Distinguished guests, and friends,
Thank you, Ambassador. Thank you all for joining us here tonight.
As we approach the 25th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, it is my privilege - on behalf of the Government and the people of Ireland – to welcome you here this evening to honour the unique contribution of the United States of America to peace in Ireland.
Born from vision, shaped through compromise, and realised through courageous leadership – in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement broke the cycle of violence that had ravaged the island of Ireland for 30 years.
The Agreement is much more than a political compact. It is a commitment to reconciliation – a reconciliation that demands more of us than mere acceptance, or tolerance.
True reconciliation requires courage, forgiveness and an open-hearted, shared imagining of a better future. It is a work in progress.
Friends, while the Good Friday Agreement belongs, first and foremost, to the people of Ireland and of Northern Ireland, tonight we acknowledge the indispensable role of the United States in making it a reality.
It has been a long journey. As far back as 1977, President Carter was drawing international attention to the troubles on our island.
On St Patrick’s Day 1981, President Reagan called for ‘a just and peaceful solution’ to the conflict in Ireland.
In November 1995, President Clinton, speaking in Derry, made an appeal. ‘Reach for it…’ he said, ‘the United States will reach with you.’
And the United States did reach with us.
Throughout the peace process, the unstinting, bipartisan support shown by successive Administrations, by Congress, and by Irish-America has propelled us forward.
Today we are grateful to President Biden, whose steady hand and wisdom have helped to guide us through the turbulence of the UK’s departure from the European Union – an event unforeseen by the Good Friday Agreement.
Friends, it is impossible to be in this city, without reflecting back 150 years to another place – Gettysburg – just 85 miles north of here, where in the midst of a dreadful war, Abraham Lincoln called for
high resolve… so that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
The new nation that President Lincoln described as “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” – did survive, and thrive to become the great nation that America is today.
One hundred years after Gettysburg, the 35th President of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke in our parliament, in Dáil Éireann, of the bravery of the Irish Brigade at Fredericksburg, some 50 miles south of here.
The Irish brigade was led at Fredericksburg by Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher – the same Thomas Meagher from Waterford, who in his early days as a European revolutionary brought home from France a tricolour - white, orange and green, a tricolour crafted in his honour to inspire him and that is today our national flag. A symbol of our dream of a shared island.
It can truthfully be said that the historic bonds between our two countries are as strong and as deep as those between any two nations on earth. More important, they are bonds based on shared values of liberty, democracy and the pursuit of peace.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests,
President Biden, with characteristic wit, once remarked that ‘we Irish are the only people who are nostalgic for the future.’
There is a serious point in what President Biden said, and it is particularly relevant to what we are doing here this evening.
It is no accident that when we want to remember the past, we call on musicians, poets, makers of dance and song – to articulate through their creativity shared and alternative rememberings.
The great African American writer, James Baldwin, said that ‘people are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.’ He describes the artist as an ‘emotional or spiritual historian’, whose role is to tell what it is like to be alive.
And so we are here to remember and to honour the people – the visible and the invisible – who lifted our gaze and directed it to the future. And we do so by summoning our artists to speak for us.
Myths, stereotypes and contrived barriers crumble before shared cultural experience. President Biden was right, and James Baldwin was also right when he said that we must use the past rather than drown in it.
Dear friends, guests, in the programme for tonight’s event, you will see an essay that traces the interweaving of Irish and American musical forms and points to the extraordinary depth of cultural empathy for Ireland in America, and for America in Ireland.
And so we can see that it was not just the richness of our shared history that animated the peace process and made possible the Good Friday Agreement, it was also the depth of our shared cultural empathy and our energised gaze to the future.
Friends, history is often remembered for the worst that was.
Tonight, we gather to remember the best.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day.