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 Is mór an pléisiúir dom bheith anseo i bhur measc inniu. Go raibh míle maith agaibh as ucht bhur bhfáilte chaoin.

It gives me great pleasure to join you here in Balla today to perform the official dedication of the Dawn Oak Millennium Wood and to unveil the Balla Millennium Quilt. Special thanks to John McEllin and the committee of Dawn Oak 2000 for their kind invitation.

Being here with you today reminds me of the rich heritage and history of the locality of Balla. I am particularly proud to follow in the footsteps of St. Patrick who is reputed to have visited here in 440 AD, when Balla was known as ‘Ros Dairbhreach’ or ‘The Height of Oakwood’. Not surprisingly then that the inspiration for this wonderful way of marking the millennium originated in a town steeped in ancient history and Christian pilgrimage and tradition. This impressive project, the brainchild of Stephen Clancy, must have been an obvious choice by the National Millennium Committee as a fitting and memorable commemoration of the past, and a lasting symbol of the passing of the second millennium for future generations. What better way to reflect the historical and spiritual significance of what was an essentially Christian celebration in Ireland than the oak – that great symbol of strength and permanence, of life itself - a wonderful God-given resource which we shared with our ancestors, part of our heritage which is now struggling to survive the ever-changing landscape of our native woodlands.

These first years of a new millennium are an appropriate time to focus on preserving one of our most valuable habitats - our native woodlands. Centuries of clearance, exploitation and neglect have eroded the quality of wildlife and natural resources in the Irish countryside. More and more communities throughout Ireland are discovering that planting trees is one of the easiest and most effective ways in which people can improve their environment. More than ever and particularly in our towns and cities, the presence of trees improve the quality of the living and working environment.

I am very lucky in my own environment, for I have the great pleasure on entering and leaving the Phoenix Park, to drive through its beautiful avenue of horse chestnut and lime trees. No two days offer the same vista - ever-changing, they are a continuing reminder of nature at work in our world, a reminder too that we hold stewardship of this gift for such a very short time, but enough time to do some real good, to make up for the sins of the past, to improve the legacy we will hand on to our children and to theirs.

Importantly too in this week when the numbing horror of last Tuesday is still dragging at our hearts, our celebration today of Dawn Oak 2000 symbolises hope in the future and in particular – hope for a deep-rooted and heartfelt peace that will have an oak-like endurance. Our wish is that those who share this earth will come to have true respect for each other and for our natural environment.

The Balla community has made a powerful statement of hope and renewal through a combination of hard work, persistence and an inspirational community spirit. The overwhelming response from every member of the community to rise to the enormous challenge of planting an impressive 2000 trees in one hour, earned the town of Balla a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Today I honour this wonderful initiative and also get to do something very special to my own heart, to unveil a remarkable Millennium Quilt – each stitch inserted by every household in Balla. I know in a very real way what an amount of work, planning and precision is involved. For in 1999, I persuaded my own clan to do the very same thing and my mothers nine siblings, their spouses and their sixty children each made their own patch and we stitched them together into our own Millennium Quilt. The stories gathered in its squares, the stories about the making of it, brought us closer together and I have no doubt that the same is true of your own millennium quilt.

For all of you who have supported this community – the National Millennium Committee, Coillte, Mayo County Council, ESB, local banks and businesses - I commend you on your contribution to the great success that this work represents. You should be justifiably proud of what has been achieved here. In formally dedicating the Dawn 2000 Millennium Wood and unveiling this beautiful Millennium Quilt, it is clear I am in a place where the past is cherished, where the present is used wisely and where the future is planned for with great care and love. Thank you for your warm welcome to me today. I wish the community of Balla every success, good fortune and happiness in all the years ahead.

Guím Rath Dé oraibh go léir sna blianta atá romhaibh.