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“Liverpool and its Irish Migrants” - Remarks at the John Kennedy lecture in Irish Studies

Insititute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, 21st November 2012

A dhaoine uaisle, a cháirde;  Tá an-áthas orm, agus ar mo bhean chéile Sabina, bheith anseo libh inniú.

Vice Chancellor, Professor Elliot, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you for your invitation and for your warm and generous welcome.

Le linn ár gcuairteanna chuig an tír seo le bliain anuas, ba mhór an onóir dom féin agus do Sabina an fháilte a fuaireamar ón iliomad grúpaí agus daoine aonaracha, ar cuid den phobal ilchineálach Éireannach sa Bhreatain iad, pobal a bhfuil aithne mhaith againn air.

[In the course of our visits to these shores over this past year, Sabina and I have been honoured to be received by many groups, and many individuals, who form part of the diverse Irish community in Britain, a community which we know well.]

I doubt that anyone in this room today would argue that there is any forum better suited than the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool at which to consider together questions of Irish identity and the Irish migrant experience.  So it was with particular delight and excitement that I accepted your kind invitation to give this year’s John Kennedy Lecture in Irish Studies.

It is fitting that, in this most Irish of British cities, the Institute of Irish Studies has developed during its almost twenty five years of existence into an Institute of the highest rank. It has made, and continues to make, a major contribution to understanding between these islands. Its excellence is recognised worldwide and its relevance and importance has been endorsed by the Irish Government with a
£5 million endowment.

When I turned my thoughts to what I would talk to you about today, the first obvious fact is that geography made it inevitable that there would always be strong connections between this city and Ireland. And the travel was not only in one direction. When King John in 1207 granted Liverpool its charter, he cemented its status as the main port through which soldiers and administrators left England for the garrison in Ireland.

For centuries past, Liverpool has represented the first glimpse of Britain for generations of Irish migrants and travellers.  The mighty docks of Liverpool represented a gateway; the mouth of the Mersey became a point of transition to a new life, much as Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were for those men and women who travelled west, to New York and beyond.  There has never been any single Irish migratory experience.  For example, there was always an element of circular migration in the movement of Irish people between Ireland and Britain; and this made such migrations different to the classical migrations of America or Australia.

When we think of the past, we should remember those Irish who peopled that past, who came to Britain in vast numbers and in more difficult times, regularly and seasonally at first, with some settling and then as part of a struggle for survival.  To give some idea of numbers, a witness before the British Parliament’s Select Committee on Emigration commented as long ago as 1827 that he would not feel the least surprised to find that of a hundred men employed as labourers, ninety were Irish.  First it would be the canals, then the railways, then the roads, and in a recent century the Channel Tunnel.  Ultan Cowley titles his history of the Irish navvies well – The Men Who Built Britain.   Between 1745 and 1830  4,000 miles of navigable water was constructed in the British Isles.   Railway Building began and between 1830 and 1845  200,000 navvies were employed as 20,000 miles of rail were laid in Britain alone.  In the building of the Manchester Ship Canal Irish labourers were upwards of 5,000, almost a third of the workforce of 16,000.

Sociologist Liam Ryan   has written of how emigration acted as a safety valve at times when Ireland struggled to cope with the economic and social problems of its population.  However, if not meant to be a rationalisation, as it was for some public figures, it is at least a very benign interpretation of an economic revolution that changed a tenant farmer system to a property-based one.   The post Famine ‘adjustment’ meant that one son inherited at a very mature age, one woman married and the rest had to ‘travel’ or settle for a life as ‘relatives assisting’.    Liam Ryan wrote of how, in the decades that followed, emigration became a fact of life.  It became accepted that at times of transition the promise of a modern way of life in Ireland could only be offered to 75% of its population:

“The remaining 25% have had, for a long time past, a choice of unemployment at home or migration abroad…there is scarcely a single political, social, economic, intellectual or religious problem which has not been influenced directly or indirectly by emigration. Emigration is a mirror in which the Irish nation can always see its true face.”

The 1950 to 1960 decade alone would see a quarter of a million people
emigrate, mostly to Britain – never less than 50,000 in any year.

Irish emigration to Britain had, of course, been going on since the Middle Ages.  Over time, this led to the existence of Irish communities in some large towns including London, Liverpool, Bristol, Canterbury and Norwich, and in garrison towns such as York.  As a proportion of the population of such towns they were not seen as the threat they would later be seen as constituting.  John Jackson’s early estimates of the Irish in Britain were 1841:  419,256;    1851:  727,326;    1861:  806,000.

Irish seasonal migrants’ lives were governed by the form and the cycles, of British agricultural economics.  Some Irish seasonal migrants moved south and settled when the season was over.  Economic hardship, lack of work, and even in the near modern period for the one member inheriting on occasion, what were unsustainable farm holdings pushed many people towards the ports.  The prospect of comparatively well-paid employment in Britain’s industrialised urban centres, letters of encouragement home from family members who had already emigrated, and the propaganda of shipping countries that told of the prosperous and beautiful life that could be had abroad, all helped dislodge the potential migrants.  The sense of one’s personal life being stifled and restricted at home surfaces too in migrant accounts.

It was in 1818 that the first steam packet service (the Rob Roy) linked Belfast to Glasgow. Within ten years, ships were also ferrying passengers from Dublin and Cork. The majority of those heading for Liverpool were destined for onward travel to North America. Growing competition among the shipping companies saw fares drop to as low as 10d in steerage and 3d on deck.

This meant that the main ports of arrival were towns on the western side of Britain, and industrialised urban centres further inland. So it is not surprising that Liverpool became so associated with the Irish immigrant into Britain.

For some, their journey ended at Liverpool, for many more it was only a stepping stone for the longer journeys towards America and Australia.

Liverpool would be for many of those, later known as ‘dhá bád’ or ‘two boat’ people, their first stage.  Given the danger of sea travel due to overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, inadequate food and water supplies, and the constant danger of illness and disease, many Irish migrants found that their journey unfortunately ended while at sea. Indeed with bodies being disposed of overboard, the seas extracted their own heavy price from Irish migrants.

Already in the 1841 census there were almost 50,000 Irish born people living in Liverpool.  For this Irish community, simply surviving was a daily struggle. Living conditions for the poor in Liverpool at that time were, as they were in so many cities, atrocious; overcrowding and disease were rife.  The first public washhouse in Britain had been established in Liverpool in 1842 by a Derry woman called Kitty Wilkinson, who realised how vital good hygiene was for the prevention of the spread of disease during a cholera outbreak 10 years earlier.  Because of her crusade, the Bath and Wash House Acts of 1846 and 1847 came into existence.

But the historical experience of the Irish in Liverpool is, of course, inextricably connected with the tragedy and the memory of the Famine of 1845 to 1847 which drove many more to Liverpool in search of escape. In just three years during the Famine, almost 1.3 million Irish took the boat to Liverpool, sick, starving and seeking relief.
Often they left no surviving family behind to remember them.
John Jackson in his The Irish in Britain (1963) wrote:

“More than 280,000 Irish people arrived in Liverpool in 1846 and less than half of them eventually embarked for destinations overseas.  A further 300,000 entered Liverpool in 1847 and many of them particularly the ‘really poor’, stayed on.”

These waves of desperate Irish people seeking survival were moving into urban spaces that had already experienced hostility and sectarianism.  P.J. Waller in his Democracy and Sectarianism: A political and Social History of Liverpool 1868-1939 tells us how poverty, fever and Irishness came to be spoken of in the same breath in response to a wave of Famine Irish:

“In February 1847 Liverpool’s fatalities from what was called
‘Irish fever’ were 18 per cent which was substantially above the national average.”

and as to poverty:

“Over 173,000 persons – probably 95 per cent of them Irish – were relieved in Liverpool from 18 to 26 January 1847.”

During the crisis years of the Famine of 1845 to 1847 while it is estimated that over one million Irish perished at home, from hunger or, more commonly, from hunger-related diseases, in the decade following 1846 – when the floodgates of emigration opened to a population fleeing a stricken land – more than 1.8 million Irish emigrated.   More than half of these fleeing (more as refugees than as emigrants, as the historian Peter Gray has remarked) during the famine years of 1846-50. The population of Ireland, which was close to 8.5 million in 1845, had fallen to 6.6m by 1851. It would continue to fall – due to the relentless drain of emigration – for many decades to come.

Frank Neal’s ‘The Famine Irish in England and Wales’  in Patrick O’Sullivan’s ‘Irish World Wide Series’ gave us valuable personal accounts, including the story of the occupants of The Wanderer a vessel with 200 ‘wretched’ creatures from Skibbereen and the story of Jeremiah Sullivan, his wife and five children.  Turned off his farm in Skibbereen, he sold his horse and cow for £3 and began the journey from Cork to Newport and started to walk to London.  ‘Death from Starvation’ was the verdict of the coroner on the deaths of the three children who died including the baby who had been kept alive on sugar and water as they begged their way to London.

We must never forget the suffering of the victims of the Famine, including those who perished en route to this city or shortly after arrival, as well as those who gave their lives helping the sick and dying. It is a testament to the people of Liverpool today that so much has been done to mark that dark period in our history, such as the Great Hunger Memorial where I laid a wreath earlier today.

Graham Davis writing about the great flood of Irish into British cities tells us:

“It is no accident that the most heated reaction to Irish immigrants was found in the key reception points of Glasgow, Liverpool and Cardiff.  The impression of being ‘swamped’ was real enough in Liverpool, the main point of entry, not only for the Irish settling in Britain, but also for the thousands of Irish who were on short-stay migration before embarking on the Atlantic voyage to North America.  For a period in 1847, Liverpool was engaged in distributing famine relief to many thousands of starving immigrants.  Its institutions, already struggling to cope with its own resident population, were quite incapable of coping with the scale of an unprecedented emergency situation.”

And, as Graham Davis saw it:

“This crisis, already apparent before the family influx, was exploited by local religious and political leaders, among whom Protestant Irishmen were prominent, whipping up anti-Catholic feeling as a means of gaining political control of the city council.  This proved spectacularly successful, and as a consequence, religious hatred and sectarian violence found its most extreme and prolonged form in Liverpool.  Religious riots blighted the Irish experience in other cities, Glasgow, Stockport, and Cardiff.  The annual rituals of St. Patrick’s Day and Orange Day processions were rallying points for Catholics and Protestants which could spark off rioting and violence between the two communities.  The establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England in 1850 or the virulently anti-Catholic lectures of William Murphy and other Protestant zealots in the 1860s, provoked rioting from indignant Protestants and Catholics.  Yet, even in cities affected by the ‘Murphy Riots’, accompanying the anti-Catholic rhetoric aimed at the Irish, there was a pronounced revulsion among the majority of moderate Protestants, fearful that vulgar Catholic baiting only led to the destruction of property.”

Graham Davis has identified a key feature at the source of such fears as led to anti-Irish feeling.   In the chapter he contributed to
John Jackson’s  The Irish in Britain he wrote:

“More influential in alarming the host community than the scale of immigration were the apparent levels of concentration of Irish settlement. …. It was claimed that nearly one million poor Irish had flooded into Liverpool in the first fourteen weeks of 1847; Warrington and other towns around Liverpool were ‘crowded with them’ by April.”

In the nineteenth Century the print media was an important source of public and indeed political attitudes.  Frances Finnegan’s regional study of York, Poverty and Prejudice , gave us a wonderful insight into the mind of the regional press as well as the attitude towards the Irish at media level.  In 1846 itself, during the Famine, the news-reading public in York had been treated to regular recitals regarding Irish characteristics, which were hardening into suggested permanent, even racial, features.   The Irishman was presented as a menacing contrast to his ‘Saxon benefactors’:

“Englishmen have the reputation throughout civilized Europe of being the most enlightened, plodding, charitable nation on the face of the earth … Show us a case of apparent distress and we respond but do not think that our purse strings as if by instinct loosen themselves?”

Sometimes too the Irish, even at the height of the Great Famine, were accused of a lamentable ingratitude. Referring to the suspension of Public Works in Ireland The Gazette commented:

“The Irish people are literally Irish in everything they do. Every act of their lives denotes their peculiarity.”

The Yorkshireman refers to the unfortunate ‘difference’ in the Irish race. In April 1847 it stated:

“The Irish are a strange and unfathomable people. Their ways are not such as other men – their motives are often past finding out. They will neither profit by exhortation nor learn wisdom by the science which teaches by example.”

In an editorial entitled ‘The Irish Begging Box Again’ in 1848, The Yorkshireman commented repeatedly on Irish ingratitude and summarised that:

“..The cry hitherto has been ‘Ireland for the Irish’. Let it be so. England will be the gainer by the bargain.”

Frances Finnegan has shown in her regional study the extent and type of prejudice to be found in two York newspapers even before the main influx of the post-Famine immigrants, a prejudice that would become more virulent after their arrival. That those in authority – magistrates, Poor Law Guardians, sanitary officials and governors of the
Ragged Schools were prejudiced against the Irish is well illustrated in Frances Finnegan’s Study of York.

“The extent to which this prejudice led them to make stereotyped, misleading judgements about them however, and even worse, official reports containing evidence apparently, but not always in reality, based on facts, has rarely been considered.”

On the other hand, Frances Finnegan also tells us of some of the exceptional behaviour of concern and solidarity that came, even at the cost of life itself, from such as the Quaker Samuel Tuke. Addressing a meeting of Friends at Devonshire House in June 1847, for example:

“He entered into an animated apology for the Irish people, against the wholesale condemnation in which they are commonly involved. They are stigmatized, he said, as lazy, reckless, and regardless of human life. But the charge of laziness is disproved by the multitudes of those who come over to reap our harvests, and those who labour at the heaviest employments. They have been most thankful for work; they have undertaken it even in a state of destitution and depression of animal powers which might well have excused them from the task … It is said the Irish are reckless, yet a most interesting evidence of their thrift, their patriotism and their natural affection is to be seen in the remittances of the poor emigrants in America to their relations at home.”

At national level, The London Times had, together with Punch and others, consistently developed a stereotypical version of the Irish as insatiable in their demands, ungrateful and disloyal. They supported the British Government of the day’s interpretation of famine response and policy, they regarded famine and the response to it as a matter for local resolution, and even went so far as to suggest that famine was even providential in its cause.

The later exodus of men women and children meant that migrants would carry an ongoing memory of hostility and culpable neglect at best, and more usually, an abiding communal recall of the consequences of imperial degradation, a response that would now be brought to live on beyond the seas, a fact recognized decades after the Famine in The Times’ editorials.  The Times of London was quoted in The Nation, May 1860 as follows:

“If this goes on as it is likely to go on …. The United States will become very Irish … So an Ireland there will still be, but on a colossal scale, and in a new world.  We shall only have pushed the Celt westwards.  Then, no longer cooped between the Liffey and the Shannon, he will spread from New York to San Francisco, and keep up the ancient feud at an unforeseen advantage …. We must gird our loins to encounter the nemesis of seven centuries’ misgovernment.  To the end of the time a hundred million spread over the largest habitable area in the world, and, confronting us everywhere by sea and land, will remember that their forefathers paid tithe to the Protestant clergy, rent to the absentee landlords, and a forced obedience to the laws which these had made.”

In Liverpool the adjustment of the Irish community took place slowly and was assisted the emergence of those who could be both Irish and British at the same time into the public discourse.

The story of Irish people in Liverpool was and continued into the modern period as one of reinvention, both for those who travelled from Ireland to Liverpool and for those who grew up here as part of the Irish community, some regularly returning to Ireland and in later years even coming back to Ireland as permanent residents.  It was at Manchester University that I saw first the importance of recognizing circular migration.

Irish history of course owes a significant debt to Liverpool and its people. James Larkin is one of the best known in this latter category.  During his lifetime, Larkin was inclined to claim to have been born in Ireland and to have moved to Liverpool in his youth, but we now know that he was born in 1876 here in Liverpool, in Toxteth, to parents from Armagh. Like many Irish people born and raised here to a
working-class family, he found employment in the docks, where he was known as a strong and sober worker, before gaining a permanent position in his trade union.

Larkin was well aware of the use his political opponents would make of his being born outside of Ireland.  Their propaganda suggested that such a place of birth in some way diminished his commitment to Ireland.  He knew himself, and frequently spoke in public on the fact that to be Irish did not mean that the concerns and material needs of those from other backgrounds were of less importance.  He was a man who could state with conviction that he loved Ireland ‘as I love no other land and no other people’, while at the same time devoting his energy to the issues and emancipatory agenda of international politics.

Larkin’s Liverpool background provided him with the key insight that a narrow form of national identity can, too often, be used to mask class expropriation, privilege, and exploitation.  However, the movement of ideas and political struggle, as much as the movement of people, is never solely in a single direction. While Larkin’s career can be seen as an example of the Irish political landscape being informed by the migrant experience, Irish politics itself has always been important within the British civic sphere and as a theme within British parliamentary politics itself as ‘Britain’s Irish problem’.

Earlier this year, we marked the centenary of the introduction of the Third Home Rule Bill, and the Ulster Crisis. It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the extent to which Irish political questions, and political figures, dominated Westminster in the years before the First World War.

Time allows me to refer to just one, but a significant, parliamentary example.  T.P. O’Connor, originally from Athlone, was M.P. for Liverpool for over 30 years, from 1885 to 1929.  He was famously the only Irish nationalist M.P. ever elected to a constituency outside Ireland.  In his time at Parliament, he saw the introduction of the three Home Rule Bills, as well as the Easter Rising, First World War, partition and independence.  His speeches show an ethical conviction combined with pragmatism. The language itself shows a familiarity with the writings of Engels on Manchester of over a half a century earlier:

“The Tory Party still remains the party of the monopolists and the selfish, but it has learned that household suffrage means a considerable weapon in the hands of working men, and, accordingly, though it may put its tongue in its cheek, it keeps that tongue very civil whenever it begins to utter opinion.  Furthermore, Liverpool was not a manufacturing town with a spine of skilled workmen who could, ceteris paribus, command wages whatever their opinions.  Liverpool’s social structure was ‘honeycombed with purely commercial interests.  No one knows where the influence of a single wealthy family may begin or end.  The clerk is afraid of losing his situation, the shopkeeper a customer, and so on through the whole gamut from high to low.”

In his career, O’Connor demonstrates that strain of Irishness that is running through the British political establishment, giving strength to the claim that Liverpool itself is perhaps the quintessential Irish city in Britain.

This cosmopolitanism, in the modern period, its locus as a place of migration, of which the Irish experience has been central, is one of the key elements which have always made Liverpool such a dynamo of creative energy in the British cultural sphere.

The number of Irish-born in Britain grew steadily throughout the twentieth century, reaching a peak of almost one million in the 1960s. And it was the 1960s which became associated with major cultural, social and political changes across the world. The Irish arriving in Liverpool were to experience new sights and sounds as the town went through its own major changes.

And of course, Liverpool had the Beatles. Like Jim Larkin and others, Lennon and McCartney grew up in a city in the throes of great change, a dynamic place, a gateway to and from the rest of Britain. They were a global phenomenon, modern, innovative and at the cutting edge of artistic experimentation, while at the same time comfortable in their identities, and rooted in the city from which they emerged. In this, they typified the migrant experience of later generations of migrant families.

Their first, and only, performances in Ireland, 50 years ago this month, were in some sense a homecoming, something more than an overseas tour, and an invitation too to those who were young in Ireland to a form of freedom, a suggestion that the presentation of the self could include rhythm, the body, longing and love, and all without guilt.  Liverpool would continue to pour out innovative musical connections to the world, music with an Irish contribution, if oblique.

The Beatles were certainly emblematic of their time, of that moment when popular culture and the creative avant garde were in sync, and when music, writing, art and performance played a key role in the struggles for new freedoms, for free speech and civil rights.

And we should not forget that three of the four members of the Beatles were of Irish extraction, nor that in their first television appearance in 1962 they were introduced by another Irishman, Gay Byrne, then working for Granada television.

We should remember too that the music moved in both directions.  Irish groups and artists were frequent and welcome performers in Liverpool.

Within living memory are the stories of the second major wave of Irish emigration, after the Second World War. And it is to them in particular that we owe thanks for the preservation, nurturing and promotion of Irish heritage and culture in Liverpool.

It was these generations, Irish born and Liverpool born, who nurtured and strengthened the traditional Irish organisations such as the GAA and established new ones, such as the Irish Centre, first at Mount Pleasant and now St. Michael’s, and Irish Community Care Merseyside, that continue to go from strength to strength.

Organisations in Liverpool and its surrounding areas were not limited by their geography. They recognised the importance of contact with and support for Irish organisations in other parts of Britain. It was very appropriate then that the first national chairman of the Federation of Irish Societies was a Liverpool man, the late
Mr Tommy Walsh. He laid the foundation for what is now a vital and essential advocacy organisation for the Irish Community throughout Britain.

It was their spirit of volunteerism, their willingness to give so freely of their time, energy and imagination that ensured the survival and continued success of community and cultural organisations in Liverpool. They embodied the particular virtue of so many Irish people that, when faced with challenges, we try to ensure, if I may use a Liverpool phrase from a different context, that nobody will have to walk alone. As Tommy Walsh says in his book Being Irish in Liverpool  “helping…..came naturally”.   Without the volunteers, many Irish organisations simply could not deliver their valuable and essential services.

That spirit and those virtues are alive and well today. And the work of these organisations is still as vital as ever; though many in the Irish Community have done exceedingly well here in Liverpool, there are still those, from student to pensioner, who are vulnerable, who need our support, comfort and care.

This is recognised by the Irish Government. That fact that it, through its Emigrant Support Programme, has awarded over £1.68 million over the last five years alone to Irish organisations in Liverpool and its surrounding area is an acknowledgement of that spirit and a reflection of the great esteem which the Irish Government and Irish people have for the vital work of these organisations. Sabina and I are very much looking forward to meeting representatives from these organisations during our time here in Liverpool.

And of course, the historically strong connections between Liverpool and Ireland continue today. Liverpool and Dublin are twin cities; thousands of Irish people support Liverpool football teams and travel regularly for matches; Irish culture is celebrated every year by the Liverpool Irish Festival; thousands of Irish students study here.

Our cultural and national identities across these islands are not easily disaggregated. Nowhere is this more true than in Liverpool. It is no accident, therefore, that when the film of Liverpool playwright Willy Russell’s Educating Rita was being produced in the 1980s and Dublin was chosen as a replacement for Liverpool on camera.

These reflections on our past, and on our many reinventions, our multiple modernizations should also encourage us to look forward with confidence to a future of renewed and strengthened co-operation between our two countries.

Perhaps above all others, Liverpool represents something unique in the Irish migrant imagination. It is a home and a crossroads, a place where the Irish have moved to, and moved from. It occupies a liminal position in the British-Irish relationship, a place of exchange, economic, cultural and political, where identities and borders become fluid and blurred. It is both Irish and British, and also something very much more.

Let us take into ourselves the richness as well as the vulnerabilities of our migrants past and present. Indeed, no matter how rooted and sedentary our lives, we are all migrants – if not in space, then certainly in time. No matter how effective the political and economic solutions we find to our current challenges, circular migration, will continue to be a fact of life – within and between our societies and further afield.

We should also, I suggest, remember the British neighbours who so often welcomed their new Irish friends and helped them to make a home in this country. Half of my own family worked, married and reared their families in Britain. A further generation moves between Ireland and Britain.

We should remember also the spirit and achievements of the Irish in Britain. Many of them, through sheer hard work and determination, made good lives for themselves and their dependents. We should also remember the unbroken affection for Ireland of those in Britain who welcomed and assisted generations of emigrants, and then in turn the important support our migrants provided through their hard-earned remittances.

It is important to remember that the dynamic and vibrant bilateral relationship that we enjoy today with Britain is founded to a large extent upon the lives and contributions of generations of Irish emigrants who settled in this country. Its strength is a testament to the generations of Irish people who did so much to make Britain what it is today while at the same time fostering understanding, tolerance and cooperation between our two countries.

In particular, the Queen’s visit last year to the Garden of Remembrance to honour those who fought against Britain for Irish independence and the ceremony at Islandbridge where the Queen and President McAleese together commemorated the thousands of Irishmen who gave their lives in British uniform in the Great War served to underline how far our two nations have come, how successfully we have left the shackles of the past behind us and emerged as confident equal partners on the world stage.

It is thanks to the contributions and sacrifices of generations of Irish emigrants and their willingness to remain engaged and supportive of the land of their birth, that we can now enjoy such a close and strong relationship with Britain.  So it is appropriate then that we remember their stories and their place in the great history of Liverpool and above all how they have bonded themselves with spirit and heart of everything that is Liverpool while always recalling their roots which I, as Uachtaráin na hÉireann, President of Ireland, value.