Speech on the donation of books to the Peoples’ Books
National Library of Latvia, Riga,18 June 2018
I am deeply honoured to be here today in this extraordinary and beautiful monument to learning and literature. The great French historian Ernst Renan, once wrote that a nation was a great solidarity, one summoned into being by the written word and by a shared culture, a shared language, a shared imaginative horizon, and above all, a shared moral conscience.
A national library is such a physical manifestation of the culture of a nation, and a representation of the value that a country places on creativity, literature, and on the beauty of the written word. This national library is surely then an indication of the vigour and health of Latvian culture and of the Latvian nation, and it is a demonstration of your belief in the importance of words, and in the capacity of this and future generations to continue to imagine and write a bright and inclusive future for your country.
It is a great honour for me to stand in this building in this year of 2018, as Latvia celebrates the centenary of its independence. The institution of the library holds a very important place in our own struggle for national freedom. I recall the words of one of our greatest Irish patriots, Thomas Davis, ‘educate that you may be free’. The library he envisioned not only as a space for learning, but one of debate and fellowship, a space in which the nation itself would take form as the people encountered and created new ideas.
The artistry of this Castle of Light is a most potent symbol of the renewal of the Latvian nation. I was moved to hear that when this Library opened in 2014, some 14,000 Latvians formed a two kilometre human chain to pass books from the old national library to this new library.
Such a community effort – redolent of what we in Ireland call meitheal - recalls the 1989 Baltic Chain when the peoples of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia expressed an urgent hunger for freedom by forming a human chain from Vilnius to Tallinn.
The chain of books was also of course a powerful expression of the vital bond that links the past, present and the future. A knowledge and understanding of our history in all its complexity, and with an open scholarship, is intrinsic to our shared citizenship, and it is of value to any nation seeking to imagine a new and better future. The act of transmitting the physical knowledge of the past to this site of learning, of the passage of the old to the new, was the very of embodiment of the act of, in the words of Irish poet Derek Mahon, ‘creating a future from the past’.
As a gesture of the continuing solidarity between our two nations, I am delighted today to be able to donate some books, including the recently published, ‘The Cambridge History of Ireland’, its four volumes covering the period from the year 600 AD to the present day. In doing so I am sharing our long and sometimes difficult battle for independence and the experience of our diasporic people, their trials and tribulations. These volumes, I hope, will help not only access to our past but assist us as to the future in recognition of the important task, we both must share, of shaping a just, ethical, and inclusive future for all the peoples of our shared and vulnerable planet.
I am honoured that this contribution I make as President of Ireland will take its place in the magnificent wall of knowledge, a wall that already holds thousands of volumes.
Thank you for the privilege of allowing me to make a tangible contribution to this most profound representation of Latvian history, culture and learning.
Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.