Ireland’s shared future requires us to be ‘unshackled from snares of past’ – Higgins

President calls for ‘deep reflection’ in address to mark anniversary of St Colmcille’s birth

The President has said the time has come for the adoption of "an ethics of narrative hospitality" that will replace past entrenchments in Ireland and instead "offer hope and openness to others".

By utilising such an approach, Michael D Higgins said, "we may nurture memory and remembrance and use them as strong foundations for a shared, agreed future on what is our mutual home – this island of Ireland where the healing has to commence and endure.

“That is our shared challenge,” he said.

Mr Higgins was speaking virtually at the American Conference of Irish Studies, which was hosted by Ulster University's Magee campus in partnership with the John and Pat Hume Foundation in Derry on Thursday.


The conference is part of a year-long commemoration of the 1,500th anniversary of the birth of St Colmcille, the region’s patron saint and a key figure in early Christianity and learning.

The President delivered the keynote address on the subjects of “heritage, home and healing”.

During his speech, the President spoke of the importance of “such deep reflection on our past as many generate hope for the future” which could lead ultimately to healing.

“Our individual memory, we must never forget, is entwined with the memories of so many others,” he said.

“Unravelling the knots of memories,” he said, can be challenging and often painful, but it is ultimately “a rewarding and even cathartic task”, but one which “requires acts of leadership at all levels and from disparate quarters, from all of us”.

He paid tribute to the peacebuilding work of John Hume and spoke of the debt of gratitude owed to Seamus Heaney, quoting his lines from The Cure at Troy and the now-famous phrase, "hope and history rhyme".

This, he said, "became a widely cited poem in the glow of the 1998 Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and continues as an invocation," used most recently by the US President Joe Biden in his inauguration speech.

“President Biden’s offer of a moral reawakening on our global responsibilities, including how we respond to Covid-19 and climate change, global conflicts gone on too long, is so much in that spirit,” the President said. “May the sea-change gain strength and continue. I wish him the blessings of necessary courage.”

The President also spoke of the importance of listening and recognising facts and events from the past, however difficult, as a “necessary prerequisite for any meaningful healing.

“Lasting peace will only be embedded to achieve its best harvest when we each have the generosity and the empathy to recognise that we must see as our materials the common humanity of the other, including that of former enemies, to whom we accord respect of so much more than tolerance, to their differing perspectives and narratives,” he said.

“For the sake of the future we will share, we must be unshackled from the snares of the past.

“Creating a space for forgiveness is essential and can be achieved, and it will aid the process of healing, even through contact, and will go on to enable us to live together on this shared island with our eyes on the light and loves of a shared future lived together in endless curiosity - nothing closed,” he said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times