PRESIDENT HIGGINS’ CHRISTMAS MESSAGE

Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins has issued his Christmas and New Year message. He refers to the improving relations between Ireland and the UK, strengthened by his state visit to Britain earlier this year, the first such official engagement by an Irish President. He also thanks members of the emergency services, the Garda Síochána, and members of Óglaigh na hÉireann. some of whom are on overeas duty. His message which has been recorded for broadcasting is as follows:-

“Christmas is a season of joy and warmth. It is a special time of the year, when so many of us come together with family and friends in a spirit of sharing and celebration. It is an opportunity to revive hope and anticipation, which can encourage us, including those who may be feeling distressed or lonely, to look beyond the long dark nights, to the promise once again, of the dawning light of Spring.

The story of Bethlehem, of the homeless Joseph and Mary anticipating the birth of their child, is at the heart of this holiday and it invites us to reflect on how we relate to the stranger, the vulnerable in our midst. At Christmas we are reminded, not only of how a man and a woman had to leave their familiar surroundings and have their child in a strange place, of how they were joined by unknown shepherds and visitors from faraway lands, but most importantly, of the empowering ethic of hospitality.

I completed, last month, a three-week visit to Africa, where I witnessed first-hand the impressive solidarity of countries such as Ethiopia in responding to the predicament of so many men, women and children from neighbouring countries who were forced to leave behind their homes, communities and livelihoods to seek refuge in their neighbour’s territory. Such willingness to offer shelter to those fleeing persecution or hunger is an issue that should involve us all, and not just the countries first affected.

Christmas is a season of peace, a time to recall all that can be achieved through reflection, forgiveness and reconciliation. Earlier this year, I had the great honour of being Ireland’s first Head of State to pay a State Visit to our nearest neighbour in every sense, the United Kingdom. It was an immense privilege and pleasure to be thus able to manifest the friendship between our two peoples, who no longer “look at each other with doubtful eyes”, but, rather, with the trustful eyes of mutual respect and shared commitments.

As a New Year approaches, and we continue our lives together, may I offer our appreciation to all who make that possible. I know that a commitment to the service of our citizens is shared by all those with a public service mission. May I, on behalf of the Irish people, thank in particular those who are caring for our communities during the holiday season – including the staff in our hospitals and emergency services, An Garda Síochána, and members of our Defence Forces who are supporting peace abroad.

My wish is that 2015 will bring our people a bounty of opportunities for flourishing and renewal. May the caring spirit that infuses these precious few days spent in the company of those we love extend to all and well beyond the Christmas holiday, into the year ahead. Sabina and I wish each and every one of you a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.”

The English video of his address can be found here.

IRISH ARMY BANDS

DF School of Music Crest Photo: © Michael Fisher

DF School of Music Crest Photo: © Michael Fisher

Wonderful Defence Forces benefit concert with combined army bands & soprano Celine Byrne at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on Saturday night. Lt Col Mark Armstrong was the conductor. Members of the pipe bands also played. President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina were the guests of honour.

DF Concert Programme

DF Concert Programme

NATIONAL DAY OF COMMEMORATION

Commemoration at Kilmainham Photo: RTE News

Commemoration at Kilmainham Photo: RTE News

Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D Higgins led the national Day of Commemoration ceremony this morning at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham in Dublin. Similar ceremonies took place at seven other locations across the state. The multi-faith and military ceremonies honoured all Irishmen and Irishwomen who died in wars or on service with the United Nations. The Dublin event was attended by the President, the Taoiseach, the Government and Council of State, as well as members of the diplomatic corps, Defence Forces, veterans’ organisations, the judiciary and Northern Ireland representatives. In this latter category it was interesting to note the presence of the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt along with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir of Sinn Féin.

I watched the service which was broadcast live on RTE1 television. The military part of the ceremony was carried out with great precision and the music played by the Army No.1 Band under the baton of Lt Col. Mark Armstrong added to the solemnity of the occasion.

THE LIFE OF INEZ

Inez McCormack celebration

Inez McCormack celebration

This was a special afternoon in South Belfast. The President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins along with one of his predecessors Mary Robinson joined trade unionists, community and human rights activists to say thanks for the life of a good friend. Few people could have imagined such a gathering anywhere in Northern Ireland 25 years ago or more during the troubles.

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

Some of Mary Robinson’s visits to Belfast in the past were very controversial, especially the one in 1993 when she shook hands with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. The person who worked behind the scenes to organise the meeting was Inez McCormack, who died in January aged 69. It was a mark of the woman and her achievements over 69 years of life that such a group assembled at the Elmwood Hall.

In 2006 Inez had founded “Participation and the Practice of Rights”, a group to put human rights at the service of the most disadvantaged members of society. So it was PPR who organised this celebration of the life and work of Inez, reflecting the various stages of her work from the days of her involvement in the civil rights campaign, her trade union activity in particular her concern for the low-paid and in latter years, her dedicated work as a human rights activist.

The theme of the two and a half hour event was “Out of the Ballrooms: peace, participation and equality”. Compered skilfully by the writer Susan McKay, it opened with the launch of the Inez McCormack Fund, set up to support the continuation of her work and to build on her unique legacy.

Vinny McCormack

Vinny McCormack

Her husband Vinny McCormack from Derry said the number and variety of causes Inez gave herself to were remarkable. Irrespective of whether the issue involved an individual, a family or prorecting an institution like the NHS, she gave herself to it body and soul. She reached across all barriers in search of common ground, based upon equality and justice. Vinny’s note in the programme for the event singled out a number of characteristics of Inez:-

Friendship was her forte; laughter her default; generosity and loyalty were her nature; belief in the best of human nature the ground she stood on“.

President Higgins said he had thought about Inez when he and his wife Sabina had hosted a reception earlier this month at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark International Women’s Day. He told the guests on that occasion that Inez was a passionate and committed human rights activist who fought relentlessly for the creation of a fairer society for workers, for minorities and for women. In her pursuit of a better and more equal world she was never afraid to push against the boundaries of injustice and intolerance, he said.

At the Belfast commemoration he again paid tribute to her dedication and courage. He said: “Her ability to constantly question the status quo demonstrated not only the strength of mind which was such an integral part of Inez’ personality but also the emancipatory thinking that marks out the true progressive; the person prepared to challenge false inevitabilities and question the taken for granted assumptions of the world we inhabit and the future we wish to craft together.” He added: “It takes great courage and moral strength to stand up to the perceived norms within society and to question the bureaucratic controls that can so often stifle progress. It takes enormous determination and persistence to constantly challenge the rigid mindsets that obstruct creative thinking and to refuse to give in to the easier alternative of remaining silent.”

Vinny McCormack, President Higgins & Sabina Higgins

Vinny McCormack, President Higgins & Sabina Higgins

 Mary Robinson who said she wore a red jacket in memory of Inez described her as a remarkable and an extraordinary organiser. “Inez was many things to many people, and to me her defining characteristic was her innate sense and belief in the dignity and value of every human being,” she said. “She always challenged what was wrong and worked to secure the rights of people; on many occasions this was without any public recognition as Inez was a very private person.”

The guests were shown a short video by the group “Right to work: right to welfare” which has been holding workshops on the jobs and benefits issues in association with PPR and the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, where it will launch a report and an art exhibition based on the experiences of unemployed people at the DHSS office in Great Patrick Street on Monday (25th) at 12 noon.

Barra McGrory QC, DPP, reads a Yeats poem

Barra McGrory QC, DPP, reads a Yeats poem

ARAS AN UACHTARÁIN

Aras an Uachtaráin

Aras an Uachtaráin

A recent visit to Aras an Uachtaráin, the official residence of the President of Ireland, at Phoenix Park in Dublin enabled me to see some of the features of the building, following a reception by President Higgins. I had been at the Aras twice before to meet his predecessor, Mary McAleese. Since the inauguration of Michael D. Higgins as ninth President nearly fifteen months ago, there have been a few changes inside the Aras.

Presidential harp on ceiling

Presidential harp on ceiling

One of the first things to catch the eye of the visitor is a large painting in the entrance hallway by a Chinese artist Zhao Shao Rou dated 11-11-2011, when President Higgins was inaugurated at Dublin Castle.  The hall with its barrel-vaulted ceiling dates from 1751. One of the features is the golden harp on a blue background which is the same as the presidential standard.

Zhao Shao Ruo 11-11-2011

Zhao Shao Ruo 11-11-2011

There are some plaster busts in the alcoves at the back. One of them is of James Clarence Mangan, who Yeats regarded as one of the best Irish poets. His poems were published in The Nation and among the best-known of his works is “Dark Rosaleen”. There is a memorial to him in St Stephen’s Green, a bust by Oliver Sheppard. It was commissioned by a committee that included Dr George Sigerson and DJ O’Donoghue, librarian at University College, who wrote a biography of him and who is also the person who completed William Carleton’s autobiography.

James Clarence Mangan

James Clarence Mangan

From the entrance hall, the visitor enters the Francini corridor, leading towards the state reception room. It contains the busts of past Presidents and was created in 1957 during the presidency of Sean T O’Ceallaigh. The one of Mary Robinson is a good likeness, in my view, but the most recent one of Mary McAleese is debatable. It was commissioned in 1999 and is by Carolyn Mulholland RHA from Lurgan. It cost €7,600.

Mary McAleese

Mary McAleese

There is also a portrait of Mrs McAleese which hangs alongside pictures of the other holders of the office. The Aras was built by Nathaniel Clements in 1751 and became the residence of British Viceroys until the creation of the Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann) in 1922. More details about the building and pictures along with details of President Higgins can be found here