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ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF IRELAND, MARY ROBINSON,  AT THE STATE BANQUET

ADDRESS BY THE PRESIDENT OF IRELAND, MARY ROBINSON, AT THE STATE BANQUET HOSTED BY THE PRESIDENT OF ICELAND, REYKJAVIK

President Vigdis, Prime Minister Oddson, Chief Justice, Dignitaries

I am honoured and delighted to have this opportunity to visit Iceland.

Iceland occupies a special space in the Irish consciousness. As its "chilly misnomer" - the island of Fire and Ice - suggests, Iceland comprehends a spectrum of possibility which fuels the imagination.

From before the Age of Settlement, Irish monks and hermits had visited the island. It seems they came in search of an austere solitude the better to worship God. In settling in Iceland, where else could they have found such majestic evidence - whether Christian or otherwise - of the ongoing process of creation? Even today, the island somehow remains especially close to some primeval life giving force.

The wonder of the earliest religious settlers is captured in the works of the Irish monk Dicuil, writing in 790. He recorded the sense of awe experienced at the beauty of the Northern sky in the days around summer solstice:

"...the sun settling in the evening hides itself as though behind a small hill in such a way that there was no darkness in that very small space of time and a man could do whatever he wished as though the sun were there, and if they had been on a mountain top, perhaps the sun would never have been hidden from them."

In the 20th century, the poet WH Auden, in his "Journey to Iceland" wrote:

"Here let the citizen, then, find natural marvels, a horse-shoe ravine, an issue of steam from a cleft in the rock, and rocks, and waterfalls brushing the rocks, and among the rock birds..."

 

Auden has also spoken of "the sun colouring the mountains, without being anywhere in sight". Thus, even in our more secular times, the wondrous nature of the island continues to exercise an almost mystical influence over the imagination of the outsider.

We know that, with the coming of the Age of Settlement from 874, the Irish monks, disturbed in their austere solitude, quit the island. According to one source, they left behind "bells, books and croziers", sure signs of Irishness to the new inhabitants. Yet, among these new settlers, were, over time, certainly significant numbers of Irish.

The Age of Settlement in truth then introduced a new Irish dimension to the history of the island. The extent of that dimension is a matter of continuing research and discussion among scholars. This is an ancient trait among the Icelandic people. Historia Danica states:

"The diligence of the men of Iceland must not be shrouded in silence ... they pursue a steady routine of temperance and devote all their time to improving our knowledge of others' deeds, compensating for poverty by their intelligence."

In touching on this subject, my perspective is perhaps by the light of imagination than by the more mundane, if outstanding, process of scholarly research which distinguishes Icelandic studies. All Irish people are at once struck at the exceptionally rich literary heritage of Iceland. I need but mention the writers of the first sagas; Ari Thorgilson, the first historian to write in the vernacular; the many sided Snorri Sturluson; and the Nobel prize winning Halldor Laxness.

Given our own proud literary history, we feel qualified to judge - or at least are ready to judge! - the outstanding merit of the Icelandic achievement. I suspect our admiration stimulates our wish to seek out an Irish element to your great achievements. And, for the imagination anyway, there is sufficient evidence. In addition to the Irish names listed in the Book of Settlements (Landnamabok), there were certainly significant numbers of nameless slaves. In accordance with the 9th century prophecy of Cain Domnaigh, they had been seized "by a race of pagans, who will carry you into bondage from your own lands and will offer you up to their gods." Some were no doubt noble, more were not. All however would have been imbued with the rich and formalised literary traditions of Ireland.

Scholars are certainly agreed that, at the time of the Age of Settlement, no oral prose tradition existed in Scandinavia which could explain the creation of the sagas. Yet, such a tradition flourished in Ireland. Is it possible that the story telling abilities of the nameless Irish slaves entered into the new Icelandic consciousness? We Irish would like to think so. It would help explain the deep affinity of our two peoples. It might also explain how two small Atlantic islands, victims of natural disaster, famine and foreign domination, have nevertheless managed to maintain a distinctive vitality and creativity which are envied elsewhere.

Certainly, the Icelander's ability with words is something which even we Irish can envy. I am told a favourite poetic form today is the stokur of lausavisur - four line rhyming alliterative stanzas. I understand they can be read upwards, downwards and crossways. Whatever way they are read they make perfect sense. Often, if read backwards, their sense, remaining perfect, becomes opposite. Madame President, if this represents the level of verbal ability in Iceland, I would expect your literature students can begin study of the works of Becket and Joyce shortly after kindergarten!

I understand that some of Seamus Heaney's poems have recently been translated into Icelandic. He has written in a "Postcard from Iceland":

 

"As I dipped to test the Stream some yards away,

From a hot spring, I could hear nothing

But the whole mud-slick muttering and boiling.

 

And then by guide behind me saying,

Lukewarm. And I think you'd want to know

That luk was an old Icelandic world for hand."

 

Here, the Icelandic guide somehow senses the need of the master poet. The poet in turn seizes the guide's words and embodies them in artistic form. Is this not evidence of a deep imaginative affinity at work between the peoples of Iceland and Ireland?

As you know, much of Seamus Heaney's work has been concerned, in one way or another, with the tragedy of Northern Ireland. The British and Irish Governments have been involved in a long and difficult political process designed to lead to a comprehensive and durable settlement. We now believe that we are closer than ever before to achieving this objective. The seventeen months of peace we enjoyed from September 1994, made clear the huge desire for peace among the people of these islands. The ending of the IRA cease-fire in February of this year was a serious setback, but we have been determined to overcome it. The forthcoming negotiations, which will begin on 10 June, are intended to create a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands. They provide an historic opportunity for us all to overcome the bitterness and divisions of history in the form of a new accommodation acceptable to all sides.

Throughout this process the Government have been deeply appreciative of the support and encouragement of the international community. During times of great difficulty, the encouragement of both ordinary citizens and Governments around the world has heartened us all.

President Vigdis, in concluding, it is a pleasure and honour for me to propose a toast this evening to yourself and to Iceland. From its foundation as a nation in the Age of Settlements in the ninth century, Iceland has led the world in the development of representative, law based institutions. The significant role the Althing played in the evolution of the modern democratic state is everywhere acknowledged.

You, President Vigdis, have personally played a key role in the development of representative structures. You are the first directly elected woman head of state. Your election was therefore a landmark. As such, it was an inspiration, not just to women, but to everyone concerned that political institutions are fully representative and are seen to be so. One could argue that your election was either a quantum leap, or instead, the result of many evolving changes in society. In any event, whether evolutionary or not, you will forever stand as the origin of the species - the first elected woman head of state.

President Vigdis, I know that in your sixteen years in office you have been an outstanding representative of Iceland. You are deeply admired in my country not least for your love and knowledge of Irish life and literature. Since you first came to office in 1980, I know you have sought to bring the office of the presidency closer to the Icelandic people. This has been an inspiration for many - not least for myself.

Thus, as you step down from public office, you leave behind a proud record of achievement both at home and abroad. We in Ireland of course hope that, as a private individual, you will be able to visit Ireland again to experience and explore the affinities between our two island peoples.

May I ask you all to raise your glasses to President Vigdis.