President hosts Distinguished Service Awards Ceremony

Thu 21st Nov, 2019 | 17:15
location: (Dublin) Áras an Uachtaráin

(Dublin) Áras an Uachtaráin

Thursday, 21st November, 2019

Remarks at the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish abroad

Áras an Uachtaráin, Wednesday, 21 November 2019

To so many of our diaspora, whether first generation Irish or of Irish descent, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude for their generous connection that they worked to preserve with us through the generations. Their support and encouragement, offered in so many ways, and throughout so many changing circumstances for this country, has helped to shape and craft the possibilities of the Ireland we inhabit today.

A Thánaiste,
A Chairde,

Ar mo shon féin agus ar son Sabina, is mian liom fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh go léir go Áras an Uachtaráin ar an ócáid speisialta seo. Is mian liom fáilte Uí Chealiaig a ghabháil lenár n-aíonna oinigh – faighteoirí Ghradaim um Sheirbhís den Chéad Scoth, do na Gaeil thar lear.

[On behalf of Sabina and myself, I would like to welcome you all here today to Áras an Uachtaráin for this very special occasion. I wish in particular to welcome our guests of honour – the recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.]

Many of you who are with us this evening have, I am aware, travelled very long distances to join us, be it from Brazil, Britain, Canada, Spain, the United States, Tanzania and Honduras to be here today. Those journeys you have made reflect the concern, interest and support for Ireland and the Irish that is held by Ireland’s global family, stretching as it does far and wide encompassing so many countries across the world.

We Irish, like the majority of the world’s people have always been making journeys, voluntarily at times, and in some centuries involuntarily. Migration is central to the Irish consciousness.

Throughout Ireland’s history, migration has been a recurring theme, often in response to poverty and despair but also to curiosity, exploitation of military skill or administrative excellence by the Colonial Services, or for opportunity not available, indeed forbidden at home. From the earliest times, of course there were the spiritual pilgrims and a monastic tradition.

In celebrating migratory achievements we must never forget those many lives which failed to thrive in foreign soil, where migratory experience was defined by loneliness and exclusion, and as our song and musical tradition attests, a relentless longing for home. We must not forget ever that those people, were and remain, part of Ireland’s wider family. However, there were also so many for whom a new beginning gave birth to lives which grew and flourished, making a lasting impact on their new communities as they worked, raised and educated their children and lived fulfilling lives in their adopted countries while remaining loyal to and proud of their rich Irish heritage.

Tá muid go mór faoi chomaoin diaspóra na hÉireann, iad a chuaigh thar tír amach; imircigh den chéad ghlúin agus sliocht na ndaoine sin atá lonnaithe ar fud an domhain.

To so many of our diaspora, whether first generation Irish or of Irish descent, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude for their generous connection that they worked to preserve with us through the generations. Their support and encouragement, offered in so many ways, and throughout so many changing circumstances for this country, has helped to shape and craft the possibilities of the Ireland we inhabit today.

This Presidential Distinguished Service Award provides an opportunity to acknowledge that generosity and response that was at the heart of the migratory experience and which is so deeply ingrained into the Irish psyche, and has played such a profound role in defining us as a people and a society, and it of course enables us, as a nation, to recognise those members of our global family who have contributed so significantly to Ireland’s reputation on the international stage.

We are meeting at a time of great challenge and dissension. I refer not only to the turmoil of Brexit but to the fracturing of economic and social cohesion within Europe, and to the continuing spread of a form of strident fundamentalisms, distortions of history and invocation of fear that so threatens many fragile and hard won democracies. Neither can we any longer ignore the significant body of scientific evidence telling us that, unless human activity undergoes fundamental change, we are facing consequences that will be catastrophic, impacting on our world in increasingly serious ways.

The moral question of how we treat “the other”, “the stranger”, as arrival on our shores or minority within our community, must also be a central concern for all sections of society. Indeed, as a nation that has seen ten million Irish men, women and children leave Ireland since the 1700s, we more than most should be deeply aware of our moral obligation to welcome those fleeing poverty, famine, persecution, war or natural disaster.

Tá sé de dhualgais orainn ó thaobh na moráltachta de fáilte a chuir roimh iadsan atá ag éalú ón bhforéigean, ón anachain agus ón ngorta.

As we stand at this highly critical juncture in world history today’s recognition of those transformative thinkers, whose vision and ethical commitment has contributed so much to Irish communities at home and abroad and to our wider global community, is an inspiring reminder of all that we, not only as a diasporic people, but as internationalists, global citizens, supporters of peace and multilateralism, of cultures and diversity beyond borders, have to offer as we work to meet the challenges of our times.

Our awardees today exemplify so many of the qualities necessary if we are to craft and formulate the answers necessary to the shaping of a better future. Is eiseamláirí iad go léir, a léiríonn na tréithe atá ag taisteáil don am atá le teacht.

Science has a pivotal role to play in the great concerns of humanity in our time, and has the potential to make the greatest contribution to improving our world.

We must ask ourselves why there are so few women in science, and why is society in general, all of mankind, being denied the intellectual contribution of so many who could be, but are not, represented in the world of science. We are all, women and men, for all of us lose when women are not accorded equality, fortunate to have such inspiring role models as world renowned astrophysicist Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who has opened doors for scientists the world over, displaying extraordinary generosity in helping women, minority and refugee students to advance in the field of physics. For that, and for her brilliant work including her breakthrough discovery of radio pulsars, we are greatly proud to be able to call Professor Bell Burnell who unfortunately cannot be with us this evening, ‘one of our own’.

The strength and unanimity that is called forth from our diaspora is never more evident than during times of hardship and tragedy. For example, in June 2015 our global family stood in solidarity with those who had lost loved ones in the Berkeley tragedy, mourning with them the loss of six young lives and so much potential and possibility. Jackie Donohoe, whose daughter Ashley and niece Olivia died on that terrible night, recently said that ‘the best things to hold onto in life are each other’. Jackie, despite her personal grief, has worked tirelessly to ensure that such a tragedy would not befall any other family in California. Her impactful and successful lobbying and determined work on behalf of others has led to a significant improvement of the regulations involved in building and reporting on accidents in California. I have no doubt that Jackie Donohoe’s perseverance and her great personal courage will contribute to the saving of many future lives.

Another of tonight’s recipients whose impact on the lives of others is incalculable is Father Patrick Clarke. Father Pat has played a profound role in the long history of Irish missionaries across Brazil, reaching out a hand of friendship and support across forty years to those most vulnerable and marginalised in his adopted home. By striving to improve living standards for his impoverished fellow citizens, campaigning against discrimination, violence and injustice, and sharing that most vital and liberating gift of education, Father Pat has given hope to so many rendered powerless and voiceless. I have had the pleasure, on a previous occasion, of meeting and speaking with Father Pat here in the Áras and am delighted to have this further opportunity to thank him for not only envisioning, but working to construct a world that can be shared equally by all citizens.

May I also extend my most sincere gratitude to Bernárd Lynch for the great sense of shared humanity that has seen him reach out to LGBT people and people with HIV/AIDS in communities across two continents. During years spent in New York and London, Bernárd’s tireless effort, courage, his challenging of old preconceptions and his unrelenting commitment represents an uplifting example of how empathy harnessed to a real will to effect change can so powerfully transform the landscape for those battling discrimination and oppressive social attitudes. Bernárd’s emancipatory and life-enhancing work has helped to change perceptions of the LGBT community, creating more welcoming societies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

I am also so pleased to welcome here this evening Dr William Howlett whose life’s work has had such an immense impact on the continent of Africa. Prompted by a great humanitarian instinct Dr Howlett first travelled to Africa in 1980 in response to the severe famine in Karamoja, Uganda, a place I have also visited. That instinct later propelled him to spend much time in Tanzania making important contributions to global health and working tirelessly in the field of neurology in Africa. Dr Howlett’s innate scientific curiosity combined with enormous wells of compassion have already left a profound legacy, as has his work as a mentor for young local doctors who are seeking to emulate his medical advances in Africa.

For generations, millions of Irish people have come to call the US their home. Across those generations the depth and richness of Ireland’s cultural tradition has been kept alive in the United States by so many of our generous and supportive diaspora.

For over three decades Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly, founders of the Irish Repertory Theatre in New York, have made a remarkable contribution to the cultural life of that city. From small beginnings, the Theatre has grown into an esteemed cultural space, bringing the best of Irish and Irish American works to approximately 50,000 theatre goers every year. Indeed Sabina and I had the great pleasure, in September of attending their outstanding production of “A Dublin Carol” by Conor McPherson, which won much justified critical acclaim.

By preserving and showcasing our great Irish culture and heritage, and weaving that heritage into the tapestry of modern day America, Charlotte Moore and Ciarán O’Reilly have ensured that the Irish Repertory Theatre is an invaluable artistic asset not only to the city of New York but also to the country of Ciarán’s birth and Charlotte’s forefathers.

Nuestra diáspora nos ha permitido crear lazos positivos con muchos países alrededor del mundo. Ian Gibson, escritor, historiador y académico, se ha convertido en una voz irlandesa altamente conocida y distinguida en España – país en el cual vive desde hace muchos años. Sus obras de destaque sobre personajes icónicos y fundamentales de la cultura española – en particular Federico García Lorca– se han convertido en obras de referencia imprescindibles para académicos en todo el mundo. Además de haber contribuido profundamente a la vida académica y cultural española, Ian Gibson ha permanecido fiel a sus raíces irlandesas y orgulloso de ellas. Le agradezco a Ian por todo lo que ha hecho para realzar el prestigio de Irlanda en el mundo.

[Our Irish Diaspora has enabled us to create positive connections with many countries around the globe. Author, historian and scholar Ian Gibson has become a well-known and most distinguished Irish voice in Spain, the country where he has lived for so many years. His distinctive works on iconic and foundational Spanish cultural figures, most notably Federico Garcia Lorca, have become an essential point of reference for scholars across the world.

While contributing profoundly to the cultural and academic life of Spain, Ian Gibson has remained loyal to and proud of his Irish roots. I thank Ian for all he has done to enhance Ireland’s reputation on the international stage.]

We are also recognising Michael Kenneally and Rhona Richman Kenneally who have done so much to strengthen, sustain and maintain the important connection between Ireland and Canada through the foundation of the School of Irish Studies in Concordia University, Montreal. The school has now become a centre of academic excellence that is known throughout the world. It is inspiring to know that at Concordia University students can gain a deep understanding of Ireland’s rich and diverse history and culture, the impact of our diaspora in communities around the world, and the complex journey that has brought us to this contemporary moment.

Then too we can also be inspired by Paul Drechsler, a hugely respected and successful member of the Irish business community in Britain whose generous commitment to Ireland has remained steadfast. His support of Irish business networks and his visionary “Teach First” model which offers hope and empowerment to those who are educationally disadvantaged is a contribution to citizenship at its very best. Paul’s great spirit of community, his compassion and his drive to help those who are vulnerable or marginalised, and his selfless sharing of his skills and professionalism in pursuit of a fairer and more equal society have won him widespread respect and admiration. There can be no doubt that Paul Drechsler embodies the qualities which make us so very proud of our diaspora.

Y ahora me toca decir algunas palabras muy dolorosas ya que voy a hablar de una querida amiga, Sally O’Neill Sánchez, quien trágicamente se nos fue este año. A lo largo de sus cuatro décadas con Trócaire, Sally trabajó incansablemente en contra de la pobreza, la injusticia y las violaciones de los derechos humanos, empoderando a tantas personas a través de su trabajo humanitario a favor de los más vulnerables. Sin miedo, luchó reivindicando la justicia para los pobres, oprimidos y desplazados, y así encendió la luz de la esperanza en los rincones más oscuros, respondiendo a las crisis humanas con compasión, valor y ayuda concreta. Asimismo trabajó con determinación inquebrantable para encontrar soluciones sostenibles de las causas profundas de la pobreza, la marginalización y la opresión. En años recientes, integró el Grupo de Alto Nível de las Condecoraciones Presidenciales por Distinguido Servicio de los Irlandeses en el Extranjero y es muy apropiado que hoy se añada su nombre a estas personas ilustres que condecoramos. Haberla conocido a Sally es un privilegio. Todos aquellos que tenían el privilegio de su amistad, la extrañan enormemente. Quiero darles la bienvenida a los miembros de su familia que están aquí esta noche.

[And now, for me, a most difficult set of words to say as I speak of a dear friend, Sally O’Neill Sanchez, who was taken from us so tragically this year. Throughout her four decades in Trócaire Sally worked tirelessly to combat poverty, injustice, and human rights violations, empowering countless people through her humanitarian work on behalf of those most vulnerable. She was fearless in her fight for justice for those who were poor, oppressed or displaced, shining a light of hope into the darkest of spaces as she responded to human crises with compassion, courage, and tangible assistance.

She also worked with relentless determination to find sustainable solutions to the root causes of poverty, marginalisation and oppression. In recent years she was a member of the High-Level Panel for the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad and it is so appropriate that her name is now added to that roll call of remarkable people. To have known Sally was a privilege and she is greatly missed by all those who were privileged to have called her a friend. I would like to welcome her family members who have joined us tonight.]

Finally may I once again take this opportunity to convey my gratitude to the members of the High Level Panel who had the difficult but rewarding task of recommending twelve individuals to receive this Award from many worthy and distinguished contenders - Niall Burgess, Martin Fraser, Art O’Leary, Catriona Crowe, Samantha Barry and Mr. Kingsley Aikins .

Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach aon duine d’ár bhfaighteoirí. Lena gnaíúlacht, lena dlúthpháirtíocht mhórchroíoch agus lena seirbhís ar son na tíre seo agus ar son a cuid pobal ar fud an domhain, taispeánann siad na tréithe Éireannacha is fearr. Anseo in Éirinn tá meas againn ar gach rud atá le déanamh agaibh, agus tá muid fíor-bhródúil as an gcaoi ina ndéanann sibh ionadaíocht thar ceann na hÉireann ar fud na cruinne.

[In conclusion I thank all our recipients here tonight who, through their generosity of spirit, their great capacity to stand in solidarity with others and the service they render to Irish life and to the life of their home communities across the world demonstrate the very best of Irish characteristics. We in Ireland greatly appreciate all you do and are enormously proud of, and grateful for, the impressive manner in which you represent us in continents across the globe.]

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.