Leabharlann Na Meán

Gearrthóga Fuaime

Presidential Distinguished Service Award For The Irish Abroad

Áras an Uachtaráin, 30 November 2017

A Thánaiste,
A Airí,
A chomhaltaí na Comhairle Stáit,
agus a chairde,

Thar ceann Sabina agus thar mo cheann féin, is mian liom fíorchaoin fáilte a fhearadh romhaibh chuig Áras an Uachtaráin le haghaidh na hócáide an-speisialta seo. Is mian liom fáilte ar leith a fhearadh roimh ár n- aíonna speisialta – faighteoirí na bliana seo de Chearnmhír an Uachtaráin um Sheirbhís Dearscna do Ghaeil Thar Lear. 

[On behalf of Sabina and myself, I would like to welcome you all here today to Áras an Uachtaráin for this very special occasion. I wish in particular to welcome our guests of honour – the recipients of this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad.]

One hundred and seventeen years ago, James Connolly, one of our finest patriots, wrote words which still ring through the generations to us today: ‘Ireland without her people is nothing to me’. More than any other leader of our revolutionary generation, he, as a migrant, understood that our nation should be defined less in terms of territory of geography and more in terms of a people, a people bound together by a shared culture and heritage, a language, a consciousness of a historical experience, all of which should contribute in our potentially finest moments to a commitment to building a more humane and a more just society. 

Such a commitment is exemplified by the achievements of our honoured guests this evening, and that is why we are assembled here this evening, we are gathered to honour their work. The Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad is an opportunity for us to recognise those who have, as you will hear, through dedication and tireless work, extended the boundaries of human knowledge, fostered peace where there was none, elevated the standing and reputation of Irish people throughout the world, and demonstrated, through their actions, an inspirational solidarity and compassion for others, made such a special contribution as it has, continues to exemplify the best of Irishness, and a humane cosmopolitanism, one that is powerfully moral in the sense of Immanuel Kant.

Is mian liom fáilte a fhearadh roimh ní hamháin na faighteoirí de Chearnmhír an Uachtaráin um Sheirbhís Dearscna do Ghaeil Thar Lear, ach roimh a muintir agus a cairde chomh maith, agus tá a fhios agam gur thaistil roinnt agaibh achar mór le bheith linn anocht. 

[May I not only welcome our guests of honour, the recipients of the Presidential Distinguished Service Awards, but also your family and friends, some of whom I know have travelled great distances to join us here, for your presence here tonight.]

We also remember those who cannot be here with us tonight.

As 2017 draws to a close, it is worth reflecting on the great changes which are now underway, both globally and here at home. For all those of us who consider ourselves part of the Irish nation, the commemorations of the Easter Rising of 1916 last year brought an important reflection that has led to renewed pride and interest in the greater understanding of our history, one that encourages a confidence of our place amongst the nations of the world, and awareness that there is much which must still be done to truly vindicate the promises of our revolutionary decade. 

We took steps towards an inclusive version of our history, engaging as we did in the task of ethical remembering, a task which will be even more challenging in the coming years. For example, we remembered the contribution of women and their role in the revival and in the founding moments of our State.

We meet now at a time that is one of profound change, not least for our nearest neighbour. Great challenges await us in the coming decades – we are now being confronted with the consequences of our economic and behavioural models on the global temperature, consequences which will only grow ever more serious. 

We are challenged to make a new pattern of trade that can take account of demographic changes, achieve a new sustainable vision of development, and help the beginning of the end of the recurring cycles of global poverty and crises. As a migratory people, we Irish, and more than perhaps most other people, we must be aware of the deep moral imperative to welcome those fleeing war, persecution, famine and natural disasters.  

These challenges will test us all, and today, in recognising and celebrating the best of our Irish contribution to Irish communities abroad and at home and to the global community, we are given examples of the moral, mental and material resources that are available and that we, as a diasporic people, can bring to bear. 


Now more than ever, the compassion, empathy and generosity of spirit, so characteristic of Irish people in our better moments, and displayed by all of our awardees here today, is necessary if we are to meet the challenges I have mentioned. 

These values have been given an inspiring expression in the work of the indefatigable Mary T. Murphy, who has spent her life caring for and supporting those affected by illness, drought, conflict and poverty. 

Some of our recipients this evening are working with the continent of Africa foregrounded in their work – a continent that carries many of the several consequences of global warming, a continent that by 2050 will have 26% of the global population and 38% of the young people of the planet.

It was my honour to visit Mary in Gambella in Ethiopia in November 2014 and I had the opportunity to see at first-hand the impact of her tireless work with those fleeing famine, persecution and war. Her dedication of her life’s work to helping people on the continent of Africa – in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Sierra Leone, in Burundi, and in Ethiopia – is a testament to the best of the humanitarian spirit. It is humbling to consider the influence that Mary’s work has had on so many people.

Another of today’s awardees who has also had an enormous impact on the lives of people living in Africa is Dr William Campbell. In 2015, Dr Campbell became the first Irish-born scientist to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine in recognition of his discovery of avermectin, the derivatives of which are used to treat two of the world’s most damaging parasitic diseases. 

As a result of his pioneering research, River Blindness has been almost eradicated, while the spread of Lymphatic Filariasis has been significantly reduced, positively impacting the lives of millions of people. 

Dr Campbell’s Nobel lecture was so impressive as it spoke of the process of discovery involved. It is truly an example of the best in modern science: simple in its origins, multi-disciplinary in its development, and universal in its impact.   

Our connection with Irish America and its influence on our history and historical scholarship cannot be overestimated. In present day Ireland this continues and in a unique contribution to post conflict healing. In 1975, Denis Mulcahy, a New York Police Department Bomb Disposal Officer, founded Project Children. 

Over the course of thirty-six years, this Project brought over 20,000 young people – Catholic and Protestant – from Northern Ireland to encounter each other in the safe environment of North America and Mr Mulcahy has justly been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Mr Mulcahy, Project Children, and the hundreds of families who supported the hosting of thousands of children from Northern Ireland during the Troubles, were the subject of a recent documentary, “How to defuse a Bomb: The Project Children Story”, narrated by another of today’s recipients, Mr. Liam Neeson who unfortunately is not available to be here with us today. 

Liam Neeson has made an enormous contribution as a voice for Ireland on the global stage of international entertainment, and through his support for the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, where he started his career, and the Irish Arts Centre in New York, where he now lives, has played a vital role in Irish culture both at home and abroad.         

One of the televisual highlights of the last years commemorations was the historical documentary, 1916, with which Liam was centrally involved.

Another representative of Irish-America being honoured this evening is Patricia Harty, Patricia co-founded the Irish America magazine in 1985, which has, since its inception, become a powerful voice on a range of political, economic, social and cultural themes that are of importance to the Irish in America. 

Voices and activists like Patricia’s are integral to maintaining the strength of relationship and feeling between Ireland and the United States, which has been, and is, so important to generations of Irish people, at home and abroad.

Our post Brexit circumstances have sharpened our gaze towards Asia, long before that we had distinguished connections through such thinkers as Lafcadio Hearn. Tonight we celebrate our contemporary connections to Japan through a special person.

Hideki Mimura, although born and raised in Japan, has worked to promote Ireland for many years. He was instrumental in arranging the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Tokyo more than 25 years ago and has continued this work throughout Japan, which he carries out with his great affection for Ireland, Irish people and all things Irish. 

Our two countries, island nations at the periphery of Asia and Europe, share not only a unique and ancient culture, but also a shared future of infinite possibilities, exemplified by the work of Hideki Mimura.

Coming nearer home, to our most proximate neighbour, between 1955 and 1960 a quarter of a million of Irish left as emigrants, approximating 50,000 per year.  They went, women and men, largely to Britain.

Being honoured this evening is Jacqueline O’Donovan is a hugely respected and successful member of the Irish business community in London. Her pride in her Irish heritage and commitment to the Irish community is reflected in all the work she does with our community in London, including as Executive Board Member of the Women’s Irish Network. 

With her typical Irish spirit, she has been a generous donor and sponsor. Her generosity includes the giving of a most precious resource, her own time, to a number of Irish charities including the Brent Irish Advisory Service, London Irish Centre, London Irish Film Festival, Irish Youth Foundation and the Irish Cultural Centre Hammersmith and the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in London.

I have said that we are a migratory people and continuing our migratory emphasis, another voice of the Irish in Britain, part of that wave of the 1950’s is Bernard Canavan, an artist whose distinctive work addresses the economic and social experience of Irish emigrants during the 20th century. 

Bernard Canavan has had a number of highly acclaimed exhibitions on these themes both in Ireland and London, themes that are intrinsic to our experience as a people. 

Through his art, writing and scholarship – including as an editor of the History Workshop Journal - Bernard has done so much so to bring the experiences of the ‘forgotten Irish’ in Britain into our collective consciousness, and it has been through his work such as his visual art that we are impelled to remember those who should never be forgotten, whose circumstances of origin and destination are an essential thread in the tapestry of our history.

“To be forgotten”, Paul Ricoeur wrote, “is to die twice”. There is then a vital moral significance to Bernard’s art, and I am very pleased that the producers of the documentary of his life, currently being prepared, can witness the appreciation of the Irish people for his work, that is expressed through this award today.

There is hardly an adult on this island who will not recognise the name of General John de Chastelain which is synonymous with the peace process in Northern Ireland and the tireless work of countless people to achieve that hard-won peace. General de Chastelain helped forge the Belfast agreement, the blueprint for peace on this island, signed on Good Friday in 1998. We would not have achieved that historic agreement without the generous assistance we received from our friends abroad. Recent events have reinforced the centrality of the Good Friday Agreement to the future of our island, and we must work as tirelessly today to maintain it as General de Chastelain and others did to achieve it.

Professor Marianne Elliot is another friend of the Irish peace process, particularly as a member of the international peace commission, the Opsahl Commission, and was co-author of its report, A Citizens' Inquiry. 

She was a co-founder of Irish Historians in Britain and the British Association for Irish Studies, as well as Director of the Institute for Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool, which she did so much to help establish, and has been a pioneer of the pursuit of Irish Studies in Britain. 

We are deeply indebted to her for her historical scholarship – a scholarship that has deepened our understanding of the role of religion in the history of this island, that illuminated the lives of Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet, and which indicates the international dimensions of the United Irishmen.

I would like to take this opportunity also to thank the members of the High Level Panel who deliberated on this year’s Presidential Distinguished Service, Mr Niall Burgess, the Secretary General Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade; Mr Martin Fraser the Secretary General Department of the Taoiseach; Mr Art O’Leary, the Secretary General of my own office; Ms. Sally O’Neill Sanchez; Professor Declan Kiberd; Father Bobby Gilmore and Mr. Kingsley Aikins. I am delighted to see so many of them here this evening.

Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le gach aon duine d’ár bhfaighteoirí don méid atá déanta agaibh, agus atá á dhéanamh agaibh fós, fiú i ndorchadas an gheimhridh. Cuireann bhur gcuid oibre in bhur dtíortha cónaithe ar leith go mór le clú agus cáil na hÉireann, agus is cúis bróid agus inspioráide sibh ar fad.

[Finally, I would like to thank again each and every one of our award recipients for all that you have done and continue to do, even in the darkness of winter. Your hard work in your respective homes adds to the reputation of this small nation, and you are a source of pride and inspiration to all of us.]

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.