Remarks by President McAleese at the Daniel O’Connell Memorial Lecture
Thursday, 27th October, 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen
Dia dhíbh a chairde. Tá gliondar croí orm bheith anseo libh um tráthnóna agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil libh as bhur gcaoin-chuireadh.
Thank you for that very kind welcome and for the chance to deliver the third Daniel O’Connell memorial lecture. My thanks to Paul O’Higgins for inviting me
There is a curious kind of personal synchronicity for both Martin and for me in acknowledging once again the legacy of Daniel O’Connell, but this time as we get ready to close the doors of Áras an Uachtaráin behind us. Soon after we first met as teenagers we discovered that we shared a hero in common. His name was Daniel O’Connell. By the time we married almost eight years later, Martin was working for an Aer Lingus company and we could have travelled quite cheaply to many sunny parts of the world on honeymoon. Instead we headed from the North to Kerry in a minute Fiat 126 and the centre-point of our ten day travels around Kerry and West Cork was a] visit to O’Connell’s old home at Caherdaniel which we had to ourselves for an afternoon in the welcoming company of a member of his clan.
We were not just tourists but two newlyweds setting out on a shared life and committing to a shared value system - a value system epitomised by O’Connell’s belief in the dignity of each human being, his use of the law and democratic discourse to pursue human and civil rights for those who were oppressed and his distaste for violence as a means of achieving political change. If we were not mere tourists, neither were we indulging a purely academic interest in O’Connell’s life and legacy.
Our first marital home was in the city where we were both born - Belfast. The year was 1976 and the parts of Belfast we came from, the North and East were riven with appalling sectarian violence. It did not greet us on television screens. It greeted us at our front doors day in and day out. On the morning of our wedding two of my dearest old friends and neighbours were murdered in a sectarian attack. How would we, how should we respond to their deaths? Our trip to Caherdaniel was to be pivotal in answering those questions which enveloped our honeymoon days like dense and choking smog. We were going back after a ten day respite in Kerry to live in a complex and violent city that was still living out a skewed political history that Daniel O’Connell would have known inside out though he had died a hundred years before Martin and I were born. Yet his life and more importantly his words and deeds were rocks that we clung to for guidance during turbulent and testing times when many of our generation were making choices between repeating history or remedying history. O’Connell died after a lifetime devoted to championing those who were downtrodden, demonised and marginalised whether they were Irish Catholics, English Presbyterians, Russian Jews, American Indians or African slaves. He died as the Great Famine overwhelmed his native land and he himself was overwhelmed by an intense sense of personal failure.
Yet today his statue stands at the entrance to our capital city’s main street. We acknowledge him as the Liberator, the man who sowed the seeds of a fresh new understanding of the innate dignity of the human person, the man who cranked up on these islands a slow-burning momentum towards democracy, civil rights and human rights that has at last paid off in the peace we share on this island today.
Tens of thousands pass by his statue each day with little consciousness of the debt they owe - we owe - this one man, a man with one voice, one heart, one pair of hands, one life and one crystal clear vision of the rights of the human person. He never got to see his vision realised. We did. We have our own Constitution, parliament and laws. We have the right to vote for our public representatives. We have a free press, an independent judiciary, the right to public protest, to practice our religion, to speak our mind, criticise our leaders and hold them to account. We are entitled to a free education no matter how much or how little money we have. As individuals we are protected by large bodies of legislation designed to ensure we are treated fairly and equally in our workplaces; that we cannot be discriminated against because of our faith, gender, colour or our sexuality. We have a Constitution that insists on the dignity and equality of all citizens. Today our people went to the polls to vote for a new President - exercising a right to vote which we take so much for granted but which was only achieved thanks to O’Connell’s peaceful mobilisation of the Irish people in protest against a wilful political elite which drew its power from treating the vast majority of Irish citizens as second class.
But O’Connell the great Irish nationalist and champion of Catholics was also a great internationalist. His was a universal concept of justice and equality which transcended all barriers and frontiers. He was described as “the exemplary international humanitarian of the age” and without a doubt he was a key influencer of not just Irish, but of British, European and American politics. William Gladstone, simply described O’Connell as “the greatest popular leader whom the world has ever seen.”
In the general election of 1831 O’Connell stood on the platform of “Reform and Negro Emancipation”. Despite the poverty and injustice he witnessed here in his own country against his own people, Daniel O’Connell was still moved enough about the plight of American slaves to describe them starkly as ‘the saddest people the sun sees’. In 1830 O’Connell noted that “Ireland and Irishmen should be foremost in seeking to effect the emancipation of mankind” and, even on the eve of the Famine in 1845, he said that “my sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island – it extends itself to every corner of the globe.”
O’Connell’s reputation as a global humanitarian was widely recognised in his own life-time. From as early as 1840, American abolitionists were claiming that his involvement in the anti-slavery debate exceeded that of Thomas Clarkson or William Wilberforce. It was an involvement that included a direct personal encounter here in Dublin when O’Connell met, befriended and became a major inspiration to Frederick Douglass, the former American slave who became the great icon of the abolitionist movement and still remains a figure of huge importance for the civil rights movement in the United States. Douglass, impressed by O’Connell’s impassioned condemnations of slavery was moved to say:
“I feel grateful to him for his voice has made American slavery shake to its centre – I am determined wherever I go, and whatever position I may fill, to speak with grateful emotions of Mr. O’Connell’s labours. I heard his denunciation of slavery, I heard my master curse him, and therefore I loved him.”
In recent years this link between Frederick Douglass and Ireland has been restored to memory. President Obama remarked on it in the White House on St. Patrick’s Day this year and recently we saw the publication in Dublin of a new edition of Douglass’s slave narrative.
Both Daniel O’Connell and Frederick Douglass taught us that human rights are our collective business, that wherever they are trampled on anywhere in the world, they are our business and so today as citizens of the world, as signatories of the UN conventions we are the hearts and hands of O’Connell’s work in the 21st century where many people still live with levels of injustice that are intolerable but not immovable. For O’Connell human rights were not gifts in the hands of elites, to be distributed or conceded begrudgingly but rather the essential birthright of all human beings, an entitlement that derived from simply being. History is dominated by those who trampled on that birthright. There are still too many places where that history is being repeated right now. The greater the national and international solidarity in the face of such corruption and oppression, the greater the likelihood that the world’s most impoverished, vulnerable or abused people will not suffer in silence, will not be overlooked, neglected or remain beyond hope.
In 1949, when the world was still reeling from the Holocaust, the international community united in shock and horror and produced what has been described as the ‘most powerful and progressive agreement of our times’; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a milestone document that has been directly responsible for remarkable progress in human rights in the latter part of the past century. O’Connell’s influence on the ethical foundations of that document, signed a century after his death, has been chronically undervalued, as has his contribution to the evolution of British democracy, Irish democracy and independence and American democracy. Just as those Irish men who fought in the First World War were destined to have their story overshadowed by the narrative of physical force nationalism, here in Ireland and in Britain O’Connell’s great genius was destined to be overshadowed by the messy politics of his era and his death during the saddest chapter of Irish history. The magnitude of his achievements awaits redemption in a more thoughtful and reflective Ireland. The magnitude of the integrity of his vision and the vindication of his vision has been an embarrassment to more than one establishment.
O’Connell was neither passive nor timid but he had witnessed the excesses of the French Revolution and the brutal suppression of the 1798 Irish rebellion. What he saw sickened him so profoundly that he became convinced that “freedom was to be attained not by the effusion of human blood but by the constitutional combination of good and wise men.” He lived in a world that demanded of people that they made choices between a fairer future achieved through violence and a fairer future achieved through persuasion and dialogue. He consciously and rightly chose the latter though he knew well the injustices and frustrations that so often led to the former. Those same tensions and choices are painfully evident in many countries and cultures across the globe today. Some of them look to Ireland for guidance, to our peacemakers and our peace process.
In assessing O’Connell’s long-term impact on Irish history, we should not judge it solely from the perspective of the early to mid nineteenth century - the era when he was physically present on earth - but also from the late twentieth century when, through the conduit of our peace makers - and through John Hume in particular - O’Connell’s powerful advocacy renewed itself in the painful process of persuasion that led to the Good Friday Agreement. If ever any document represented the apotheosis of the life and legacy of Daniel O’Connell it is that Agreement, the cornerstones of which are parity of esteem for the aspirations, identity, culture and traditions of all participants, the equality of all citizens, an infrastructure to vindicate the civil and human rights of all citizens and, that most fundamental of all cornerstones, the consent of the people.
O’Connell during his life knew what it was to live within political systems which were built on fear rather than free consent. He also knew from the bitterest of experience that the road to dismantling embedded and unfair structures was a long one that called for as much patience as impatience. He wrote “Incessant repetition is required to impress political truths upon the public mind --------You must repeat the same lesson over and over again if you hope to make a permanent impression.” John Hume did precisely that - he repeated over and over again the mantra of peace through dialogue and through comprehensively addressing all the relationships that history had twisted out of shape. Little by little those words began to commend themselves to a people sickened daily by the evident failure of violence to accomplish anything more than cause pain, increase estrangement and postpone peace.
Today as a generation of peacemakers rightly congratulates itself on having succeeded where all others failed, it is only fair to remember the influence and the contribution of Daniel O’Connell. It still reaches far and wide. His discourse on the anti-slavery debate in America has been described, by some, as his finest achievement. However, in today’s peace process we can perhaps see O’Connell’s finest achievement in the land of his birth; he planted the seeds, the gestation period was long, slow and vexed but there were always those who nurtured the fragile seedlings of peace and who in this generation brought them to a harvest that is only just beginning.
Would O’Connell recognise today’s Ireland? Yes I think he would; this is the Ireland he imagined a very long time ago; the Ireland he longed for, worked for and prayed for. Knowing that it would not, could not manifest itself in his life-time, he made it his responsibility nonetheless. His legacy to the generations which came after him is what we now have. Our legacy to the coming generations depends on what we now grow with this hard-earned peace, this miraculous partnership, this chance to finally put the past behind us.
At the age of 37 O’Connell wrote 'My days – the blossom of my youth and the flower of my manhood – have been darkened by the dreariness of servitude.” How many more could say the same today; how many can tell of lives wasted dancing to history’s incoherent tune. Let us hope this is the line beyond which that waste stops for good and that when the history of these cathartic, watershed times are written the words of William Greville will be fully vindicated and that history will speak of O’Connell as one “of the most remarkable men that ever lived."
Go raibh maith agaibh go léir.