Overseas Global Conference of the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas
Remarks by President Higgins at the Overseas Global Conference of the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas, Burlington Hotel, Dublin, Thursday, 22nd March, 2012
Dia dhíbh a chairde. I am delighted to join you this morning at the start of the overseas global conference of the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas. I would like to thank Jane Donnelly and the American Women’s Club of Dublin for their kind invitation and to extend a warm welcome to all of you who have travelled to Ireland for this important conference.
The emigrant experience is deeply embedded in the Irish psyche. We have long been a people open to the world. Innumerable Irish people have made the journey across the Atlantic – often driven by the force of adverse circumstances – and the thriving Irish communities throughout North America are testament to the opportunities afforded to Irish migrants in their new homelands, as well as to their adaptability and resilience. Today, as a result of these ties of kinship and affection, Ireland enjoys the support and solidarity of millions of people of Irish heritage and friends of Ireland throughout the United States. As we tackle the current and urgent challenge of economic recovery, our global Irish family is one of our most valuable and cherished resources.
In recent days, we have all seen media images of the depth of interest and support that exists in the United States towards Ireland. From Capitol Hill to the White House and from Wall Street to Main Street, there is huge sense of goodwill to Ireland; there is appreciation and respect for the historic contribution that Ireland and its people have made to the building of America and a sincere desire to assist us in navigating our way out of the current economic crisis. Ireland is indeed very fortunate to have such a good friend as the United States; it is a friendship that we value and that is constantly being renewed and refined with each succeeding generation. And while it is a friendship in which we feel comfortable and familiar, it is never taken for granted and is always cherished and appreciated.
The people in this room know better than anybody the value of friendship – of a friendly face, a warm welcome and a place to begin when you uproot and leave home for a new life, whether temporary or permanent, in a new country and culture. American women and their families are indeed fortunate that, wherever they go, they are likely to find themselves not too far from a society or club made up of people with whom they share a language, culture and identity. I am delighted to see the representatives of so many such clubs from around the world here in Dublin today. On behalf of the Irish people – not least those involved in the tourism industry – I extend to you all a very warm welcome – céad mile fáilte.
The experience of the migrant’s life has perhaps been insufficiently noted in the social sciences. Adapting to a new culture and a new way of life can be massively exciting but also very challenging. The resources that your societies provide to the newcomer who might be grappling with local customs, striving to adapt to a new neighbourhood or simply feeling the pangs of homesickness are invaluable and the ready network of friendship, professional contacts and camaraderie you offer are of great benefit for your new members. Whether it is finding a job, finding a school for your children, learning a new language or learning to drive on the other side of the road, the challenges are multiple and it is a relief and a reassurance to follow in the footsteps of those who went before and learn from their experiences and the acquired wisdom that can cut through the confusion and point you in the right direction. Networks are invaluable and friendship networks have replaced family networks in many instances.
What is remarkable about the societies represented here today is their entirely voluntary nature. There is no obligation on any of you to establish, join, sit on the board of or contribute to your local society. You do so because you understand the value of the friendship, support and solidarity offered by your groups. You understand that by joining together, you can benefit from the experience and wisdom of others and that your collective voice can be a strong force for change and for improving the world. There is a saying in the Irish language ‘ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine’ – meaning we live in one another’s shadow.
As expatriates living in an unfamiliar land, you know better than anybody that you live in the shadow of your homeland, as well as in the shadow of your adopted country; but this is not to say that you live shadowed, darkened lives! On the contrary, striving to draw the best from your homeland of birth and your current home, your life is enriched by this exposure to new cultural and social experiences.
As you gain mutual support from US citizens in the same situation as you and embrace with enthusiasm and respect the new culture, you epitomise another Irish proverb,
‘ní neart go cur le chéile’ – unity is strength. One of the things that makes Ireland a very special place to live and work is our strong sense of community, a value that
I know is shared in North America. The women gathered in this room today are the embodiment of a sense of community and of the possibilities that arise when a group of people take a positive decision to contribute to and strengthen community spirit. I thank each of you for the wonderful contribution you make to your adopted community and for the solidarity you show towards each other.
As people who make it their business to be welcoming, you have certainly picked the right city for your conference. Dublin is renowned for its hospitality and welcome and I hope that over the course of your few days here you’ll feel right at home. I know that wherever you are in the world, one of the key features of American women’s clubs is a focus on culture, heritage and creativity. Dublin, as one of only five UNESCO cities of literature worldwide, will no doubt offer plenty to occupy the spare time of those attending this week’s conference. The same imagination and creativity that has spawned our store of great writers and playwrights also inspires business innovation, technology and research and, in recognition of this, Dublin has been designated as the 2012 European City of Science. Indeed, those of you who were here for last Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin may have noted a thematic emphasis on science in some of the presentations.
We in Ireland cherish our close and multifaceted relationship with the United States and the American people. That relationship is renewed, revived and reworked in each generation, with links forged through family, culture, the economy, education, migration and history. Successive US administrations played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process and our island today enjoys a peace unknown to previous generations. Irish culture is celebrated throughout the United States and we in Ireland have also embraced the very best of American culture here. What is particularly worthy of celebration is the cross-fertilisation that has occurred between Irish and US culture – for instance, the way that Irish traditional music and roots and bluegrass in the United States have mutually influenced and enriched each other.
And while Gaelic sports clubs are well established in the USA – the New York board of the GAA celebrates its centenary in 2014 – American sports are taking increasing hold here; later this year American football returns to our shores in a spectacular way as Dublin plays host to the fiercely contested Navy-Notre Dame match.
Some people in this room may feel that the viewing of American football already consumes a disproportionate amount of time in their households; a similar complaint might be made by many on this side of the Atlantic in regard to the pre-eminence of soccer. Nevertheless, I think we can all understand that for the migrant in a far-flung land, gathering to share a national sporting event from back home has a remarkable unifying power and provides a unique opportunity to celebrate our heritage. And for the Irish spectator, the sight of a quality American football match in our national stadium will be very colourful and exciting – even if we are baffled by the technical complexity of the game.
Our transatlantic relationship is also of vital important for the Irish economy. Since Ford Motors opened a tractor manufacturing plant in Cork in 1917, leading US companies from pharmaceuticals to Facebook, have chosen Ireland for their European base and today there are 100,000 Irish people employed by US multinationals in Ireland. As a country with a young, highly-educated, flexible and hard-working population, the only English-speaking member of the Euro zone and a gateway to the European single market of 500 million consumers, it’s no surprise that US companies see the advantages of investing here.
What is less well known however is that Ireland is a significant investor in the US, and Irish companies employ 82,000 people across all fifty states, so the relationship is very much one of mutual benefit. This flow of foreign direct investment is not just measured in dollars or Euros but also in the very real impact that these thousands of jobs created by our close economic links have on families and communities throughout the US and Ireland. In times when unemployment is an issue of concern to so many Irish and US citizens, we are deeply conscious of the importance of the transatlantic economic links that help support jobs and families on both sides of the Atlantic.
A key feature of the American Women’s Club of Dublin and all the societies represented in the Federation of American Women’s Societies is your passionate desire not only to look after your own members but to give back generously to your adopted communities and to promote the rights and interests of women everywhere. Through your philanthropy, you champion causes as diverse as access to clean water for families in the developing world, support for children with disabilities, access to education or emergency relief in disaster situations. I am particularly pleased to see that your conference here in Dublin will include speakers on issues of such key importance as domestic violence and sexual assault, as well as a focus on the Federation’s Target Water project.
Women disproportionately carry the burden of poverty. Here in Ireland as well as internationally, it is recognised that female-headed households are among the poorest of households. The UN Agency for Women tells us that women lag far behind men in access to land, credit and decent jobs, even though a growing body of research shows that enhancing women’s economic options boosts national economies. Often macroeconomic policies ignore, or worse, undermine gender equality and women’s capacity to discharge their many roles. Buvinic has argued that “the vicious cycle of poverty that unfolds when women work more and earn less and children, as a result, get less food and maternal time, is both commonplace and hard to break and that this feminisation of poverty must be considered a legitimate foreign policy concern”.
Ireland’s official overseas development aid programme, Irish Aid, recognises that equitable access to sanitation, potable water and safe hygiene are essential for poverty reduction. I am therefore very pleased that the Federation has chosen to target its efforts in this direction, making a real life-enhancing and life-changing difference to the lives of families in the developing world. Indeed, the area of international development is yet another example of excellent Irish-US cooperation as our two governments Action to Scale up Nutrition. This joint initiative aims to prevent the irreversible effects of under-nutrition on children during the critical 1,000 days between pregnancy and age two and, through its focus on maternal and infant nutrition, makes a life-long impact on the health and well being of children in the world’s poorest countries.
Ireland’s participation and leadership role in this initiative is informed by our historical experience of hunger, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of Irish people leaving this country in the nineteenth century to seek a new life in America. In the 19th century, the United States provided a refuge and a new home for those thousands of Irish people who fled from famine and poverty. In the 21st century, Ireland and the United States are working together as leaders in the fight against maternal and infant malnutrition
– a partnership of which both countries can be very proud.
Finally, I’d like to extend a particular word of congratulations to all the current and past members of the American Women’s Club of Dublin on the fortieth anniversary of their foundation in 1972 and applaud them for hosting this week’s important conference in Dublin. For forty years, the members of the American Women’s Club of Dublin have been organising all manner of events from bridge clubs to book clubs, coordinating the professional women’s network or encouraging philanthropy. In between the hill walks, the supper clubs, the craft groups and the coffee-with-kids group, these women leaders have had a phenomenal impact on the lives of American women, their families and their new home communities in Ireland.
Whether at governmental level, through economic exchanges or at the level of close, personal links forged between our two peoples, Ireland’s relationship with the US is of crucial importance to us. It is strengthened and deepened by the warm friendly exchanges typified by your visit to Dublin. I wish the members of the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas well in your important discussions and I hope that in your few days in Dublin, you will share information, learn from each other and be reinvigorated in your valuable leadership role in your adopted communities.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.
© 2012 Áras an Uachtaráin