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In full: Enda Kenny’s speech at the White House

Irish and African emigrants are “united, inspired, sustained, by our faith… our faith in the audacity of hope,” Kenny says.

Image: AP

THE FOLLOWING IS the full text of the address prepared by Taoiseach Enda Kenny for delivery at the White House last night, at a gala dinner hosted in honour of St Patrick’s Day by US President Barack Obama.

Mr President, thank you for your warm invitation to join you here tonight. Fionnuala and I are honoured and delighted to be here on behalf of the people of Ireland.

On St Patrick’s Day, we remember our proud leaders: Michael Davitt from my own province of Connacht. The O’Neills and the O’Donnells of Ulster. O’Connell of Munster. O’Bama… of Leinster.

I can tell you, that in the history of the English language, never has asingle apostrophe meant so much to so many. Yes – there’s no one as Irish as Barack Obama. And Sir, they’re queuing in their thousands to tell you, in Moneygall when you visit us in May.

Let me assure you, Mr President, that the news of your decision to come to Ireland has already caused quite a stir and you can count on a huge Cead Mile Failte from the Irish people.

Tonight, as we gather here in the White House. We remember the people who began the journey for us, driven out by An Gorta Mór – the Great Hunger – when the potato from the New World failed.

In scattered lines they make for the quayside, their only sound the slow slap of their soles on the emigrant flagstones. Herded like cattle onto ships… they know that now is not the time to cry for the typhus, or the cholera, or for the gut-busting American corn and the savage segregation of the Workhouse.

But ours was not a self-contained adventure. On another Atlantic coast, another people were waiting… waiting to be herded onto ships. They wait in dungeons. Blind-prison. Chained, fettered. Husbands calling out for wives. Wives for husbands. Mothers soothing children, perhaps, not even their own. Singing in notes so small, they can hide among the hymns sung by their captors in the chapel overhead.

Two peoples. On the far coasts of one ocean where, in Heaney’s words of our Nobel, Seamus Heaney: “Tireless waves, came glinting, sifting from the Americas.”

Africa’s Cape Coast. The shores around Ireland’s Cape Clear. Two peoples who will cross that dividing ocean. The Irish to freedom… the Africans to slavery.

Though they don’t yet know it, in time, theirs are the genes that will build America. The genes that unite us here at this White House designed by an Irish architect. To claim and to celebrate St Patrick who came to redeem the soul of a people… and he was a slave.

Mr President, at Cape Coast Castle, you said it seemed as if the walls were talking.

They might have said: ‘Respect. Mercy. Obligation. Never again.’ Because I believe the intense, unyielding but compassionate Patrick unites us here today, not alone in our Irish ancestry, but in our common heredity: President Kennedy’s ‘Family of Man’.

Just two weeks before he died he said, “If our society is to promote the family of man, then let us realise the magnitude of our task.” Today, I believe we are, indeed, united in this task, aware of its magnitude.

Whether the family of man must be promoted across the valleys of Kenya, or the mountains of Ireland, or the scattered islands of Indonesia, or today in the wreckage of Japan – or whether we must take it, Mr President, to all those still “huddled around radios”. Only this time, the corners are no longer “forgotten”: they have barged onto our TV screens, ransacked our consciousness, stormed our world.

This is our task, not alone because we are leaders of our countries. But because we are fathers, and parents, teaching our children – our countries’ children – about, duty, and about obligation… the need to fight cruelty, injustice and inhumanity wherever it happens.

Our stories, might indeed, be singular. But we know that our destiny, our children’s destiny, is a shared prospect. ‘Do as I do’. Lead, teach by example. Create a future from the unknown.

You will visit us, Mr President, in a short time. I hope when you do your stay will symbolise the life-giving bond between Ireland and America. We are your gateway to Europe. And I can say right here, right now, that gateway is wide open and ready for business. And with our new government, our new mandate from the people, it’s in good, safe hands.

Mr President we meet, almost at the Spring Equinox, when new light returns to our lives.
But you will come to us in May – the start of the Celtic Summer, or as we call it, ‘Bealtaine’ – the Feast of the Bright Fires.

And when you do you will return to your own people, your own place. Mr President you will come – home – to Ireland.

So, tonight let, let the word go forth from this time and place, high and clear into the eaves of this city, that the bonds between Ireland and America are as warm and strong as they have ever been, in the history of our two great countries: warm and strong and vigorous.

Because we are united, inspired, sustained, by our faith… our faith in the audacity of hope.

About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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