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Speech at a Reception hosted by the Irish American Heritage Center, Chicago

Speech by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland

At a Reception hosted by the Irish American Heritage Center

Chicago

Sunday, 11th May 2014

A dhaoine uaisle, a chairde Gael agus a chairde d’Éirinn,

Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo libh inniu.

Thank you to the Board of Directors for your invitation to my wife, Sabina, and me to join you this evening.

Mar Uachtarán na hÉireann, as President of Ireland, I am very grateful to have this opportunity to be here with you all at the Irish-American Heritage Center. In particular I wish to thank JohnCrowleyGorski for his generous words of introduction, and each and every one of you for your warm welcome.

Our cultural heritage in all its so many forms is at the very heart of our identity; it is a connection for all Irish people not only to our shared past, but to our creative present and our future full of possibilities. We are deeply grateful to the Irish diaspora, who work so passionately to keep that culture and heritage alive and relevant in their new homes and communities, making it a resource for descendants of the many Irish people who have, across the decades, had to leave our shores in search of new opportunities and a better future.

That culture now enjoys global recognition, and it carries an Irish American contribution melded in it as it enhances the name of Ireland everywhere.

The impact of the Irish migrant experience on Irish culture has been creative, as it has been profound and lasting. Our Irish family abroad have played a vital role in the reinvention of much of that culture; the very act of emigration itself forcing a remaking, a reimagining of the self, which breathes new life into many of our traditional art forms. Our writers, artists, directors, actors and performers, like Chicago’s Michael Flatley, have built into their craft much that is of the essence of our Irish imagination and inheritance, while creating new forms and works of art that have greatly enriched our contemporary cultural practices.

I am very pleased, therefore, to have the opportunity to visit one of the most significant Irish cultural organisations in the United States – a vibrant and dynamic facility housed in a once derelict building, which was transformed and re-imagined to become the Irish American Heritage Center. It stands as a great testament to its original creators – some of whom are here today, and others who, while no longer with us, have left a great legacy, indeed a great gift, to the Irish-American community here in Chicago.

This institution will, I know, shortly celebrate its thirtieth birthday. However its beginnings stretch back to the turn of the last century, when the Red Branch Knights was established here in Chicago in 1901. It soon became the Irish Fellowship Club and, many years later, one of the main supporters for the founding of this Irish American Heritage Center. The Center, therefore, is deeply connected to the story of Irish migration to Chicago across many decades.

As an academic and a representative of the Irish people, I became aware of the deep yearning that exists amongst our emigrants, to maintain their connectedness to their homeland, to celebrate their Irishness and to pass on to their children, that deep pride in the culture which formed and shaped their forefathers. It is also a story of how, throughout the generations, a new Irish-American heritage has emerged here in Chicago – one which has seen the strands of two rich cultures mingling, interacting, and creating something that is not reducible to one or the other but which combines the best of both heritages. It is a reflection of the different versions of Irishness that have evolved throughout our history of migration, forming a rich and complex tapestry of inherited identity.

Here in Chicago many Irish people continue to make their cultural mark, weaving their vibrant Irish heritage into the fabric of their new lives while, in turn, absorbing the great culture of a city whose name is linked with writers of the calibre of Ernest Hemingway and Saul Bellow – a city renowned for its lively and thriving music industry, and which houses one of the best fine arts colleges in the United States.[1]

Just as we are proud of our unique Irish culture, today we are also very proud of the distinctive Irish-American culture which has evolved through the experiences and history of the many groups of Irish people who have come to Chicago and the Mid-West over the past two centuries.

Because, of course, one culture does not simply replace another; culture is always a process, something continually being reworked and redefined as we take into ourselves from each other.

Today is a great reminder that culture, beyond all the definitional difficulties, is based on what we share; and it is very uplifting to stand in this Center and to recognise and experience the power of culture to transcend both time and space.

Although we are almost 6,ooo kilometres from Irish shores; and separated by many years from the first wave of Irish emigrants to this great city, our Irish culture has continued to grow and flourish here in Chicago. It is a great testament to the determination and character of successive generations of Irish people who have made new homes here; and it is a true privilege to visit this cultural space where our film, literature, music, dance, drama and traditions are celebrated, shared and passed on to future generations of proud Irish Americans.

I have been very impressed by what I have seen here today. Indeed I could have passed many contented hours in that magnificent library, with its many thousands of volumes of literature from and about Ireland. Your collection is indeed an extraordinary one, which narrates the rich history of the Irish people and the evolution of the Irish American community through the work of many of our greatest writers – including James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Moore, Liam MacGabhann and the many other talented poets, dramatists, novelists and composers who have contributed so much to our shared legacy.

I was delighted to learn that the library harbours a splendid reproduction of the musical Anthologies of the man often credited as the person who ‘saved Irish music’ – namely Chief O’Neill.

Francis O’Neill made an enduring contribution to Irish culture by gathering and publishing the biggest ever collection of Irish music while living and working here in the city of Chicago.

A native of County Cork, he emigrated to Chicago and, in 1873, joined the police force, in which he enjoyed a distinguished career, rising to the rank of Superintendent. His is one of the many, and perhaps best known, stories of an Irish emigrant who made a notable contribution to his new homeland whilst also remaining strongly connected to the culture which defined and shaped his native country. His collection has been described, by Nicholas Carolan, as ‘the largest snapshot ever taken of Irish Traditional Music’ and it is a snapshot that has made Chicago a significant place in the history of Irish culture. We owe a debt of gratitude to Francis O’Neill for initiating one of the greatest works of cultural retrieval, saving for future generations countless melodies that would otherwise have been lost.

Francis O’Neill’s work was accomplished through a very special collaboration of a north-south kind. The music was transcribed by Sergeant O’Neill, no relation, but himself a talented violinist from County Down.

The O’Neill legacy revealed something else – the basis of a fine argument as to tunes. Before they emigrated, musicians, music makers or, as they are called in Cavan, musicianers, played within their own area. Playing the same basic airs from around the country in the one place Chicago they could contrast, compose and argue about styles and tunes, a process of which we are all the beneficiaries.

I was most reluctant to leave your fascinating museum with its captivating collection of artefacts which serve as a tangible reminder of the great wealth of creativity that has always characterised the Irish people as they reinvented themselves again and again. It is a creativity that allows us to mine our past; understanding through the history of our art and design, as well as our music and literature, the preoccupations and hopes of the generations that have gone before us.

The beautiful objects I have just viewed are an important part of our collective national identity and allow our culture and heritage to be enjoyed by the citizens of Chicago – both those of Irish descent and those simply interested, and their numbers grow and grow every day, in the heritage of fellow citizens whose lives are now lived in this city but whose history reaches back to towns and villages all across Ireland.

Ar ndóigh d’oscail duine de mo réamhtheachtaithe an Múseam, is í sin an tUachtarán Mary Robinson, nuair a thug sí cuairt air in 1991, agus is cúis áthais dom teacht anseo inniu lena fheiceáil cé mar a d’fhorbair sé, agus mar a ndeachaigh sé chun cinn agus, é ag leanúint le lorg an chultúir a aimsiú; cultúr ar cuid de chroílár ár stair chomhroinnte é, agus atá tar éis fás agus dul chun cinn i dtíortha ar fud an domhain.

[The Museum was, of course, opened by one of my predecessors, President Mary Robinson, when she visited in 1991, and it is a great pleasure to come here today and see how it has developed and progressed as it continues to track and trace the culture which lies at the Center of our shared past and which has grown and prospered in so many countries across the globe.]

And, it is so important to recognise that this Center is also, of course, a place that recognises the importance of reaching out a hand of friendship, support, and solidarity in advocacy, to the many Irish emigrants who are in need of assistance as they create new lives for themselves in communities far away from home, and in particular those dependant on legislative change that will enable them to fully participate in the society to which they seek to belong in the fullest sense, and to which they already contribute.

It is very appropriate that the Chicago Irish Immigrant Support organisation (CIIS) has found its home here, at the very heart of the Irish American Community, which is exactly where such an organisation should be.

I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet with CIIS Board members, staff and some of the beneficiaries of its services. I heard of some of the difficulties our emigrants, both old and new, experience and of the vital assistance they receive from the CIIS. I was particularly struck by the experiences of the undocumented Irish and the enormous shadow that lack of official status can throw across an individual’s life and that of their family. We must all continue to hope and work in our different ways so that their situations can be resolved before too much time elapses.

We are very conscious at home of the connection we have with our global Irish family and I am aware that the Irish Government has been providing financial support to both the CIIS and the Irish American Heritage Center. Your work is important and it is equally important that it be supported from home.

In conclusion, I would like to thank you all once again for welcoming Sabina and me here this evening on my second official visit to this country since I entered Office. It has been a most enjoyable and informative experience for us both. I am very much looking forward to enjoying some of this evening’s cultural performance with you, before I must leave for another engagement this evening.

I am confident that our artists, both at home and abroad will continue to produce wonderful work and to demonstrate that the Irish creative imagination remains as vibrant and as original as ever. No matter where our people are, they can be assured that our culture gives voice to that which never takes from but enhances our reputation all over the world and connects us profoundly to our diaspora.

It is a voice that I have heard loudly and clearly in the Irish American Heritage Center, and visiting you here today has been both inspiring and uplifting. I thank all those involved with the Center as staff, volunteers, or active and regular participants, for all you do to keep our culture alive and well in Chicago.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

[1] The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.