“Of Heritage, Home and Healing” Keynote Address by President Michael D. Higgins
American Conference of Irish Studies, Ulster University, Magee Campus, Thursday, 3rd June, 2021
May I thank Professor Paul Bartholomew, Vice-Chancellor and President of Ulster University, Dr Seán Farren, Chair of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, and Dr Thomas P. O’Neill III, Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, for the invitation to be with you today to address the American Conference of Irish Studies hosted this year by Ulster University at their Magee Campus in Derry.
As we know, since its foundation, Magee College continues to play a distinguished role in the Northern Ireland peace process and in conflict transformation in general. It is very fitting, therefore, that the Chair in Peace, inaugurated by President Clinton in 1995, recognises not only the remarkable leadership of John Hume over many decades, but also his substantive contribution as a university professor, one who brought his unique perspective to shaping this work for peace for the future – a very significant legacy that will surely inspire current and future students and academics.
This Chair celebrates also the life and work of a great Irish-American and proud Bostonian, Speaker Tip O’Neill. The former Speaker paid memorable visits to Ireland in recent years, including Buncrana, County Donegal, and made such an historic contribution to the Irish-American relationship in so many ways. I am very glad therefore that his son, Lieutenant-Governor Tom O’Neill, has joined us today.
The lives and works of these leaders serve as a constant reminder of the special ties that exist between Derry and Boston, and of the need for constant vigilance in the preservation of the peace and for all the values for which they strived together; and of course the independent scholarship and true dedication of the American Conference of Irish Studies for over 60 years forms a critical part of that story, and it is a real pleasure to pay the warmest tribute to all involved.
May I pay a particular tribute to Pat Hume for both her own role and the role she and her husband John played in the Northern Ireland peace process, and indeed continue to play, through the medium of the John and Pat Hume Foundation, launched last November, supporting and inspiring leadership for peaceful change through a wide range of thought-shaping, outreach and support activities.
Your conference is of course coinciding with the anniversary of the birth of the region’s patron saint, Colmcille, some 1,500 years ago. What a powerful echo it makes – his legacy of spirituality and devotion as well as his contribution to education and cultural heritage. The hosting of the conference in Ulster University in Derry City, Doire Cholmchille in Irish, is also so apposite, being as it is at the intermix of cultural expressions and so much the richer for it. What an appropriate setting we have, then, to consider the arts, literature, music and storytelling traditions of the Derry area, a city recently designated as a UNESCO Learning City.
The conference offers an opportunity to examine, in some depth, the evolution of this North-West city region from earliest Columban times, whilst also celebrating and drawing inspiration from the rich work of local, renowned, contemporary artistic, literary and political figures that include such internationally recognised and honoured heroes of Ulster, such as Seamus Heaney, John Hume, Brian Friel, Seamus Deane, Willie Doherty, Eilis O’Connell and William C. Campbell, all of whom have made an indelible mark in their respective fields.
The recent death of Seamus Deane is an incalculable loss to Irish writing, as his passing represents not only the loss of a foremost critic, but of a distinguished poet, novelist and internationally acclaimed university teacher. To Derry, he leaves the incomparable legacy of the life, the writing, the concerns, yes, the despair, but the hope and humour, too, that he shared with its people and to which so much of the work would respond. Few cities have a writer more embedded in its people, its history, its challenges, its hopes and its unique humour.
The conference theme, focused as it is on that of ‘heritage, home and healing’, invites me to reflect on some of my own experience in this area. It was one of my privileges, as the founding Aire of An Roinn Ealíon, Cultur agus Gaeltachta, Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, to introduce the Bill that became the Heritage Act in 1995 which, amongst other things, established the Irish Heritage Council, an Comhairle Oidhreachta, on a statutory footing. It was a matter of principle for me, when I took office as Ireland’s first Minister for Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1993, that heritage and culture would be elevated as a portfolio, given parity of esteem, as it were, within Government, strengthened, too, in terms of its resourcing so that we could identify, preserve, promote and enhance Ireland’s heritage in its widest sense, all of this considerably assisted by structural funding from the European Union.
I do recall that I felt it necessary at the time to suggest that the word ‘heritage’ had become somewhat narrowed in usage, to a dangerous point of being used as a background invoked for all too short tourist consumption, rather than an invitation to the slow, thoughtful visit to which such a people’s resource of generations deserved to receive. This created the danger of basing policy on a clichéd image of what was assumed visitors to Ireland wanted to see.
Such a utilitarian reductionism, I believed, and I remain convinced of that belief, was both blinkered and myopic, in that it did not ascribe sufficient recognition or importance to much of the natural, built and cultural resource that constitutes the fullness of our heritage. I have always preferred the Irish term “oidhreacht” which, I suggest, more accurately captures the totality of our heritage, built and natural, invoking, too, as it does, the context of ‘legacy’, of transmitted knowledge, respect for nature, wisdom of previous generations, and a duty of care.
In introducing the Heritage Act, it was my hope that we, as a nation, would re-engage with, and re-think, what heritage means as forms of identity inherited, but also achieving this in a dynamic process of continuous re-imagining, as a component of identity. Taking the word in its widest sense, “heritage” or “oidhreacht” can be said to embrace all those elements of Irish life, North and South, which we have inherited from the generations gone before us, and whose continuing survival into the future depends on the attitudes and actions of the present – the ‘samhlaíocht’ (‘imagination’) which we can share in such a task.
I am saddened, I must say, as I speak to know that such terrible damage to our shared heritage, North and South, has been experienced in the Mourne Mountains and in Killarney National Park. I am filled with disgust that it is the likely case that we cannot discount deliberate action as a source. Such a loss.
In recent usage, our concept of the word “heritage” has evolved and now the concept includes not only tangible heritage but also elements of our intangible living heritage, including that from the artistic and cultural spheres that include songs, poems, books and language, to that point that when we speak of heritage today, we are talking about our interaction with all of the world around us, both real and abstract, our multiple identities, and our need to tell our stories in our diverse ways.
In relation to all these aspects of heritage components, the parts of the process and experiences of lived culture, I do agree with Mark Patrick Hederman that Ireland, in one important respect, has the experiences and the qualification to position itself as a “conservatory of mythology”. In using our vast mythological archives to provide a haven for this part of ourselves, we are so much fitted to provide for Europe, and for our particular region of the world, “an oasis in the desert of unilateral thinking”, as Mark Hederman put it in his recent book, Living with Mystery.
By mythology, Hederman is referring to “a third way of truth between fiction and fact”. Such a “mytho-poetic language” as has provided, and can continue to provide, a middle voice, a third language that bridges that gap between science and the spiritual in our society. In our increasingly fragmented, polarised world, myths have the potential to retain their power, not simply as stories, but as shaping agents in society with the potential for providing cohesion. Our Cartesian period, in what we call ‘the Western World’, may have left us in a limiting cold of reason for which, may I suggest, we may need the warming of the heart.
Heritage includes an understanding of the land itself, and it is the choices as to how it is used, respected, formed, occupied, owned, that have dominated so much of the thread and difficult stitches in the long sleeve of Irish history like no other. As Philip Bull, among others, has noted, the unsettled issue of access to land, tenant security, fairness of rent, created on this island a bond between the issues of land, survival, dispossession, agrarian agitation and nationalism so powerful and pervasive that each issue, at times, could become effectively a metaphor for the other in the Irish lexicon, creating, too, a circumstance when the issues could not be allowed a separate solution, too often at the cost of those at the lowest level.
In such balances, however, George Bermingham was in no doubt which of the issues was at the forefront of thought: asking his newsagent in the late 19th century as to how the vote on Home Rule had gone in London, his Mayo shopkeeper would reply, “To Hell with Home Rule, it’s the land we’re after”.
Indeed it was to be so. Land is exhaustible, capable of being used up. Changes in usage, for example, from tillage for survival to tillage for export, to grazing, had immense and, as history shows, tragic consequences. Changes were most frequently implemented through eviction, house demolition, expulsion, occupation and defeat, not voluntary. Being driven from the land, one’s shelter torn down or burned, was a major source of dispossession, and forced, in time, those migratory flows which became key features of Irish history for many centuries. Such dispossession, as lived in memory into the modern period, can be traced in their early forms, at least as far back as the Cromwellian ‘land grants’ of the 1650s, the payments to his soldiers for the successful invasion of Ireland that would be paid for by the confiscation of estates, and land held in common.
With the Elizabethan conquest, the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland, and the organised plantations of English and Scottish settlers, the patterns of land ownership in Ireland were so fundamentally altered, with the old order of transhumance, moving from lowlands to highlands in seasonal adjustments, and open-range cattle breeding, becoming replaced by a structure of great landed estates, small tenant farmers who held precarious hold on their leases, and a mass of landless labourers who struggled to survive. Even though feudalism was not part of the Irish experience, those at the bottom experienced what were conditions of serfdom, or worse than the protected vassal of the European experience. For example, those on the lowest rung paid for a wattle shelter and a potato patch, with 200 days of labour, paid to those in the rung above them.
As to regional patterns, the custom of tenant right, commonly referred to in Victorian Ireland as the ‘Ulster Custom’, was of course a defining aspect of the land question in the north of the country. This practice, by which rural tenants claimed property rights in excess of their contracts with landlords, allowing departing tenants to exact a payment, a goodwill, as it were, above the yearly rent from those who wished to replace them in their farms, thus creating two sets of relationships between tenant and landlord. In Ulster, this was a fundamental characteristic of rural property relations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Like other earlier forms of customary tenure in Scotland and the north of England, tenant right signified the tenant’s place within a community, his or her way of belonging to its history and development and, crucially, the right of the tenant’s family to continue in possession in the future. In Ulster, the custom of tenant right came to signify the place of the tenant within a troublesome recall of colonial history. The new conditions involved the development of a commercial economy in what was a new property system, as well of course as the visual transformation of the landscape that is now very much a part of our natural heritage.
An understanding of the history and course of the land question in this period of Irish history, and its legacy, can assist us with an understanding of the early material and human basis of conflict, violence and division on the island of Ireland today. However, in relation to land and its insecurities, there were long periods of shared tenant struggle. For example, the Ulster Custom was proposed at times within the Land League in the South, and anti-rancher and anti-grazier sentiment came forth with it at times as a demand.
The Irish language, too, was shared. It is a continuous thread running through so many aspects of our heritage. It cannot be disaggregated from how, for millennia, the Irish related to, interpreted, resonated with, and shaped their and our world. Place names, folklore, literature, the natural world, culture, social customs, politics and religion were all contemplated and explored through the prism of Irish sounds.
The preservation of the spoken language is understandably, therefore, a key component of our efforts to understand and draw from our heritage. It is a language that, while having its distinct branch in the Indo-European tree, has, through usage and scholarship, taken into itself Classical and other contemporary languages, including old Middle and Modern English.
Yet, when we talk about heritage, the spoken language sometimes seems to be regarded as separate, disconnected, somehow located within a niche, the furniture or subsection of survivors or primitives rather than an integral part of our heritage in all its aspects. This has to change. It is the heritage of us all. We need champions for the Irish language in the same manner that Colmcille became a champion for the dissemination of knowledge, even disturbing knowledge that would discomfit his superiors. We need to redress a situation where what we publish as heritage policy is not available in the Irish language, an unacceptable contradiction.
In 2013, I had the privilege of making a personal pilgrimage to the island of Iona, where I was able to pay tribute to Saint Colmcille, the abbot and missionary so synonymous with Derry, and the founder of Iona island’s greatly influential abbey; a monk who valued the creation and acquisition of knowledge, but more importantly, its dissemination – values which scholars in Ireland North and South have taken to heart and have made manifest across the centuries through a commendable commitment to education and scholarship.
Colmcille, together with being the patron saint of Derry, was a towering figure in our island’s political, diplomatic, cultural, scientific and religious history. Known also as Saint Columba, Colmcille, as an important evangelist, is credited with founding his first monastery in what is now the modern day city of Derry, in the year 545, before spreading Christianity in what is today Scotland at the start of the Hiberno-Scottish mission. His foundation of Iona Abbey created the dominant religious and political institution of the region for centuries.
The legacy of scholarship which he built in Scotland and in Ireland is a profound one, a great and lasting contribution to the manuscript arts, culture and learning. The fact that Derry’s schools and churches, streets and parks, cultural and sporting clubs, still bear his name, and that Columba is held in high regard by those of all faiths and none, Protestants and Catholics alike, is testament to his emancipatory, spiritual and inclusive legacy.
In many other ways, too, he was precursor of a tradition which has run through Irish letters for millennia, a tradition of migration and the cross-fertilisation of cultures and ideas – be it the monks of early Christianity, to Joyce, whose artistic manifesto was defined through ‘silence, exile and cunning’, and beyond. That Irish tradition includes a rich Pre-Christian spirituality and creativity reflected in art and ritual, and, most importantly, in harmony with nature from which ideas of the cycles of time, planting, renewal, harvesting, passage of the soul, were drawn.
Yet, Colmcille is perhaps most well-known for his work in advancing the importance of manuscript study as a source of knowledge and education, and specifically he is noted for his notorious work on an unauthorised copy of the gospel which he hoped would promote scholarship of the church. He was one of the earliest Irish monks to engage in the practice of copying, and to have his monks at Durrow copy any teaching material that came into his possession, a practice that has since been so often cited as “how the Irish saved civilisation” given how many church books were subsequently burned during the Dark Ages.
Alas, the basis of much of Colmcille’s life’s work was to be effectively proscribed, his vision seemingly fatally obstructed in a devastating ruling against his copying of the gospels by King Diarmuid, as a breach of intellectual copyright. Not long after this judgement, Colmcille was forced to live in exile in Scotland.
The Irish people are a migrant people. It is an essential part of their culture. Culture cannot be defined or understood solely on the assumption of what is sedentary, static, yet such a paradigm exists, neglecting what is migratory, transient, transacted. It will represent one of the most important paradigm changes in Irish scholarship when we give recognition to the limitations that a static view of society or culture represents. Our lives are migrant lives, and any imposed model of assumed stasis or pre-determined structure means we miss the importance of the exciting emancipation and beauty of ‘transience’. Missed in the social sciences, it is happily not so in literature. We would not want to have missed either Ulysses or Leopold Bloom.
The history of Irish migration is older than the island of Ireland itself. Colmcille forms an early example of the tradition of forced or involuntary migration, of the Irish émigré living abroad to flee persecution, to pursue his good work, yet never turning his back on his home and heritage.
Inspired by great manuscripts which travelled from Iona to Ireland, Colmcille’s work is also an expression of how we each reflect our own heritage and culture and launch our own message into the world, and may do so in a way that may promote healing and may even be emancipatory, as was the case with Columba. It informs, what social philosopher Hartmut Rosa describes as, ‘resonance’ – the feelings we experience as we relate to the world, be it with either curiosity or fear.
As migrant peoples, we reflect on these matters perhaps more than most. Reflecting on Colmcille and his journey, and the relationship between the peoples of Ireland, and those points of destination for the émigré, requires that we think about the broader social and historical context of the tasks, challenges and prospects when we speak or organise events of commemoration.
The motivation we bring to invocations of the past is inescapably moral. The past can be the source of many and different lessons, not just in relation to what is to be found and cherished as part of our heritage, but also as to the dangers as to how it may be ransacked, used and abused to facilitate the development of stereotypes which obstruct us, hurt us, deplete and detract, or even poison our future.
The positioning or sourcing of that poison, in competing religious interpretations, is a grave abuse, a contradiction of what Colmcille and monasticism stands for; indeed, in their terms, a blasphemy, an insidious exploitation of other dimensions of division, divisions which need to be acknowledged, transacted, shared with the prospect, in good times, of understanding, even forgiveness.
Popular commemoration of the past is, of course, much more than an exercise in historical excavation. The work of historians, archivists, archaeologists and others is essential as it is through researching and presenting a factual recovery that their work can assist in furthering our comprehension of events in our past and the lives of those who came before us. When we engage with commemoration, we are inescapably entering an area that requires ethical reflection and moral courage as well as responsibility, and of course all of it achieved with the necessary courtesies of discourse aimed at a parity of narrative respected.
In the course of the present decade, the Decade of Centenaries, we are in the midst of a period of reflection in which we consider the series of transformative historical events which would affect the lives of every person on these islands, and shape our relationships for much of the past century.
In Ireland, in particular, we have already seen the centenary in 2012 of the Ulster Crisis and the signing of the Covenant, which is a foundational moment for the Unionist community. We have, in recent years, marked the centenary anniversary of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, and now we are challenged to mark subsequent events which led to independence and to partition.
In this decade of significant centenaries, we are challenged to engage with our shared past in a manner that is honest as to fact, authentic in aspiration, and inclusive in method, such as might assist in addressing and leading to a healing of conflicts that cannot be forgotten but must not be allowed, by their not being faced, to cripple our present or future possibilities. The purpose of forgiveness after all, as Hannah Arendt put it, is to remove the capacity of a past event to make us lose the present.
The complex events we recall during this decade are integral to the story that has shaped our nation in all its diversity. Issues of the fullness of context, in terms of what has been or is being taken into account or being excluded, cannot, morally, be avoided, I suggest.
I have given the title ‘Machnamh’ to a series of seminars I am organising in Áras an Uachtaráin with a range of scholars from different academic institutions. The term ‘Machnamh’ is an ancient Irish one encompassing reflection, contemplation, meditation and thought. Over the coming year, I will continue to host this series of seminars inviting reflections on the Civil War and Partition, having recently held three seminars focusing on various aspects of the War of Independence. Leading scholars from different settings, and with an array of perspectives, will share their insights on the background and context to the events of that formative period of a century ago and will also critique the nature of commemoration itself.
Through Machnamh 100, my aim is to facilitate discussions on specific themes I have chosen, seeking to explore more fully the various aspects of that period in Ireland’s journey, drawing in new scholarship, putting in those omitted, reconsiderations on where we are today, consideration of the legacies that were left as opportunity or burden for the societies and jurisdictions that were to emerge subsequently.
Machnamh is an exercise in ethical remembering, requiring us to shine a light on overlooked figures, neglected themes such as social class, comparative history and events ‘from below’. It is an attempt to have a more comprehensive, balanced and inclusive perspective on, for example, the independence struggle, the tragic civil war and the response to it, the different evolutions of two states following partition, the assumption held on different sides. We critique imperialism as well as nationalism.
A central dimension of ethical remembering is a rejection of the usefulness of conscious or unconscious amnesia, not only of persons but events. It requires the inclusion of all voices, including marginalised voices, the disenfranchised, voices from below, in our recollections of the past. For example, it must include the essential part played by women in the period that we commemorate, the role of class in rural as well as urban settings, and an openness to stories of ‘the Other’, the stranger, the enemy of yesterday. It is only through an ethical recall that we have any hope of commencing, or continuing, a process of healing on this island, our shared home.
In European philosophical writing, discussions of what is meant by ‘home’ have been greatly influenced by such seminal contributions as those which came from Martin Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard and of course Michel Foucault. A definition may be sought, they suggest, of ‘home’ as a function of what is ‘built’, what constitutes ‘dwelling’, what has meaning as ‘residence’, simply occupying space with security, a space from which one moves to participate, circulate, a space that constitutes a guarantee of security. I deal in some more depth on this theme in the chapter ‘Home’ in my recent book, Reclaiming the European Street.
Going beyond the theme of home as a set of balances, perhaps between security and freedom, home, geographically speaking, for all of us who share this island, is not merely confined to jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, for we on these islands are as much a part of Europe as any of the countries that comprise the continental European landmass. We accept, too, global responsibilities, be it for peace, justice, or the shared responsibility we have undertaken in relation to climate change, sustainable living or anticipating and preventing global conflict.
And it is here in early times that we find, in ancient Rome, even in the works of conservative members of the senatorial class, such as Cicero, a commitment to the ideal of political community founded upon solidarity, with a shared commitment to an ideal of justice, however hypocritical this may seem, given the exclusion of slaves, women and even other property-less Italian men from citizenship would later appear in the historical accounts.
This ideal of ‘home’ of course also suffused the civic life of Athens, finding its memorable expression in the Politics of Aristotle and the orations of Demosthenes. It provided a basis for an ideal of ‘home’ as a set of relationships and shared commitments, rather than a settled place, as important as place was.
In our contemporary circumstances then, questions about where and what ‘Europe’ is have featured prominently in the social sciences and humanities, as well as in political discourse, in particular since 1989 at the time of the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in the writings from the Right on the United States’ previous government’s distinction in recent times between an ‘old’ and a ‘new’ Europe.
Under discussion, too, has been the eastward expansion of the European Union, and consideration as to what might be the future shape of a European Union that might achieve, and exercise, such as values, solidarity, inclusion and something much more difficult: accountable, transparent institutions of equal strength and influence on behalf of the European Street to that of the many unaccountable, unregulated corporations who prevail, refusing even to register as lobbyists.
As to the physical definition of home, I believe that one doesn’t have to make a choice between ‘home’ – as it is defined as a region, land or history – and being European or global. ‘Migrants in time’ we are, after all, regularly reflecting, and transcending, borders in our consciousness, experiences, cultures. We are always on the move. Life is movement, conscious or unconscious.
Using journeys in pursuit of a vision as a metaphor in his book, Re-visioning Europe: Frontiers, Place Identities and Journeys in Debatable Lands, Ullrich Kockel, Emeritus Professor of Ethnology here at Ulster University, has, I suggest, explored key issues for contemporary Europe and its future development from an interdisciplinary perspective, grounded mainly in European ethnology, cultural anthropology, human geography, and political economy.
This is most valuable, perhaps, in times of a near dominating metric hubris, insufficiently appreciated work that can help us to arrive at a better understanding of how unities with difference respected can emerge, disappear, re-appear. This important work of Ullrich Kockel offers reflections concerning migration within and into Europe, boundaries, heritage and tradition, socio-economic structures, processes and change, and the role of ethnology in education and cultural practice. Professor Kockel’s book, framed and enriched as it is by personal reflections from an original, incisive and brave scholar, on changing visions of Europe, suggests how we might make a fresh envisioning of a displaced continent.
The role that political, and increasingly even more unaccountable, processes in a financialised version of economy are playing in preventing any deeper inclusive integration, in solidarity, of European societies has been so striking in recent times. The erosion of the protective role of the state has affected individual choices in several domains, as Kockel notes.
Structural constraints on citizens and groups have led to negative trends impacting on opportunities and aspirations, leading to a diminishing of social cohesion in Europe. Such lost cohesion is now seen as a potential impediment for any deeper European integration. Alternative economic theory to the failing paradigm exists. It is there, for example, in Mariana Mazzucato’s The Entrepreneurial State, or Ian Gough’s seminal Heat, Greed and Human Need.
The basis of a paradigm shift has been laid out. We must be allowed to have it taught in our institutions of higher learning. The situation in this regard is far from pluralist in either Europe or North America. Our academic institutions are well colonised with the single version, uncontested paradigm, that has failed.
Kockel’s narrative correctly emphasises, too, the important role that social actors play in the process of social, political, economic and cultural transformation in what has been an increasingly borderless Europe. Social agency is crucial. This is not about romanticising the importance of social ties or any permanent, imaginary place of belonging that Kockel calls “Heimat” (home). Rather it is about the importance of how life is experienced, what conservative sociologists in the past might have called ‘socialisation’, what Hartmut Rosa or I would call ‘resonance’ or ‘belonging’, and what political scientists might term ‘institutional constraints’. Citizens have a need for more than shelter – a need to belong, to be of a space into which intimacies have been poured.
Such institutional constraints are not mere abstractions. They represent individual and group choices. They may confirm, but also contest and, thus, make choices and memories change in social institutions, political structures and the choices of other agents, thereby facilitating dialogue and exchange of options. As Ullrich Kockel’s book makes clear, all of these have played an essential function in linking generations, transmitting social norms and ensuring political stability across Europe since the end of World War II.
The breakdown of a transcendent purpose for peace, shared fulfilment as represented by social constraints at the European level, is now driving geographically, socially and culturally disparate segments of European society apart. The sustainability of any future socially inclusive European integration is now fragile, as the late Zygmunt Bauman noted, aided by the rise of a narrow version of consumption, and of populist politics and exclusionary narratives of ‘us and them’, narratives that divide and reinforce notions of ‘the Other’ as a source of fear rather than as a source of curiosity, wisdom, experience as a fellow citizen. We have defences available, ones that could bond or help cohesion. To these narratives, for example, we might oppose the achievement for all of the measures that are in the European Pillar of Social Rights.
We tend to neglect our history, our origins. How infrequently we hear of how migration, inwards and outwards, has shaped who we are as Europeans, was the source, helped shape our influences, our values, our sensibilities. Why are we so anxious to forget how the Islamic world in Spain saved Greek philosophical thought for us which would be translated, in turn, by Irish monks, and thus help save us from Europe’s darkest period?
Europe is so much wider than the European Union as we know it, a dynamic, evolving continent. We must never forget that there was a mind of Europe and European peoples with diverse cultures long before the industrial revolution, a Europe of life and the spirit of letters, of music and philosophy, long before the Europe of coal and steel, a Europe that flourished without the over-zealous and insatiable exploitation of natural resources.
A Europe worthy of an emancipated European Street is possible. A Europe that embraces a re-balancing of ecology, economics and ethics, that champions and engenders human rights and universal access to services, that is open, inclusive, cohesive, and stands in solidarity both with its citizens and those less fortunate, is a Europe worth fighting for. Such a Europe was that as was envisaged in 1941, on their prison island, by Altiero Spinelli and Enrico Rossi when they gave us the Ventotene Manifesto. It tells you so much of how the European Union is envisaged to simply contrast the frequency of reference to either the Coal and Steel Community of Schuman with the Ventotene Manifesto.
The Europe for which we must write, agitate and work by hand and brain is one that is not just for our benefit in the European Union, but for those future generations whom we would wish had the opportunity to inhabit a peaceful, harmonious world, one supported by a sustainable vision of economy and society, one enriched by a diversity of cultures.
All of the people of Europe have a part to play in reclaiming the European street. Too often, discussions regarding closer links between members within the European Union often collapses into a narrow, purely utilitarian and economic discourse, or now frequently an exchange of dubious, unchallenged market metrics. Sometimes such takes place safe from critique within a market-dependent academia. There is an urgent need to broaden the debate towards the cultural and social spheres. This includes highlighting the inherently European quality of Irish culture and society, of the past as much as the present.
On hope and healing
As to hope and healing, then, we can only arrive at our destination when we have a deep understanding of that which has influenced us, reflected on that which have been our life assumptions as to where we are now and from where we have come. This involves such deep reflection on our past as may generate hope for the future, and go on to engage in, and with hope, achieve, a process of healing.
Our individual memory, we must never forget, is entwined with the memories of so many others. Unravelling the knots of memories, so as to unlock the power that is in such unlocking, to heal rather than divide, is challenging, can often be painful, but ultimately it is a rewarding, and even cathartic task. It is itself an action, however, that carries with it such hopeful and liberating powers beyond immediate concerns. Unravelling these knots requires acts of leadership at all levels and from disparate quarters, from all of us.
I am greatly impressed by Irish philosopher Richard Kearney’s work on healing in general, and in particular on the importance he attaches to the sense of touch and the carnal. His exposition of the Asclepian healing by sharing presence versus the Hippocratic method of application of treatment as a means to analysing the dilemma of modern medicine’s approach to healing and curing I have found to be valuable as an approach. It is insightful. If I may quote from Richard Kearney’s very recent work on trauma:
“Faced with trauma, the mind often goes into denial and proceeds as if nothing happened. Meanwhile stress hormones continue sending signals to the muscles and tissues of the body – resulting in certain forms of somatic illness. [...] No matter how much understanding the rational brain provides, it cannot “talk away” the pain. For real healing to happen, sufferers need to reintegrate the event into their felt lives: they have to move from “there” (where the trauma occurred) to “here” where they can be present to experience now.”
That is why we have an obligation with our work to move peace from paper to experience, to the texture of lives lived that carry the recalled reality of terrible loss, cruelty, humiliation and indifference. If the memory of trauma is encoded in the viscera, in heart-breaking and gut-wrenching emotions, and if communication amongst the mind, brain and visceral is the road to a form of emotional regulation, Kearney argues that this demands a radical shift in our curative assumptions, and obviously in our practices.
The body is the place where the psyche lives, both personally and communally. The implications of tactile embodiment for public health practice and policy today are many and profound. Scholars such as Kearney and Van der Kolk have gone so far as to assert that trauma is the “greatest threat to our national wellbeing.”
This is a startling claim largely unreported in official trauma statistics, which tend to focus on victims of war, genocide, natural disasters, or terrorism, while neglecting more common casualties of physical and psychic wounding found in domestic abuse, car accidents, gang-related violence, or school bullying.
Deep healing can best come, as Asclepius, the wounded demigod, knew, from awareness of the wound such as is made possible when the wounded take, are given, the opportunity to heal the wounded, when we acknowledge the primacy of deep-embodied interactions – both personal and communal. We therefore need to attempt, even metaphorically, to relive the past “tactfully in the here and now”. Only then can injured history be transformed into healing present and a future of promise.
Aristotle had privileged the sense of touch. Plato gave preference to sight for analysis and won out in Western practice. It gave us precision in definition of the illness, but at a cost perhaps of a missing dimension of the social, the shared experience beyond the individual. Asclepius had offered companionships in sharing the healing from the wounded. To the wounded of Ireland, may I suggest you can be such a strong source of healing, not only for our Island, but for our broken world.
The need for healing through “contact” is evident at the collective public level as much as the private therapeutic level. Of particular relevance here is the development of what Kearney calls a “commons of the body”, the work of communal memory which I believe holds particular resonance in post-conflict societies like Northern Ireland where enemies may come face to face and share physical space and gestures with each other, ones that can come to be a way of acknowledging and overcoming violence.
This obviously requires a need “to replace handguns with handshakes”. In the making of contact through fora such as public tribunals, victims and perpetrators of seemingly irreparable communal traumas, in their efforts to find escape from cycles of recrimination and bloodletting, victims and perpetrators can engage in a collective working through of wounds with a real sense of hope, of achieving some kind of healing which can, in time, grow.
We do need contact of flesh, I believe. To quote from Kearney’s latest book, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense:
“Wounded by a foreign body (a common trope for trauma), we become a nobody (dissociation) that requires connection with another body (healing) in order to become somebody again (recovery)”.
Richard Kearney does believe that we can, with technology, save something from what Covid has done through our loss of touch. I am less convinced – there is a difference of opinion for another day’s paper.
The themes of hope and healing are themes that the modern artistic and political artists of genius of the North-West region of this island to which I have already referenced – such as Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, John Hume and Brian Friel – understood so well.
In his Nobel Prize speech, John Hume spoke of his hope for Ireland. We can all join with him in these aspirations, at his moment of recognition and celebration he said:
“I want to see Ireland – North and South – the wounds of violence healed, play its rightful role in a Europe that will [...] be a shared bond of patriotism and new endeavour.”
Healing is also a theme that infused so much of Brian Friel’s work. In Faith Healer, as well as the theme of exile that is so fitting in the context of our discussion on Colmcille, the mysterious power of the faith healer, a power that may be interpreted as a blessing or a curse, can be seen as a metaphor for the artist, artistic power itself.
Then, of course, Seamus Heaney’s powerful The Cure at Troy, became a widely cited poem in the glow of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, and continues as an invocation, including the quotation again and most recently by President Biden in his inauguration speech, carrying, as it does, its profound and resonant message of the power of hope and healing:
“History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.”
President Biden’s offer of a moral reawakening on our global responsibilities, including how we respond to Covid-19 and climate change, global conflicts gone on too long, is so much in that spirit. May the sea-change gain strength and continue. I wish him the blessings of necessary courage.
As to scholarly work on Ireland, may I say that there is a debt, never to be forgotten, as to what we owe to the American scholarship on Ireland for at least two centuries, and particularly when at the end of the 19th and through the first half of the 20th centuries, that such scholarship filled a void in relation to the late-19th century for which we in Ireland are indebted. For the work of so many, of those who crossed the Atlantic when our research was underfunded and slow, scholars such as Samuel Clark, J.S. Donnelly, L.P. Curtis, Kerby Miller, Emmet Larkin, Barbara Solow, and so many more. Their work is where so much of the work of Ireland in the 19th century begins as source and method, and I am so glad that through the work of the A.C.I.S. it continues with such range, flair and enthusiasm.
Finally, there is also an important contemporary link between Derry and Boston in the political, cultural and economic spheres going back to the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement when Boston, and Boston College in particular, played a key role in providing a space for dialogue in the period before the ceasefires. Both John Hume and Seamus Heaney had close links with Boston College, having been awarded and having taught as Visiting Professors. We owe a deal of gratitude to Hume and Heaney and indeed to Boston College and those who facilitated their roles in the path to peace.
If we are to achieve the benefit of ethical remembrance in such a way as will lead to the creation of diverse, complex, shared memory at peace with the past in the interest of a present or future understanding, it will be important to work on the capacity to listen, to have the courage to listen to and recognise often difficult facts from our past, facts and events that, while they may be uncomfortable, painful even, constitute, however, a necessary prerequisite for any meaningful healing.
Lasting peace will only be embedded to achieve its best harvest when we each have the generosity and the empathy to recognise that we must see as our materials the common humanity of the other, including that of former enemies, to whom we accord respect of so much more than tolerance, to their differing perspectives and narratives.
For the sake of the future we will share, we must be unshackled from the snares of the past. Creating a space for forgiveness is essential and can be achieved, and it will aid the process of healing, even through contact, and will go on to enable us to live together on this shared island with our eyes on the light and loves of a shared future lived together in endless curiosity – nothing closed. Feídireachtaí gan teorainn.
As storytellers, too, we Irish through the ages know that narrative models are powerful tools for advancing peace and reconciliation. The time has come for us to use – Richard Kearney gave it to us as a concept – an ethics of narrative hospitality, a narrative which will have the capacity to replace our past entrenchments, offer hope and openness to others. By adopting such an approach, we may nurture memory and remembrance and use them as strong foundations for a shared, agreed future on what is our mutual home – this island of Ireland where the healing has to commence and endure. Whether it is that we dwell in it, recall it, care for it, or imagine it, that is our shared challenge.
Go neirí le n-ár n-iarrchtaí. Go raibh maith agaibh uilig is beir beannacht.