By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — The peace process is lifting the shadows of the past and providing on opportunity to build an Ireland where divisions will be transcended, President Mary McAleese said recently in an eve of millennium address.
She told both houses of the Oireachtas that divisions in the mind or on the map would be transcended by a shared prosperity, a spirit of cooperative endeavor and a new language, much kinder and softer than before.
"Old enemies have become friendly neighbors; peace is no longer a rumor, it is real," she said.
"The peacemakers followed a star of hope, at time no more than a glimmer and now like the Magi they have given us this precious Christmas gift of peace."
It was the first time the president exercised her constitutional right to address a joint session of both houses of the Oireachtas on what was their last meeting in this century and she used the opportunity to pay special tribute to Irish emigrants.
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She said the reality of Irish life in the past was often more nightmare than dream.
Many older people, she said, would remember the early years of this century when "poverty and deprivation stalked the land, children died in their thousands and a swelling stream of emigrants, many of them young women, flowed out of Ireland on every vessel from every port."
The president said one writer had said that the Irish in Ireland were kept alive by the Irish who had been driven to other lands.
"We owe a debt of gratitude to those who left this island," the president said. "Some went as missionaries or as volunteers in health care and education or even simply in search of adventure.
"Most emigrants however, went reluctantly, driven out by hardship and lack of opportunity in circumstances no different to those which bring refugees from other parts of the world, to our own shores today.
"These were not the celebrated Wild Geese or political refugees of previous centuries. They were poor men and women who plowed very lonely furrows in strange lands.
"They brought our culture with them, refreshed and enriched it with new energy it absorbed from the varied cultures into which it was transplanted. Many kept faith with our island’s destiny through the generations."
The president said emigrants had globalized the name of Ireland and gave the country the huge multicultural Irish family now proudly celebrated and acknowledged in the new Article 2 of the constitution.
A new Ireland
In what was regarded as a reference to the problems facing asylum seekers, the president said it was the first generation of Irish people "to be seriously tested on the bona fides of our legendary hospitality, our cead mile failte.
"We are the first generation to have the eradication of poverty within our grasp. The first generation to experience Ireland as a land of fresh starts and new opportunity for people from other cultures.
"We are the first generation for centuries to have the opportunity to build and consolidate a lasting peace between this island’s two traditions.
"As the shadows lift the world looks very different, is very different."
She said Ireland had lived through centuries that were a litany of hopes raised and then dashed, but the great sea change people had hoped for had now arrived with the peace process.
"We are nearer that farther shore," he said. "We who can change can cure. We who have hope can heal. This is the age of miracles. This is the age of lifting shadows.
"We cannot change the past but we can create a better future.
"We are mindful of the hurt caused to so many, hurts which may never heal, but we take heart from the forgiveness, the generosity, the love and compassion, the willingness to take risks even in the absence of trust, of so many people who were and who are the very heart and soul of this phenomenon we call the peace process.
"Their story tells us why it is worth dreaming — even when the cynics say it is impossible and the naysayers threaten to make it impossible."
She spoke of her pride about people who have committed themselves to overcoming deep divisions and building a humanly decent society, respectful of difference, rooted in structures that will allow the building of healthy relationships on the island.
She described Ireland as a first world country with a third world memory which must keep us humble and remind us of the fragility of it all — "a memory to remind us that too many people across the world waken each day to lives of sheer terror and dread."
For all the success of the Celtic Tiger, the president said, there is still a dark side with people watching from the margins, the ignored and neglected.
"How much talent, how much energy is still waiting to be nurtured and developed into fulfilled lives instead of frittered away in frustrations and the many social problems of exclusion or underachievement?" she asked.
The president said the age of "righteous accountability" that should serve to make us wiser and warier but may instead, if we are not careful, "feed an uncaring indifference, a cynicism which will erode our capacity to dream and deliver dreams."
She told the packed Dail chamber: "No child comes into this world distrustful and unloving, bigoted and uncaring. These things, adults teach. These things, adults have to stop teaching."