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“Of Migrants and Migration” -- Address on the Occasion of the President’s visit to the Isle of Iona

Scotland, 20th July 2013

Cabinet Secretary Hyslop;

Cabinet Secretary Russell;

Reverend Peter MacDonald, Spiritual Leader of Iona Community; Members of the inter-faith community;

Distinguished members of the Community of lona;

Dear Friends – Peadar, Ciaran and all gathered here;

Tá an áthas orm agus ar mo bhean chéile Sabina bheith anseo libh ar an oileáin ar an ócáid speisialta, ócáid stairiúil seo. Míle buíochas daoibh go léir as an fáilte sin.

Sabina and I are truly delighted that the members of this community, in this most unique location, have afforded us the opportunity to spend a little time here with you. We are very pleased too, at the prospect of sharing this day with some of my longstanding and dearest friends.

I am so very pleased that Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs and Culture, Fiona Hyslop has travelled to join us. I have known Mike Russell, now the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning here in Scotland, for almost thirty years. It is a pleasure and an honour to share a platform with him also today.

Those two words: “Education” and “Culture” encompass much of what is very close to my heart.

Sabina and I are happy to be on this sacred island – a place of learning and of cultural richness, which has always retained its own very special local identity.

Above anything I have to say here today, I am most interested in hearing the words of others – as to what it is like, what has flowed from the experience of living in this extraordinary place of inter-faith living? What they may wish to reveal as to the difference Iona, past or present, has made to your beliefs and thoughts?

When it comes to Iona, there is a very broad and rich seam of material upon which we can reflect. For my own part, I believe that Iona makes a great example of a space made into a place of spiritual, natural and historic importance in social and cultural history, which makes it a very appropriate place to reflect on migration and migrants, the subject of my comments to you today.

To be here in this village hall, the heart of a community, is special. We come here one thousand four hundred and fifty (1,450) years after the arrival of Columcille or St Columba, as he is also known. We come to celebrate and commemorate his life, his work, and, if I may say, his founding of a special connection between Ireland and Scotland, one that as included for close to a millennium and a half.

Colmcille settled here partly, we are told, because it was far enough away to be out of sight of Ireland. But we are all very aware here, of Ireland being just over the horizon, how close it is, and how many people have travelled that stretch of sea over the years. How voluntary or involuntary, whether chosen or imposed exile and the exilic are at the heart of the Scottish and Irish experience, and their connection too.

Debate continues as to why exactly Colmcille came to Iona, but it is undisputed that he travelled here after “The Battle of the Book”, a battle which itself followed, and was at least in part caused by, a ruling from High King Diarmuid in a case brought to court at Tara, between Colmcille and Finnian of Moville.

Finnian was custodian of a copy of the Vulgate, a latin translation of the Bible and the first copy of the book to arrive in Ireland. Colmcille had been making an unauthorised copy of the gospel, with the aim of promoting scholarship of the church. It was his practice to copy, and to have his monks at Durrow copy, any teaching material that came into his possession. He was one of the earliest Irish monks to engage in this work, which has since been cited as “how the Irish saved civilisation” given how many church books were subsequently burned during the Dark Ages. Only the copies survived in a Noah’s Ark of learning established by Irish monks.

But none of this could be known at the time to King Diarmuid, who had more immediate worries on his mind as he listened to Colmcille’s submission that:

“Learned men like us, who have received a new heritage of knowledge through books, have an obligation to spread that knowledge, by copying and distributing those books far and wide. […/…]

The knowledge in books should be available to anybody who wants to read them [../..];

and it is wrong to hide such knowledge away or to attempt to extinguish the divine things that books contain. [../..]

I submit that it was permissible for me to copy the book because, although I benefited from the hard work involved in the transcription, I gained no worldly profit from the process, I acted for the good of society in general and neither Finnian nor his book were harmed.”

This argument might well be made in a copyright case today and indeed there have been references to Colmcille in such cases in the Irish courts right into the present century.

But King Diarmuid famously found against Colmcille, saying:

“Wise men have always described the copy of a book as a child-book. This implies that someone who owns the parent-book also owns the child-book. To every cow its calf, to every book its child-book. The child-book belongs to Finnian”.

The basis of much of Colmcille’s life’s work was thereby effectively outlawed, his vision apparently fatally obstructed. How it must have been devastating for him.

The ruling was one factor in a series of events leading to the Battle of Cooldrummon, where we know three thousand men were killed. For his role in that, Colmcille was once more subject to a judgement, this time from a Church Council which considered excommunication. Instead he was exiled from Ireland and told to win 3,000 converts for the church as penance.

It seems that it was two years before Colmcille went to Iona, and so it remains unclear whether he went as an exile or if he actively removed himself from one world and deliberately and purposely re-established himself in another. The choice of an exilic relationship to one’s homeland, even an internal exilic perspective, in order to achieve perspective.

Colmcille/Columba was a powerful man, with family connections in Scotland as well as in Ireland, and, given the many successes of his life, one might easily argue that the move to Iona was a masterful powerplay and an inspired tactical move. Either way, we are glad of the legacy of scholarship which he built here, and the legacy which, for example, the Book of Kells represented.

In many ways, he was precursor of a tradition which has run through Irish letters for millennia, a tradition of migration and the cross-fertilisation of cultures and ideas. This was from the monks of early Christianity, to Joyce, whose artistic manifesto was defined through ‘silence, exile and cunning’, and beyond. That Irish tradition, that Scottish tradition includes a Pre-Christian spirituality and creativity reflected in art and ritual, and residual in what followed.

The epic story of Colmcille never ceases to inspire reflection.

This son of a chief related to several of the princes then reigning in Ireland and in the west of Scotland, he was known as the ‘Dove of the Church’ – quite in contrast with the reputation he had for being somewhat hot-headed! This is one of many contradictions in his life.

Colmcille arrived here in 563 and, in the years that followed, all kinds of people came to him here for advice. He and his monks built a fleet of boats and it is recorded that they set out in all directions from lona, travelling to the nearby Scottish islands and the north of England teaching and preaching, building 56 Churches and schools. As to what was the character of their mission, their reception, the conflicts and achievements I leave to scholars of the period and the places.

Building on the learning of Colmcille and others, for many centuries Scotland’s scholars had links with Europe. They attended European universities from the 13th century onwards. Scots participated in the discourse and connected with the ideas developing in those institutions and some of those ideas percolated through to the Scottish universities in this period.

After the Reformation, the Reformers decided to establish a school in every parish. Like Colmcille before them, they wanted in particular to allow people to read the Bible. Unlike Colmcille, the issue at that point in history was not so much supply of books as access to education and particularly reading skills. There was a general respect, and enthusiastic, for learning in this society.

At the same time there was a revolution in the Scottish universities. There had been three universities before the Reformation; by the time of the Enlightenment there were five: two in Aberdeen – Kings College and Marshall College; one in Edinburgh, one in St Andrew’s and one in Glasgow.

By the middle of the 18th century, Scotland had established itself as a major centre of scientific and philosophical thought. Scots such as Adam Smith and David Hume became known across the world as key contributors of the Scottish Enlightenment and to world thinking overall.

In that context, I would also mention Francis Hutcheson, the sometimes overlooked Co. Down writer and thinker, who worked in Glasgow and was also an important influence on the Scottish Enlightenment. Last December, a plaque was unveiled in Dublin marking Hutcheson’s final resting place in St. Mary’s Churchyard.

Adam Smith’s great work, ‘The Wealth of Nations’ is littered with references to the conversations he had with Glasgow merchants. The economy of Scotland was developing in the 18th century and some of these urban centres were thriving – Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is even more interesting that Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiment which preceded his Wealth of Nations is now the text that is turned to by those who seek justice in a new economics, reclaiming Smith as a normative theorist rather than as an icon of market theorists.

Modern migrants do not generally make decisions in such dramatic circumstances as Colmcille’s but, whether they see themselves as exiles or not, at some point many will ask themselves what they wish to share and to offer to their new neighbours, what they feel should influence the society in which they make their new home, and what they must absorb there in order to belong, changing themselves in the process. And as they are changed by their experiences, that is in turn, communicated through them to their home of origin, changing that also.

These themes characterise the relations between Scotland and Ireland over the years.

Throughout Scotland, the Influence of Ireland is deeply felt. Likewise in Ireland many of our people have Scottish ancestry. We have had a long tradition of migration between our two nations.

Migration in both directions between Ireland and Scotland has a long, various and established history which is due to their close proximity but Irish migration to Scotland in particular increased exponentially in the nineteenth century; in the 1820s, up to 8,000 economic migrants crossed back and forth across the Irish Sea every year, bound for seasonal agricultural work or other temporary contractual work in northern England, Wales and Scotland. By the early 1840s, the number making the harvest migration alone had risen to about 25,000.

The connection between Mayo and Scotland is dramatically remembered through the drowning of the migrant seasonal workers as they made their way to Westport to leave for Scotland, but above all the Bothy Fire of 1937 is remembered when the youngsters between 13 and 20 years old were burned to death; the coffins, without names, returned to Achill and Peadar O’Donnell’s powerful description of their arrival in Achill.

Emigration was particularly strong following the Great Famine of the 1840’s. Between 1735 and 1841 the population in Ireland grew from 3 million to 8 million, with the Great Famine deaths and emigration fell back to just over six million. In the period following the Famine, the Irish coming to Scotland typically settled in the cities such as Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, satellite towns like Coatbridge and industrial areas such as Fife, adding huge numbers to what were smaller and mostly well established Irish communities.

The community in Coatbridge still hosts the largest St Patricks Day festival in Scotland. I know these celebrations take place throughout this country, and indeed that given its historical origins, heritage and cultural legacy that the Orange Order also has a strong tradition here.

As to the Irishness and Scottishness as they are experienced or perceived in the modern period – for the first time, the Scottish census in 2011 asked people to mark whether they are of Irish ethnicity, and I am very much looking forward to seeing those figures when they become available. We in Ireland never forget to recall the legacy of famous Irish-Scots, including socialist revolutionary James Connolly, author Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle, footballers Aiden McGeady, Ray Houghton, Owen Coyle and James McCarthy, and actors Sean Connery, Brian Cox and Gerard Butler.

The Irish have worked here in government, public bodies, the arts, finance and construction and so many other sectors, as well as with the many diverse religious communities throughout Scotland.

Some here today will know of the most interesting debate at Holyrood eighteen months ago where the contribution of Ireland to Scottish civic and political society was referenced so warmly. And I was heartened to learn how many of those parliamentarians were proud to claim their Irish roots.

We, both nations, value matters cultural and the cultural space, and I want to mention also the appointment of one of Ireland’s newest migrants to Scotland, Fergus Linehan, as Director of the Edinburgh International Festival. He takes over from Jonathan Mills who has done such a wonderful job over the last number of years, and who has been such a supporter of Irish participation at Edinburgh.

While Edinburgh is highly important in putting Scotland on that map of culture world wide, let us not forget that all culture is at once local and global, and the festivals that occur here on lona and Mull are very much to be praised and admired.

While migration involves a personal decision and this has to be taken into account in understanding its incidence, rates of migration are heavily influenced by economic realities and differences between points of origin and destination. The agricultural economy of Scotland regenerating itself in response, the demands of war, had the effect of creating a demand for migrant workers who competing at the most insecure end of the labour market found themselves in competition with local workers involved in a struggle for recognition and rights. This competition for what was often low paid, casual and often exploitative work was little less than a contest among the poor, sourced in an economic relationship. I think of Peadar O’Donnell’s words some say it was a fire, some say it was a match, it was emigration, it was economics that drew the tatie hawkers to their death.

So we cannot ignore the fact that migration has also been associated not only with cosmopolitanism, but also with sectarianism in too many parts of our world. Societies benefit from hearing many voices, but surely no benefits are to be derived from voices raised against one another in hate or intolerance based very often on an abuse of myth and history.

While we must not fall for any false amnesia, as well as celebrating what we value, we must reflect on what holds us back. A shared story after all can be the repository and place of diverse and ever changing narratives.

The past holds many lessons, not just of what is fine and good in our heritage, but also it can be ransacked and abused to facilitate the development of stereotypes which obstruct us, which hurt us and deplete, or even poison our future. The positioning or sourcing of that poison in completing religious interpretations is a serious abuse, a contradiction of what Columcille and monasticism stands for.

The prevalence of sectarianism or xenophobia within a community we know may be a symptom of its members feeling themselves ignored, rejected by those in power or under threat from wider socio-economic pressures.

But while acknowledging the possible source of such concerns as may exist, we cannot afford ever to endorse their manifestation or the endorsement of any call to hatred of the other – to understand the sources, is never to condone.

I applaud the individuals and the communities who have the courage to examine the damaged elements and distortions of both our shared and divided pasts, and who are devoting themselves to finding ways out of the old cycles of belief and behaviour, and taking others with them along that path of creating a creative peaceful present and a joyful future.

If geography has placed Ireland and Scotland in a relatively remote position on the periphery of Europe, neither Ireland nor Scotland have ever been negatively influenced in perspective by their peripheral position. There is an immense contribution from the earliest times by the scholars of these neighbours and in their migrations. Both have embraced the wider world thoroughly and enthusiastically.

Just like the Irish, Scotland is among the great migrant nations of the world. For centuries Scots have left their native places for Europe and England, the north of Ireland, and farther afield to the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australasia. Their international mobility has been truly global and their impact on the history of several overseas countries is a considerable one.

Much has been written about this great diaspora but there still remain major questions and issues which can yield more on further study. The Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies within the School of History, Classics and Archaeology in the University of Edinburgh, the first such research unit in the field, was formally established in Spring 2008 to advance historical enquiry into this vital subject.

We know now that Scottish migrants, in true sea-faring national tradition, went as far as St Kitts, Trinidad and Jamaica where they played an important role, not just among the professional classes, but in every walk of life. This serves as a tribute to the quality of the education system in Scotland. Here I commend my friend Mike Russell and his predecessors, and in particular also the Principals of the various universities and other third level institutions through which the mutual sharing of knowledge continues, today and I recall my visits to some of them with great fondness.

For our part, Ireland’s monastic communities and missionary influence have been a hallmark of our global relationship with the world – from Rome to Salamanca, Louvain to lona, as illuminators, as rescuers and saviours of texts from different cultures, not to mention further flung places in Africa, Ireland’s missionary zeal is legendary.

In the late 19th Century, over 80% of Irish emigrants went to the United States. From the 1950s however over 80% of Irish emigrants headed for mainland Britain. Between 1855 and 1960 they numbered over 250,000.

We have always been leaving, returning at times to leave again. In the time of Colmcille, as now, Ireland exerts from the periphery through its diaspora a profound and valuable influence. After all there are more than 70 million people worldwide who claim Irish ancestry.

In 1963, then US President John F Kennedy, and in his address to our parliament in 1963, said that Ireland:

“has never been a rich or powerful country, and yet, since earliest times, its influence on the world has been rich and powerful”;

The connection between Iona and Doire Cholmcille is a rich and vibrant one. I want to mention also the recent events which took place, here and in Doire Cholmcille, the City of Derry. A high point of the UK City of Culture celebrations Derry/Londonderry was “The Return of Colmcille”, and it appropriately had a book as its central focus.

On 24 May a modern curragh, ‘Comcille’ set off with her crew of 13 rowers, arriving in Derry on 7 June to a tremendous reception. On the boat that left here was a book, as you know. This book arrived with great magic and was received with great excitement in Derry. The children of this island created the book- from making the paper to choosing the messages. Inspired by other great manuscripts which travelled from lona to Ireland, their work is also an expression of how we each reflect our own heritage and culture and launch our own message into the world. In the broadest sense, we all make our own book.

As migrant peoples, we think of these matters perhaps more than most. The commemoration of that voyage and this relationship between people of these islands, makes us think also about the broader social and historical context of commemoration.

Popular commemoration of the past is more than an exercise in historical excavation. The work of historians, archivists, archaeologists and others is invaluable in aiding our understanding of past events and the lives of those who came before us. But when we engage with commemoration, we are inescapably entering an area that requires ethical reflection and moral courage as well as responsibility.

Commemoration can take the form of solemn ceremonies of remembrance of past wars or other traumas, such as the Famine. It can also encompass the development of engaging and accessible interpretive centres or historical exhibitions, bringing the past to life, in particular for young people. Even more importantly, it can also be community-based, and recent years have seen an explosion in the numbers of such small historical groups, examining the heritage of their immediate locality, and commemoration can also be a creative process, recreating the past through film, television or literature.

Such commemoration is always a deliberate act, never a purely neutral one. We exercise choice in what and how to commemorate, and the manner in which we do so reflects more on who we are today than on the past events themselves.

In the course of the present decade, we will be marking the centenaries of a series of transformative historical events which transformed the lives of every person on these islands, and shaped our relationships for much of the past century.

In Ireland in particular we have already seen the centenary last year of the Ulster Crisis and the signing of the Covenant, a foundational moment for the Unionist community. In a few years, we will mark the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and the subsequent events which led to independence, and to partition.

There are examples emerging of ethically based and inclusive approaches. Last year, I was honoured to launch the 1913 Tapestry Project. A collaboration between the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, and one of our largest unions, SIPTU, marking the centenary this year of the Dublin Lockout. This project draws on the oral history of working-class Dubliners and represents in visual form the momentous events which defined the Labour Movement in Ireland. It takes a uniquely collaborative approach, with the artists Robert Ballagh and Cathy Henderson working with community groups, schools, trade unions, prisoners and others in creating the piece. I believe that this type of locally-based, collective remembrance of our history will serve as a model for the commemoration of other events of the period as the decade progresses.

We will all be challenged too to appropriately remember, as all will across these islands, the unprecedented trauma of the First World War, with its awful carnage of human life, and which casts a shadow over the entire period.

Over the decade, we must remain conscious that the period we are remembering was one of intense conflict, in Ireland and so many other places. To fail to recognise this would be to do a disservice to our history. But a pluralist and above all, ethical, remembrance of a period of conflict or division does not, in itself, exacerbate such conflict. On the contrary, it can serve to cross boundaries, and bring us together in the present. While there may well be those, who may choose to exploit the anniversaries, to perpetuate a narrow, exclusive interpretation of history and identity;

An alternative choice lies open to us, the choice to acknowledge the conflict of the past, but not to be confined by any senseless narrowing construction, to be open to placing one narrative side by side with the purpose of creating the possibility, understand and even in time, change or be defined by it. We also acknowledge the shared nature of the experience, and seek to reflect on the events in question. We can use the experience of remembrance, if approached in an inclusive manner, with an openness to the experiences and views of others, and willingness to interrogate our own preconceptions, to transcend the historical divisions and understand more about our neighbours and in doing so, ourselves.

Is féidir – nó go deimhin bíonn sé dosheachanta – gur gníomh fíoreiticiúil atá sa chuimhneacháin agus sa chomóradh, sa chiall sin. Ach is gníomh comhchoiteann atá ann chomh maith, ar gá go mbíonn pobail ag baint leis, ó iamhchríocha manach agus scoláirí agus iad ag obair ar imeall an domhain chun na stórchistí is luachmhaire de shibhialtacht an Iarthair a chaomhnú, go dtí náisiúin iomlána ag teacht le chéile, le hómós sollúnta, chun cuimhneamh ar mhairbh an chogaidh.

[Remembrance and commemoration, in that sense, can be – is inevitably – a profoundly ethical act. But it is also a collective act, necessarily involving communities, from tiny enclaves of monks and scholars, working at the edge of the world to preserve the greatest treasures of Western civilization to entire nations coming together, in solemn respect, to remember their war dead.]

Before I conclude, a word about matters sport and spiritual – I would like to acknowledge the tremendous sporting prowess that has been evident over the last few weeks of this summer. We in Ireland joined with you in celebrating the historic win of Andy Murray at Wimbledon – what a tremendous day that was! And Ireland and Scotland together celebrated the Rugby victory of the Lions in Australia, where so many of our migrants have settled. What a pleasure to give them another reason to be proud of their ancestry.

The Christian ecumenical experience is embodied in this community. Over its 75 years, which, among the anniversaries that we remember over this period is very important, it has been a fine example of people working for peace and social justice, building a wider community and the renewal of worship.

The many people who come here from different walks of life and different religious traditions engage together, and, indeed, with people of goodwill across the world, in acting, reflecting and praying for justice, peace and integrity.

Much of the work of this community was built on the work on lona of Saint Colmcille and of his monks who many years later produced illuminated manuscripts of the finest quality here — and I congratulate you on your own celebrations in that regard last month, when a delegation visited from Kells with their own Book.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims come here annually, and I was privileged to join their number and arrive earlier on, as Colmcille did, in a small craft. My grateful thanks to Davie Kirkpatrick our boatman. To him and to all who work on the sea- Bail ó Dhia ar bhur gcuid oibre! And to echo the Connemara Cradle Song — “May no one who’s dear to our island be lost, blow the winds gently, calm be the foam, shine the light brightly and guide them back home”.

A dhaoine uaisle, is iontach an obair atá ar siúl agaibh anseo ar an oileáin. Go n-éirí go geal libh sna blianta atá romhainn ‘s go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.