Speech at a Garden Party for Representatives of Ireland’s Island Communities
Áras an Uachtaráin, 20 June 2017
The boundless sea, which those of you who are fishermen or who work on the ferry services know so well, is the element that connects us to our deep identity as an island civilisation.
Tá fáilte agus fiche romhaibh ar fad go hÁras an Uachtaráin. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sibh ag baint taitneamh as bhur gcuid ama sa ghairdín tar éis an aistir fhada atá tógtha agaibh le bheith linn tráthnóna. Agus do thug sibh an dea-aimsir libh.
Sabina and I are delighted to welcome you all to Áras an Uachtaráin. I have had the great fortune, in my various public roles, including a period as the Minister responsible for the islands, to undertake many visits to our islands, and I have developed a deep respect and appreciation for island life – a life lived in dialogue, and sometimes in confrontation, with sea and sky, waves and wind; an existence at times austere and vulnerable, but always heightened by the strength of close community ties, and blessed by landscapes of astonishing beauty.
Tá cuimhní geala agam ar mo chuairteanna ar na hoileáin, agus tá áthas orm mar Uachtarán na hÉireann an deis seo a bheith agam inniu fáilte a chur romhaibh, pobail na n-oileán agus na daoine siúd a thacaíonn libh sna h-eagrais éagsúla atá linn chomh maith.
Is chuimhin liom go maith an céad uair a léigh mé focail Mháirtín Ó Direáin ina dhán, ‘An tEarrach Thiar’:
Ag maidí rámha
Currach lán éisc
Ag teacht chun cladaigh
Ar ór-mhuir mhall
I ndeireadh lae;
San Earrach thiar.”
Máirtín Ó Direáin’s poem evokes those long, calm island evenings, with spring giving way to summer, where all is well and there is nowhere to compare. It is the experience of Winter however, that islanders of all generations may have easiest recall and where the obligations of policy arise and too often are insufficient.
Anuraidh, bhí deis agam féin agus ag Saidhbhín a bheith libh le haghaidh comórtas peile na nOileáin, thiar ar Inis Meáin. Is íontach an lá a bhí againn, le fir agus mná cróga na n-Oileáin, in iomaíocht dáiríre lena chéile, ach le meas agus tuiscint ar a chéile chomh maith.
It was such a pleasure for Sabina and I to be with you at the Islands Football competition on Inis Meáin last summer. We had such a great day and witnessed the terrific, competitive but good-tempered games involving the young, and some not so young, men and women of many of our offshore islands. It was also an opportunity for me to be updated on the challenges facing islanders and I am all too aware of current concerns.
I know that many of you have made long journeys to be with us this afternoon, and I thank you very sincerely for that. I realise that for many this is a particularly busy time of the year, and I am grateful for those of you that have come.
We have representatives from 24 Islands. Including Achill and Valencia, which are, I suppose, semi-detached, but you are welcome nonetheless. I am so pleased that we have friends here from Rathlin Island and also representatives from Ionad na mBlascaod. Tá fáilte romhaibh.
The boundless sea, which those of you who are fishermen or who work on the ferry services know so well, is the element that connects us to our deep identity as an island civilisation. It is the natural highway our ancestors navigated so extensively, binding us to other lands near and far, weaving the threads of the ancient cultures we share with Scotland, Wales, other parts of Britain, the edges of Europe and beyond, ancient bonds deeper and more important than the divergence of recent histories.
We can think of the circulation of Irish monks between islands, of Saint Colmán and Saint Finan departing the island of Lindisfarne, the former to settle on Inis Bó Finne, off the Mayo coast, and the latter on Church Island, across the bay from Skellig Mhíchíl, in Co. Kerry.
That human story of places, spaces and migrations of which all of you are the descendants and custodians, continues to exist, while you seek of course to adapt to new realities, opportunities and challenges. It would be a tragic loss and it is unacceptable that the island way of life, which is so central to Irish culture, drift to the margins of our history and public policy.
We should surely be able, as a country, and as a Member of the European Union, to harness the great possibilities offered by new modes of transportation, new telecommunications technologies, such as satellite communication and fibre-optic broadband, the development of teleworking, the advances of renewable energies, eco-tourism, and a revived awareness of the value of sustainable farming and fishing, so as to support vibrant human communities on our offshore islands.
Nothing is inevitable. The loss of sustainable island life is not inevitable. The recent decline in many of our islands’ populations is a challenge to be addressed. More accurately, it is the result of a series of challenges not having been adequately addressed. However, with the required political will, ambition and imagination, we can, I believe, turn the tide. Intervention is needed – intervention conducted in dialogue with islanders and their representatives.
The issues facing islanders today are well-known. They have to do with transportation and access, the provision of adequate infrastructure and of suitable ferry and air services. They have to do with the provision of basic services: medical care, social and childcare services, energy, sanitation and proper waste-management systems.
Then too, sustainable economic development must be a priority: the maintenance of farming, fishing and biodiversity. Education and the adequate resourcing of primary and secondary schools on the islands are equally vital.
Caithfimid, ag an am céanna, tacaíocht a chur in áit do chultúr teanga na nOileáin. Maraon leis na Gaeteachtaí ar an mór-thír, is seod agus acmhainn sóisíalta faoi leith í go bhfuil an Gaeilge beo i gcónaí ar roinnt mhaith d’ár n-oileáin. Ach tá tacaíocht uaithi.
Many of those challenges are, in fact, similar, if at a more urgent scale, to those facing Ireland’s mainland rural communities. And all of those challenges are intimately related – the presence or absence of any single element can make the difference between sustainable, healthy communities or communities in decline. They call for a holistic, all-of-government, development strategy for our offshore islands, as for rural Ireland, and such a policy should, above all, have a flexibility that acknowledges the uniqueness of different island experiences and aspirations.
We cannot accept that some of our islands be left cut-off from the mainland during several weeks in the year, nor is it simply an adequate response to request that some islanders move to the mainland so as to avail of the right to public housing. Neither is it a normal pressure of living that entire families be left with no choice but to move away from their island rather than send their children to live-in bed and breakfast accommodations on the mainland during the school year.
In relation to health, one needs only to think of the distress experienced by pregnant women, older people and those in need of urgent medical care on those islands without a resident nurse or doctor; or the loneliness of winter months spent without children on those islands where schools have been closed, to realise that this state of affairs is not acceptable.
Island life has an intrinsic worth which cannot be assessed simply in population size or financial cost or touristic consumption. It has a value that can only be measured adequately by the fullness of the experiences which all of you derive, day after day, from your lives as islanders. It has a value which lies in the extraordinary sense of freedom and security enjoyed by children on the islands. It has a value which should be assessed in light of the exceptional natural life the islands harbour: the distinctive flora that feeds off the winterage of cattle in the dry fields, the nesting of guillemots, cormorants and storm petrels in their cliffs, and the visits of seals, dolphins and basking sharks to their shores.
That richness of island life expresses itself, too, in the beautiful Irish language spoken on some of our islands. It has infused the memoirs of Tomas Ó Criomhtháin, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Peig Sayers and the work of Liam O’Flaherty, Peadar O’Donnell, Brendán Ó hEithir. It shines in the writings of all those, from Ireland and abroad, whose imagination was captured by the islands: Synge, O’Malley, Heaney, ina measc, but also, for example, Graham Greene and Heinrich Böll, whose cottage on Achill Island is now a residence for artists.
I suggest, a chairde, that we should build on the profusion of initiatives, public and private, which already contribute to sustaining and strengthening our island communities, so as to craft, together, a generous and daring vision for the future of our islands.
I am thinking of projects such as the EU funded “Aran Life” on the three Aran islands, where farming communities are known to have lived for over 4,000 years. Such projects, more than mere conservation enterprises, are the future of sustainable communities. A future which will draw on new and responsible cross-fertilisations between our natural environment, science and local knowledge.
And each of our offshore islands is different, and their communities are different, with different needs and development paths appropriate to themselves. There can be no on size fits all approach.
In achieving that great collective task, I know that Ireland can rely on all of you here today, who know the value of island life and who are determined to perpetuate it: You are fishermen, farmers, teachers, nurses, civil servants and entrepreneurs. You are engaged in the tourism industry, shop keepers, members of cooperatives and development companies. You are builders, scientists, vets, people who bring letters, water and electricity to the islands, who maintain roads and piers and who supply ferry and air services – to all of you I, as Uachtarán na hEireann, extend my support and my most sincere thanks.
Cinnte, tá áthas orm an deis seo a bheith agam inniu le mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil le gach aon duine agaibh as an méid a dhéanann sibh ar son beocht ár bpobail oileán. Guím gach rath oraibh a chairde.
Mar fhocal scoir, may I thank all those who have worked so hard to make this afternoon a memorable occasion for all of us. A big thank you to our MC, Sean Rocks, and to the talented musicians and artists who have so generously performed for us today: Mícheál Ó Catháin, Tara Viscardi, Meadhbh O'Rourke, the “In tune for Life Orchestra”, the Dublin Ukulele Collective, Colm ÓhArgáin, Fergal Ó Murchú and Éadaoin Ni Mhaicín, Conal Duffy, Skippers Alley, Odd Socks and Jerry Fish.
Could I also thank Dee Rogers who is the maestro of our entertainment programme and draws all elements together with such style. Molaim é.
On your behalf and my own, I also salute the work, unfailing good humour and – not least – culinary skills of all the staff here in Áras an Uachtaráin. These are the biggest events in the Áras calander and all shoulders are put to the wheel to ensure that our guests have a memorable day.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh uile agus bainigí taithneamh as an cuid eile den lá linn.