Speech by President Michael D. Higgins at the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for the Irish Abroad 2021/2020
Áras an Uachtaráin, Thursday, 2nd December, 2021
A Aíonna uilig,
Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann is mían liom fior chaóin fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh uilig go Áras an Uachtaráin ar an ócáid speisialta ceiliúrach seo. Is mian liom fáilte Uí Cheallaig a ghabháil lenár n-Aíonna oinigh – faighteoirí Ghradaim an Uachtaráin um Sheirbhís do na Gaeil thar lear, na blianta 2020 agus 2021.
As President of Ireland 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 the Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad for 2020 and 2021, the representatives of those unable to be with us, and indeed all of those guests who are accompanying our recipients or their representatives.
We are honoured that you are all with us this evening, and indeed our thoughts go out to those who for differing circumstances, but particularly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, were unable to be here. We think too, on an occasion such as this, in a special way of those recipients to whom an award has been posthumously made.
Across their different categories, awards such as those which will be given this evening are a gesture of recognition, a recognition of actions that are beyond the self, in terms of their consequences, the exceptional achievement that they represent, the moral sensibility that they indicate, in short the outreach to the Other they represent in whatever circumstances they are encountered. The agency for all of such actions however are sourced in a personal commitment beyond the ordinary. That is why it is appropriate to celebrate the unique and special commitment of those involved for their personal efforts, sacrifices, and contribution to achievements of excellence in their chosen field.
Irishness is a characteristic with many dimensions. The Census of 1901 showed that of all the Irish born on the island of Ireland over half were living outside of the island of Ireland. Our Irishness we should never forget, can never be defined exclusively on the basis of residence. Our Irishness is defined in an important way by our migratory reality, by what we feel, achieve, suffer or experience, wherever we breathe as migrants in time and space.
Throughout Ireland’s history, migration has been a life-changing reality, at times voluntary, often involuntary, in response to poverty and despair but also to an indomitable curiosity, too often in earlier centuries the exploitation of military skill or administrative expertise in the Colonial Services, or for the seizing of an opportunity that was not available, or was the subject of exclusion, indeed was forbidden, at home.
For some of our most memorable Irish it was not a migration only for survival, or a flourishing in a material sense. From the earliest times, of course there were the spiritual pilgrims and a rich monastic tradition that was among our earliest contributions to European life in its broadest sense.
Adjusting to the circumstances in which we have organised our dual ceremony for 2020 and 2021 we need no reminder of the global interconnectedness which defines our contemporary existence on what has been made a fragile planet. We are living through a pandemic that has already drawn a heavy toll in global terms, be it in terms of lives lost, lives impaired, livelihoods imperilled. There are great responsibilities that flow from even the most basic recognition of our global circumstances.
Often at the most practical and meaningful level such responsibilities, in their different forms, have informed the actions and lives of those we are honouring this evening. Theirs have been contributions that were not confined by any borders. In their different ways, our recipients have acknowledged a shared and common humanity, a shared world of discovery and responsibility in science, commerce, literature and scholarship.
In celebrating aspects of our defining migratory experience we must never forget those many lives which failed to thrive in foreign soil, where the migratory experience was defined by loneliness and exclusion, reflected as our song and musical tradition attests, in a relentless longing for home. We must not forget ever that such people, were and remain, part of Ireland’s wider family. However, there were also, and happily, so many for whom a new beginning, hard effort and commitment to new circumstances 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.
We, all of us Irish can be very proud of those members of our Diaspora who have made such a special contribution to society and our world, particularly those who have located their lives among the global poor, the disadvantaged, the oppressed, exemplifying as they do the best of Irishness in numerous ways.
Distinguished Irish people, such as those we honour this evening have, impacted and are impacting with distinction and originality on the worlds of the Arts, Business, Public Service, Healthcare, Education, and Sport; they have cared for and changed the lives of the vulnerable and marginalised and brought compassion, aid and a spirit of solidarity to those struggling in developing countries. They have excelled and given a lead in science and in its global application for the betterment of all humanity. They have fought passionately for the vindication of basic rights. They have worked tirelessly to promote peace and reconciliation in our world.
In doing all of this, they represent our nation and its Irishness with generosity and dignity, and enhance our reputation across the world.
Tonight we recognise and honour some of those remarkable people whose contributions to the creation of a better world have been outstanding. Their work in bringing hope and respect into the lives of vulnerable and abused women, or in empowering the elderly members of our wider Irish community in the United Kingdom; in championing the rights of those who suffer from discrimination and prejudice; in protecting children and adults whose rights have been violated; in promoting peace and understanding across cultures and borders; in addressing the problems faced by the poor and defenceless in Africa.
The contributions we honour have been sourced in heart and soul, in mind and intellect. We honour those whose work reminds us that having a commitment to continually revising, adapting and responding to new forms of knowledge, imagination or creative insight is a most valuable contribution in terms of how we see ourselves, and represent the story of ourselves and make our use of memory ethical. Those we honour tonight represent the full gamut of the responsibility that an interdependent globalised people might have in making living together on a fragile planet an experience of peace and human flourishing.
Our Awardees are models most worthy of the honours we are awarding tonight. Troslaím leo arís.
I would like to take this opportunity also to thank the members of the High Level Panel who deliberated on this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Awards. Mr. Martin Fraser the Secretary General Department of the Taoiseach, Mr. Joe Hackett, the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Ms. Orla O’Hanrahan, the Secretary General of my own office and my Advisor, Ms. Claire Power; Ms Caitríona Crowe; Ms Samantha Barry and Mr. Kingsley Aikins. I am delighted to see so many of you here this evening.
Go raibh mile maith agaibh go léir, is beir beannacht oraibh uilig.