Recording Date: March, 16, 2011 - 30:03 minute segment.
Travel Expert Stephanie Abrams had the chance to travel to the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, County Down, Northern Ireland, to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in March 2011. There, she listened to a special St. Patrick's Day message from Mary McAleese, President of Ireland.
"Our aim is to be a place and people of welcome," Mary begins. "A people who see in each one a brotherhood, a sisterhood, an opportunity for friendship, a challenge to build those friendships across all those differences and divides, and to revel in the sheer mystery of the diversity that we find all around us.
"It's so very good to be here, in the company of a serious audience," she continues. "I'll get the green wigs and shamrocks later in the week. How lovely to be at the Saint Patrick Centre, which is absolutely beautiful, and to be so close to Ireland's patron saint's final resting place. And to be so close to the day that's celebrated worldwide in his name and the name of Ireland. So many of us are consumed by economic issues at the moment, but it has to be said – no other country has such a masterful marketing tool as the Irish have in St. Patrick. If you tried to recreate such a tool, I would hate to think of the billions that would have to be expended in being able to put that name across the world.
"I'm very conscious that this week in Moscow, in Japan, in places so far apart and unrelated to Ireland, we will see manifestations of that great name – people gathered in friendship and fun to celebrate him. But this conference is a little bit different; the focus here is peace and reconciliation. When the rest of the world gathers to frolic, we gather here with a serious purpose at the epicenter of his life, his times, and his work. It indicates to me very strongly that in this audience – and in other hearts and minds – there is really an intrinsic understanding that peace and reconciliation on our island is far from being a done deal.
"Rather, it is an active, live, ongoing process. It commands attention, commitment, and will do so for very long into the future. There is a gravitational pull of the more noxious things that got in the way of peace and reconciliation. We have to remember that that pull is always there. We are trying very hard to weaken it, and everything we do like today helps, but it's there. Just given a bad combination of circumstances, any one of us could be pulled back behind those barriers that keep us from peace in our hearts, peace with each other, and reconciliation.
"So I'm very glad to be in the company of people who understand that. Glad, too, that while peace and reconciliation are being discussed in a contemporary context, we're not afraid – despite all the ambient forces that drive us away from a discussion of things of the spirit – to turn to the story of Patrick for insight and inspiration as we work to try and comprehensively end the old wasteful culture of conflict and to grow anew a culture of good neighborly consensus.
"So who is this Patrick – this slave from another culture? I know that to raise his name or purport to know anything about him is to invite discord, or perhaps a debate – among many academics and scholars, there is much to be disputed. But who is he? We know he is the great emblem of Christianity in Ireland. Who is he to an Ireland where Christians of diverse denominations failed spectacularly to love each other enough, though? He could be – and should be – a unifying force.
"He could be if we allowed him to be, if we opened our hearts. He is a crucial part of our dim and distant shared inheritance, which today we can very valuably revisit. Lying dormant, lying fallow in that heritage are tools with which we are perfectly capable of forging that much happier future that we dream of. Given that Patrick walked the hills and valleys of Ireland 1,500 years ago, it's no surprise that his story has been overlain with myth and legend of remarkable proportions - so much so that we could lose sight of some of its simpler elements.
"Patrick was a man, a human being, who had everyday emotions and feelings. Who had options in his life, but who took particular life-changing decisions. And his personal story makes of him an ideal role model and mentor to all of us on this island, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances. Whether we are enthusiastic supporters of the peace process, too ground down by suffering to have any faith in future, still wedded to old ways of thinking, or struggling to adapt to the new civil and political landscape that's emerging.
"Patrick – we have to remember – was once in many spaces very similar to the ones we occupy. The architectural landscape is very different, okay. But the human landscape where he existed is not so different from our own. We think of the horror of a man taken to a strange land by strangers, whose only interest was his material value to them. They had no sense of his human dignity. We would say today that he was trafficked by slave traders. He was treated with cruelty and despised by the people he lived among. He described himself as an outcast of this world – a complete outsider, overlooked, neglected, thought to be unimportant.
"The years of his teen age, which should have been an enjoyable time, were utterly blighted by immense physical and spiritual suffering. This land that we love was the land of his captivity, a land of hardship and loneliness. It was certainly no Ireland of the cead mile failte. Seamus Heaney has written, with great beauty, that human beings suffer, they torture one another, they get hurt, and they get hard.
"We see it in families, in communities, in streets, and in countries. And Patrick was hurt enough to want to get even, to get very hard, to thirst for vengeance. He certainly thirsted to escape. He wanted home, and he got there - back to the safety of his family, where he was welcomed, loved, spoilt, acknowledged. He could have lived the rest of his life there, telling tales of what he had experienced, cursing this island, and drawing into his circle people who would hate Ireland because of what it had done to him. Who could have blamed him?
"If he had done that, we would never have heard his name again. But of course that isn't what happened. He made choices that grew the fame of his name because those choices were so extraordinary. Just as this generation has very courageously broken the cycle and made history by refusing to repeat history, Patrick did the unpredictable, the miraculous thing. He returned to Ireland, not because he wanted to or had to, but because he freely chose to.
"He made that choice with enormous reluctance. He describes being 'quite broken in heart' because he knew he was heading back to danger and difficulties. But he said himself that the voice of the Irish kept beseeching him to come and walk among them once more. Just as in our hearts, even in the most wounded, on this island, there was a nagging voice that kept urging us in our hearts: this voice of peace and the possibility of peace that kept nagging us to let peace walk among us.
"Patrick's choice meant turning his back on much easier, much cozier options. Now he had to prove to himself and to the people that love of one's enemies and forgiveness were not only personally possible, but were also capable of extraordinary transformation. That they were capable of bringing light of hope where before had just been the darkness of fear. His success at bringing that message of transcendence has given his name a shelf life of 1,500 years all over the world. That radical choice he made, and, having made it, living through the full consequences, no matter what.
"Today, we are very grateful to the people who made, in our time, similar choices. Choices for peace, to offer leadership, to get us out of history's morass of hatred, aggression, tit-for-tat violence. Those people are not like Patrick, they are not household names. Though some of them are, the vast majority are not. They are men and women who found the strength in themselves to challenge the embedded culture of conflict, whether in their homes, their workplaces, on their streets, or in their communities. They became the voices of contradiction and opened up the space that allowed the idea of peace to gather momentum.
"Many was the time they were drained and tired by the events around them, but I think of the words of Patrick: 'I arise today through a mighty strength.' Those words will resonate with many of the peacemakers. That strength comes from knowing and believing that what you do is right, is good, is life-enhancing and life-affirming, no matter what is being said or done around you. For some, strength is evident only in the cudgel, the bomb, the threat, the hardened heart.
"And for others, it is evident in something much gentler, but ultimately stronger: the word that builds a bridge between enemies. The invitation to dialogue that neutralizes the toxic spores of sectarianism. That tries to understand others with a real heart. People who want to build a future that's free from fear – not just for those with whom they agree, but for everyone.
"St. Patrick tells us that when he told family and friends he was returning to Ireland – you can just imagine the cacophony. He tells us that when he said that, they 'sincerely besought me, that now at last, having suffered so many hardships, I should not leave them and go elsewhere.' They wanted to nurture, to comfort him. He says, 'Many tried to prevent this mission. They would even talk to each other behind my back and say, "Why does this fellow throw himself into danger among people who don't know God?"' It would have been so easy just to stay and be loved, be liked.
He clearly conveys to us the isolation from his loved ones of all those who take risks for peace and reconciliation. He above all tells us that it's all right to be afraid and unsure. It's all right to live in a home where nobody understands what you're about, where people ask why you bother. Those in our time are no less immune to similar threats. And whatever bit of goodwill they managed to gather was regularly tested by acts of violence that drove people back into their separate bunkers.
"But now as we look at the emergence of a shared community – in Northern Ireland, between north and south, between this island and our neighboring island – we can see at last the vindication of the peacemakers' vision. They knew that if they stuck to that and brought people on board, it would finally begin to reveal its own vindication. There are still different traditions and identities, still different jurisdictions. But what there is now – which did not exist 5, 10, 15 years ago – is a manifest solidarity around shared determination to hold onto this peace.
"Because we who have lived through the alternative know that it was awful – heartbreakingly awful. We know the bloodletting, the awful personal sacrifice. And that has created a bank of solidarity that allows us to believe that out of this, as we watch it reveal its strength, we will see a move from the time when different traditions meant two different communities to a time when there are different traditions and different ideas, but one society of people who see each other as united around each other's common interest."
"Some people still feel excluded and see violence as a way of managing their difference. Some people are not in the least bit impressed by the accomplishments of the peacemakers. They are still part of the old, fading, dying way of doing things. So there is still a huge job to be done, away from the spotlight of the big iconic days...Each of those events was a stepping stone, a very important event, because, thanks to them, we have a new and very sure road map to the future.
"But just as each of those events was important, what links them was the work that was done to get people to that new place. We have to walk that journey and push this peace like a gigantic boulder. We have to keep pushing it so that it achieves the final destination. Like the pilgrims who come here, we are on a kind of shared pilgrimage. We have to brave the elements, our tiredness, and distractions. But we have to keep on doing it because the destination is so worthwhile and utterly essential to our wellbeing and that of all who will come after us.
"Each one of us is now a pilgrim on the path to peace: the path to Patrick's vision. The Ireland he came to love broke his heart – many times – but it never broke his soul. And because we on this island revere him – we may consider him in different ways, but each of us relates to him in some way – he offers us in this generation the chance to gather all those fragments of a once-shared past and, in his name, travel together toward a shared future.
"Whoever we are, there is an element of his story that creates a direct line from him to us. All over the world this week, there will be green beer, shamrocks, fun, and friendship. It's an opportunity. Our challenge has to be to grow that same spirit of almost innocent, joyful fun. Of spontaneous friendship, the ability to enjoy each other's company and to showcase music and dance from all traditions. So that on this St. Patrick's Day, it is a shared celebration and showcase of a society which, having struggled very hard to transcend difference, has found a voice in which to do that together.
"Then the challenge is to ensure that this friendship is not just showcased one day in Washington, D.C., Belfast, Dublin, Beijing, or wherever the Irish are gathered. But rather that this is something that shines 365 days of the year. That it shines in the hearts of the people who inhabit this place, whether Irish, British, Irish-British, or newcomers, immigrants. We are dealing with a kaleidoscope of humans who are making this place their home.
"What kind of home will it be? What kind of home do you want for yourself – not just within your 4 walls, where you would have been loved and looked after, but when you open that door and go out on the street? Would you be met with the kind of compassion that Patrick's people had for him? He came back to ensure that someday on this island when we opened our front doors, we would find the friendship and dignity of our homes on our streets and in our workplaces.
"And we would find it in people who didn't always understand our stories or agree with our perspective, but whose eyes lit up when they saw us because they were our friends. This conference offers us the opportunity to keep working toward that world. Where there once was enmity, there will be peace and reconciliation that will bring contentment to the people who inhabit this island for centuries to come.
"And the tourists who come here. I hope they will see they're not coming to pay homage to some remote figure from ancient history, but coming to a man whose work is not yet done. A man who invested the leaven of love in Ireland 1,500 years ago and whose work never stopped. There were always those who believed in it, who struggled hard and were challenged by its meaning to open their hearts to the otherness of others, to invest in building bridges of trust toward a future that is holding out the challenge of being what Patrick envisioned: the island of cead mile failte, a hundred thousand welcomes to strangers. I hope you will help us meet that challenge.