Speech to mark the 25th Anniversary of Bóthar
Áras an Uachtaráin, Tuesday 22 November 2016
Tá fíorchaoin fáilte romhaibh ar fad chuig Áras an Uachtaráin. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le bhur bPríomhfheidhmneach David Moloney as scríobh chugam agus as cuireadh a thabhairt dom páirt a ghlacadh i bhur ceiliúradh cinn 25 bliain Bóthar. Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, tá áthas orm an deis a bheith agam mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh go pearsanta as an méad atá ar siúl agaibh chun deireadh a chur leis an ocras agus leis fíorbhochtanas ar fud na cruinne.
[You are all very welcome to Áras an Uachtaráin. May I thank your CEO, David Moloney, for writing to me and kindly inviting me to share in your celebrations of the 25th anniversary of Bóthar. As President of Ireland, I am delighted to have this occasion to thank you in person for your contribution to the elimination of the plights of hunger and extreme poverty across our world.]
I have been following the development of Bóthar for many years: I visited your offices in Limerick, and I have on several occasions in the past spoken of the important work you have been carrying out over the last two decades and a half to improve the livelihoods of some of the poorer farming families on our planet. I have, in my own time in the Oireachtas, often spoken of the awful decision some pastoralists suffering from famine had to make to kill their final herd, and of the importance of providing them with replacement stock.
Bóthar sprang, in 1991, from a sheer gesture of solidarity. It sprang from a generous and straightforward willingness to seize the opportunity of the 300th anniversary of the Treaty of Limerick to extend a hand of friendship to those in need thousands of miles away from Ireland. There were so many other things the local committee who started Bóthar could have chosen to do to mark that landmark anniversary in the history of Limerick. Yet, this small group of people decided, not just to do something for their city, but to do something – something valuable, and practical, and enduring – for others they had never met. This is an origin of which you, and all the people of Limerick, can rightly be proud.
From humble beginnings – from that inaugural 1991 operation when your founding committee, steered by such as Peter Ireton and T.J. Maher, managed to send 20 heifers to Uganda – Bóthar has grown into an organisation which, today, receives donations from all around Ireland and runs projects in 20 countries and on 4 continents in close cooperation with its partner Heifer International.
The concept behind Bóthar is a simple and powerful one. It aims at supporting impoverished farmers elsewhere in the world by providing them with livestock and the training they need to improve their livelihoods and move towards self-reliance. The recipient farming families then pass on the gift by sharing one or more of their animals’ offspring with other struggling families.
The symbolism of this multiplication of the gift along an international chain of solidarity is a compelling one indeed. It is one that has special historical resonance for us Irish, as a nation who have suffered from the horrific experience of famine, and also a nation who, at those darkest moments in our history, have received the assistance of empathetic others, including, for example, the Choctaw Indians, who raised money for the victims of the Great Famine.
The beautiful and apt name you have chosen for your organisation – Bóthar – is also one that is loaded with symbolic and historical significance. Literally, it refers to a path wide enough for two cows to pass, but it also speaks to us of a journey, of progress towards a chosen destination.
We know the crucial importance of cattle, not just to the livelihoods, but also to the culture, the poetry, the myths, as well as to matters of debt and to matrimonial and political settlements of such African peoples as the Nuer and the Dinka of South Sudan, or the Karimojong of Uganda, the country to which Bóthar sent its first heifers.
This importance of cattle in so many of the world cultures is one that is shared by Ireland. In ancient Irish history, in our literature and old laws, in our great sagas – cows are everything and everywhere. Our great epic, the Táin Bó Cúailnge, is, after all, nothing but the story of a cattle raid. And the law tract Uraicecht Becc details the payments due to various grades of poets for their production, ranging from one cow to ten cows – which also reminds us of how valuable poems were at the time!
The cow – and more specifically the cow as yielder of milk, for there are few beef-eating heroes in ancient Irish literature –, the cow, then, was the measure of everything in Gaelic Ireland, an inestimable source of prestige and power.
The most destitute of men was the one with only one cow; the wealth of the richest consisted of vast herds of them. Milk cows not only defined wealth but they were also used as currency, and they made part, if not all, of a bride price. A.T. Lucas, in his study of Cattle in Ancient Ireland, also tells us that cattle were taken to funerals and that there was a tradition of not letting calves go to their mothers after the death of an important person, so that they would join in the collective mourning and wailing. Indeed in my own collections of poetry there is a poem entitled “The Night the Red Cow Died.”
Bóthar’s path, the bridges your travelling livestock has been building between Ireland and other continents, were given the most striking of illustrations last month when an aircraft full of livestock bound for Rwanda took off from Shannon. This operation, organised to mark Bóthar’s 25th anniversary was a resounding success.
The plane, christened “Bóthar’s Ark”, was safely landed in Rwanda by Dublin senior Football manager and experienced aviator, Jim Gavin, with its precious cargo of 5,300 animals, including 37 in-calf heifers, 260 pigs, 100 goats and 5,000 chicks destined to 800 rural Rwandan families, and 3 bulls to be delivered to the Rwandan Government for its National Bovine Breeding Scheme.
May I take this occasion to thank all those whose financial contributions have made this operation possible, the farmers who donated the animals and raised them, as well as the inmates of Shelton Abbey Prison and Loughan House Open Centre, who raised almost half of the heifers as part of a “restorative justice programme.”
I understand that the animals, who were first placed in quarantine so as to allow them to adjust to their new environment – an environment quite different indeed from their Irish motherland! – will then go Rwandan farming families who have been trained to care for them. Those families will thus be enabled to start sustainable micro farming enterprises which, it is hoped, will allow them to secure their future livelihoods and come out of a situation of chronic and shattering malnutrition.
Your impressive anniversary operation is quite representative of the approach to poverty and hunger which Bóthar has been successfully developed in partnership with Heifer International. It is an approach that is in line, I am glad to note, with the principles of global sustainable development, such as they were redefined at the historic UN conference held in September 2015 at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
I am very impressed by the holistic nature of the projects developed by Bóthar and Heifer International, holding together as they do the equally important strands of food security and nutrition, increase in income and social capital, environmental sustainability, as well as gender equality.
Your primary mission is to ensure that people have enough to eat by placing livestock, seeds and farm tools and equipment with families. But all of your current projects also seek to create, or protect, the structures that can enable struggling communities to produce food in an enduring and sustainable way, by, among other things, facilitating the access of farmers to markets or encouraging their participation in cooperatives. Cow or goat’s milk, for example, is not just a rich source of nutrition, it is also a surplus that can be sold locally and generate a salutary income for the family.
You are also careful to promote farming practices that have a positive impact on the environment and that foster a relation of mutual flourishing between humans, plants and animals. In many of the farming communities you support, manure is, for example, used as a natural fertiliser, while the plants that grow on that enriched soil are used as fodder, and thus return again to the cycle to feed the animals.
I am also particularly appreciative of your sensitivity to gender equality, which is a core dimension of the new sustainable development goals. Indeed it is not acceptable that women, who produce more than half of the world’s food, are so often marginalised, excluded from decision-making on the farm and deprived of any rights to the ownership of the land.
May I conclude, dear friends, by commending you once again for your contribution to tackling that enormous contradiction to our common humanity that hunger and extreme poverty represent. I am very happy to have this occasion to congratulate each and every one of you on all that you have achieved over those 25 years, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavours.
Go maire Bóthar an leathchéad, agus le cúnamh Dé, an céad!
[May Bóthar continue with its good work for at least another quarter of a century, and hopefully longer!]
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.