Centenary celebrations ‘must ignore exploiters’

President Higgins visits Scottish island of Iona to mark 450th anniversary of St Colmcille’s arrival

Ireland and Britain have the opportunity over the next decade of commemorations to mark the first World War, the Easter Rising and key events surrounding Irish independence in a way that ignores those who want to fuel bitterness, President Michael D Higgins has declared.

“Over the decade, we must remain conscious that the period we are remembering was one of intense conflict, in Ireland and so many other places,” he said, in a speech on Iona to mark the 1,450th anniversary of St Colmcille’s arrival on the Scottish island.

“To fail to recognise this would be to do a disservice to our history. But a pluralist and above all, ethical, remembrance of a period of conflict or division does not, in itself, exacerbate such conflict.

“On the contrary, it can serve to cross boundaries, and bring us together in the present,” he said, adding that some will choose “to exploit the anniversaries, to perpetuate a narrow, exclusive interpretation of history and identity”.


The President followed in the steps of predecessor, Eamon de Valera, who travelled to the Hebridean island 50th years ago to mark an earlier anniversary of the Irish saint, who is regarded as one of the most significant figures of the Dark Ages.

If Ireland and Britain choose to ignore those wanting an insular, bitter recounting then “we can use the experience of remembrance, if approached in an inclusive manner, with an openness to the experiences and views of others, and willingness to interrogate our own preconceptions, to transend the historical divisions and understand more about our neighbours and in doing so, ourselves”.

Mr Higgins and his wife, Sabina were welcomed onto Iona after a short ferry ride from Mull by two Scottish ministers, Fiona Hyslop and Mike Russell, along with the spiritual leader of the Iona community, Rev Peter MacDonald.

Established by Colmcille in the 6th Century, Iona remained a significant religious community until the Reformation when it fell into disrepair, before it was brought back to life gradually from the 1930s.

Since then, people have come to live in the ecumenically-run institution for a time, sometimes for weeks, sometimes longer, learning to work together in harmony.

“Sabina and I are happy to be on this sacred island - a place of learning and of cultural richness, which has always retained its own very special local identity,” Mr Higgins declared.

An ecumenical service was held in Iona's abbey, where much of the singing was provided by the famous West Cork choir, Cor Cuila Aodha, under Peadar O Riada, who has worked for months to bring today's event to fruition.

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy

Mark Hennessy is Ireland and Britain Editor with The Irish Times