St Michael’s Irish Centre in Liverpool hosted a special reception for President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins as part of his three day visit to Britain this week. Accompanied by his wife Sabina, he gave this speech to those who gathered for the occasion. The President praised the work of the Irish community on Merseyside, including the late Tommy Walsh.
“In the course of our visit we have the opportunity to meet many parts of the diverse Irish community in Liverpool.
But it is especially appropriate to be here at St. Michael’s Irish Centre which has been at the heart of supporting the Irish Community in Liverpool for so many years. The connection between Ireland and Liverpool is a deep and historical one.
For centuries past, Liverpool has represented the first glimpse of a new life for generations of Irish migrants leaving their home country in search of a better future.
Of course, many migrants sailed on from Liverpool to make their new home in the United States of America, but many more stayed here, put down roots and began to form a growing Irish community in this beautiful city, establishing their own cultural centres and associations.
Despite the difficulties which many of our migrants historically faced in adapting to their new lives here in Liverpool, their sense of community, their determination to remain united and their dedication to supporting those of their friends and neighbours who were in greatest need, never faltered.
It is important to remember the profound debt we owe to those generations who came before us and who forged a better life for themselves and their families in Britain; people who carefully preserved and nurtured Irish culture and heritage and developed a strong and vital community during times of great hardship.
We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to People like Tommy Walsh. Tommy Walsh was a leading figure in the Irish Community in Liverpool until his death in 2010. He campaigned for an Irish centre in Liverpool and became its first manager when it opened in Mount Pleasant in 1965.
He went on to become the first national chairman of the Federation of Irish Societies in 1973. He became the first chairman of Irish Community Care Merseyside in 1989.
Tommy and his colleagues, whose spirit and determination was to led to the establishment the first Irish Centre in Mount Pleasant in 1965 and then to the development of this Centre and to the establishment of Irish Community Care Merseyside.
It is important that we do not forget the critical role of centres like St Michael’s Cultural Centre and all they do to ensure that our Irish culture and traditions remain relevant in the lives of Irish communities around the world.
In Ireland we are very proud of our cultural heritage and of our worldwide reputation for success in the cultural and artistic arena.
We are also proud of how that culture has survived and thrived in many countries across the globe, kept alive by our emigrants and their descendants who understand that culture must be based on what we share as a people, and is a process that should continually be reworked if it is to flourish and prosper in a changing and evolving world.
The issue of cultural identity is one that must be faced by all emigrants. Migration will always involve a process of social change, one that will require some level of acculturation.
Finding a balance between the inherited legacy of one’s own cultural and the cultures of both the point of arrival and the cultural experience of migration itself – not reducible to either point of origin or destination – is challenging.
It is important, however, that the culture, the traditions and the customs that form such an important part of an individual’s legacy are neither rejected and denied or constructed in such a way as to allow a community to be marginalised to the point of exclusion.
The culture of one’s origins and the new culture at one’s destination can co-exist in a shared space that is neither reducible to one or the other, nor a bland homogenised place where distinct cultural identities become lost.
It is important that first, second and third generations of Irish people living in Great Britain and in other countries across the globe, are facilitated in experiencing and understanding the culture that formed or influenced their parents or grandparents or great grandparents so that they are enabled to recognise and understand the complex tapestry that is their identity; that is their heritage.
That is why Centres like St Michael’s are such a crucial part of a truly functioning and multi-cultural society. The work of this and other centres contributes in a vital way to local communities and to society in general.
Vibrant and diverse Irish organisations, proud of their heritage but open to all, continue to play a hugely important role in towns, cities and villages all over the world; and here in Great Britain, Liverpool, the most Irish of British cities, has led the way.
This Centre and all of you here today are part of this work. Your commitment to keeping our culture – our music, song, dance, language and literature – alive, continues to make a real and tangible difference to the quality of life experienced by thousands of Irish emigrants in this country and deserves the gratitude of all Irish people.
Finally I would like to commend the work of all the volunteers who give so freely of their time, energy and imagination to ensure the continued success of community and cultural organisations throughout Britain. I thank you, on my own behalf and on behalf of all the Irish people, for the valuable work you do.”
See next Wednesday’s Irish Post (November 28) for full coverage of the Irish President’s three-day visit to Britain.