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Speech on the presentation of the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards for the Irish Abroad 2018

Áras an Uachtaráin, Thursday 29 November 2018

A Thaoisigh,
A Thánaiste,
A chairde,

You are all very welcome this evening to Áras An Uachtaráin for this special occasion – the presentation of the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards. I know that many of you have travelled long distances so that we may be together tonight. May I say how grateful I am that you made those journeys, journeys which, whether from Brazil, Britain or the United States, are in themselves reflective of our history as a diasporic people. Fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh uilig.

In these centenary years of our independence Irish people here in Ireland and around the world have commenced a very intense reflection on the complexities and often colliding versions of our national past and on some of the nearer foundational events in our long and unremitting struggle for national freedom, the 1916 Rising, the War of Independence, and the formation of the First Dáil Éireann – the democratic assembly of the revolutionary Irish Republic - which followed the Election of 1918. It was a singular event, occurring as it did between the Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence, and the tragedy for so many families that was the Civil War.

We have recalled, in recent years, and will recall in the coming years, the men and women who made our revolution, through the women’s movement, through the national movement, through the labour movement and through cultural revival and innovation. They all, in their way, sought not only to inspire, but to evoke, a concept of the nation. The nation, for that revolutionary generation, was neither a national territory nor a collection of institutions, as important as they may be, but a people - a people bound together by a shared culture and shared heritage, a shared language, and a shared consciousness of the past.

The ideal of the Republic that was proclaimed in 1916 reflected the coming together of the thought of Patrick Pearse and James Connolly. This shared vision extended to the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil which was both radical and emancipatory. It was, and still constitutes today, a vision of Irishness that is at once expansive and inclusive, one capable of summoning our finest qualities, our capacity for compassion, for solidarity, for creativity, and for courage. 

With our long history of struggle and suffering, of thwarted triumphs and difficult failures, any narrow nationalism would be insufficient for the delivery of that vision expressed a century ago. A spirit of generosity and friendship that flies beyond borders is required for such a task.

That spirit and those qualities, of inward being and an inclusive outward gaze, which so exemplify the best of our Irishness have been practically and magnificently demonstrated by our honoured guests this evening through their lives, their work, and their example. 

Through the Presidential Distinguished Service Award, we have an opportunity to recognise the place and significance of the migratory experience and within it those who have shown remarkable courage and solidarity with both their fellow Irish and those with whom they have made a life and a contribution. They are Irish out of Ireland who have expanded the frontiers of human knowledge, and, through their thoughts, their words and their actions, elevated the standing and reputation of Irish people throughout the world and enhanced our fragile, shared humanity. 

Is mian liom fáilte a fhearadh roimh ní hamháin na faighteoirí. Den ghradam atá mé ag bronnadh orthu, a bhfuil mar theidil air i nGaeilge Cearnmhír an Uachtaráin um Sheirbhís Dearscna do Ghaeil Thar Lear, ach roimh a mhuintir agus a chairde chomh maith, agus tá a fhios agam gur thaistil roinnt agaibh achar mór le bheith linn anocht.

The United States has been a refuge for Irish migrants fleeing hunger, poverty, political and social oppression so much so that in the nearly two and half centuries since that great republic was established millions of Irish people have come to call the United States their home. 
At the dawn of the twentieth century, there were nearly as many Irish-born men and women living in the United States as in Ireland. 

There is now perhaps no deeper relationship between two peoples than that which exists between the peoples of Ireland and the United States, and that enduring bond has been greatly strengthened and deepened by the labours of Dr. John Lahey, for many years the President of Quinnipiac University. I had the honour of meeting Dr. Lahey last March at the opening of the Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, an exhibition that owes much to his efforts and will come to be seen as a landmark event in our continuing attempts to understand the full complexity and totality of the Famine, both in terms of its source and legacy.

When we think of Irish migration, we so often reach to the late nineteenth century and call on North America, Britain or Australia and New Zealand as the main destination of Irish emigrants seeking to escape famine or find opportunities in new lands. Yet, as monuments to Bernado O’Higgins and Francisco O’Connor in Chile and Venezuela attest, revolutionary Irish emigrés had in previous centuries played a significant role in the history and later struggle for independence in several countries in South America. May I thank Professor Munira Hamud Mutran for sustaining and maintaining that important Irish connection to South America, a connection that was forged in the struggle for liberty and independence, and in the case of Roger Casement, one that constituted a founding moment in the history of human rights. 

In Australia, the first Irish prison ships to land in Botany Bay contained many of the 1798 rebels. They were followed, in time, by Irish people seeking a new life amidst the Southern Oceans – some of whom were fleeing the Famine. Last October, I had the honour of visiting the Australian Monument to the Great Irish Famine in Hyde Park Barracks, a most moving and touching memorial. It is a monument that owes so much to the vision of Thomas Power, who sadly passed away last year. I am very pleased to welcome Tom’s family here tonight and I am glad that Tom’s wife, Patricia, is here to accept the award on his behalf.

Emigration has been for some a cold and lonely experience, one marked by loneliness and sadness. Many of our people, we must never forget, have historically faced challenges and suffered exploitation in the labour market. We must accept the responsibilities of inclusive truth that this places on us.

Those challenges have so often been overcome by collective action, and solidarity both within the Irish community and wider society, a solidarity that was and is so often sustained by unwavering and untiring community leaders, so may I thank Breege McDaid for all that she has done for our people in that most Irish of English cities, Liverpool. In the days between Christmas Day and the 8th January 1847 147,000 Irish presented for poor law relief. The Irish in Liverpool went from 419,256 in 1841 to 806,000 in 1861.

That solidarity, within Irish communities and with other peoples, has so often been renewed by our Irish culture, with our rich tradition of music and song. It is a culture that must be shared to be sustained, so I am so pleased to recognise the vital contribution made by Edward J. Ward. Unfortunately, Edward was unable to travel to this ceremony so may I give a particular welcome to Edward’s wife, Catherine, who will accept the Distinguished Service Award on his behalf.

Sister Bridget Tighe is part of the great Irish missionary tradition, not only of international solidarity but of rigorous scholarship. She has served the Palestinian people – one of the most oppressed people on our planet – for many years and has stood with them through some of their hardest hours, and she now stands with the poorest people in Jerusalem. 

Sister Mary Killeen is part of that same magnificent tradition, though her vocation has brought her to Kenya. The peoples of Ireland and the nations of Africa share, despite the great distance in space between us, a common experience of the past – colonialism, migration, the struggle to preserve and remake our culture – and we share a common destiny, one full of potential and possibility. Through her work in education and healthcare and so many other fields, Sister Mary is helping make that future of hope and opportunity a reality for so many children. 

Since the nineteenth century, Irish men and women of the missionary orders have answered what Pope Francis has called the ‘summons to solidarity’, living and working alongside peoples across the world. In continuing that legacy today, Sister Mary and Sister Bridget are wonderful representations of our Irishness in the best sense. 

In confronting the great challenges of this century, we are fortunate that we can draw upon the benefits of new science and technology, the product not only of theoretical innovation but also of applied research. Professor Margaret Murnane has played an important role in advancing both through her work in optical physics. She has broken new ground, not only as a scientist excelling in her field but as a female scientist of world rank in what remains an area of endeavour traditionally dominated by men. That is now changing, much to the benefit of science, and for that we owe much to Professor Murnane.

A cháirde,

We meet now at a moment of profound global and regional uncertainty, even danger, as forces we had long thought vanquished to the margins of political life have re-emerged – promoting hate, division, racism and sexism – even as the great challenges of this century – climate change, tackling inequality in all its forms, sustainable development – await a concerted response. 

Yet, amidst all the present discord and turmoil, we are also witnessing the emergence of new movements – which we must welcome - movements equal to the task of building a future of hope and opportunity, a future of equality, participation, inclusion, imagination, creativity, and sustainability. 

We in Ireland, and all those who love Ireland, have a special responsibility in our present moment, to give a lead in accepting a duty of compassion and solidarity, not only to our own people but to others. As a migratory people, with a long history of famine, persecution and emigration, we are aware of the moral imperative to welcome those fleeing war, persecution, famine and nature disasters, and to treat those who come to our shores with dignity and compassion, even if we have sometimes faltered in our responsibilities. 

As a people who have for long centuries relied on the land to sustain us, whether in Ireland or abroad, we have consciousness of the vulnerability and fragility of nature, and we are witnessing, through the loss of biodiversity, the capacity of man-made changes to wreak havoc on the hopes of future generations to inherit a sustainable planet.

We are now, as a people, challenged to act in these new circumstances, and to do so with purpose and vigour. Now, more than at any other time in our history, we are challenged to summon the same virtues demonstrated by our forebears a century ago, and the same qualities of mind and spirit, of compassion, bravery, empathy, and solidarity, so characteristic of our people in our best moments, displayed by our awardees this evening. 

Those qualities are so often first expressed, evoked and given form in our literature and art. It has been our artists, our writers, our musicians and singers – inheritors of a great and diverse tradition – who have possessed the moral courage to confront Irish society with truths and realities long ignored and suppressed, perhaps none more so than Edna O’Brien. 

At a time when a confident and renewed feminism in Ireland is now advancing towards equality, it is humbling to remember that Edna, with her work, was one of the first to give voice, in a literary form, to the experiences of women in Ireland. Edna O’Brien’s work celebrates the full freedom that a writer must have, the risks and contradictions of circumstance, the release into beauty that imagination makes possible.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Edna O’Brien has been one of the authors of the transformation in the status of women in Ireland we have witnessed over recent decades, not only through her writing but in her enduring capacity as one of our greatest living writers. 

If Edna O’Brien has been one of the finest chroniclers of the Irish imagination, then surely William Kennedy has performed such a service for Irish Americans, and especially those Irish Americans fortunate to live in the state of New York. By giving a literary expression to the enduring bond between Ireland and the United States, William Kennedy has provided a gift to both nations. 

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the members of the High Level Panel who deliberated on this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award, Mr. Niall Burgess, the Secretary General Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade; Mr. Martin Fraser the Secretary General Department of the Taoiseach; Mr. Art O’Leary, the Secretary General of my own office, Ms. Sally O’Neill Sanchez; Ms. Catriona Crowe; Ms. Samantha Barry and Mr. Kingsley Aikins. I am delighted to see so many of you here this evening.

Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach aon duine d’ár bhfaighteoirí don méid atá déanta agaibh, agus atá á dhéanamh agaibh fós, fiú i ndorchadas an gheimhridh. Cuireann bhur gcuid oibre in bhur dtíortha cónaithe ar leith go mór le clú agus cáil na hÉireann, agus is cúis bróid agus inspioráide sibh ar fad.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.