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Speech by THE President OF IRELAND, Mary McAleese,  at the “Re-Imagining Ireland” Conference

Speech by THE President OF IRELAND, Mary McAleese, at the “Re-Imagining Ireland” Conference, Charlottesville, Virginia

 Distinguished Guests,

Immediately after the word ‘Reilly’ in the shorter Oxford Dictionary comes the word ‘re-imbark’ (var. of re-embark) smack bang in the place where you might expect to find the word ‘re-imagine’. You may be shocked to hear it does not appear at all. I have to admit there is a deliciously subversive pleasure in doing something the Shorter English Dictionary has not yet imagined. But since there are those who believe that Ireland is now enjoying the once elusive “life of Reilly” and there are many who once left Ireland’s shores who have re-embarked on the journey back to Ireland - precisely because Reilly’s life is now more broadly distributed and more easily accessible – it may be that the words “Reilly” and “re-embark” have, after all, a place in this undertaking of re-imagining Ireland.

The organisers, to whom I am indebted for the invitation to Charlottesville, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and, in particular, its President, Mr. Raymond Vaughan, Mr. Andrew Wyndham and Ms. Tori Talbot, have worked with a passion to gather this impressive collection of Irish talent, wit and wisdom. This has the makings of a seminal gathering and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was the odd modest opportunity for a bit of craic too. But the work comes first and if I don’t re-imagine Ireland quickly, the dark clouds of hunger – such a familiar part of Ireland’s historical landscape – may well be more than imaginary.

A French nobleman once observed that Thomas Jefferson had placed both his mind and his famous house here in Charlottesville “on an elevated situation from which he might contemplate the universe”. Hopefully we too will benefit from this “elevated situation” and from the perspective that distance as well as discourse can create.

You would think that with all the Nobel winning poets we have produced they might between them have penned a helpful starting place with a poem entitled “Re-imagining Ireland” but the closest we get is Seamus Heaney’s “Seeing Things”. This poem brings us to the Ireland of the horse drawn potato sprayer – a world away from the convulsively changed Ireland we are conjuring to re-imagine where you would quicker find a Jacuzzi than a spring well. In his poem “Bean on tSleibhe” Cathal O’Searchaigh’s mountain woman says “It’s not ageing I am but ripening!” It could be Ireland talking, for the English words carry an ancient Irish syntax which gives us our very colourful and unique particularity and the description of “ripening” is as good as it gets of modern Ireland.

Many an Irish man and woman made the journey to Charlottesville before us and in very different times. They carried a memory of an Ireland of the goodbyes, not an Ireland of the welcomes. They formed and shared with their children, images of possibilities of an Ireland without abject poverty, without most of its population stacked on the narrow margins, a fair and equal Ireland, a free Ireland. They sang laments for that imagined Ireland, the one which, in its non-existence, presented them with choices that were desperate and required courage beyond imagining.

And now things have changed and how they have changed. The third world Ireland they left is now a first world country. So many feet have come off the brake that used to be on Ireland’s development, that it is not always easy to say which moved first or mattered most. One way or another the door of Ireland opened and let the future in.

The little impoverished island off the West coast of Europe which became an unremarkable member of the European Union thirty years ago, has become the symbol of the Union’s potential, the place with the economic success story that everywhere else wants to imitate. The country that up to thirty-five years ago offered the liberating key of education only to a small elite has felt the surging energy of its greatest natural resource - the genius of its own people - empowered through widened access to second level and third level education. The country that has known outward migration for one hundred and fifty years has suddenly become a place of net inward migration, coping with the complexities of multiculturalism and the challenge of asylum seekers. The genius of Irish women, once corralled into narrowly prescribed spheres, is moving inexorably if slowly towards a yet to come flood tide. The politics of peace are transforming the landscape of possibilities within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between Ireland and Britain.

The old vanities of history are disappearing. Carefully hidden stories like those of the Irish who died in the First World War are coming out of the shoeboxes in the attic and into daylight. We are making new friends, we are influencing new people, we are learning new things about ourselves, we are being changed. If “imagining” carries always the hint of something not yet formed, of a fantasy not yet real, today’s Ireland is full of things not yet known with certainty but things which are most certainly different from and mostly better than the past.

We cannot deny that there are casualties. The many excellent nuns, priests and brothers who dedicated their lives to education and health care, both in Ireland and around the world, contributed greatly to this ripening Ireland with its network of friends throughout the globe. Now they are visibly ageing and their future is far from easy to predict. And as the mountain woman of O’Searcaigh’s poem might say “In this country the hardest crusts are given to those with least teeth”. The widespread embrace of prosperity has been a wonderful and heartening phenomenon but if you are still marooned on the beach and the uplifted boats are sailing over the horizon, the space between can seem a frightening, unbridgeable chasm.

More money in pockets has visibly lifted standards of living but it is being badly spent too, on bad old habits that have never gone away. The Irish love of conviviality has its dark side in the stupid wasteful abuse of alcohol and its first cousin – abuse of drugs. They chart a course of misery and malaise so utterly unnecessary that we need to reimagine an Ireland grown intolerant of behaviour which it has too benignly overlooked for too long.

Our expectations are now high indeed, driven by the successes of the past decade. But we have shown ourselves capable of remarkable change, to be adaptable, to be willing to learn and while there is still much to accomplish there is a new found confidence in our capacity not simply to cope as in the past but to transcend, to transform, to reduce the imagined thing to reality.

I am probably in as good a place as any - if not the best place - from which to judge the capacity for re-imagining of the Irish people. Day in and day out I meet the people who are making the crucial differences that are quietly layering up a better future. They are building hospices, day care centres for the elderly, providing respite for carers, bringing the Special Olympics World Games to Ireland, empowering the illiterate, spotting and mentoring potential early school leavers, enabling the disabled, welcoming the stranger, moving from conflict ridden marches to community based festivals, breaking down sectarianism, building up communities. I have mentioned only a small part of the voluntary effort that is heaving us forward. The world of business, trade, tourism and investment - for all the untidy capriciousness of the market place - has shown a resolve and creativity which still make us one of the most robust and stable economies around even though the giddy days of 8 per cent growth are manifestly over. If “ceann faoi” is how we used to imagine ourselves – today it is very definitely “can do”.

Who could ever have imagined that an Irish Government would purchase the site of the Battle of the Boyne and develop there a heritage site for all the people of the island of Ireland. Someone dared to and its existence changes language and texture forever. Who could have imagined a government in Northern Ireland with Sinn Féin Ministers working side by side with the Ulster Unionists? Someone dared to and we fervently hope it will move from the imagination to lived reality again soon. Who could have imagined Gaelscoileanna flourishing right around the country with Irish language nursery, primary and secondary schools a growing phenomenon in Northern Ireland? Who could have imagined the cultural exuberance which has made global icons of Irish names in every field of the arts, many of them under this roof, or the technological sophistication that has made Ireland the world’s number one exporter of computer software, ahead even of the United States itself?

I should stop this list because there are many other spheres, too many to mention here, which feed the dreams of our imagination. Post September 11th we became intensely conscious of the fragility of our globe, its vulnerability and the urgency of its haphazard struggle against ignorance, hatred, oppression and poverty. Ireland was a member of the United Nations Security Council during those heady days of 2001 and 2002, elected there by an overwhelming vote, as a small island with a reputation for having a large voice of integrity and a history of courageous peacekeeping and considerable outreach to suffering – truly a first world country with a respected and real third world memory.

This year we celebrate thirty years of membership of the European Union, a forum to which we have contributed much and from which we have benefited enormously. The platform it has afforded us will be showcased to great effect when we assume the EU Presidency, for the sixth time, on 1 January 2004 and when Dublin becomes the scene of the most historic moment in the Union’s story since its foundation. Next May, ten utterly unique countries from the Baltic and Eastern Europe will be welcomed back into the European family of nations. We will have to stretch our imaginations around these new colleagues and their stories and their possibilities. The shape of the Union will change and so will we. They will want to know their new neighbours better. They will want to know who are the Irish, how should they imagine us? Our wandering saints from the first millennium will already have left their imprints on most of their countries but, that aside, they have been largely out of touch with us for a long time.

There are also neighbours closer to home, the neighbours who share the island of Ireland who need to get to know each other better, to build the trust and friendships which alone can secure peace and partnership. A big investment infriendship-building should be part of our imagining, our planning, for the future. Nothing to fear in that for we are good at that. Friendship building is our forte. Networks are our element.

No other nation holds on to its children and its children’s children like we do. Five generations away from Ireland living in Chicago, Kuala Lumpur or Canberra we meet them and we interrogate them until the parish is found and the botharín their emigrating ancestors set out from and the cousins of theirs we know back home in Ireland. We have ties of family so extraordinary that when fifteen thousand of our young people go off around Australia annually on their year long working visa, they feel instantly at home in that land twelve thousand miles away with its population that is one third Irish. We are a connecting people. It is our strength and our global Irish family is today one of our greatest resources, feeding our culture, expanding its imagination, opening doors, keeping faith with our intriguing homeland.

The very strength of our connectedness, the very ease of our intimacy can itself appear to be a powerful wall of exclusion for some of those who look at us with doubt and mistrust. There can be no hermetic seal on the Irish family and its circle of friends and neighbours, even its reluctant neighbours North of the border. Like strands of a rope they all take their shape from each other and they have an important voice too in the Re-imagining of Ireland - for Ireland’s future is also theirs. There is an onus on those of us who imagine a reconciled Ireland to actively promote the culture of “failte”.

Ireland is still unfinished business. The Ulster poet, Derek Mahon, wrote:


We leave here the infancy of the race,

Unsure among the pitching surfaces,

Whether the future lies before us or behind”.

There have always been pitching surfaces and given a choice I’d settle for the mild turbulence of a modern jet over the stormy seas of an emigrant coffin ship any day. If the men and women of Ireland’s past could choose a time to live, there would be a long queue for this one. It is far from perfect but it is as good as it has ever been. Even more importantly it has a huge as yet untapped capacity to be better still. Whether the future lies before us or behind us is our choice. We have too often ransacked the past for ammunition with which to booby trap the future. Now would be a good time to ransack it for the values and memories that build us up humanly and pack them for the best journey yet - to a ripened and mature Ireland, an island flying on two strong wings. The bridge to that Ireland lies in the imagination and in the courage it takes to step across it to something not known with certainty but longed for with passion. Isabel Allende says happiness is achieving something you have wanted for a very long time. We have longed for peace and prosperity, longed for equality and justice, longed for opportunity and reconciliation, longed for an Ireland standing tall in the world, her children’s genius revealed and rampant. No other generation has come as close to all those things as ours. A few more bridges and we may well arrive at a happy Ireland. 21st century Ireland is at least in part living the Ireland imagined in past centuries. Now is a good time to sketch the imagined landscape of tomorrow’s Ireland and inspire the champions who will take us to it. I salute you the artists and the bridge builders and wish you well as you take us to that Ireland via Charlottesville.

Thank you.