Challenges

From poet Theo Dorgan to a graduating class from my alma mater:

You, the rising generation, face many challenges, but your strength of heart can create a better Ireland

YOU COME here today to be honoured, as you should be, for your considerable achievements. You come here today to be congratulated, as you should be, for the hard work, self-discipline and sheer good fortune that has brought you to this point in your lives.

Well I honour you, and I congratulate you, and I wish you continued good fortune in your lives, but it would not be right, it would lack respect, if I were to stand here today before you and utter polite, meaningless words.

A great deal of the country’s wealth has been invested in each and every one of you. Your parents have sacrificed much so that you can stand here today and allow them to feel hope for your futures, pride in your achievements. Your teachers have worked hard for you and with you because that is their task, their duty – to pass on to you the knowledge that is the foundation of our culture, our civilisation. And you yourselves have already begun to contribute your energies and your insights to our always emerging common good.

These, then, should be days of hope as we stand back to allow you, the rising generation, begin the great work of building on what has been given you. These should be days of hope when we say to you, go you and do better than we have done, dare more, imagine more, build stronger and deeper and better on the foundations we have laid.

This is as it should be, but our joy and our satisfaction, our pride in your achievements, is shadowed and undermined by the present circumstances.

These are dark days in our broken and battered Republic. Fear is everywhere, fear and bewilderment and uncomprehending rage. The ground is not solid beneath our feet, the way ahead is clouded and uncertain.

None of this is of your making, none of this is your fault, and, if you choose, none of this need be your future responsibility – for you can choose to walk away. Nobody here has the right to blame you if that should be your choice. We have one life and one life only; each man and woman must decide for themselves how and where to live that life.

What faces you, should you choose to stay, should you find yourselves unable or unwilling to leave, is not what anyone here today would have envisaged for you.

This world you are about to inherit is not the world your teachers and parents would have wished for you. Where we should have been building a nation, we surrendered our better selves to the pitiless business of getting and spending. Where we should have been taking thought, considering how to build an economy that would serve a vision of being fully human, we gave ourselves over to the fevered dreams of the prophets of greed. And now we stand in the ruins before a rising generation and we ask ourselves, what has been done here? More pertinently and painfully, what has been done to the children of the nation?

Today, many of you stand ready to play your part in the thankless work of rebuilding our society, our Republic. Many of you have already made plans to leave. Some of you hope to stay but fear you will be forced before long to leave.

How did it come to this? There is no easy answer, I will not insult you by suggesting there is an easy answer.

Ten years ago, this university did me the honour of inviting me to address its graduates and postgraduates on a similar occasion.

Among other things, I said these words:

“We live . . . in a problematic reality now, the variousness of what lives and dies only fitfully seen behind the lightning clouds of a consumer economy, the music of what happens drowned out by the roaring and screeching of an economy that has lost the run of itself. This Republic has invested time and money and human care in your formation, but somehow has lost itself along the way.”

I SHOULD HAVE listened more closely to myself. I should have paid more attention to what was happening all around me, I should have realised that, 10 years ago, we had already lost our Republic. In a republic, we value ourselves, and we value each other. In a republic, it is an honour to serve. In a republic, the highest good is the common good, but in truth we have handed you a fractured State where those who work for the common good have great hearts but little power, and those to whom we entrusted power have betrayed us shamelessly.

I was shaped in this college by women and men who encouraged us to read wisely and reflect well, by men and women who strove to teach us to consider things as they actually are before going on to imagine how things might be, could be, should be.

Well, this is how things actually are:

Our liberties have been trampled on by a professional political class that is as fearful as it is incompetent, perhaps fearful because it is incompetent. Our futures have been mortgaged into the fourth generation to save a corrupt banking system. Those whom we pay to serve us have made slaves of us and of our children and of our children’s children.

Many, many people refused this reductionist vision; in community development projects, in hundreds of voluntary organisations, in our own lives, many of us refused – but we were swept away.

It came to the point where, in a time when so many of our young people are taking their own lives, those of us who warned of the coming catastrophe, those of us who were struggling in all good faith to articulate a better way, were invited by the taoiseach of our country to “commit suicide”.

We need to reflect on these things calmly, dispassionately and, having reflected, we must decide among ourselves what is to be done. That task will bear heavily on the shoulders of your generation. That responsibility, if you are brave and generous enough to accept it, will fall to you.

I want to call to mind here something my friend and colleague, the writer Colm Tóibín, said recently: it is not the poets and the singers, the actors and film-makers, musicians, novelists and playwrights who have brought on the present disaster.

I would go further: it is not the teachers and nurses, the chemists and engineers and lawyers, the bus drivers, the factory workers, the shop assistants, the lecturers and security guards, the ambulance drivers and farmers who have brought on the present disaster.

It is not the thousands involved in afterschool training of young sportsmen and women, the tens of thousands who work in and with our charities, the lifeboat volunteers, those who visit the sick and the elderly, those who counsel the homeless, the grief-stricken and the addicted who have brought on the present disaster.

Under the carapace of the State as it imagines itself, there is still the nation, troubled, uncertain and beaten down, to be sure, but still struggling to build a civic society.

THERE IS AN Ireland we have been ceaselessly imagining and re-imagining for centuries. You can find elements of that Ireland in the thoughts and dreams of Redmond and Pearse, Wolfe Tone and Douglas Hyde. You can find it in the generous vision of James Connolly and the pragmatic vision of that greatest of civil servants, TK Whitaker. You can find it in the challenging presidencies of Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, in the words and deeds of those who fought so trenchantly and fearlessly for the rights of women, the rights of so-called minorities, the rights of the dispossessed.

You can find it in all those who subsumed doubt and difference in the act of faith that is the Belfast Agreement. You can find it in the words of our poets and writers, the visions of our artists, the soul-building songs and music of both the dead and the living generations.

Many of us live fragments of that Ireland in our daily lives, much of that Ireland we have already brought into being – but we have failed to imagine clearly enough the civic and political structures that will nurture and grow and guarantee our visions of the good.

THAT IS OUR task now, that is the task you face – if you are prepared, as I hope in my heart you are prepared, to accept the responsibility.

But we live and die as individuals and your first responsibility is to yourself, to the life you have been mysteriously granted. For myself, I will honour whatever choice you make, I will wish you well if you stay or if you go.

If you must go, then go with a full heart and high expectations of the world. Do not go in defeat, with regret, in loneliness. We live in one world now, infinitely various, full of undiscovered joys and surprises. Savour your lives and remember you have a nation still, a home to return to. When you come back, bring us what you have learned in the wide world as thousands of immigrants are already enriching us with the learning they bring to our homes and to our streets. Send us your visions and thoughts constantly, it’s what the technology is for. You will be elsewhere, not orphaned or cast out. You can elect, I hope you will elect, to remain a part of the national conversation, a part of our evolution towards a better life for all.

And if you stay? I say, you have the same opportunities to learn and explore, to discover and innovate, to be surprised and joyful, to learn and to help teach us all what it is to be fully human.

WHAT WE MUST learn now, what we must practise with all our minds and hearts, is solidarity. Wherever we are, no matter how cast down, solidarity. No matter how grim the circumstances, how seemingly hopeless the situation, solidarity. At all times, among all peoples, solidarity. Solidarity, and hope.

As far back as the sixth century BC, the Greek poet Theognis of Megara said: “Hope is the one good god remaining.”

Hope is a profound act of imagination, the most important and the most neglected of the civic virtues. In the face of the present disaster we can lie down in despair, or we can choose hope – which means placing all our faith in each other and in the boundless capacity of the imagination to reinvent circumstance, to establish new truths.

We are no mean people, as Yeats said in another place, in another context. We have hearts and minds, we care for each other still, we have our dreams and in dreams, as the poet Delmore Schwartz once said, in dreams begin responsibilities. It falls to you, to your generation, to assume the responsibility of dreaming a new republic.

The nation is beaten down, but not defeated. A certain kind of Ireland is over and we are well rid of it. There is a new Ireland to be imagined and worked for, a new kind of Ireland to build and it is you who must build it. Everything I have seen of this rising generation persuades me of your strength of heart and it is heart we need now, the heart steadied and strengthened by the mind and by the power of imagination.

May your hearts continue strong, may your lives be long and fruitful, may your most generous and courageous visions come to pass.

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