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Speech by Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland at a Irish Community Reception, The Drake Hotel, Chicago

President of Ireland Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina at a Irish Community Reception, The Drake Hotel, Chicago

A dhaoine uaisle, a chairde.

Tá an-áthas orm bheith anseo libh.

It is a great pleasure for Sabina and I to be here in a city that has so many Irish connections, and to have the opportunity to meet with members of the Irish Community in Chicago and from across the Midwest.

Tá stair fhada bhródúil ag glúine éagsúla de mhuintir na hÉireann anseo sna Stáit Aontaithe, de bharr eisimircí éagsúla, agus tá ceangal láidir na staire agus an mhuintearais eadrainn. Is gaolmhaireacht ar leith atá idir Éire agus na Stáit Aontaithe – is oileán de shé mhilliún duine, nó mar sin, atá in Éirinn ach tá diaspóra de sheachtó milliún dár muintir ar fud an domhain, agus tá tuairim is 40 milliún díobh sin ina gcónaí anseo sna Stáit Aontaithe.

[Irish people, in their several migrations and in every generation, have a long and proud history here in the United States; the ties of history and kinship between our two people run deep. The relationship of Ireland with the United States is unique – we are an island of some six million people and yet our worldwide diaspora is 70 million strong, of which some 44 million live here in the United States.]

The story of the Chicago Irish community, however, is a particularly remarkable one. For over a century and a half, Chicago has been a new home for immigrants from all over the world, and while each new community has left its own distinctive mark on this city, there is no doubt whatsoever as to the special contribution made by the Irish to the development of modern Chicago.

There is of course the extraordinary contribution made to the public services – be it the police services, fire services, medical services and so many other aspects of public life.

We must never forget the debt we owe to such as Chief O’Neill who, as a post-famine immigrant, collected thousands of pieces of Irish dance music, while rising to become Chief of Police in Chicago. Nicholas Carolan, Director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, estimates that over 3,000 recordings of Irish Music were made between the 1920s and the 1930s, the majority of them from America.

From its foundation in the 1830s Chicago immediately attracted a generation of Irish immigrants. By helping to build the Illinois and Michigan Canal, the immigrants of that time were instrumental in transforming Chicago into an important trading hub. Many later moved on to work in the lumber yards, stockyards, railroads and steel mills witnessing, and playing their part in, a Chicago that was growing into one of America’s great cities and the capital of the Midwest.

In parallel, as a destination for so many who had left voluntarily and, mostly, involuntarily, because of economic necessity, Chicago grew in the Irish consciousness as a place where a great number of our people were thriving – building new homes and successful lives for themselves and their children. Chicago became a place often spoken of in Ireland, a place most had never visited but which had written itself into the annals of their family history.

It is a great and uplifting example of how our migration story is not one solely dominated by hardship, suffering and displacement. It is also a story of opportunity taken and re-invention, the consequences of which have gifted Ireland with a generous and supportive global family here in Chicago, and indeed across all continents of the globe.

Today, many Irish American families in Chicago are three or four generations deep but their connection with Ireland remains strong. During my time here I have heard many positive stories of Irish emigrants who made their mark in this thriving and dynamic city – working, making friends, raising and educating families, living rich and fulfilling lives while also remaining true to, and proud of, their Irish heritage.

I had the pleasure, yesterday, of visiting two great hubs of Irish community activity in Chicago – Gaelic Park, on the south side, and the Irish American Heritage Center on the north side. I was greatly struck by the sense of solidarity and community I witnessed in both places; the connection to Ireland and to Irish culture, the commitment to keeping that culture alive, vibrant, and relevant, and the desire to pass on what is a cherished heritage to future generations of Irish-Americans.

I experienced, in both those places, a great affection for the traditions of Ireland, merged with a pride in the innovative and creative Ireland that now confidently plays its role on the European and global stages.

The same is true of all the people I have met since arriving here: the Irish Fellowship, the Ireland Network, the Chicago Sisters City Committee – all of them are so greatly committed to deepening the connections between Ireland and Chicago, and to advocating on behalf of an Ireland that operates in a global environment while retaining all of its best traditions – our warm welcome, our conviviality, our sense of community, our love of literature, music and dance.

As a nation we remain very conscious of the enormous debt of gratitude we owe to those who have left these shores over so many years, often reluctantly. Their hard work, and generous support and encouragement to those who remained at home have played a significant role in the shaping and crafting of the modern Ireland we know today. That role was not a peripheral one: Irish America played a central part in the establishment of the independent Irish State and in securing international recognition for Ireland.

Irish America, through your fine universities and the tradition of great Irish American scholars, has been essential to the preservation of our language and literature, and to our grasp of our own history. In particular our understanding of post-famine Ireland, the late nineteenth century, and the connection between Ireland and the United States, owes so much to Irish American scholars and those who pioneered Irish studies.

We continue to benefit, in many ways, from the support of influential members of the Irish-American family. I know that members of the Global Irish Network are here this evening and I wish to express my appreciation, on behalf of the people of Ireland, to all those who volunteered themselves as advocates, as advisors, and as sounding boards for ideas and initiatives to achieve positive change in Ireland during recent challenging times. Your expertise has been invaluable; it has constituted a significant factor in the improved economic environment in which we are now operating.

Many of our emigrants left Ireland during particularly troubled times. Today we have made significant, indeed momentous, progress on the long and delicate journey to permanent peace and reconciliation. We remain profoundly grateful to the Irish communities in the United States who have walked that journey with us, in a spirit of solidarity and partnership; and who retain a keen interest in the building of a society where the principles of the Good Friday Agreement underpin a social contract of mutual respect and equality.

Here in Chicago, the Irish-American community made their own determined journey towards futures of opportunity and success. It is a journey which has taken them from the railroads and the stockyards to the schoolhouse and the clerk’s office, the police precinct and the firehouse, and ultimately, of course, to City Hall. That success is due in no small part to the determination and character of those who settled here in more difficult times. Some of you may be here this evening, while others may be represented by children, grandchildren or great grandchildren. Today we take pride in knowing that the Irish are so strongly represented in all walks of life in the city of Chicago.

There are, of course, still some of our countrymen and women who are undocumented and who, while making a valuable contribution to the economy and society of the United States, are unable to take those steps forward towards a better life. We hope a resolution can be found, in the near future, that will enable all our Irish to realise their possibilities, to build lives on secure foundations that will allow them to make their own distinctive contribution to a place they wish to call home. May I take this opportunity to state yet again to our Irish men, women and families who find themselves in that situation, that I am committed to being a President for all of the people of our nation and that is why it behoves all of us with whatever influence we may have to support and assist our fellow citizens.

The programme of events I have participated in during these past days has demonstrated the vibrant, dynamic spirit of the Chicago Irish community. It is something I have seen and experienced here again this evening.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh arís libh as an bhfáilte chroíúil a chuir sibh romhamsa agus roimh Sabina anseo tráthnóna. Ba chúis mhór áthais dúinn bualadh leis an oiread sin de phobal Éireannach Chicago, agus guímid beirt gach rath agus ádh oraibh agus sibh ag tabhairt faoin todhchaí agus muide in Éirinn bródúil asaibh.

[May I thank you once again for the great welcome you have extended to Sabina and me here this evening. It has been a great pleasure to meet with so many members of the Chicago Irish community, and we both wish you every success and good fortune as you continue to build new futures and make Ireland proud.]

Go n-éirí go geal libh go léir agus go raibh míle maith agaibh.