Mary McAleese, President of Ireland
Commencement Address to Fordham University Class of 2010
Saturday, May 22, 2010 | Rose Hill, The Bronx
President McShane, Chairman Tognino, Fordham faculty, senator, lieutenant governor, ambassadors, distinguished fellow honorary graduates, graduands, your families, your friends and guests, members of the class of the year 2010, it’s good to be in your company on this beautiful day in New York, and it’s a particular proud moment for me now as having been initiated as a proud alumnus of Fordham University. And when I arrived at the door, Doctor Curtin said “Welcome home.” This place is very much a home to, and a home for, the Irish, so I feel very much at home here today.
It was, after all, a Fordham alumnus, Thomas Cahill, who wrote a book of depth and insight on the Irish love of learning and then, with that kind of modesty that only the Jesuits can instill in us, he called his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. We of course always knew that, but we’re very grateful to him for taking on a mission to tell the rest of the world!
When my countryman, the poet Seamus Heaney, addressed the Fordham commencement class back in 1981, he did so in verse. You’ll be happy to hear I’m going to stick to prose, not being as good a poet or anywhere near it as Seamus Heaney, and I beg your indulgence now just for the few minutes that I stand between your long years of study, your success, and your graduation.
Your studies were long, your lecturers no doubt many, and no matter what your discipline, somewhere along the way, you will have picked up the fact, possibly from the other Irish president that I’m sharing the platform with, Father Joe McShane, that the Irish love words. The poet Peter Fallon wrote that the islanders who dwelt off the coast of Ireland on the beautiful—now remote and now unoccupied—Blasket Islands, he said that the islanders had
A word for every wave
that ebbs and flows,
and wind that blows
Every day’s memento mori.
Everybody has a story.
And even more than words, we Irish love stories. We just think words are really only the gateways to stories. And each one of you, I’m sure, has a wonderful, unique story to tell. You have plenty of stories, your parents have stories, your friends have stories, the faculty members no doubt too. Today we celebrate your stories, and their uniqueness. No two the same. Each one utterly different—a little of what you were given at birth, a little of what you have learned, a little of what you have done, what you remember, a lot of what you aspire to—and then a mix of some ingredients that nobody but you can fully know or understand and may never, ever, over the course of a lifetime, come to fully know or understand. And each story is, even now as we sit here, a work in progress.
And so as you write, as you will, fresh post-Fordham chapters in your stories, you will write the future of your own lives, the future of this city, this country, and you’ll also shape, in a very real way, the world that your children and your children’s children will inherit. And in too short a time you’ll probably be back here—a little bit further back there in the audience, watching your children in a quadrangle much like this.
But we have a little bit more of quadrangles in a moment. First I want to share a few stories with you, some that I hope will have a resonance for you and for the days ahead of you.
We’ve already heard mentioned here this morning the story of John Hughes, a Tyrone man. He…his statue is a beautiful statue of him not too far from where I’m standing now. So associated with this university, but look at where he started. He was born the son of a tenant farmer in a place called Annaloughan in the parish of Clogher in County Tyrone, in Ireland in 1797. Ireland was then a colony, a very unhappy colony, of the British Empire, with a wealthy and powerful ruling Anglican elite whose very oppressive Penal Laws bore down appallingly on Catholics and on Presbyterians who were denied equality before the law. Like many of his neighbors to whom the State offered nothing but perpetual poverty, John took the initiative and left for America, arriving here in 1817. He had very, very little formal education, so he just took whatever work that was available. He was a manual laborer. A stone-cutter. A gardener. He would be so proud, I’m sure, of these gardens. And then, he entered a seminary, and even then he had to go through a period of some remedial instruction.
By 1838, that humble young man was bishop, the appointed bishop here in the diocese of New York, and he served here for 26 years. Through his life, a thread runs through his life, and that is the outrage he felt, a strong sense of outrage at injustice, and in particular the injustice he had experienced as a child, injustice that robbed him of the right to equality and to dignity as a human person made in God’s image and likeness. He said, “They told me when I was a boy that for five days I was on a social and civil equality with the most favored subjects of the British Empire. These five days would be the interval between my birth and my baptism.”
In John Hughes, that outrage was a spur to action. It wasn’t just a once-off anger, nor was it the kind of raging self-pity that paralyzes. But rather, it was a call to do things, in which he made common cause with the poorest of the poor, and set about providing a good education here in New York to New York’s poorest. His radical project of transformation was a leaven. This one human being infused into the world around him a leaven that started with the empowerment of one human being and galvanized, through that person’s strength, the potential of whole communities.
And you are sitting, you’re surrounded, by the results of his labor. He laid the foundation stone for St. Patrick’s Cathedral but, much more important of course, he built the foundation for Fordham University.
And so we are all here, then, in part because of that passion, that foresight, of an unschooled immigrant from a remote part of County Tyrone. So maybe as you leave Fordham you’ll take a part of his story with you, the part that carries in its core an outrage at a world of gross inequality, where the talent and potential of so many is allowed to go to waste. And take with you the passion he had not just for giving out, not just for complaining, but for being an agent of change.
In 1846, as the first of one million people died from starvation in Ireland, a time that we remember particularly in this week, when we call to mind at a national level, international level, a time known as “An Gorta Mor,” the Great Hunger, but also known in Ireland as the Great Starvation, a young French Jesuit, Henri du Merle, arrived here at Fordham. He arrived just as Fordham received its character and the Jesuit community was beginning to settle in. At the same time, back in Ireland, famine was taking hold. It would change our history forever; it would also change the history of the United States. Within a very short few years, a quarter of the population of Ireland would be either dead or forced to emigrate, and they would arrive here in New York, in tattered rags and in poor health, to start life again.
The Irish poet Eavan Boland writes very movingly of a famine road that was built by the starving on the boarders of Connaught in that year of 1847. The rough stone road peters out in ivy and scutch grass and it is forgotten today, it is recorded on no map. Here are her words:
Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is………
….to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon,
it will not be there.
Even here in this country, the land of desperate hope, that road petered out for many Irish victims. They contracted typhus either en route, on the famine ships, the coffin ships, or on arrival. And I just wonder to myself how many of those two million who arrived here, how many of them wondered in their hearts, was there anyone out there who gave a damn about them? In 1847, Henri de Merle left the relative comfort of Fordham to work among those Irish famine victims who were then arriving in Canada. There he himself survived an epidemic of typhus that took the lives of nine priests and 13 nuns in that year and he returned safely to New York. And then something in his heart spoke to him. And despite everything he knew and despite everything he had seen, he made the return journey. He went back, back to the place he knew spelt more than the possibility of death, and in1851, as he answered that question, does anybody give a damn, he, in ministering to Ireland’s famine immigrants, contracted typhus, died at the age of 32, and became one of two Jesuits from Fordham’s community to die working among the Irish immigrants.
With such selfless sacrifice and heroism embedded in this University from its earliest years, it is hardly a surprise that Fordham remains so committed to training students in humanitarian work through its Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs, and that empathy with the poor is a very important, abiding part of the imprint that this University’s ethos sends you out into the world with. It’s an imprint that this University hopes you will bear with you and bear witness to throughout your lives.
Eighteen forty-seven, that same year, Jacques Judah Lyons, also of this city, was serving as Hazan, or prayer reader, to the community of Shearith Israel, the oldest Jewish community in the United States. Today that community is found only a few short blocks from Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. In March 1847, that community held a special service and a charity appeal for famine relief in Ireland. Those men and women were not fundraising for friends or for family. They had none of the familiar links to Ireland which might have prompted such an interest in Ireland’s suffering. So why did they bother? Hazan Lyons pointed out that there was indeed one “all-powerful and indestructible” link between New York’s Jewish community and the Irish famine victims. He said, “The link, my brethren, is humanity.” So simple, and so very profound.
And as you leave Fordham, I hope you will take with you the stories of these men and others who inspire you, those who put their gifts at the service of suffering strangers and, in particular, who saw in each stranger a brother and a sister.
In 1845, in this same period, as the very first signs of future famine were emerging in Ireland, a little girl was born. Her name was Charlotte Grace O’Brien. She was born in Cahirmoyle, Country Clare. And when she grew up and when she grew to reasonable old age, she heard very disturbing reports of the conditions that were being experienced by young emigrant women who were arriving from Ireland through the port of New York at the turn of the last century. Now she was neither young nor was she in good health, and yet these stories bothered her, of the manipulation and vulnerability of these women. And she booked passage to New York to see for herself just how bad things were. And they were bad. It was an act of extraordinary courage, it changed the course of her life, it changed the fortunes of countless emigrant women to this country, because her efforts inspired the establishment of a mission for Irish emigrant women in Battery Park, and over 100,000 women were saved there from dreadful exploitation. They got advice. They got shelter. In many cases, they were helped to get work. More importantly, they found a community that cared about them. And that mission’s efforts continued from 1883 right through to 1908.
So many disadvantages still bear down on women, especially in today’s world. In the developing world, hunger and poverty have a disproportionate effect on women, and in so many cultures they live lives today that are little short of slavery and certainly well, well short of their access to their full potential. In our world, where women have—and in this world, where women have—access to education and their choice of careers, it’s important to remember just how much work remains to be done in the full liberation of women from centuries of exclusion. When I began law school, back in the last century, the first textbook that was on my reading list was a book by a very eminent jurist called Glanville Williams. “Learning the Law,” it was called. Unfortunately, when I got about three-quarters way through the book, I came upon a chapter that was very ominously entitled “Women.” I went back to the table of contents to check, was there a similar, you know, was there a matching chapter entitled “Men,” but I needn’t tell you of course there wasn’t. Anyway, in the chapter entitled “Women,” he opined at some length that he couldn’t understand what in the name of all heavens were women studying law for, anyway? What were they going to university for? Women’s voices were too weak, he believed, to be heard in a courtroom. That man never met my mother. The only conceivable function, he believed, that women could possibly, possibly think to aspire to in a law school was that law schools were, as a general rule, a suitable source of spouses for women. I decided that I’d marry a dentist, of course, just for spite, and I have to say that I’ve never regretted that choice! To the women who are graduating from this class, into a financial world that is compromised by macho-driven super-hubris, may I say the world really needs the balancing intelligence of your genius. We seriously need to maintain the momentum created by pioneers like Charlotte Grace O’Brien who yearned such a long time ago for a world that would fly on two wings, the twoGod-given wings, instead of a world that was limping, still is limping, along on just one wing. We need male and female champions of a world that flies on two wings.
So what of the story of Ireland? The 18th century Ireland that John Hughes left was a mess. Political, religious oppression, violence and sectarianism, doesn’t sound too different from the mess that I inherited in 20th century Ireland. We inherited that toxic narrative, and then something changed in my generation for my generation—this thing called education. Once the domain of a small and privileged elite, in the middle of that century, suddenly, thanks to free second-level education, the world changed. And along with free second-level education came electricity, just every bit as important. Seamus Heaney captures it and the changes that it wrought in a magnificent poem called From the Canton of Expectation. He says, “suddenly this change of mood./Books open in the newly wired kitchens./Young heads that might have dozed a life away/against the flanks of milking cows were busy/paving and penciling their first causeways/ across the prescribed texts. The paving stones of quadrangles came next and a grammar/ of imperatives, the new age of demands.”
And then came the story of the Northern Ireland peace process, a story of struggling for justice and equality. It is the story of that generation, liberated by education, who had those young heads, who, according to Heaney, had, in one of the most memorable phrases I think in contemporary Ireland, he describes them as having “intelligences, brightened and unmannerly as crowbars.” I hope every one of you has exactly that—an intelligence brightened and unmannerly as a crowbar, because we sure need a lot of crowbars to move the obstacles that are out there to the kind of world that we would wish for. They used those crowbars bit by bit to dismantle the old culture of conflict, and to replace it with a culture of consensus. And I’m very conscious in this audience that they did not do it alone. They were helped enormously by their family here in the United States. The United States is co-owner of the peace that we enjoy today in Ireland.
Among our best friends and champions is one of your own, Bill Flynn, Chairman of Mutual of America, very typical of the people who got behind the peace process—busy people, lives to lead. They could have ignored our plight but they did not, and in involving themselves, and in involving the American administration, we were able to call on a resource, a well of ability, a well of innovative thinking, and from that, we were able to persuade so many people who were wedded to violence to think again, and to join the peace process. Today, it may be one of the best examples of peace-building available to us in our contemporary world as we try to face similar challenges and similar intractable problems.
So especially on the day, sometimes in the days up ahead and months up ahead, because I know you’re going out into a world that you didn’t think you were going to go out into three or four years ago, a world with that awful recession word, word hanging over it, with all the misery that has caused so much job loss and so much worry for people. So when things appear intractable, and you are almost on the verge of giving up, remember: you crossed the great quadrangle of Fordham. And with every single step, you have prepared yourself and you have been prepared to be that crowbar, to face courageously the new age of demands.
You exit into a very chaotic world. I know that. It’s a chaotic old world, for sure. But you know, it needs leaders. It needs people like you, men and women of integrity, who are determined to take the lead, to give their best, to do their best at the very least not to make things worse. So ask yourselves, as you exit from this famous quadrangle, among whose names do you want to be counted—the givers or the takers? The carers or the careless? The courageous or the cowed? It is, after all, simply a matter of choice.
I know that in your…for your year, for the Class of 2010, not everyone made it to the finishing line. Some of you carry in your hearts terrible burdens of grief at the loss, and indeed the recent loss, of graduan friends who are not here to share this day with you. And so those who did not make it to graduation, they had dreams, they had things they wanted to lead in, they had such ambitions one day for themselves, and now they rely on you who have breath in your body, who have the imprint of Fordham on your character. They rely on you to do on this earth what they cannot. And they be with you from their heavenly home. May each of you never swerve from what is right, from doing what is right, in big things, and in small; in private, and in public, and in the service of all God’s magnificent and messy creation. God bless each one of you. Congratulations to you all.