Speech by Aodhán Ó Ríordáin to Metro Éireann and Kenan Institute for Ethics Writing Competition awardees
Ladies and gentlemen.
To Metro Éireann and the Keynan Institure for Ethics of Duke University, thank you for inviting me to speak at your intercultural writing and photography award ceremony.
My 13 week old daughter features in the Irish Times today in an article written by my wife about her family’s obsession with Monaghan football. Much to my dismay the photograph appears to show her proudly wearing a Monaghan jersey. The fact the jersey is actually half Monaghan and half Dublin isn’t clear from the picture. Twelve weeks old and I’ve lost her already in the annals of the paper of record. All photographers here please note that the camera does often lie.
Summer makes us think a lot about identity. The GAA season stirs up all these emotions in us about sense of place, a connection with community, family, parish and county. It reminds us of what unites us but sometimes of what divides us. In this decade of commerations when we reflect on that bloody period one hundred years ago there is much to be proud of but much to repair. Our sporting endeavours often bring out the best in us – for example one Ireland women’s hockey team of different backgrounds and traditions bringing joy to us all. But we have to acknowledge that we have been world-beaters at emphasising difference, exploiting it and punishing it. All in the name of a lie.
The lie is the notion of sameness. That we should all, or can all, or could all aspire to be the same. To live the same way, to play the same games, to speak the same language, to look the same. It is this obsession with the pursuit of the lie of sameness that wounded generations of Irishmen but most particularly Irishwomen and Irish children from the foundation of the state.
Institutions established to deal with unmarried mothers, people with mental health challenges, children with behaviour difficulties, or just children who by the very circumstances of their birth, were different. We locked them away so that they could perhaps reflect on the sin of their difference and not infect the rest of society. Magadelen laundries, mother and baby homes, industrial schools, mental institutions. All underpinning a policy of shame in the pursuit of a lie.
The greatest soccer player Ireland has arguably ever produced, John Giles, left inner-city Dublin in the 1950s for Manchester United convinced that he wasn’t Irish because the messages he got from school were that Irishness couldn’t embrace a Dublin street soccer player. If you didn’t play Gaelic football or hurling you weren’t Irish. Scores of left handed children beaten so they could write with the more acceptable right hand. Generations of children traumatised by Irish language classes idolising a myth of west of Ireland idyllic living and brutalised because they didn’t meet the lie.
Previous generations of my family fought in different uniforms. Ironically enough the O’Reardons are tailors – a tradition which I intend to reignite when I take a scissors to my daughter’s Monaghan jersey – but uniformity is what we’ve asked ourselves to adhere to in the past. We have family members who died in British uniforms in Gallipoli, who wore volunteer unforms in the 1916 Rising, and who wore prison uniforms in the Civil War.
My grand-uncle who fought in 1916 later married a Church of Ireland member from Northern Ireland. They were married at 7am in the sacrasity of the local church because it wasn’t a celebration. And their two children eventually emigrated to England. The country he fought fought frowned on his marriage and couldn’t give a livelihood to his children.
I tell these stories because life is about story. It is contextualised by government and legislation and constitutional provisions but it is fuelled by what we know to be true. Advocates for diversity and multi-culturalism are not promoting something that isn’t and should be. We are merely exposing what is. Sameness is a lie. Diversity is the truth. It is the only truth that has existed in the past. Is the only truth that exists now. And it is the only truth that will exist in the future.
Travellers know this. LGBT people know this. People with disabilites know this. And all of us if we are true to ourselves know this.
Promoters of sameness are not just promoters of a lie, they are promoters of hate. But they are winning. They are winning across Europe, across America and across Britain. A famous American film of the 1940s warning against fascism depicts an old Eastern European man saying that the Nazis knew they could never conquer a united people, so they divided us. Today in Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Uk, Austria, Germany, Turkey there are poisonous voices dividing peoples, heaping blame upon the vulnerable and reaping electoral gain.
So we must be stronger in telling the truth. The truth about the primacy of humanity. About the common bond of blood rushing through all our veins. About the universal need for love and acceptance and to strive for what is beautiful and, yes, true.
I have spoken of Ireland’s failures. And indeed our system of Direct Provision is a sad stain on our public policy, and our failure to live up to demands we make for protection of Irish immigrants in the US when it comes to undocumented workers here is hypocritical in the extreme. And yes the 2004 citizenship referendum unleashed emotions I previously thought weren’t prevalent in this land. But I will say this much – there is no political party in Ireland that plays the immigration card or the race card at election time. On no manifesto of any mainstream party is the issue of immigration. For that we can be thankful. But not complacent.
We need integration strategies with teeth. Employment protections for vulnerable migrant workers. Hate crime legislation. An education system that includes, not excludes.
To be honest we all wear half and half jerseys. We are not the same and should not pretend to be. Because sameness is a lie. Diversity is the truth. Let’s celebrate truth. Lets promote truth and tell the truth. You have written your truth today. For that we all thank you. All we can ask is that you keep telling it because only then can all of look in the mirror, put our hands on our hearts and truly celebrate what it means to be a human being.