May 25, 2013
President of all the Irish, everywhere
Visiting Buenos Aires as part of his ABC (Argentina, Brazil, Chile) tour, Irish President Michael D. Higgins talks to the Herald.
As the third Irish president to visit Argentina, welcome. What is your impression on your second time here (after coming as Culture Minister in 1995) and what is the difference between coming as minister and as President of Ireland?
When I came here with President Mary Robinson in 1995, it was a very difficult time because then host president Carlos Menem’s son had just been killed so part of the hospitality of the visit was delegated to his brother.
I knew quite a bit about Argentina before that visit for many different reasons, especially concerning human rights. This morning (Ed. The Herald interviewed Higgins on October 13) we were honouring Patrick Rice and Rodolfo Walsh at the former ESMA Navy Mechanics School.
I knew both men. As a writer myself, I received a manuscript on one of the books on the killing of Rodolfo Walsh many years ago and I had seen that letter on the monument (Ed. Referring to the famous Open Letter to the Military Junta written in 1977) before. And I had met Patrick Rice, when giving a crash course to young Divine Word Missionary seminarians about to go abroad and much later in Central America. (Ambassador Wilfred Lennon and his secretary Justin Harmann’s work kept Patrick Rice alive during the “dirty war”).
What has changed since 1995 is the way the country has decided to deal with the events of the Proceso, a painful legacy, by pursuing the demands of the victims for restorative justice.
On the other hand, I think too in a way that what has changed is the warmth of the reception of the Argentine people, it was stronger than ever this time, I felt. Of course this time I went to two places we hadn’t gone last time: the Fahy Club and the Hurling Club, very good and warm. I was impressed to see all those families, all those Irish names listed there.
And how does your current role of Irish President (a head of state rather than government) differ from being Culture minister and what more can you tell us about your meeting with Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, aside from the joshing about soccer jerseys?
During my inauguration speech on November 11, 2011, I said I saw myself as the president of all the Irish people and all the generations wherever they may be. I intend to do everything I can to deepen these relationships, this being the purpose of my visiting Argentina, Brazil and Chile. I’ve been quite struck by the shared warmth and strength of the possibility of gathering. And that is also an operative word for why I’m here — we are expecting and very much looking forward to as many people with an interest in Ireland, those who support Ireland, who are from Ireland to come back next year for the Irish Gathering in 2013 (Ed. When Ireland will be presiding the European Union in the first half) of the year). I’m also encouraging those Irish who may feel highly qualified but lack opportunities at home to consider South and Central America, where their skills are welcomed, where Irish people are respected. Our world has become smaller and we should use technology to deepen that relationship.
I had a very warm meeting, which lasted twice the scheduled time, with President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It was a very interesting meeting. She said to me I was the first head of state that she had met who had opened the conversation with a discussion on human rights. It went on from that point to a very warm exchange of many matters in politics, economics, culture and so on. I was also impressed by my meeting with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a very strong, powerful and intellectual woman.
What role can the Irish Diaspora play in Ireland’s economic recovery and is the launch of the local chapter of the Irish Business Network an important step on this front?
A couple of things about the Irish Diaspora: it’s important not just to know that we have a scattering our population for quite some time but also to take it seriously by studying it and understanding it. Migration (especially to Britain and North America) has long been one of my research areas as an academic before becoming President. So when I was preparing to come here, I decided that I would give a paper on the Irish-Argentine relationship and this helps me set a context. When I speak, I accompany this by stressing that Irishness is not about where you live, it is about what is in your head, your heart and your consciousness. Then I speak as well about this new Irishness that we are seeking to create based on ethics and creativity. The Diaspora, the descendants, have as much to contribute as those who were born in Ireland. Twenty years ago I wrote a paper on the exile and the Irish — that is the reason why I refer sometimes to Jorge Luis Borges as well.
South America is very interesting for the connection with Ireland — some of the finest works on James Joyce have been done by South American writers. Borges had the view that the Irish had taken the English language of the 19th century and made it our own, changed it. That resulted in Nobel Prizes, four actually — a considerable amount for a small country. Borges’ advice was that South American writers should do the same with Spanish, and of course he was right.
But let me answer your question. The Business Irish Network that has been established here is very important. Here you have young people with good ideas meeting with Irish people who are in business. The mentoring of the younger is very positive. People in Ireland now have a very international perspective. Ireland is regarded as number one in some innovative areas — it is number three in relation to immunology, nutrients; number eight in material science. It is in the top 20 in scientific research. Over 1,000 of the best companies in the world have their research and development units established in Ireland as it faces the European Union. There are mixed benefits from closer relationship. Not only the cultural and moral ones, but also the practical, economic ones.
My suggestion to the Irish people is to play your Irish cards because they are important. Ireland has a different relationship with this whole continent than other countries which were colonizing powers. Ireland itself has had its own experience in achieving its independence. When I visited the United Nations peace-keeping forces, you see Irish soldiers together with Argentine soldiers. Actually, they are the top of the request list because of their reputation.
What would you like to say about the Irish community, both in general and in relation to the Irish language and sports?
If there were Irish sailors on the first Spanish voyages to the Americas, the Irish started coming to Argentina in flocks from 1830 on. In 1875 the Southern Cross was founded and the next year the Buenos Aires Herald, and I think at that stage the second wave of Irish started coming here, some of them to work in estancias.
There are many different Irish migrations and when I say it is part of my presidency, the intention is to try to understand as much as possible about the different circumstances in which they all came. First, there were letters asking for Irish-speaking priests to come and serve their needs. The connection continues through music and the interest in Irish dances. Then toward the end of the century you have the formation of the Gaelic League and the formation of the Interest in Irish games. Sports should be inclusive, then they went on to include hockey and rugby and they had great success.
I find it interesting that Irish immigrants came from two specific counties in the Midlands: Longford and Westmeath, and also some from the southeastern corner in Wexford County. Now these are very interesting migrants. People who went to the Unites States established themselves in the business sector. Then the people who left Ireland after the famine are deeply distressed people (about a third of them are Irish-speakers going into an English-speaking country). Quite separate from them are the Argentine migrants. They are in their second wave around this period; these are people who were able to pay their way, many coming from families in military service and dedicated to commerce.
I speak Irish and I spoke quite a bit of Irish in my speeches in these three countries to remind people that this is after all the ancient language of the Irish people.
As a Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht I established an Irish-language television station in 1994 — the Maori station in New Zealand is based on our station. But you also need space in the visual media. I see the Irish language as a language that is expanding. The number of people who speak the language for every aspect of their life every day is 90,000 approximately. I speak Irish but I am not a native speaker. I represented for 30 years an area that had the largest amount of Irish-speaking people (Connemara and the Aran Islands) and I used the Irish language to speak to my constituents and they spoke to me in Irish.