‘Emigration has been a defining characteristic of the Irish people’, President says

Michael D Higgins thanks Irish organisations for ‘providing sanctuaries of Irishness around the globe’

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina held a reception last night at Áras an Uachtaráin for almost 200 people working with Irish communities worldwide, who had travelled to Dublin for the first Global Irish Civic Forum. Here’s the full text of his speech:

As President of Ireland I am delighted to receive so many opportunities to meet and engage with Irish communities all over the world. In most cases such interactions form part of my visits abroad for official engagements - and always Irish communities events are a key part of those visits. One of the commitments outlined in the recently published Global Irish: Ireland’s Diaspora Policy was the holding of the first Global Irish Civic Forum which would be attended by representatives of the multitude of organisations directly working with our Irish emigrants abroad, and on the occasion of this wonderful event, it is a pleasure to be able to welcome you all this evening here to Áras an Uachtaráin.

As representatives of groups working with Irish emigrants I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to thank you all for the often unseen work which you do on a daily basis to support our emigrants as they develop new lives in their adoptive countries.

Many of the organisations here this evening have served a vital purpose over the decades in providing sanctuaries of Irishness around the globeproviding sanctuaries of Irishness around the globe. In halls in Camden, Boston and Melbourne they satisfied the need in our emigrants to reconnect with their culture and ethnicity, and the deeper need to form communities in new and often alien environments. While the context may have changed, the groups you represent continue to fulfil those functions today.

I know there is a great diversity of organisations represented at the Forum, ranging from welfare bureaus who support our most vulnerable and marginalised emigrants such as those who seek to support Irish prisoners incarcerated abroad or supporting LGBT Irish in London, to bodies aimed at promoting our rich cultural heritage and contemporary culture, to networks who seek to leverage Irish connections to develop mutually beneficial business relationships - including now business networks in places such as Estonia, Abu Dhabi and Brazil.

The common thread running through all these bodies is a sense of pride and solidarity in our Irish identity. Without the tireless work done by Irish community organisations throughout the world, current efforts to build new links with the global Irish would not be possible. Through your sustained engagement, generations of our people abroad have made, and continue to make, an enormous contribution to Ireland’s development.

By bringing you together over these two days, the hope is that a web of interlinking and overlapping connections will be made which will enhance the work that you do. It is also an important opportunity for reflection on some of the wider issues associated with migration from this island; the importance of Irish culture as a unifying factor, the continued maintenance of the links that bind our global Irish family to Ireland and the impact of the evolving patterns of emigration on our Irish communities abroad.

Mar a deirtear go minic, is gné shainiúil lárnach de mhuintir na hÉireann í an eisimirce. Cé go ndéanatar díol suntais de líon na ndaoine a dfhág an tír seo le linn an Drochshaol agus sna mblianta ina dhiaidh, agus is cinnte gur tharla imirce mhór d’ár muintir dá bharr, caithfear a rá go raibh claonadh againn, mar náisiún, leis an imirce riamh.

As is often stated, emigration has been a defining characteristic of the Irish people. While some often focus on the large numbers who left Ireland during and following the dark days of the Famine, and it is true that it represented a mass exodus of our people from these shores, over the generations it has been our propensity to be a migratory people.

Whether by choice or through necessity generations of Irish people have left this island to start new lives in distant lands. Figures vary with many estimating up to approximately 70 million people throughout the world claiming some Irish heritage. The history of the different waves of migration from this island is one that is incredibly varied and rich. This legacy provides a unique opportunity for global engagement through the links that bind Ireland to her diaspora and to the countries to which our people have moved.

In recent years as a result of the challenging economic situation in Ireland there has once again been a considerable increase in the number of emigrants leaving Ireland, particularly from amongst the younger generation. Although the numbers leaving are now reducing, for many the most recent increase in emigration from Ireland was a surprising and unwelcome return to a phenomenon of old. While many of these have left for destinations which have a long legacy of Irish migration, such as the UK, US and Australia, increasingly our emigrants are moving to non-traditional destinations in the Middle East and Asia. Indeed I am delighted that there is representation at the Civic Forum from Africa, Asia and Latin America as you have particularly unique perspectives to share, and perhaps also much to learn from those organisations working with older and more established Irish diaspora communities.

In addition to the new destinations for our migrants, the nature of emigration has also changed over the generations. There were very many thousands of young Irishmen and women from villages and parishes throughout Ireland, who left home for distant shores in search of a better life for themselves and their children and they were not able to simply pick up their mobile phone to call home. In my youth I recall the letters and parcels from emigrants in the US arriving to neighbours. This oft-read correspondence was often the only link across the Atlantic to family members who had departed.

Advances in modern technology means that Sydney or Dubai are no more than a click away. While this has untold advantages - allowing grandparents to see and interact with their grandchildren, facilitating instantaneous conversations across many thousands of miles - it nonetheless remains the case that emigration can often be a painful experience. Telecommunications has altered this experience but it has not negated the importance of emigrant groups represented here being able to provide that human solidarity of a ‘home from home’. Indeed modern communication tools can sometimes increase the sense of loneliness and isolation as the lives of loved ones are watched from afar.

Emigration is at its root an experience that is intensely personal. While the successive departure of Irish emigrants to such distant locations left indelible gaps in families and communities throughout Ireland and deprived our island of their talents, in a testament to the enduring spirit of the Irish, many of these emigrants thrived in their new country of residence. For many the experience is an immensely enriching one filled with exposure to new cultures and peoples with innovative opportunities to develop their talents. Often grappling with new cultures, new languages and unimagined challenges they succeeded in developing new lives for themselves and their families.

For others the experience is more challenging. The distance from friends and family and from familiar social supports can be difficult for many of our emigrants. For those Irish in particular, we have a special responsibility to reach out and embrace them as part of our community and of our shared Irish identity. It is your organisations who do that invaluable and essential work on behalf of us all, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to thank you for that.

The desire to remember and celebrate the contribution of our diaspora underpins also the Presidential Award for Distinguished Service for the Irish Abroad. It enables us to recognise in a formal way the outstanding contribution made by those abroad to serving the State and its citizens. It also provides an opportunity for the State to honour the sacrifice, support and commitment to Ireland of the wider Irish Diaspora. Over the last three years I have presented this award to 30 recipients who have demonstrated a remarkable commitment to Ireland and the Irish people and I am delighted to see a number of them here this evening.

In recent years the State has been in a position to provide financial support to many of your groups. Over the 11 years of operation, the Emigrant Support Programme has provided over €125 million to organisations working with Irish communities abroad. With its focus on assisting the most vulnerable and marginalised in our communities abroad it represents the caring approach which Irish people are known for. It is also a tangible manifestation of the Irish State’s wish to sustain and enhance the lives of our global Irish family.

It is important, too, that we as a State continue to recognise the considerable debt that we owe to previous generations of Irish emigrants themselves. The sacrifices made by past emigrants to ensure that families left in Ireland were afforded increased opportunities and prospects have not been forgotten. In many cases remittances from emigrants provided for educational opportunities for younger siblings and underpinned economic advancement in the Irish economy. I am keenly conscious of the important role played by the Irish diaspora in supporting our fledgling State in its early days.

As we begin our preparations for the commemoration of 1916 next year it is important to recall the central importance of the Irish overseas in the State’s first steps to independence. At many points in Irish history, it was our diaspora that sustained the independence movement, that sheltered its leaders and that ensured that the Irish nation became recognised and acknowledged at the international level. Just as it was also American scholars and institutions of learning that collated and maintained many essential archives of our language and culture during the most difficult periods of the 19th century.

For example, next week I will be in Skibbereen to mark the centenary of the death of O’Donovan Rossa, who died in the US and at whose funeral Pádraig Pearse made clear his revolutionary intent. As you will all be very much aware, the Irish emigrant communities played a central role in the planning, execution and aftermath of the Rising. Next year’s centenary will be an opportunity for all of us to engage with the unique developments leading up to and following the events of 1916. People of all ages, in Ireland and overseas, will have the opportunity to both commemorate the past and reflect on the future direction of our country. An important part of commemoration will be a Global and Diaspora Programme, supported by the Embassy network all around the world, which will invite all those with an interest in Ireland to play their part in this important centenary. I hope that you will all be able to encourage the communities with whom you work to join in this celebration of our independence.

Mar fhocal scoir, is mian liom arís mo bhuíochas ó chroí a ghabháil libh as ucht na hoibre go léir a bhíonn ar siúl agaibh, lá i ndiaidh lae, chun tacaíocht, comhairle agus lámh chúnta a thabhairt d’ár ndeoraithe thar lear.

In conclusion I would like to once again thank you for the valuable work which you undertake on a daily basis to support, advise and promote the cause of our emigrants abroad.

The global Irish family is a unique and extraordinary body of people which I deeply value. I hope that the discussions you are having over these two days are informative and enriching and one of the fruits of these deliberations will be increased links with other organisations working with Irish communities throughout the world.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

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