IRISH President Mary McAleese accompanied by her husband Dr Martin McAleese attended the inaugural St Patrick Centre Peace and Reconciliation Conference yesterday (15th March). The centre was packed with many representatives from local churches, schools, community organisations, politicians, and the business sector.
The President’s visit was timed to coincide with the launch of the conference. South Down MP Margaret Ritchie and Down District Council Chairman Councillor Eamon O’Neill welcomed President McAleese who originally came from the Ards and introduced her to the many delighted guests. Many people throughout the day photographed her as she chatted to those attending the conference. She was met by many groups including the representatives from Loughinisland CommunityAssociation, the Lecale Gaelic Society, and the Newcastle Women Helping Other Women group.
Dr Tim Campbell, St Patrick Centre Director was also delighted at meeting the President. Downpatrick schools Down High School, St Mary’s High School and St Patrick’s Grammar sang as a joint choir. Irish dancer Caoimhin Morgan and Scottish dancer Emma McCluskey also performed for the president and were well received.
After the opening speeches, Dr Ian Adamson, historian, author and High Sheriff of Belfast, opened the discussion on “I Saint Patrick the Man”. Dr William Crawley then chaired the first panel and political broadcaster Eamonn O’Malley chaired the next session on “Celebrating St Patrick”.
Speaking at the opening address of the conference, Jack Ferris, Chairman of the Friends of St Patrick welcomed President McAleese to the conference and a packed audience. Her speech was focused on developing a spirit of friendship centred around St Patrick’s Day.
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie Speaking At the Conference
MARGARET Ritchie MP welcomed President McAleese to the St Patrick Centre saying, ” I am very much aware of the importance of St Patrick to this part of the world. However, the reason we are here today is because the story, the legacy and the message of Patrick has a significance not only for this town or for the two traditions in Northern Ireland or indeed the island of Ireland – but for the whole Christian world and the world beyond that.
“I was delighted to reference the powerful message of Patrick in my maiden speech at Westminster. I described him then as our greatest ever import and our greatest ever export. That is what he is. And I know that in that respect, I follow in the footsteps of Downpatrick’s greatest Patrician, Eddie McGrady, without whom, among many other things, this fine centre would not be here.
“I would like also to pay tribute also to Tim and his team in the St Patrick’s Centre who represent the front line in terms of retailing the legacy of Patrick. And my congratulations to them on arranging this event which, with the participation of President McAleese, will raise the profile of Patrick’s story with new audiences. But I think we all have a huge responsibility in spreading the story of Patrick…
“I have to admit also that part of the reason for the perception about Patrick being mainly for Catholics, results from the tribal and partial way in which his story is sometimes celebrated…In this area, Patrick’s homeplace, we come together and celebrate Patrick together. That is how it should always be…
“Let me stake Downpatrick’s claim. It was a few miles from here where the river Slaney flows into Strangford Lough that Patrick arrived for the first time since his earlier period of enslavement, to commence his mission. He went inshore a mile and built his first ever church at Saul. He befriended St Tassagh in nearby Raholp where he eventually died and he refreshed mind and body in the holy wells a couple of miles away at Struell. At the end of his mission he was buried on the hill of Down in the grounds of today’s Down Cathedral. He travelled much of Ireland by foot and by river but Downpatrick was always home. Around this place you really are walking in the footsteps of Patrick… a truly inspirational figure. We must share that inspiration with the rest of the world. But first we have to share it with each other.
“This conference is an opportunity to set the development of St Patrick’s Heritage on a new upward course. Let us all work together in the spirit of Patrick.”
The President’s Speech
IN addressing the origins of St Patrick in Ireland, President McAleese said, “This conference focuses on peace and reconciliation…it indicates strongly that there is here an intrinsic understanding that peace and reconciliation on our island far from being done deals are live, active ongoing processes that command our attention and our commitment now and for long into the future.
“I am glad that while peace and reconciliation are being discussed in our contemporary context we are not afraid to turn to the story of Patrick for insight and inspiration as we work to comprehensively end the old wasteful culture of conflict and replace it with a culture of good-neighbourly consensus. Who is Patrick to us, this immigrant, this slave from another country and culture? Who is he to an island where Christians of diverse denominations have spectacularly failed to love one another?
“He is our common patron, a unifying force if we allow him to be, a crucial part of our dim and distant shared inheritance which even today we can valuably revisit, for lying dormant, fallow in that far off heritage of Patrick are tools with which we can forge the happier future we dream of.”
President McAleese talked about the difficulties of managing change in politics and said that even St Patrick experienced a similar process that our society is facing today where the two communities engage on difficult issues. She explained too that Patrick as a young man was alienated from his origins and became a slave experiencing considerable suffering.
“This land we love was the land of his captivity, a place of hardship and loneliness. Seamus Heaney has written “Human beings suffer. They torture one another. They get hurt and they get hard.” Patrick was hurt enough to get hard, to want to get even, to thirst for revenge. We know he yearned to escape and eventually succeeded, arriving home to the freedom and personal safety he had yearned for.
“Safe in his own comfort zone he could have lived the rest of his life cursing this island and its people and we would in all likelihood have never ever heard the story of Patrick. But that is not what happened. Just as this generation has broken the cycle of getting hurt and getting hard, just as this generation has made history by refusing to repeat history, Patrick did the unpredictable thing, the remarkable thing, the miraculous thing. He returned to Ireland not because he wanted to, not because he had to, but because he chose to…”
The President described how he pressed on with his Christian message of forgiveness and reconciliation. He faced the toxic politics of his time….some people still feel excluded she added, and some still see violence as a way of achieving their ambitions or of simply managing difference in a divided society.
“Some are not impressed by the accomplishments of the peace-makers and some still pose a threat to that peace. So there is still a huge job to be done, away from the spotlight, away from the drama of the big iconic days like the signing of the Good Friday and St. Andrew’s Agreements, or the formation of a power-sharing Executive or the devolution of policing and justice. Each of those great events was and remains of seminal importance for they have created a new and sure roadmap to the future.
“Now we have to walk the journey… like the pilgrims who come here. We have to brave the elements, the tiredness, the problems because the destination is so worthwhile and so utterly essential to our well-being and the wellbeing of all who come after us. Each one of us is now a pilgrim on the path to peace, the path to Patrick’s vision for the Ireland he came to love though it broke his heart many times.
“And because all traditions on this island revere St Patrick and relate to St. Patrick he offers us in this generation the chance to gather the scattered fragments of a once shared past and in his name travel together towards a shared future. All over the world this week the name of St Patrick will be associated with parades, music, green beer, leprechaun hats, fun and friendship.
“Our challenge is to grow that same spirit of spontaneous friendship and solidarity throughout this island so that it shines 365 days of the year, year in and year out in places and spaces where there was once estrangement and enmity. This Conference at St Patrick’s Centre will, I hope, help us to do that. I wish the Centre well and hope its newly launched St. Patrick’s Trail will entice more tourists to travel northwards to this beautiful part of the country. When they come, I hope like us they will see that they are not coming to pay homage to a vague figure from ancient history but to a man whose work is today continuing in every heart and hand that invests in peace and reconciliation, in building trust, and in building the bridges of love that will take us from a problematic past to a future Patrick can be proud of.”