A Cheann Comhairle, a Chathaoirligh an tSeanaid agus a Chomhaltaí na Dála agus an tSeanaid, is mór liom an phribhléid bhunreachtúil labhairt le baill Dhá Theach an Oireachtais cruinnithe le chéile. Agus muid i mbéal na mílaoise is fóirstineach an ócáid í chun an deis seo a thapú. Míle bliain ó shin scríobh manach Éireannach na línte seo agus é ag smaoineamh ar an chéad mhíleaois:
Ní mhaireann glún den ghinealach
a chuaigh romhainn siar go hÁdhamh;
mise féin ní feasach mé
an liom an lá amárach.
Is cuí agus is tairbheach dúinn, agus muid ar chuspa ócáide móire, súil a chaitheamh siar ar a bhfuil caite agus caillte, ar a bhfuil déanta agus thart. Murach sin is beag a bheadh foghlamtha againn mar chine. Ach ní miste dúinn fosta aghaidh a thabhairt ar an todhchaí; agus, murab ionann is an manach bocht tinneallach, is cóir dúinn é a dhéanamh go hurrúsach, lán dóchais agus dánachta, lán mórtais agus cinnteachta, muid múnlaithe ag a bhfuil imithe ach gan a bheith faoi chuing ag an stair.
Fifteen days from now a page of history will turn and the world will mark the beginning of the third millennium. We know that in the natural world where things change over millions of years, not a thing will change on that date. However, we human beings measure our brief lives in years rather than centuries and for us the beginning of the year 2000 is an occasion of great symbolic importance. Because of this I think it is right to avail – as the National Millennium Committee suggested – of the privilege which the Constitution accords the President of delivering an address to both Houses of the Oireachtas meeting in Joint Session.
On the eve of this new millennium, as one age yields place to another, it seems timely to take a backward glance at the journey we and our ancestors have come and to reflect together on the new destinies open to us as a people. For what marks us off most from those who preceded us is the capacity we now have to control our world and to shape our future. More than that, unlike the natural world, we human beings can change ourselves. In his poem Celebration, Micheál Ó Siadhail talks of:
Lines with loops of days or months or years
We don't know how to begin to think of time:
A first reflection must surely bring us back to the beginning of these two thousand years and to the significance for the Christian world of this otherwise arbitrary calendar date.
Throughout history, women and men have sought to make sense of the world, of the transience of human life and the inevitability of death. That quest has led many people in many cultures and many ages to a search for the divine, the transcendent, a search for God. Christians believe that at a moment in time that search was reversed. God sought out humanity; the divine took human form in a child born in Bethlehem: God's gift of his son to help us understand the transformative power of love. Many people on this island are Christian and for them it is this momentous event 2000 years that we now celebrate.
There are many among us who are people of deep faith and who are not Christians. There are those who have no faith and those who have no time for religion. They will, I hope, understand and patiently respect the importance which Christians, in particular, attach to this great jubilee.
We can, however, every one of us, join together in celebrating the secular significance of this particular new year, for when we add the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland to our recent economic success and our remarkable cultural confidence, it is evident that for Ireland this millennial moment is not just an important anniversary but a time of genuine and profound change. It is a time of hope, of celebration and joy. The shadows of the past are lifting.
So often we have felt the heavy weight of that past. As the poet Brendan Kennelly put it:
My dark fathers lived the intolerable day
Committed always to the night of wrong.
So accustomed have we become to seeing ourselves as the objects and not the subjects of our own history that perhaps we do not yet fully understand the extent to which the weight of the past is now lifting and opening up new possibilities to us.
The decisions we make now and in the years ahead, the values which imbue those decisions and the use we make of today's opportunities, these will give our future its shape and its depth. They will determine the kind of Ireland we hand on to future generations for while, thankfully, we have come a long way, we still have a distance to travel before our star stops over an Ireland where the shadows have lifted for all our people. The choices are ours. Will the old iniquities and inequalities lurk beneath the veneer? Will idealism be dulled by selfish materialism, shrill begrudgery and apathy or will we bequeath to our children a land of peace, prosperity, equal opportunity and respect for difference?
There was a time in our history in the middle part of the first millennium when we came pretty close to such an Ireland. We speak of it as our golden age. St. Patrick, who came to our shores as a stranger, bringing with him a new way of looking at God, connected in an imaginative way with the Irish people. As Thomas Cahill says, "Patrick's gift to the Irish was his Christianity – the first de-Romanized Christianity in human history". It was a Christianity that fused, that melted easily into Irish life, growing side by side with the old pagan culture, with no anxiety to obliterate it.
As a result Ireland was transformed into something new, a place with a distinctive psychological identity, capable of seamless yet radical change. Respect for difference became enshrined in the rule books of our convents and monasteries. St. Bridget declared: "Different is the condition of everyone".
The rule of St. Carthage said: "And different the nature of each place". I am fairly sure Columbanus, our first great ambassador to France, must have raised a few eyebrows when he asserted, “Amor non tenet ordinem”– Love has nothing to do with order. Love and respect for difference are the natural precursors of peace and its younger sibling, prosperity. Many of the conditions that facilitated that former glorious period of our history are now once again falling into place on our island.
That golden age did not last. It fell victim to the Viking invasion and indeed much of our subsequent history through the centuries up to very recent times is a litany of hopes raised and then dashed, one lament after another. Little wonder that we gained a reputation as a nation of romantic dreamers whose dreams seemed unlikely ever to come to pass.
It is true that the reality of Irish life for many people was often more nightmare than dream; most of our ancestors lived on brinks very different from the one that we are privileged to be on. The wars, invasions, rebellions, plantations and plagues they endured brought awful suffering, culminating in the Ocras Mór, the unbearable tragedy of the Famine which ravaged Ireland in the last century.
Many of our senior citizens will remember their own childhoods in the early years of this century when poverty and deprivation of an awful order stalked this land. Children died in their thousands. A swelling stream of emigrants, many of them young women, flowed out of Ireland on every vessel from every port. In the words of an American journalist writing in 1909: "The Irish in Ireland are kept alive by the Irish who have been driven to other lands."
There was still more grief to come, more cause to lament as a new generation's bid for freedom from the grip of colonialism gave us the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and a bitter civil war. Along with the forgotten dead in Flanders, each left behind a legacy of success and failure, of pride and contempt, the scarring inheritance, the unfinished business of the next generation.
Yet even in the darkest days of our chequered past our unique Irish psychological identity shone through. Edmund Campion, the English Jesuit martyred at Tyburn in 1581, said of the Irish:
The people are thus inclined.. Franke.. Sufferable of paines infinite. great almes-givers, surpassing in hospitalitie. they are sharp-witted, lovers of learning, capable of any studie whereunto they bend themselves, constant in travaile, adventurous, intractable, kinde-hearted, secret in displeasure.
These were the qualities which kept and still keep so many of our people going through the good times and the bad – and of the bad times there have many.
The difficult birth of the new State did not create a magic wand with which it could wave away its many problems. With hindsight we see the faults and failings of our infant State – its introspection, its economic instability, the limits it imposed on women, its confessionalism, its dark side where vulnerable children suffered dreadfully and in silence, its failure to adequately address the consequences of Partition and much more.
Yet we also need to acknowledge the good that was done. Many people worked tirelessly to build that fledgling State out of the chaos of empire. They gave us a democracy, something which had never existed before on this island. They stitched together the tattered and scattered fragments of our cultural heritage, breathed new life into our weary, collective Irish psyche and kick-started what was a Third World country. We owe so much to those men and women from every walk of life, lay and clerical. A great many never saw their dreams realised in their own lifetimes, but in very difficult times they used the meagre tools at their disposal to lay the foundations of this Ireland of today.
We owe a debt of gratitude too to those who left this island. Some went as missionaries or as volunteers in health care and education, some went simply in search of adventure. Most emigrants, however, left reluctantly, driven out by hardship and lack of opportunity in circumstances no different from those which bring refugees from other parts of the world to our shores today. These were not the celebrated Wild Geese or political refugees of previous centuries. They were poor men and women who ploughed very lonely furrows in strange lands.
It was our emigrants who globalised the name of Ireland. They brought our culture with them, refreshed and enriched it with the new energy it absorbed from the varied cultures into which they transplanted it. Many of them kept faith with our island's destiny through the generations. They gave us that huge multicultural Irish family now proudly celebrated and acknowledged in the new Article 2 of the Constitution.
Who could have predicted even a decade ago this Ireland of the lifting shadows? The economic landscape has been transformed, the tide of emigration reversed, a new and more self-confident generation neither docile nor xenophobic has made, as St. Patrick did, a new, imaginative connection with the wider world. Our great literary tradition has been built on making Ireland a centre of gravity for arts and culture; urban and rural communities the length and breadth of the country have found a high achieving new empowerment based on partnership; old enemies have become friendly neighbours; peace is no longer a rumour, it is real.
Today, where the name of Ireland is spoken, the word success is very close behind. We really have taken our place among the nations of the world. Part of our success we undoubtedly owe to our membership of the European Union. Part of our success we owe to ourselves, to the spirit of enterprise, of partnership and common purpose among our people, to the genius and initiative which was unlocked by widening educational opportunity, to the visionary leadership and public endeavour which together pushed Ireland into a new gear.
Along with the manifest benefits of success have come new challenges. We are the first generation to have the eradication of poverty within our grasp, the first generation to experience Ireland as a land of fresh starts and new opportunity for people from other cultures. We are the first generation to be seriously tested on the bona fides of our legendary hospitality, our "Céad Míle Fáilte". We are the first generation for centuries to have the opportunity to build and consolidate a lasting peace between this island's two traditions. And so, as the shadows lift, the world looks very different. The world is very different.
Nowhere, of course, is that more obvious than in Northern Ireland. Seamus Heaney's poem, Cure at Troy, reminds us:
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
We know just how hurt, we know just how hard – so hard that only a short few years ago the Ulster poet, John Hewitt, was lamenting that the future could find no crevice to enter by. Miraculously that crevice has been found, or more correctly, crafted, and with immense difficulty by people who are deserving of our deepest gratitude.
We are mindful of the hurt caused to so many, hurts which may never heal, but we take heart from the forgiveness, the generosity, the love and compassion, the willingness to take risks even in the absence of trust, of so many ordinary everyday people who are the very heart and soul of this phenomenon we call the peace process. Their story tells us why it is worth dreaming, to keep on dreaming, even when the cynics say it is impossible and the naysayers threaten to make it impossible.
I take great pride in these people who have committed themselves to overcoming deep divisions and building a humanly decent society, respectful of difference, rooted in human rights, at ease with all who share this island. The structures which will allow us to build healthy relationships on this island and between these islands are now, of course, up and running. We are today actively harnessing our collective energies to build an Ireland where divisions, whether in the mind or on the map, will be transcended by shared prosperity, a spirit of co-operative endeavour and, importantly, a new language, much kinder, much softer than before. The peacemakers followed a star of hope, at times no more than a glimmer, and now, like the Magi, they have given us this precious Christmas gift of peace.
Earlier this century other peacemakers followed a star which led from the wild carnage of a world war to the creation of the European Union, a remarkable partnership of once bitter enemies. Many thought it a fanciful and very unlikely dream. Today, of course, it is real, so real that a long queue has formed to join us in the most exciting adventure in peace, democracy and partnership which Europe has ever known. Enlargement will bring us many benefits and it will, of course, bring a shift of kilter. Just as we were helped in Ireland on our journey to prosperity, soon we in turn will be expected to help others. When that day comes, I hope we see it as a badge of honour.
Today's Ireland is a first world country but with a third world memory, a memory to keep us humble, to remind us of the fragility of it all, a memory to remind us that too many people across the world waken up each day to lives of sheer terror and dread. They too need dreamers to imagine a day when their shadows will lift. They too need friends to help make those dreams happen. We have a long and proud history of being just such a friend, a champion of the poor, the oppressed, the ignored and the neglected. And for all our success, we have them too on our own doorstep.
We have our own dark side, the people who watch today's fastmoving, self-assured Ireland from our own margins. The Constitution acknowledges the equality of each and every one of us and recent Irish history has shown the extraordinary benefits of widening, of equalising, the embrace of opportunity. The evidence is all around us, the evidence is in. Just look what a radical transformation has already been accomplished and still we have not unlocked anything like our full potential. How much talent, how much energy is still waiting to be nurtured and developed into fulfilled lives instead of frittered away in the frustrations and the many social problems of exclusion and under-achievement?
We get to write a chapter of our country's history, just a chapter. What story will the 21st century tell of us? Will it tell of a sophisticated and intuitive age, rich in imagination, rooted deeply in community, grateful for its prosperity but aware of its frailty, an age which protected our environment and sustained the economic miracle, cherished our past but opened our future up to new perspectives, to other cultures? Will it tell how we used our resources generously and well, sharing them equitably at home and abroad? Will it tell how we in this generation consigned poverty to history, how we created a society that was all centre and no margins, where opportunity was a birthright? Will it tell that we vindicated the rights of others to such a world? Will it tell how a generation, freed from the wastefulness of conflict and the burdens of the past, galvanised its energy, its talents, its resources in a determined effort to make Ireland the best, the most egalitarian, it has ever been in its history?
All that may sound, of course, impossible, implausible, perhaps out of tune with the scepticism, the supposed "realism" of today. We live, as you know, in times when windows open more easily on the unpleasant side of human nature. This is an age of righteous accountability which should serve to make us wiser and warier, but may indeed, if we are not careful, instead feed an uncaring indifference, a cynicism which will erode our capacity to dream and to deliver dreams. Just as in this Chamber today are gathered our political leaders to whom we are grateful for their fidelity to public service and indeed their role – your role – in today's success story, so for tomorrow we all need to encourage and nurture an unselfish vocation to public service among all our young men and especially among our young women.
As Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy has said:
We can all be sowers of our time, people who sow the seeds that will be reaped by the next generation. When we sow, we must not expect instant success, but sow we must if a new world is ever to come to fruit. The purpose of our generation is to make a better world possible in the future and to prepare for it.
Together we will sow, we will write a new chapter for Ireland. Let it begin with a sigh of relief at the weight that has lifted from us, with joyful gratitude for the hope we have and with determination to use well and with integrity the tools we have been given.
These past two thousand years have taught us a lot about human life and human nature. Life of its own accord can bring the tragedy of illness, accident, disability, death, whatever, to any one of our doors. Life itself can be very, very cruel. But human beings have themselves added greatly and gratuitously to the cruelty which nature visits upon us. No child comes into the world distrustful and unloving, bigoted and uncaring. These things adults teach, and these things adults have to stop teaching.
This century has created many incredible images and stories from holocaust to moon landing, from women's suffrage to the world wide web, but one recent image struck me as powerfully symbolic at this jubilee time. It was the picture on the front page of an Irish newspaper of an unborn child's tiny hand reaching out from the womb and wrapping itself around the finger of the surgeon who was operating to save its life. Another moving nativity, another reminder of how much we need each other, how much we have to offer each other. We have had all the lessons we could ever need in hatred, in neglect and in hurt. We know deeply that human beings need to be respected and loved, that we blossom in giving and in receiving love and that its withholding, its absence, shrivels us. We get hard, as the poet said.
Every Christmas, Christians gather around the crib, drawn again and again to its innocence. We gather in a world which has long since lost its innocence, but we gather in hope that maybe in this future that we are about to live the story of Bethlehem, so often badly misused, might at last prove true, peace on earth, goodwill to all. As the sun goes down on this millennium, just as that page of history turns, are we aware at all of the awesome power each one of us holds in our own hearts and in our own hands? We cannot change the past, but we can create a much better future.
In his poem, Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney says:
So hope for a great sea-change
On the far side of revenge.
Believe that a farther shore
Is reachable from here.
Believe in miracles
And cures and healing wells.
So one could say it has come to pass. The great sea-change we hoped for is here. We are nearer that farther shore. We who can change can cure. We who have hope can heal. This is the age of miracles. This is the age of lifting shadows.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh. May I thank you and wish you well in all you do on behalf of the Irish people. A very happy Christmas and a very peaceful new year to each and every one of you.
A standing ovation was accorded the President on the conclusion of her address.