambition of those people who cared for your education and recognised the importance of giving young people the right conditions in which to grow and to flourish.
This is a school that has placed care for the person at the very centre of its vision and purpose, and it is a key strength that accounts for the success of St Patrick’s Academy, day in and day out. A school will only succeed if it ensures a place for everyone and if everyone feels she or he has a place in it. We are all unique but need each other and have different strengths and talents. A good school values difference and allows each student to find her or his own path to fulfilment and success.
The range of options that the pupils of this school have is impressive, and I encourage you all to make full use the terrific facilities and to try out different things. Some things you’ll like and some you’ll be good at. Others not so much. Life is thus.
I would also advise you to listen to your teachers. I say this, of course, as a former teacher myself. My own rule in life has been not to listen to anyone as an absolute and omniscient source but rather see them as an introduction to curiosity and critical thinking, for which I am grateful. In my experience I have found that teachers do indeed know things and can be very useful guides. Try to remember that they are on your side!
We owe so much to teachers. It is, of course, because of this generation of teachers, classroom assistants and all the other staff that the school can offer such an enviable range of extra-curricular subjects.
I am constantly impressed by the dedication of secondary level teachers throughout Ireland and their willingness to devote so much of their own time and energies to helping students - be it on the sports field, at debating competitions, with drama and musicals, on science projects, or for Gaisce awards. It demonstrates a terrific commitment to their pupils. Molaim sibh.
Speaking of sports, of course, I hear that the senior girls of St Patrick’s Academy are a force to be reckoned with this year and I congratulate you on reaching the football semi-final and camogie all-Ireland final.
I would also like to acknowledge the not inconsiderable achievement of the senior boys in getting to the quarter finals of the MacRory cup and I know that St Patrick’s continues to provide Mickey Harte and the Tyrone teams with exceptional footballers.
Mar is eol daoibh, tá páirt lárnach ag an nGaeilge i mo shaol féin agus is aoibheann liom go bhfuil an chultúr agus teanga Gaelach chomh tábhachtach i ngnáthshaol na scoile. The Irish language thrives in St Patrick’s Academy, as it does in so many communities across this island. This love and enthusiasm for Irish will enrich your lives and I think it is especially noteworthy that St Patrick’s won the prestigious Sciath Mhic Giolla Bhríde /Ashbourne Shield for the 14th time in 2018. Comhghairdeas libh.
I have also read with interest of the long-standing partnership you have here with the Royal School Dungannon especially in relation to your ongoing joint history conference, which has been focusing on the Decade of Centenaries and our all-island remembrance over the past few years. This is so important.
We are all carriers of our history and in many ways our day to day lives are shaped by what happened decades and even centuries ago. As we heard earlier, even how the education system in Ireland emerged and developed was highly political and in many ways became a reflection of political, class, religious and even gender divisions within the broader community. This has largely served to separate people from each other and that of course can lead to a lack of empathy, understanding and the perpetuation of division and mistrust.
It is therefore so welcome that pupils from St Patrick’s Academy and the Royal School Dungannon are working closely together to get to know each other and to explore each other’s perspectives on the past, the present and the future. Neighbours who know each other well are far more likely to find the best ways to live well together.
It is vitally important for us to understand our past, but it is even more important for us to remember that history does not need to trap us, or restrict us from imagining or creating a different, better future.
The act of remembering is often more valuable when it becomes a recalled event for reflection and in that way it removes its capacity to deprive us of options in the present or future.
Across Ireland, North and South, we have been reflecting on the period between 1912 and 1922, which was and remains a deeply contested time, shared events that have a differing construction. Much of what happened then is still forming an enormous part of our diverse collective everyday narratives. The image that the people of this island hold of ourselves, must have narrative hospitality.
The narratives that surround that time, and they are many, which involved the First World War, the assertion of workers and women’s rights, the Ulster Covenant, the Easter Rising and partition of this island in the midst of civil conflict and turmoil, have so often been a factor of division for families and communities since then.
That has left a legacy here as elsewhere and needs to be recognised and addressed thoughtfully and directly. The past needs to be transacted, honestly and openly, not necessarily to seek agreement but more to seek understanding.
Once we have a clearer appreciation of the perspective of others and re-examine our own perspectives, we are more able to free ourselves from the shackles of any limited or distorting version of history.
The construction of a shared future is an essential part of ensuring that the tragedies and divisions of the past are not repeated and that you, the young people of Dungannon, continue to grow up in a society that is more open, sustainable, diverse and where there exists a hospitality and openness to understand the experience and aspirations of others.
As young people today, you face many challenges in growing up that your parents and grandparents did not. The world that you live in is increasingly globalised and interconnected, with all the wonderful potential that brings.
You will face challenges that previous generations have bequeathed to you. The ongoing work of the peace process on and between these islands will be yours to tend and it will be for you to deliver that brighter future to which we all aspire.
Biodiversity loss and climate change will be two of the defining challenges of your generation and will require a different and radical approach – a change in mindset – to that of your parents’ and grandparents’ generations. While these could seem like overwhelming challenges, I look at the energy, creativity and enthusiasm that the young people of this island carry with them and I am inspired.
I look at how new ways of thinking can be harnessed and brought together by new and emerging technologies and I see that there are now fewer limits to the power each of us has to help change our own communities, societies and our world for the better. You are well-placed to become active, ethical and global citizens.
New technologies can, of course, be double edged swords. The internet and social media, can bring into our lives images, arguments and influences that can ultimately make us less happy, less optimistic, even less hopeful. Social media, though it can be positive in so many ways, can distort reality where the version of people’s lives that they choose to present on-line is, of course, not the full picture.
Social Media can also be a vehicle for inadvertent or deliberate exclusion, for bullying and for undermining others. So we need to take care and have consideration for each other. We should use our energies to support and help those around us. Particularly those who might be more vulnerable for one reason or another. We all experience times in our lives where we are the vulnerable one. It is in those times that the consideration, kindness and assistance of those around us can make all the difference.
So, as we celebrate the opening of this marvellous building today, again I say that what we are really celebrating is our hopes for each other and for the generations of students that will follow you.
As President of Ireland I salute the vision, the energy, the ambition and the teamwork of this school community and congratulate you on this fine new building. It will serve as a reminder always to all who pass through it, of what St Patrick’s Acadamy can and will continue to do. To help students to flourish in the happy, secure and supportive space that you have created here in Dungannon.
Guím gach rath oraibh.