Speech at a Reception for the Irish Community
Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wales, 28th October 2014
It is a pleasure to meet so many members of the Irish community in Wales and friends of Ireland in Wales here today, and to have this opportunity to recall, celebrate, and hopefully, further develop, the many bonds of friendship that connect Ireland and Wales.
Earlier this year, I was honoured to be the first Irish President to pay a State Visit to Britain as a guest of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. Sabina and I are delighted, just a few months after that historic visit, to come to Wales, our closest geographical neighbour and a country with which we share such important ties.
Indeed, the links between Wales and Ireland stretch back many centuries, commencing in the 4th century and continuing to hold through the Roman conquest and the years after. Today, the Irish community in Wales is a significant one, with more than 14,000 first generation Irish people living here, according to the 2011 census; while many, many more Welsh citizens claim an Irish descent that in some cases goes back several generations.
The Irish in Wales have been embraced by this exceptionally beautiful and unique country. Over the course of many centuries our emigrants here have built and deepened a powerful connection between Ireland and Wales, through our people and our shared Celtic heritage. Here in Wales many Irish emigrants have made new homes in welcoming communities; they have taken the opportunity to begin new chapters in their lives and to shape promising futures for themselves and their families.
They – our extended Irish family – have in turn contributed to the economy, society, and culture of Wales, many of them playing an active part in the industrial development and working lives of Cardiff and the South Wales valleys in the late 19th century; while also bringing with them a strong sense of that special community that migration calls forth, which allowed them to thrive among their Welsh neighbours, relatives and friends. Those Irish in Wales also retained a great pride in their Irish heritage which allowed them to participate easily in the rich Celtic artistic life and shared love of music and words which they were fortunate to find here in Wales.
Indeed it is very exciting to be speaking here at the Wales Millennium Centre, site of a world class theatre and arts centre, and to be able to mark those extensive contemporary cultural links which are such a critical strand of the Irish-Welsh relationship. I come here following the memorable experience of having participated in yesterday’s Dylathon, a celebration of the Welsh poetic imagination at its most striking and innovative.
Our great love of words and language is demonstrated in the pride both our countries feel for the vernaculars which lie at the heart of our respective cultures, languages which share a common Celtic origin. Both our nations are committed to ensuring that our indigenous languages remain central to those cultures in a contemporary world.
I am delighted to welcome here today students and teachers of the Irish language at Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities, whose courses are financially assisted by the Irish Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. May I take this opportunity to thank you for your work in ensuring the ongoing preservation of our national language.
The spirit of friendship and understanding that exists between Ireland and Wales not only enriches our social and cultural ties, but also extends to the areas of employment, innovation and sustainable development. I was strongly reminded of this earlier today when I visited Swansea University and I heard presentations by eleven participants in the Ireland-Wales INTERREG 4A programme, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
This programme funds projects that connect West Wales with East Coast counties in Ireland, boasting more than 1000 beneficiaries from cross-border training modules, the establishment of over 40 SMEs, the development of over 100 new products and processes and more than twenty measures addressing the impact of climate change. It is no surprise to learn that the Ireland Wales programme is regarded by the EU Commission as a star performer among the 52 INTERREG 4A programmes in operation across the EU.
It has also been encouraging to meet here today with representatives of the vibrant economic sector that exists between Ireland and Wales. Looking ahead, I know you will be glad to hear that Ireland’s economic indicators are encouragingly positive. In the second quarter of 2014 our GDP grew at an annual rate of 7.7 per cent, the highest rate of expansion achieved in many years. Export growth, including to Wales, has been the major driver of our economic progress and exports have reached an all-time high. As a people, we are encouraged to learn the lessons so harshly taught by the recent global financial collapse, and to prevent any future repetition of this costly experience by seeking sustainable models of real economic development.
It is a delight, too, to meet again with the Chair of the Westminster All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Irish in Britain, a Welshman of Irish background, Mr Chris Ruane MP. The group he chairs represents the interests and concerns of the Irish community in Britain. Welsh politicians have also been instrumental in advancing the cause of peace and reconciliation within and between our two neighbouring islands. There are many who continue to nurture and promote the bond between our two countries, both at Westminster and here in the Welsh Assembly, through their active participation as members of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly or BIPA.
May I mention in particular the contribution of the Welshman and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – Mr Paul Murphy, MP, as well as that of adopted Welshman and MP for Neath, Mr Peter Hain.
In this global age our two nations face many of the same challenges but also enjoy a similar set of opportunities. It has been a pleasure during this visit to meet so many people who are involved in nurturing the various strands of the relationship between us.
We are two nations who have always been influenced and enriched by each other’s cultures and artistic perspectives, and this is something that I have experienced quite palpably during my visit. I have, indeed, been reminded of Irish poet Bernard O’Donoghue’s poem ‘Westering Home’ – in which, pondering on that sense of place that is always so important to our sense of belonging, he says that:
… driving west through Wales
Things start to feel like Ireland.
He wonders if it is the similarity in scenery or buildings but realises it is something much more profound, an ‘architecture of the spirit’, almost elusive, but firmly present; a spirit that binds the ‘here’ and the ‘there’ into a place that can be called ‘home’.
I thank all of you for welcoming me here today. May we continue to enjoy and celebrate a great and unique spirit of friendship and partnership.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Diolch yn fawr iawn.
[Thank you very much]