Address by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland
At a Reception at St. Mary’s Guildhall, Coventry
Friday, 11th April 2014
A dhaoine uaisle, a chairde. Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo libh inniu.
I am delighted to bring a memorable State Visit to a close in a city with so many Irish connections, and in a place that enjoys great renown as a symbol of peace and reconciliation.
I would like to thank Coventry City Council and, in particular, Councillor Gary Crookes, Lord Mayor of Coventry, for hosting us here today and for extending such a warm welcome.
I have had a very long personal association with Britain, and have been visiting here for over fifty years. I first came as a university student seeking work during the term holidays. My two sisters emigrated to England at the age of twenty, and worked for British Rail at Central Station and Victoria Station in Manchester. They both married in Manchester, one to a railwayman from a multi-generational railway family from Oldham, where my sister and her family still live. My other sister married an Irishman from Mayo, all of whose family except one, lived in England.
When I came as a post-graduate student to Manchester University in 1968, and initially stayed with my sister in Corby Street near Belle Vue, I regularly moved between the two worlds of an Irish construction worker’s family in Manchester, and the realm of British academia. My field of research was apt – migration.
Over the intervening years I have travelled regularly to Britain – to stay in touch with my siblings and their families; to visit Irish community centres; to maintain fraternal contacts in the labour movement; and, as a parliamentarian, to advance inter-parliamentary links with my colleagues in Westminster. During all this time, including the decades of the 1970s and 1980s when the conflict in Northern Ireland cast a dark shadow over British-Irish relations, I was always impressed by the resilience of the Irish community in Britain.
In the 1960s, in Manchester and across Britain, monuments to the labour of Irish workers could be seen throughout the cities and countryside, most particularly with the construction of the motorways but also on the building sites where Irish tradesmen and labourers were often the backbone of the workforce. The phrase “the men who built Britain” was more than an idle boast. It was a statement of pride in the reputation for industry and capacity for hard work rightly earned by our people.
As historians such as Ultan Cowley have recounted, that tradition of Irish construction work goes back at least as far as the building of the canals and railways, through to the construction, in more recent times of the Channel Tunnel and the skyscrapers of the City.
There are other sectors of the economy, too numerous to list here but including agriculture, teaching and nursing, where routes of labour migration were carved especially deeply. Indeed, it was a great privilege for me, on Wednesday, to witness the continuing contribution of Irish nurses and doctors to British medicine during my visit to University College Hospital in London.
Generations of Irish Travellers have also made their mark in this country, contributing to the fabric of the land as agricultural labourers in the fertile plains of East Anglia, as horse dealers, and in so many other trades. A willingness to accommodate the specific requirements of the travelling life is the measure of any true hospitality, here as in Ireland.
During the 1950s, around half a million Irish men and women made the journey to Britain, my sisters among them. When we think of the circumstances in which these earlier generations of Irish emigrants moved to Britain, it is a joy to note that there is virtually no aspect of British civic or political life that has not been enriched by contributions from the Irish community. That success is due in no small part to the determination and character of those who settled here in more difficult times – some indeed who are in this room today.
Today the Irish community has become one of the most dynamic communities in Britain. This is reflected in the fact that some 50,000 Irish people now sit on the boards of British companies. In my speech at the Guildhall in London earlier this week, I pointed to the contemporary contribution being made, by our many highly skilled graduates, to British industry, to the professions, in commerce and in education. For this generation, migration is often temporary, or may even take the form of commuting, and many of these young people will return to Ireland enriched by the experience and education they gain here.
In marking the successes and achievements of those Irish men and women who have made those journeys and built new lives in Britain, we must also, of course, recognise that for some of our people, migration from Ireland was painful and traumatic. Many left difficult circumstances behind and some found hard lives in their new home. The story of the Irish in Britain has many dimensions, but as President of Ireland I am immensely proud today to bear witness to your contribution to the culture and life of Britain, and your continuing centrality in our national identity.
Of course British people too made the journey in the opposite direction, to Ireland – some for reasons of employment; others for reasons of family or romantic attachment; and others again because they just felt an affinity for the smaller island.
Since the time of Saints Patrick and Colmcille, the journeys in both directions across the Irish Sea have been countless. This afternoon, I would like to recall just two that have direct relevance to Coventry.
In September 1950 a young poet, born and raised in Coventry quite close to here, moved to Belfast to take up a new job as Librarian at Queen’s University. He was a migrant. His name was Philip Larkin, and over the next five years in Belfast he wrote some of the finest poetry of his career. Later, drawing on a migrant’s sensibility, he wrote a description of his emptied family home. It stands today as one of the most apt descriptions of the memory of an emptied home felt by any migrant, and felt by so many Irish homes marked by emigration not only during that decade:
“Home is so sad. It stays as it was left.
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back.”
So, while we rightly celebrate the legacy of the contribution of Irish emigrants to this country, we should not forget the terrible human cost exacted by this aspect of our history on our own people, the leaving and the left, and the emptied landscape of possibility.
Two years after Philip Larkin returned to this country, another poet left his native Belfast to take up a new job as Director of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum here in Coventry. John Hewitt would call this city his home for the next fifteen years and would memorably capture Coventry’s great generous spirit as it rebuilt itself after the Blitz, writing of:
“…………..this eager city,
the tolerance that laced its blatant roar,
its famous steeples and its web of girders
as image of the state hope argued for”
Transience is the circumstance at the heart of these great poets’ work, as it is at the heart of the experience of all migrants. When they arrived here, many Irish men and women did indeed find “the state hope argued for” and we will never forget the generosity of those who held out the hand of friendship to them.
Standing here in this ancient Guildhall, in the shadow of your great Cathedral and under the watchful gaze of those two protagonists at the battle of the Boyne, William and James, I am reminded of the words of Nelson Mandela, at whose funeral I was honoured to speak;
“Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace”.
What is true of great people might also be said of great cities. This great city has lived and continues to live by those words.
In 1944, with the Second World War still raging and only a few years after the city had been devastated in the Blitz, and in an act of great empathy on your part, you reached out to another devastated city and twinned with Stalingrad, now Volgograd.
You rebuilt and dedicated your Cathedral to reconciliation and forgiveness – reminding the world, at a dark time, that humanity and compassion had not been extinguished. I was therefore honoured to be welcomed to Coventry Cathedral by Dean Witcombe and to witness a number of its symbolic features associated with peace, reconciliation and ecumenical dialogue. I was particularly pleased to meet representatives of other Christian faiths in the Chapel of Unity.
Coventry is rightly respected for its outstanding work in the art of healing the wounds of past conflicts. Its story provides a powerful inspiration for those in Northern Ireland who are continuing to struggle to deal with the legacy of conflict, and to ensure that the toxins of a divisive past do not poison our hopes for a shared future.
The lesson of Coventry is that peace will only be embedded when we each have the generosity and the empathy to recognise the common humanity of the other, including former enemies, and to accord respect to their differing perspectives and narratives.
This empathy has been sustained in Coventry as you have extended your hand in solidarity to cities all over the world, twinning with, among many others, Warsaw in 1957, Dresden in 1959 and, recognising those strong Irish connections, Cork in 1958.
Cork was, of course, the final stop for Queen Elizabeth during her visit to Ireland three years ago. I am therefore delighted to see representatives from the city of Cork here today reinforcing those important links. Her Majesty’s State Visit to Ireland was a ground-breaking event for Britain and Ireland. Our two nations have come a very long way in recent years in terms of mutual understanding and cooperation. It is a journey not yet complete, but we are both strongly committed to continuing our journey in cooperation, as we face current and future challenges together.
It has been my privilege during this State Visit to continue strengthening the hand of friendship stretching across the Irish Sea.
Sabina and I would like to take this opportunity to thank our hosts, Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness, the Duke of Edinburgh for the warmth of their welcome and their kindness and hospitality over these past few days. Through the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl Peel who is with us today, and the Viscount Hood who graciously accompanied us throughout the visit, I also wish to express our appreciation to the team at the Royal Household for the efficiency and courtesy of all the arrangements made on our behalf.
The programme of events during the visit has demonstrated the depth, authenticity and warmth of the relationship between our two countries. It has illustrated that, in virtually every area of life, the people of the United Kingdom and Ireland are cooperating with each other, are learning from each other, and are supporting each other practically and on a daily basis.
I cannot think of a better place to bring this State Visit to a close than among the Irish community: with the Irish in Britain, active for 40 years; with the St. Patrick’s Club in Leamington Spa which has just celebrated its 50th year; with the Coventry Irish Society; the Coventry Cork Poets Group; and the Coventry County Associations. You, and all Irish organisations, play a vital role by providing a “home from home” for our community. I thank you for your fidelity to your homeland of origin; for your solidarity to each other; and for the contribution you have made to the warm friendship that now exists between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
This State Visit has had its essential share of ceremonial formality, but at its heart it has been about the warmest of relations between close neighbours.
If I may be allowed a note of regret from this visit, it is that the late Seamus Heaney was not with us to witness it. Seamus and Marie rightly shared the table of honour at the State Dinner in Dublin Castle during Her Majesty’s visit in May 2011. It was an honour not just merited by Seamus’ poetic genius, but also by his humanitarian and reconciling influence within the Republic of Letters and the Republic of Conscience, and above all by his enthralling companionability.
In reflecting on what Seamus might have made of this State visit to the United Kingdom, I thought of his following lines:
“Our pioneers keep striking
Inwards and downwards,
Every layer they strip
Seems camped on before.”
The historical terrain shared by our two peoples has been the site of many and different camps over the years. We, in this generation, are now the pioneers who are stripping away the old layers of the troubled past and creating a new path of hope and opportunity. As I conclude this first State Visit by an Irish President to the United Kingdom, my earnest hope is that our two countries will continue to tread the path of neighbourly friendship together.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus rath Dé oraibh go léir.