- The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 22 Aug 1994, p. 202-210
- Robinson, Her Excellency Mary, Speaker
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- A description of the speaker's Ireland. The "energy and vitality released by the constant dialogue between a past we cherish, but are not confined by, and a present which is enriched by all sorts of experiments and innovations." The speaker as a direct witness of the constructive energies and exciting changes which are happening in modern Ireland. Looking to the future and reflecting in the widest sense on how to encompass a respect for difference in our democratic values, and how to commend to children the view that cultures, traditions, and histories are deepened and not diminished by sharing. Starting with education. Taking steps to provide a legal and political framework to protect and affirm the rights of culture and ethnic minorities. Developing a pragmatic vision of history … in which the interests of people are placed before allegiances to ideology or group, and where concession or compromise is not regarded as an abandonment of the past, but as a way in which the past can be translated into a hopeful and constructive future. The yearning for peace and reconciliation. Two governments working hard to achieve peace. Seeking ways forward that accommodate each other. Finally, a poem by John Hewitt.
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- 22 Aug 1994
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- Full Text
- Her Excellency Mary Robinson, President of Ireland
CHANGE IN MODERN IRELAND
Chairman: John A. Campion
President, The Empire Club of Canada
Head Table Guests
David Edmison, Investment Counsellor, Martin, Lucas & Seagram Ltd. and 2nd Vice-President, The Empire Club of Canada; Catherine Graham, Chairman, The Ireland Fund of Canada; Joseph Murphy, President, Murphy's Potato Chips; Dr. Annamarie Castrilli, Chairman, Governing Council, University of Toronto; Matthew Barrett, Chairman and CEO, Bank of Montreal; Marilyn Pilkington, Dean, Osgoode Law School, York University; The Hon. R. Roy McMurtry, Q.C., Chief Justice of the Ontario Court; Montague Larkin, Chartered Accountant, a Past President, The Canadian Opera Company and an Honorary Director, The Empire Club of Canada; Shelagh Rogers, CBC Broadcaster, Host of The Arts Tonight; Nicholas Robinson, Chairman of the Irish Architectural Archive; Hilary M. Weston, Deputy Chairman, Holt Renfrew & Co. Ltd. and Founder, The Ireland Fund of Canada; His Eminence G. Emmett Cardinal Carter, Archbishop Emeritus of Toronto; and Herbert Phillipps Jr., President, The Canadian Club of Toronto.
Introduction by John Campion
Irish Isle in the St. Lawrence
Ireland oh Ireland How you do attract us; Her poets, playwrights and writers elevate and elucidate, They remind us of our humanity; Her tragedies strike a cord; a dissonant note in the past, an explosion of pain in the present; Her history belongs to us Canadians, those who were drawn directly from her soil and those who would hear the stories of famine and new life in this country; And we would become Irish with them; Her songs haunt us yet as we move and toil in this land of ours, Bringing us rich pleasure, not only in the joy of a tune, but also in an infectious smile and an open-eyed glint Ireland oh Ireland How you do draw us near.
In trying to understand the undeniable attraction of President Mary Robinson, I could only note that part must surely come from the magnetism of being Irish.
I asked myself, though, why did President Mary Robinson choose her role as Head of State? Why?
The presidency has been described as a largely ceremonial function that constitutionally forbids its holder from speaking out directly on political issues.
Mary Robinson was an activist
• a brilliant law student • a barrister in Dublin and London • the first female professor of law at Trinity College, Dublin • a campaigner for the right to divorce • freedom of choice on abortion • equal rights for homosexuals • the toning down of the claim of the Irish Republic to sovereignty over Northern Ireland • she was the youngest woman to enter the Irish Senate
What inspired Mary Robinson the activist to run for President? I believe I have a simple, albeit partial answer.
Mary Robinson is herself an artist. By her actions as President, she has not only become a symbol, she has used symbolism as a master poet would.
Hear how James Joyce expressed it through his character, young Stephen Dedalus:
"Ireland is an old sow that eats her farrow
To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life!
The artist, like the God of creation,
Remains within or behind or beyond or above the handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence,
Indifferent, paring his or her fingernails."
President Mary Robinson has made her views felt through the exercise of power and the power of symbolism.
• she attended mass in prison; • she entertained organisers from a centre for battered wives; she has visited women's groups; • she has invited members of the gay and lesbian communities to visit her; • she is the first President of Ireland to visit Northern Ireland; • she preferred the controversial Matrimonial Home Bill to the Supreme Court of Ireland for review; • she has become a symbol of her country's European aspirations and of its renewed self-confidence and national pride.
President Mary Robinson is not the indifferent, invisible artist of James Joyce but, as a hint to her success, she stands with Joyce as a brilliant artist of symbolism. It is with great pleasure that I ask you to welcome President Mary Robinson.
When I took on this office, I said that the Ireland I sought to represent was open, tolerant and pluralist. I made this statement in the awareness that my own election was a signal of those very things. And yet I want to emphasise that this is neither an abstract nor an intellectual statement. I was deeply conscious of taking office in a beautiful and historic country, with a powerful tradition of suffering and a striking narrative of overcoming that suffering. A country which is now a modern European state, yet one which has retained the capacity, through that suffering and that history, to reach beyond its own borders, and beyond its own cultural frontiers, to enter imaginatively into the distress of a famine in Africa, as well as to take enormous pleasure in the music and the literature of other countries.
It has been my enormous privilege in this office to see the energy and vitality released by the constant dialogue between a past we cherish, but are not confined by, and a present which is enriched by all sorts of experiments and innovations. In a single week I may be asked to open a heritage centre in a small village west of the Shannon, where careful excavation has revealed the wonderful sight of a medieval monastery and the stone walls of the earliest settlers. But at the same moment, sometimes on the very same day, I may find myself opening a modern sports hall or a women's resource centre. And what binds both kinds of projects, what brings together these apparently contrary intentions of honouring a past and servicing a present, is always the same thing which I find most moving and impressive on these occasions: it is the sophisticated, integrated method of approach, and the deeply generous co-operation, through which communities define themselves--across different tasks and diverse backgrounds--finding in the end an identity of spirit which is inclusive.
In Ireland we have a word--the Gaelic word "meitheal"--which may have no exact translation, but has a profound meaning for us. Roughly explained, it means the spirit of co-operation and sharing between neighbours, which is that wonderful mixture of downright common-sense and imaginative understanding by which communities survive and thrive. It has always been there in the rural communities, in which each farmer saved the other's hay, and therefore had his hay saved before the weather turned. It may well be something, in fact--to reverse the usual process--which the town has learned from the country. In any case, I see it as a radical and informing spirit in so much of what is new, innovative and exciting in modern Ireland.
It is there in the cultural sense in the way our classical violinists co-operate with our traditional fiddlers to explore the boundaries of Irish music. It is there in a practical sense in the place I come from, Country Mayo, where a local enterprise centre in Kiltimagh has been restored by the local people, who have also restored a forge and made a playground, using the materials they have to secure a future which could have been in doubt. It is there in the way our local computer bulletin boards are opening the information highway to young Irish people, while making available to them opportunities for employment, information about theatres, and services for those with disabilities. This neighbourly spirit not only seems to me to be radical, but I have seen with my own eyes just how resilient it is. In my visits to Northern Ireland, I have been present at the opening of the inner city development in Derry, of a heritage centre in Dungannon, and an enterprise centre in Belcoo. In all places the concept of "meitheal" has been truly tested. And it has stood the test. All these projects are the outcome of cross-community cooperation in circumstances in which great stress has been put on the very idea of co-operation.
In the same way, some of the most moving occasions of my presidency have been the opportunities I have had to meet representatives of women's groups and voluntary organisations from Northern Ireland who have visited me in Dublin. It would need someone more eloquent than I to tell you just how poignant I found sitting in a room with a woman from the Falls and one from the Shankill, and with others from similar neighbourhoods, listening to them discover and emphasise how the bond and the concerns they share as women have survived and continue to survive the enormous pressures of division and conflict.
I come before you today, therefore, as a direct witness of the constructive energies and exciting changes which are happening in modern Ireland. I do believe they tell a story of that pluralistic, open and tolerant society I was elected to represent. But of course it is not the whole story. We live in a society and a country which has been scarred by violence for a quarter of a century. Whatever else we can say about that violence I think we have to recognise that it marks--in the broadest sense--a failure of dialogue between diverse cultures, viewpoints and traditions. And rather than dwell on the griefs of the present, which every one of us who has the interests of Ireland at heart must feel, I think it is right to look to the future and reflect in the widest sense on how we can encompass a respect for difference in our democratic values, and how we can commend to our children the view that cultures, traditions, and histories are deepened and not diminished by sharing. I am far from complacent about such a process, but I think we should undertake it as a challenge and a responsibility. Let me therefore start that process with a few of the demanding questions I believe we in modern societies need to ask.
To start with, we cannot commend any view to our children merely as an imposition of opinion. They need to be encouraged and persuaded. But what steps are we taking in our schools--in our history classes, in our school projects--to make them understand realities which are different from their own? How can we make them see the enormous and simple wisdom in Alice Munro's line from her story The Progress of Love: "I saw that I had to give up expecting people to see it the way I did."
And then, what steps are we taking to provide a legal and political framework to protect and affirm the rights of cultural and ethnic minorities? I was particularly struck on a recent visit to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to see that the protection of rights there has widened from the protection of individual rights, in which they have been so successful, to developing a framework for the protection and enforcement of minority rights. The need to do this has been made more urgent by the accession to the Council of new members from Central and Eastern Europe, countries which stand in need of such a framework, many of them having substantial minorities within their own territories or within a neighbouring state. The Joint Declaration adopted by the British and Irish governments last December represents an agreed-upon set of principles recognising the aspirations and cultures of both traditions--nationalist and unionist--in Northern Ireland and the equal respect due to them.
Apart from the formal frameworks of a legal or political system, how are we to develop a pragmatic vision of his; tory, a vision in which the interests of people are placed before allegiances to ideology or group, and where concession or compromise is not regarded as an abandonment of the past, but as a way in which the past can be translated into a hopeful and constructive future? I think the recent events in South Africa show that this is possible, if there is goodwill and a creative view of change. I think the new developments in the Middle East hold out a similar hope.
Perhaps I can return to that word "vernacular" and with it to the start of my speech. I have seen through this office that the true vernacular of change is not found in books, nor does it come from traditional pronouncements or by holding on to the customs of the past. The true vernacular seems to me to be what is being achieved by the local self-development I have described: the small yet powerful neighbourly acting together. On the island of Ireland, there is a widespread yearning for peace and reconciliation, which the two governments are working so hard to achieve, and yet a difficulty in opening up the very dialogue which would facilitate this. Perhaps, after all, the key lies in our midst. It may be that the way of doing things by the local groups and communities and networks can point the way. They listen to each other, respect each other, are open to each other and seek ways forward that accommodate each other.
;" There is a powerful and poignant statement by the Ulster poet John Hewitt in a poem called The Scar. I quote it here because I think it conveys the force of the random act of humanity out of which new understandings come. He tells the story in the poem of his Protestant great-grandmother who opened her window in the famine of 1847 to help a Catholic famine victim. She contacted and died. And in that suffering Hewitt found an emblem of the shared suffering out of which imaginative understanding often comes.
There is not a chance now that I might recover One syllable of what that sick man said, Tapping upon my great-grandmother's shutter And begging, I was told, a piece of bread; For on his tainted breath there hung infection Rank from the cabins of the stricken West, The spores from black potato-stalks, The spittle mottled with poison in his rattling chest; But she who, by her nature, quickly answered, Accepted in return the famine fever; And that chance meeting, that brief confrontation, Conscribed me of the Irishry forever. Though much I cherish lies outside their vision, And much they prize I have no claim to share Yet in that women's death I found my nation, The old wound aches and shows its fellow scar.
The appreciation of the meeting was expressed by Herbert Phillipps Jr., President, The Canadian Club of Toronto.