Mary McAleese 2006 Commencement address

Author: President Mary McAleese


President Jenkins, Chairman McCartan, brother and sister honorees, graduates and Laetare medalist, faculty of Notre Dame, graduates of Notre Dame and your families, spouses and friends, in the Irish language (speaking Irish) – wasnt Father JenkinsIrish great? Marvelous, almost fluent. Im desperately impressed.

Its good to be in your company this day. I am so honored to be here. May I thank Uachtarán Jenkins – inIreland, we would call him Uachtarán, the president is Uachtarán. Uachtar is the word forcreamin Irish, so Uachtarán, Ill leave the rest for your imagination, I think you figured it out.

I would like to thank Father Jenkins and the trustees of Notre Dame for the opportunity I have been given to be here today, first of all to receive an honorary doctorate of laws and then to have the second honor of addressing this graduating class. I came toSouth Bendin kind of a strange way; I came by way ofButte,Montana. And the people ofButte,Montanatold me to tell you theyre big supporters of the Fighting Irish, so I promised them I would.

Actually, as it happens, this degree has reduced the contention of the opportunity for fighting in my home because for the past two years my husband, Martin, has had the distinct advantage in our home because he has been a Notre Dame alum since he received an honorary degree inDublinback in 2004, so now were both Domers. Equal rights, I say, in the McAleese household.

Im also very proud to be among such an extraordinary group of distinguished honorary graduates on this platform. Their contributions to society – to the arts, to business, to science, to making our world a humanly decent place, their courage – well, its just truly, truly remarkable. They are the most wonderful of people and I was particularly privileged to sit beside Dave Brubeck, our Laetare medalist, over lunch. What an absolutely wonderful privilege to sit beside that great jazz composer, such a humble man and a wonderful man and we are just so privileged to be in the company of wonderful people.

But as I said, the greatest honor today is the chance to talk to you this day. To be with your family, to be with your friends as you reach this wonderful milestone, you cross this threshold, this life beyond Notre Dame. Its the end of the beginning, thats all that it is really. It may feel like the end, but actually its just the end of a beginning. As youll soon discover, I hope, education is just the most wonderful life-long journey and one of lifes greatest companions, an ever, ever, ever-present in your life curiosity about the world and thats really what education is all about.

Its also a great watershed in the lives of your parents and your families. Theologians have long debated, no doubt at this university among others, the precise moment when life begins. Let me tell you, as the parent of a graduate, a whole new life begins on this day when the kids go, and their bills hopefully start to go with them. Its a whole new life opening up for you.

The tradition of Commencement speakers at Notre Dame is a bit daunting, let me tell you, because no fewer than six presidents of the United States have delivered Commencement addresses, among them President Reagan, another one of the many, many American presidents with Irish roots. And when he came here, he talked about those roots in County Tipperary, roots he shared indeed with a good friend of his, the actor Pat OBrien, who was in Notre Dame also on that day, who had starred in that famousKnute Rockne, All American,I think it has a very special resonance here. And indeed it was Pat OBrien who made very sure that the then very young Ronald Reagan got the part of George Gipp, which of course gave the future president that nickname, one of his great political slogans which wove the overtones of Notre Dame well into the American body politic. Two years later, in 1984, President Reagan paid a visit to his ancestral home, as indeed so many immigrants and the children of immigrants do, come back to their roots, his in County Tipperary. And he wrote very movingly about that visit, as the child of emigrant ancestors, an emigrant mother and father and how being there in the place where they were born flooded his mind, flooded his emotions. He thought of his mother, Nell, his father, Jack Reagan, and he wrote:Never had I wished more that he and Nell were still alive so that they could have been there with me.

And really, in that story is the story of the Irish emigrant. So many of them left without hope or prospect of ever coming back. They came with hearts flooded with loneliness, planted themselves in new places and they had to grow a new heart now for this new place. But, of course, the heart they had forIrelandnever, ever diminished. And I find it particularly strange and one of lifes great coincidences, as it possibly isnt a coincidence at all, that my family comes from the Mourne mountains, my mothers family comes from the Mourne mountains, and there was a tradition of pogroms against Catholics in that particular region for many generations, going way back right to the early part of the 20 th century. So many of her clan emigrated, and they emigrated never to see one another again and never to set foot in the Mourne mountains ever again and it broke their hearts. And their going was seen as a dreadful, dreadful loss. My family were lucky, mine stayed. My great-grandmother Mary Ann McCartan stayed. And then I arrive here, on a platform at Notre Dame and the chairman, of course, of your Board of Trustees, is one Mr. McCartan and where do his family come from? Well, they come from the same part of the mountains of Mourne. And in these stories we realize that that which we thought was such a disaster comes back to us as gift. Over the generations, it comes back to us as blessing.

And it comes back to us as blessing because primarily of the indomitable spirit of the Irish. For the Irish in America, well, as like the Irish everywhere in the world, that language that you use here, theFighting Irish,we dont mean fighting in the sense of argumentative, though we might occasionally mean argumentative, but what we actually mean mostly when we talk about it is an indomitable spirit, a commitment, never tentative, always fully committed, to use the words that I got from Father Tims Mass this morning, total commitment to life itself. No matter what life threw at them, and it threw quite a few wobblies at the Irish from time to time, that indomitable spirit that always sought to dig deep to find the courage to transcend, to keep going. With that phenomenal recognition that the Irish have becauseIrelandis a very beautiful country, as many of you who have ever been there will know, its a physically very beautiful country and indeed, not unlike the rest of the world, God created a very beautiful world. And as our valedictorian, Catherine, said, theres a lot of mess out there. But we, the people, we messed it up. And what straightens out that mess is commitment, and primarily the discipline of love has that wonderful opportunity to reconnect us to the grandeur that God created, to start getting it right, to start making the mess less. That is one thing that the Irish have been particularly good at.

And so Im particularly privileged to be now the first serving president ofIrelandto visitSouth Bendand be here on this platform. One of my predecessors, a very famous Irish patriot called Eamon de Valera, he received a tremendous welcome here in 1919. He wasnt quite president ofIrelandthen because he had just escaped from an English jail, and it has been suggested that his visit here at that time is what cemented Notre Dames nickname of the Fighting Irish. It certainly focused international attention on this university and its support for Irish independence and here at Notre Dame we have long had inIrelandthe most faithful of friends and we are blessed in our friends.

In the decades that followed, the Irish inAmericaidentified themselves of course with the success of the Fighting Irish, the Notre Dame football team. It didnt seem to matter that many of the players did not have an Irish heritage, so long as they played like the Irish, that was okay. Knute Rockne himself summed it up best when he said,Theyre all Irish to me. They have the Irish spirit and thats all that counts.So whether the quarterback is called Brady Quinn or Jimmy Claussen, what counts is the spirit of the team and that indomitableness, that commitment, that never-give-uppery.

And I could take those words as my theme this afternoon. Whether you have an Irish family heritage or not, something brought you to Notre Dame. It wasnt coincidence, it wasnt chance, it was choice. And that choice seems to me to have something very special to do with the spirit of this place, what it stands for. So now, after four years of study, four longIndianawinters, after all those urgent prayers at the Grotto that was mentioned, presumably mostly around exam time, you are now indelibly marked by the spirit of this place, the spirit of the Fighting Irish. And what is that spirit? Its not to be argumentative or trouble-making, although sometimes trouble-makers are needed in our world. It is to be champions of life itself, lovers of life itself, lovers of community, lovers of all that is good and humanly decent, champions of being good in our world and God knows we need those. People who have that capacity to figure they can change the odds no matter how tough the odds that are stacked against them are. People who dont say to themselves,Well, if I stay back, Ill be safe.Sure, you will, but will your life be the big adventure it could be? People who get stuck in, people who commit. And thats really the spirit of the Fighting Irish. Its taken us all around the world in the most dreadful of circumstances. Its allowed us to become a country which was, in my living memory, a third-world country, now a first-world country, thank God, a very successful, very wealthy, very prosperous country, but hopefully with always a third-world memory to keep us humble. To keep us always, always connected to those who have less, to those who are excluded, to those who are spectators at lifes feast. That was never Gods intention for his people, it was that we would all be around that table, we would all be called and invited to eat. And so thats the spirit of the Irish.

Thats what drew you here – the values, the principles, the absolute unshakeable standing for those values and principles. My grandmother, no doubted she got it from her McCartan mother, used to say to me, and to all her 60 grandchildren – because my family thought we had to increase, multiply and fill the earth entirely on their own – but she used to say to us,If you want the crowd to follow you, dont follow the crowd,and its a very, very true thing. Stand your own ground. And that is what you will have been taught here. You will know what that ground is, you will recognize that ground, and you have been taught to stand tall and stand your ground. No matter what the crowd is saying, no matter what the pressure, you are the person, the sign of contradiction, who helps to clear up the mess in our world.

Back in 1842, way, way back, the year this university was founded, potato blight destroyed the potato crop, not as it happens inIreland, but here in the easternUnited States. We cant say how the blight was first brought toIreland, but when it arrived on our shores three years later in 1845, it precipitated the greatest calamity in the history ofIreland. It triggered a terrible exodus. In a very short time we would go from being a population of 10 million to a population of 5 million. It sparked one of the greatest migrations in human history, it sparked the immediate death of 1 million men, women and children. I remember my own grandfather pointing at the spot outside his front door where his mother described seeing as a child the bodies lying nine deep in the ditch, within living memory. That which was a disaster then, as I said, is now regarded as a blessing. Irish culture, which used to be the domain ofIrelanditself, is now enriched by this extraordinary scattering that took place right across the world. They went like spores all over the globe – to theUnited Statesand every part of it, toAustralia, toBritain, toCanada. And where two or more were gathered in the name ofIreland, they brought her music, her dance, her literature, her faith, her values, and they brought them as gift to their new culture, to their new community. And because they were intellectually curious and because they were people who brought love with them, they drew in from the ambient cultures. And now our Irish culture has tributaries that flow from here, in South Bend in Indiana, to right around the world, from South Bend to Sydney we can say, Irish culture is so dynamic, so many phenomenal tributaries now are flowing into it, drawing in cultures and the richness of cultures from their friends, from their colleagues, from those they live with in immigrant communities all over the world.

Unknown to the French founders of Notre Dame, those spores of potato famine were the seeds of their universitys future and perhaps Father Sorin had an intimation of that future in the four Irish brothers who accompanied him on his original journey toSouth Bend. In any event, thanks to them, the Irish inAmericavery quickly became leaders in education, leaders in the Church. They had huge advantages, not least because they were Irish, but because of sheer numbers and traditions. They had remarkably, if only out of necessity, a command of the English language, largely thanks to the fact that so much effort was made by our next door neighbors to kill off our Irish language. They are, incidentally nowadays our best friends, next to our American friends, thank God for that. Times have changed wonderfully.

In the years after the great famine, the newly created system of national elementary schools inIrelandensured that the vast majority, the overwhelming majority of Irish men and women who came here were highly literate. But they always valued education inIrelandand indeed still do. Most of the Irish who came here, came here with very little except that education. They came here with two hands, the one length as we would say at home, and they needed such grit and such courage because that education alone, the book learning alone would never have allowed them to make the lives they made for themselves and for their children here. They needed grit, they needed courage, they needed real faith. They needed sheer commitment. This was not a place for anyone who was tendentious or tentative. It was a place to wholly commit to and I think that is the spirit of Notre Dame. That is the spirit of the Fighting Irish.

One of our finest scholars, dealing with the history of Irish emigration observed that growing up inIrelandmeant preparing oneself to leave it. Historically, of course, the destination of choice was here, theUnited States. And we have, inIreland, always been so proud, so very, very proud of the success of our Irish men and women here in theUnited States. And indeed my delegation today includes two very distinguished Irish-Americans who have given great service toIrelandover the years – Joe McGlinn,Irelands honorary counsel inSt. Louis, a former president of Notre Dames Alumni Association, and Joe, like his father before him, a very proud Domer. Our honorary counsel forTexas, John Cain, is with us today for a very special reason, because his son, Patrick, who is also with us, is going to be a freshman here in Notre Dame in the fall. Those connections, that web of community, much more than community, that web of family, continuing to connect us from generation to generation. In fact, Patrick is probably wondering how he can get one of those honorary degrees, but sorry, Patrick, youve got to put the four yearswork in before you earn the seat here.

Im glad to say though, and Im the first president ofIrelandwho has been able to say it, that we have reversed the tide of emigration. For the first time in 150 years, we have net inward migration toIreland. Many of our migrants return now, thank God. Unlike earlier generations, now we have of course only a small trickle coming now to theUnited States, they come by choice for the most part. We know that part of the leftovers from the bad old days, we have a number of undocumented here whose status is undocumented, and we in Ireland do hope firmly that a path may be found to enable them to make the richest contribution to this, the home of their choice and that they may be able to follow in the footsteps of earlier generations.

Its my first visit to this branch of Notre Dame, but I am very privileged that not that long ago I had the privilege of officially opening Notre Dames new home inDublin. Its the home of a former great champion of not just Irish politics, but of human rights generally, the great Daniel OConnell, after whomOConnell StreetinDublinis called, known asthe liberator.And I recall that day as a very importanthigh pointin a process which had begun almost 15 years earlier, a process indeed by which the links with this university andIrelandhave been immeasurably strengthened, and that was the creation of the Keough Institute of Irish Studies. And many, many people have worked to build that relationship and Ill have an opportunity later today to thank Notre Dames Ireland Council for their work and generosity and to mark the changing of the name of that institution to now two great sons of Ireland as it adopts the name of Martin Naughton and it becomes the Naughton-Keough Institute and that will be a wonderful day for us. Wonderful, too, to see how many people are so committed to keeping these connections fresh. And I want particularly to express my appreciation for the wonderful leadership and the great guidance of that process of keeping those engagements fresh in every generation by your president emeritus, Father Malloy, Monk Malloy as hes known is a great friend to Ireland and his achievements too many to mention here, but we in Ireland feel very, very privileged that he is counted high among our friends.

Incidentally, some of you may think thehigh pointfor Notre Dame inDublinwas when you beat Navy there, what was it, 53 to 24? You dont call that a beating; inIrelandwe would call that an emulsification. And I believe theyve got another six years to wait before the score gets settled and I think its very sporting of Navy to give Notre Dame home advantage for the next game because when youre in Dublin, youre definitely home.

Its deeply resonant for us in Ireland that the Notre Dame program should be housed in OConnells home because his life has something I think to tell each of you as you prepare to stand your ground in the world outside. He is the man who fought and labored, he was one of the very first Catholic lawyers inIrelandbecause up until he was a very young man, no Catholic was allowed to become a lawyer inIreland. That law changed, and by then of course there were so many impediments, among them Catholics were not allowed to vote, and he was the great champion who got the vote for Irish Catholics. But way more than that, he was a great anti-slavery champion, he was a man whose life was committed to helping that process of inclusion, of all Gods human beings around the common table. He had seen the terrors of the French Revolution first-hand, having had to be educated inFrancebecause he was not permitted to be educated as a Catholic inIreland. So he had seen the French Revolution. It turned him off violence for life. But it didnt turn him off democratic organization. And Daniel OConnell is the man credited with the very first mass civil rights peaceful mobilization in the world. It took its moral, its political strength, from advocacy, from simply telling your argument, and not telling it once, but telling it over and over again until its sheer moral force forces the change that makes life tolerable for those who are excluded. His great friend, the great anti-slavery leader Frederick Douglass, said of him that no trans-Atlantic statesman bore a testimony more marked and telling against the crime and curse of slavery than did OConnell. And I hope that Harper Lee would agree with me, Nelle would agree with me, that Daniel OConnell had much in common with one of my own great heroes, Atticus Finch. Not only were they both lawyers who defended the powerless, but OConnell would surely have endorsed the reply that Atticus Finch gave his daughter:The one thing that doesnt abide by majority rule is a persons conscience,and its a very telling phrase. Daniel OConnell went to his grave believing he was an abject failure. Atticus Finch didnt succeed either, did he? Except, of course, the moral victory. And in that he succeeded a million times over, as did OConnell. OConnell went toRomebroken by failure, and yet his statue dominatesDublin, the greatest hero, the liberator. A failure to himself, a champion now, his words were spores. They looked as if they had fallen on fallow ground in his generation, but spores that bore fruit in subsequent generations.

And that, of course, will be the role that you will play, please God. The role to go out into the world, to bring to the world the values, the mission, the story of Notre Dame. We have a peace process in Ireland that we are trying to grow again with your help and we have been so blessed because again our friendship with America has given us the benefit of the success of two American administrations in trying to get us to think differently, Ireland-American funds helping us to grow a new culture of cross-community endeavor among people who simply, although they were neighbors to one another, were not good neighbors to one another, again our friends in America helping us to change the course of Irish history. And today, that great thing that Daniel OConnell fought for, he wanted an end to the armed tradition in Irish politics and he went to his grave believing he had been, at the very least, a dreadful failure. The IRA announced a formal end to its armed campaign last July and in September it was confirmed that all its weapons had been decommissioned. What was exactly 150 years after his death, Daniel OConnells dream has been realized. Today inIrelandthere is one tradition and we are armed only with advocacy.

And these developments, of course, they create a wonderful, positive, hope-filled atmosphere inIreland. And we hope, please God, that the prosperity thatIrelandenjoys today and the peace that it enjoys today will give us the opportunity to create inIrelanda place that our emigrants would be so proud of. A place where everyone is around the table, everyone is equal, everyone part of a loving community, a community where people work for and with and through each other. Its a wonderful thing to know that that gift to this generation is a gift that is partly owned by the sons and daughters of our emigrant Irish men and women here in theUnited States.

Sometimes, I dont know if your grannies used to say it, but we used to talk about theluck of the Irish.My granny was never very impressed by that argument actually, because her argument wasYou make your luck,and Im sure youve heard that phrase before,You make your luck.And that, I think, is what I challenge you in a way to do, to make your own luck. To make it by bringing these values, by bringing that Fighting Irish spirit out into the world wherever the thousands of paths that you tread will take you. No two of you have come the same journey, no two of you will go the same journey. But I hope that you, the Class of 2006, will take away from this ceremony a deep, profound sense of that Irish spirit, of the spirit of Notre Dame. You have been formed in that spirit, it now accompanies you in your lifes journey. I hope it infuses you on your lifes journey.

Its all about tomorrow now, isnt it? Its all about what you bring to tomorrow. Theres that old expression thatthe future is in your hands,its kind of a cliché. And sometimes with clichés we brush over them and we forget theres a central core truth in them. And its true to say the future is already in your hands and the choices that you have made, that profound choice that you and your families made to come to Notre Dame in the first place. Now the baton of stewardship for our world will very quickly pass into your hands. Very quickly, it comes too quickly, almost imperceptibly does that baton go from one generation to the next. It may pass to committees, to governments, to boards, to places of power and influence, but ultimately each of these is a place where individuals gather, and around that table, people respect strong voices. Not bullying voices, not voices that want to talk other people down, but voices that have a message so strong, so valid, so good, so humanly uplifting, so decent, that they can quietly persuade others of its value around that table. And I hope that you will be those voices in your family, in your street, in your workplace, in your community, wherever it is, whatever road your life now takes you. Dont ever doubt your value, dont ever doubt your influence, dont ever doubt. Think back to the wonderful Daniel OConnell, you dont have to go too far, you can just think of someone like Father Hesburgh here, who led this university for 35 years during very turbulent times. The sheer difference that one voice, one insistent voice, can make, one voice that sticks to its principles, that knows its principles, that knows its ground and stands its ground.

You are very fortunate, many of you, because Notre Dame stands here in this beautiful place, but it has the ground ofIrelandalso that it stands on. And I think thats a very wonderful legacy for any young man or woman to have, to have the gift of this place with its strong, wonderful academic excellence, and underpinning that wonderful value system, and to know where that spirit comes from. It does not come from nowhere, it does not come from books. It comes from the heart and it comes from the soul. And I hope, please God, that your hearts and your souls will always and ever be the greatest ambassadorship for Notre Dame. That, I think, will be Notre Dames greatest wish for you, that wherever you go in the world people will say of you,Well, you know theyre from Notre Dame. It shows.Why does it show? Because you are and have in your hearts, in your souls, in your voices, in your hands, the Fighting Irish spirit. May it always and ever be good to you. Congratulations, enjoy this day.

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