“Signatures on our own Frequency” THE SABHAL MÓR OSTAIG LECTURE by President Mary Robinson
"Signatures on our own Frequency" THE SABHAL MÓR OSTAIG LECTURE by President Mary Robinson Isle of Skye 9 June, 1997
I begin this evening with words attributed to St. Columba in the version by Ulster poet, John Montague:
On some island I long to be,
a rocky promontory, looking on
the coiling surface of the sea
To see the waves, crest on crest
of the great shining ocean, composing
a hymn to the creator without rest.
To see without sadness the strand
lined with bright shells, and birds
lamenting overhead, a lonely sound.
To hear the whisper of small waves
against the rocks, that endless sea-
sound, like keening over graves.
To watch the sea-birds sailing
in flocks, and most marvellous
of monsters the turning whale.
To see the shift from ebbtide
to flood and tell my secret name;
"He who set his back on Ireland"
In these words are contained the themes I wish to address this evening. I wish to talk about our island civilisation, an ancient and shared culture, about a literature which contains a strong sense of the beauty of our natural surroundings, and a recurring theme of exile and dispossession.
Over the past days, it has been my privilege to travel in the path of Columba from his birthplace Donegal to his beloved Derry, and to his great foundation of Iona. As prince, poet and priest, he symbolises many of the links between these islands and between Scotland and Ireland. Of noble birth, he was regarded as a person of authority who could adjudicate in the political disputes between Ireland and the growing kingdom of Dalriada. As a poet, he is a representative of a society which took the role of the poet seriously. Of the stories which are told about him, two of the most famous concern literary disputes. His exile from Ireland, it is claimed, was a result of his defeat in the dispute about the copying of a manuscript. Later, at the legendary convention of Druim Ceat in 575 AD, he ensured the privileged position of the bardic order in Gaelic society, an order which was to retain its power and influence for a thousand years. As an exile for Christ, he founded Iona which was to become a great monastic settlement, the centre of the Celtic church in these islands and a beacon of learning in Europe.
These three strands of politics, learning and religion embodied in Columba are intimately linked. Pagan Celtic culture was transformed and energised by the introduction of Christianity. The Celtic oral tradition was now cultivated in writing, giving rise to the earliest vernacular literature in Western Europe. The monasteries here and in Ireland, and those founded throughout Europe in the centuries after Columba, became centres of learning and scholarship. Across Ireland and Scotland there evolved a political system which formed the framework of a common culture which flourished for five centuries. This link is encapsulated in the very name of Scotland, the land of the Scoti, of the Irish. We are the heirs to this civilisation and despite the divergence of our histories and despite the passage of turbulent centuries, we can still recognise a shared inheritance. And it is on the islands off the coasts of Ireland and Scotland that this legacy is most strongly preserved, in language, in storytelling and in music.
With invasion and with conquest, the Gaelic polity retreated and crumbled. Over the centuries, Gaelic tradition and lore were pushed to the very edges of our lands. The paths of Ireland and Scotland diverged but often crossed to create a more complex inheritance. The plantation of Ulster by settlers from Scotland defined the character and religion of that part of Ireland. The defeat of the Stuarts was calamity to Gaelic Ireland and in Irish literature there is a genre of Jacobite poetry which chronicles that sense of dispossession and loss. The Great Irish Famine one hundred and fifty years ago wrecked havoc among the Irish-speaking communities of the Western seaboard of Ireland, but also through the exodus of people from Ireland contributed to the life and development of many Scottish cities. A pattern of migrant labour was established between Scotland and the west of Ireland - from counties such as my own, County Mayo - which has lasted up to current times.
I am conscious that coming to Skye today I have followed in the footsteps of a great Irishman, Michael Davitt, whose birthplace in Mayo I visited recently for a special commemoration. He received a wonderful welcome here in May of 1887, because he had championed the cause of Skye crofters in their struggle against the island's landlords.
These are common experiences which marked forever the history and development of our nations. Even though we may have different perspectives on the turbulent events which shaped us, we cannot deny the way in which they have bound our destinies. This past still determines today the links between our countries and the comings and goings of our people.
I hope that in considering our past, we can recognise what we have in common and cherish that. So often the past has been seen as a source of division and dissension, and has served to underscore religious and political differences. When I became President of Ireland, I spoke of a province of our imagination, a common ground on which we could come together and celebrate what we share. Perhaps we can create an island space for ourselves to celebrate what Scotland and Ireland share. I am particularly conscious that this may enable people of both traditions in Northern Ireland to reclaim parts of their inheritance which have been denied them. Too often, in an Irish context, Celtic or Gaelic culture has been identified with Catholicism and nationalism, which has had the effect of inhibiting those of the Protestant and unionist tradition from claiming part of their inheritance. It is surely time to insist that our past and our culture is rich, varied and complex: that it cannot be resolved into narrow, sectarian compartments and that it is open to each of us to claim what is rightfully ours. In doing so, we do not deprive anyone else of their share: it is a something that grows and strengthens as more people partake of it.
And is it not perhaps a paradox that the island way of life which is central to what we share had been consigned by our histories to the margins of our countries and that it is only in recent decades that we have been able to reclaim this precious part of our inheritance ? In Ireland, the fascination with our island cultures can be traced back to the turn of this century and formed an integral part of the Irish literary revival. W.B. Yeats urged John Millington Synge to go to the Aran Islands "to express a life that has never found expression" and Synge created something new in his dynamic fusion of Irish speech patterns and the dramatic form. This fascination with island life is an enduring feature of our writers and can be seen most recently in the play The Cripple of Inishmaan by a young playwright Martin Mc Donagh which has met critical acclaim.
The revival in interest in the Irish language and the culture of the islands led to the recording of the memories of islanders which are compelling and inspiring records of island life and have become classics of modern oral literature: Tomas Ó Criomhtháin's An tOileánach (The Islandman), Muiris Ó Suilleabháin's Fiche Blian ag Fás and Peig Syers' memoirs. What is striking about these accounts is that they are not written by outsiders but by islanders. They describe the harshness of island life, and the courage and humour of a resourceful people in the face of adversity. They are lasting monuments to a vibrant oral tradition which preserved and transmitted an ancient love of language and storytelling.
The relationship of language to the development of modern Irish culture has been an enduring preoccupation of the writers and commentators. There has been a real sense of loss of tradition and learning, counterpoised by a desire to find an assured voice for a modern world. Inevitably there has been a tension in this process, but one which in my view is a healthy and creative one. John Montague expresses the sense of loss and regret in his poem A Lost Tradition:
"All around, shards of a lost tradition:........"
"The whole landscape a manuscript
We had lost the skill to read
A part of our past disinherited......."
This theme of loss illustrated in the anglicisation of our placenames has been explored dramatically too by the northern playwright, Brian Friel, in his play Translations, and I am sure that it is one to which a Scottish audience will respond sympathetically.
I am struck that there is another island place of pilgrimage that has inspired several very different Irish poets in this century to explore their cultural inheritance, that is Lough Derg, a sacred site before Iona and, no doubt, one before the coming of Patrick to Ireland. Patrick Kavanagh, Denis Devlin and most recently Seamus Heaney have all written about the island. In Station Island, published in 1984, Heaney confronts his demons, the ghosts which make up his cultural, political and religious identity. At the end of the sequence, there is a resolution of sorts when the poet is upbraided by James Joyce - the conqueror and coloniser par excellence of the English language:
That subject people stuff is a cod's game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.
You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it's time to swim
out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements
elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea......
This seems to me to be a voice of maturity and self-belief, finally marking an acceptance of the past while looking forward to the shining possibilities presented by the future. In the past, it seems to me, there was a dichotomy between those who saw modernity as a threat to the preservation of traditional values and culture, on the one hand, and those, on the other, who regarded tradition as inhibiting and parochial. We now are offered a liberating resolution to this dilemma, whereby tradition is enhanced by a modern idiom.
I see evidence of this liberation in every sphere in Irish life, a new mood of self-confidence which is invigorating and refreshing. I see young people who are at home in traditional and in modern idioms and who refuse to deny the validity of either. I see a cross-fertilisation of styles, whether in dance or in music, which has found a new popularity not only in Ireland but also around the world. I read writers who are versed in traditional learning but who are equally immersed in an emerging global culture and find no contradiction in this.
The reasons for this new sense of confidence are complex. Some of the factors are due to a young population. Some are due to rapid economic growth. I believe, however, that the single most important factor politically and psychologically, has been our experience as a member-State of the European Union. In committing ourselves to Europe, we found that our Irish identity was, if anything, enhanced. The experience of interaction with other European States on a basis of equality helped our national self-confidence and heightened our awareness of the value of our distinctive contribution to European culture and civilisation. I think the secret of this has lain in the way the European Union has altered our sense of where our centre lies, allowing us not only to redefine in a healthy way our relationship with our larger neighbour but to see the worth of what lies at the margin.
This offers great hope for the future. I remain profoundly optimistic about the survival of Gaelic culture in Ireland. Not only have official attitudes changed but so too have public attitudes. This is evidenced, for example, in the number of school-children now attending Irish-speaking schools and in the way in which modern means of communication are being used to promote and preserve the language. Radió na Gaeltachta has recently marked its twenty-fifth anniversary and in the past year Teilifis na Gaeilge has been established.
I know the experience in Scotland has not been directly comparable to that of Ireland but I have a real sense here too of change and renewal. In this process, Sabhal Mór Ostaig and ultimately the University of the Highlands and Islands will have a vital role to play in expressing a life which is yet to find expression and in filling the element with signatures on your own frequency, echo soundings, searches, probes, allurements, elver gleams in the dark of the whole sea. In that experiment, I wish you well with all my heart.
For the future, Ireland and Scotland have much to learn from each other and to share. There are no two countries in western Europe which are as close: not only in a shared past but also in what we have in common today. I am reminded of the words of Sorley MacLean, whose passing last year we mourn deeply, that great poet who loved this island so well. He described the bond between us in words that say it all:
Nach do reub an cuan
Nach do mhill mile bliadhna
That the ocean could not break
that a thousand years has not severed.