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A Dhaoine Uaisle,

Dia is Mhuire, is Pádraig, is Bríd agus is Colmcille, dhíbh, go léir.

My thanks to the President of St Columb’s College, Father Eamon Martin for the invitation that brings me back to my mother’s birth county and my first visit to the illustrious St. Columb’s College in this year when it celebrates its 125th birthday.

 So many lives and times are contained within that one hundred and twenty-five year narrative, too many to do true justice to, even in a year of celebration and yet it is important that we gather in memory, in celebration, in gratitude and for some even in grief.

For many young men this was more than a school, it was also a home from home, a place of faith and formation, of empowerment and befriending. They wore the same uniform but each was and is the most unique of individuals. No two came with the same mix of gifts, talents, personality or character. No two went the same life’s journey. Some sailed through school without a care in the world.  Some found the discipline and loneliness a hard journey. Others faced burdens too heavy for young shoulders. Few schools can boast of one Nobel Laureate never to mind two but it was one of those Laureates, Seamus Heaney, who at the age of fourteen made the long and lonely journey home to face the sudden death of his four year old brother Christopher.  That event was to crystallize years later in his poem “Mid-Term Break” which revealed delicately and powerfully the inner bewilderment of a young man on the threshold of adulthood. 

Over a century and a quarter many thousands of students and teachers have lived and worked and studied in each other’s shadow. Some loved the school, some hated it. Through the ups and downs, bad days and good, the strap and the, at times, less than appetising food described so movingly by Bishop Daly in his memoir “Mister are you a Priest?” a massive store has grown of long forgotten sincere, well intentioned care for one another which it is important to call to mind in these righteously sceptical times. That legacy constitutes not just a towering investment in the formation and empowerment of the individual young men of St. Columb's but a profound contribution to this city, this county and this country. And more than that- for wherever life took the past pupils and it took them to every corner of the world, they carried not just the name of their school but the imprint of its values and its vision. Those one hundred and twenty-five years have not dimmed nor have they changed those values and that vision - they run like a ramrod through the vicissitudes of history, the changing, often convulsive times through which each generation of young men live, including changes in the school culture itself as old ways of doing things gave way to new.

Which of us would wish to have been there back in 1879 when St. Columb’s first opened its doors to fifty pupils.  It would be easy to characterise the times as post-Famine but for one detail so often overwhelmed into oblivion by the scale of devastation wreaked by the Great Famine or the Great Starvation as some have called it. 1879 was also a famine year in Ireland. It would also be easy to characterise these as post-Catholic Emancipation times except of course that even the drastically restricted right to vote which Daniel O’Connell and the first mass peaceful protest in world history, managed to obtain, did not extend to women- any women. Women of all religions and none would have to wait another forty years before they could vote in Ireland and fifty before they could vote in the United Kingdom. Their great champion would be a woman married in that year of 1879, Emmeline Pankhurst and she, her feminist husband Robert, and her daughter would know street violence, imprisonment, official oppression in their pursuit of equality for women- an idea whose time has at last come but whose potential has yet to be fully comprehended or realised even yet.

If those times seem remote from ours, so remote as to be almost disconnected, take a look at some of the names born in the same year that this school came into being, on the site of the ancient Columban monastic settlement, in a colonial, pre-democratic world where the notion of the right of every human being to dignity, respect and equality were regarded as subversive nonsense.  A very happy mother was nursing her infant son, the man we know as Padraig Pearse and the leading Irish revolutionary of the 20th century. The great Donegal man Isaac Butt, founder of the Home Rule Movement had just died and the mantle of leadership was to pass to Parnell who along with Michael Davitt founded the National Land League to fight for justice for the beleaguered Irish tenant farmers. The newspapers of the day throughout the western world were full of the trial of Davitt and his two colleagues for an allegedly inflammatory speech he had given at Gurteen, Co. Sligo.  They were known as “The Gurteen Three” and the collapse of their trial spelt the end of feudal landlordism in Ireland. It infused Irish nationalism with a new energy that would in time bring that infant Padraig Pearse and another baby born that year in Cork, Terence McSwiney to early graves in circumstances which comprehensively shaped the times and places we inhabit. 

In that same year in another part of Europe another young man was born. At about the age of today’s GCSE students he wrote… “I imagine myself becoming a teacher… in the natural sciences…. Here are the reasons which lead me to this plan. Above all it is my disposition for abstract and mathematical thought and my lack of imagination and practical ability.” Before the scientists and particularly the science teachers among you take umbrage, the young man was of course Albert Einstein who was also to dramatically change the trajectory of science and history. And to the far north of his German home, in Georgia, Russia was born in the same year the man who would make one of the biggest contributions to the saving of Europe from Hitler’s wicked domination, Joseph Stalin, whose rapid metamorphosis into a murderous Communist dictator wrecked the lives of millions from the Baltic to the Mediterranean right up until the present day. If you watched the Day of Welcomes at Áras an Uachtaráin on May 1st last when we welcomed ten new member states into the European Union, for eight of them, the stranglehold of that man born in 1879 did not end until the 1990’s.

But thank God for Thomas Addison who in that fateful year managed to switch the lights on for the first time to let us see how miserable, complex, unfair and unjust our world was.

It was a world in need of champions to take on the causes of the poor, the unrepresented, the voiceless, the overlooked. It was a world where such champions needed a courage beyond the normal parameters of human frailty. They needed a restless curiosity about the world, a hunger for things to be better, a faith beyond themselves to give them heart and hope. They found it in the uncompromising motto of this school – “Seek First the Kingdom of God”.  The education offered here built on that cornerstone and it produced champions of world renown and global impact. It produced the most accomplished Irish statesman of his generation, John Hume, the man who more than any other assumed the mantle of O’Connell, reenergizing the constitutional non-violent pursuit of human rights and coming the closest ever to reconciling the two traditions in Irish nationalism, the armed tradition and the O’Connell tradition, - by persuading the former that the latter had a vast power and potential which violence only served to inhibit. Here he is a St. Columb’s man and Derryman, as at home in the most modest house in this city as in Washington’s White House, as easy to talk to as the postman, as vitally important to the course of Irish history as St. Columb was to Doire Colmcille. John Hume’s life and times, his unique political and social vocation are living proof of our daily connectedness to those seemingly far off times and people. What they did, what they failed to do shaped us and shackled us, giving us a preamble to our very lives which is inescapable but which does not have to be the unaltered preamble for the next generation also. Wisdom, experience and the breath in our bodies give us moments full of opportunities to change the pathway to the future and education, if we are lucky, gives us the confidence to be masters and mistresses of our own destiny.

To day, we look in awe at John and his contemporaries in St Columb’s College - so many giants in so many very different spheres, some names well known inside their professional worlds, others household names like Phil Coulter, Bishop Edward Daly, Seamus Deane, Mark Durkan, Brian Friel, Seamus Heaney, tAthair Brendán O Doibhlin; and Martin O’Neill - each name eloquent testimony to a job well done by pupils, parents, teachers and management in the  “education for life” community that is St. Columb’s.

I have taught St. Columb’s boys in Trinity College and in Queens University. I have written the citations for their honorary degrees, presided at the opening of buildings and scholarships and awards in their names. There is no denying the remarkable legacy which sits as both an inspiration and a challenge to those who wear the uniform today and who will wear it tomorrow.

I have also watched, with some envy, the friendships that blossomed between rival footballers and hurlers from my native County Antrim and my mother’s native County Derry when they all landed into Queens together as undergraduates and the vanities of school team rivalries gave way to a shared loyalty to their new Alma Mater. My husband Martin’s closest friends today and mine, are two St. Columb’s men whose lives we have shared for over three decades now - rock solid men of firm faith, fun, integrity and loyalty, the kind that lasts a lifetime, first class ambassadors for a first class school. 

In this age of the mobile phone, the iPod, the World Wide Web, of easy global communications we still need good leaders and good friends above all else, people who seize the day and people who make the day memorable, maybe even tolerable. For all the remarkable innovations in science and technology the world most urgently needs remarkable people, people who give their best in the service and development of their own talents and then put them generously at the service of their families, their communities and their country. They are needed more than ever in these times when the tectonic plates of history have shifted demonstrably and the opportunity exists to “fill the centuries arrears” to quote a poet who did not go to this school - John Hewitt. We need strong, confident men and women unafraid of making a decent contribution to civic discourse and to civic society. Its about more than having opinions and airing them, it is also about living them, in lives that integrate a humanly decent value system and it starts long before the right to vote. There is a saying – you should test your friends before you need them. 

Those citizens of tomorrow, the parents of tomorrow, the graduates, the professionals, the work colleagues of tomorrow - they are in this school today and in schools all over this island. What do they say when their friends make sexist, racist, sectarian or homophobic jibes - do they stay silent and let the poison of contempt go on its cruel way or do they have the guts to stop it in its tracks and say such words are unacceptable and dangerous. When they are offered illegal drugs or pressured into binge drinking by their peers do they follow the crowd? There is another saying- if you want the crowd to follow you, don’t follow the crowd. Do they have the backbone and the conviction to lead their friends in the right direction even if it seems the loneliest place in the world?  Given the opportunity to get an education that previous generations could only dream of and most of the world has no access to, do they commit with enthusiasm, using every moment well, vindicating the years of sacrifice and service that are invested in this life-changing experience. I have met them in their thousands and I have a respect and admiration for the young people of this island based on their proven record of commitment and compassion. They will take on the issues that come between all of us and our peace of mind. They will do a better job than we did.  

I am often asked to explain how Ireland’s phenomenal economic success of the past decade came about and every time I am asked I begin the answer by acknowledging the profound role played by education in unlocking Ireland’s greatest natural resource - the genius of its people.

Free second level education came late to the Republic, more than a generation later than in Northern Ireland. It was the late 1960’s and our biggest export was still our people. Emigration haemorrhaged the youth and vitality out of the country and then things began to change as the widened access to education created a generation hungry for more. They flooded into the Universities which had up to then accommodated only a small elite. Their ambition and talents were captured memorably in Seamus Heaney’s poem “From the Canton of Expectation”, as “intelligences brightened and unmannerly as crowbars”. 

They applied those intelligences like crowbars to all the problems which lay like a deadweight on Irish life and in the most talked about turnaround in any country’s history in living memory, they ended net outward migration for the first time in a century and a half; they attracted considerable inward investment, developed a new native entrepreneurial cohort, brought about almost full employment, placed Ireland at the forefront of the second industrial revolution and at the heart of the European Union. Irish culture and confidence has never been higher and it is no accident that the impulse for peace has strengthened in that same time span, solidifying in the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty between two sovereign, friendly governments and a covenant between the people who share this island.

I was proud on a recent visit to Philadelphia, Seattle and Vancouver to tell emigrant audiences of the huge changes and the opportunities that Ireland now offers. They take pride in the fact that Ireland is itself now the ninth most important source of foreign investment in the U.S. and the fourth most important in Great Britain, that Irish companies employ nearly as many people in the U.S. as U.S. companies employ in Ireland, that Ireland is one of the world’s top three exporters of computer software and the country with the highest growth rate within the EU and the OECD countries.

None of these things happened by accident, or coincidence or chance. They happened because the key of education unlocked potential which had previously gone to waste or gone abroad. Education opens us up to our own abilities and then opens us up to the world’s opportunities. And it starts here, in schools like this, where teachers commit to a vocation far removed from the factories and the industries that make the economic headlines but utterly crucial to their success and the civic strength of the broader society in which we all exist. They nurture the talent that will give us tomorrow’s entrepreneur and factory worker. Teachers promote the moral formation that gives them both a social conscience out of which grows an egalitarian, democratic culture of social inclusion and respect for difference. On this day we think with gratitude of 125 years of teaching and parenting often, through times of dreadful turmoil.  We think of those who took the chance for education and then used it, unselfishly to help the next generation to prosper in peace and justice. 

The human person, like human society is always a work in progress and so there is no day when the work is done. There are exams on the horizon and beyond that careers and adventures yet to be revealed. Some will make their lives far away but most will commit to this city or this island where the work of peace building will need volunteers for a long time to come. It is the work of our time and time for us to get it done. Another man born in 1879 put it a bit less elegantly but more effectively.  It was the legendary Will Rogers who said- “Even if you are on the right track you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”  The men of  St. Columb’s could never be accused of doing that. Let us hope the rest follow !  

My congratulations again to St Columb’s on its 125th anniversary and to the Union on its 75th Anniversary.

Go raibh maith agaibh go léir agus guím rath Dé ar an obair.