There’s none more Irish than the Irish abroad

By  Michael Higgins
  • August 13, 2007

One of the many surprises New Brunswick had for this native Torontonian and staunch Upper Canadian is the solid Irish fact — as strong as the Acadian — that defines so much of the history and culture of the province.  Some 38 per cent of the population is of Irish ancestry and the port city of Saint John is as Irish as Cork.

Last year I had the privilege of being parade marshal for the annual Irish Cultural Festival celebration in Miramichi — a union of Chatham, Newcastle and other towns that was cobbled together by Frank McKenna in the 1990s — a city which takes its name from the majestic river that dominates the northeast of the province. I thought I might have to undergo therapy as a consequence.  Sitting on the back of a convertible, dressed in green, frozen in smile and quite obviously “from away,” I prayed earnestly that this would pass quickly.  I found it all touchingly ironic given that my own grandfather had pulled King Billy off his horse during a July 12th parade down Yonge Street in Toronto so many decades ago.

Now, please understand me when I say that it was only the duties of the parade marshal that traumatized me.  The many musical, social, cultural and liturgical events that comprised the whole Irish Miramichi celebration made for a rich and gratifying experience.  It was also instructive. After all, Miramichi/Chatham was the original home of St. Thomas University and an episcopal see before the see was collapsed and the university relocated to the capital, Fredericton.  A wrenching experience by all accounts and a memory that has yet to be healed for many.

This year’s festival was different. This year we had many guests from Ireland, mayors from cities both in the north and south, members of the Dail (Irish Parliament), university officials from Galway and Derry and, most importantly, John and Pat Hume.  John is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a man credited with bringing peace to his riven land.  Undoubtedly, without Hume and his courageous efforts to build the structures and relationships that contribute to peace-making, the current prosperity now enjoyed by many of the Irish would be compromised or at least dimmed.  He is a national icon.

Hume was in New Brunswick principally to receive an honorary doctorate from St. Thomas University, but he was not the lone Irishman. Also receiving an honorary degree was Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, a career diplomat for the Vatican and a media-savvy cleric of impressive sophistication.  I had the occasion to spend some time with Martin — we had met briefly in 1985 at the Extraordinary Synod in Rome — and I relished the opportunity of speaking with him about several matters of mutual interest: the challenges facing Catholicism in contemporary Ireland, the evolving role of tertiary-level Catholic institutions of higher education, the continuing aftershocks of the clerical sex abuse crisis, the changing face of ministry in the new Ireland and the daunting possibilities for effective evangelization in a country that has experienced a transformation without immediate parallel in Europe — unprecedented economic growth, a widening gap between the new rich and the underprivileged, the flood of new immigrants from Poland, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and a fierce anti-clericalism that is showing some evidence of abating.

But what most struck me about Martin’s “reading” of contemporary Ireland was his pastoral insight and liberality of approach when it comes to defining what it is to be Irish. His approach is expansive, inclusive, hospitable and enlightened. In a brief speech to the Board of Trade in Saint John, Martin held his appreciative crowd in thrall when he observed that once while leaving his office in Dublin he came across two young black lads carrying hurling sticks and knew instinctively that they, regardless of  their name and lineage, were as Irish as you can be.

Both Hume and Martin were being honoured not because they are Irish but because they have been strong and consistent advocates for social justice, human dignity and peace. The Atlantic Human Rights Centre of St. Thomas University could not possibly have had two more exemplary figures to honour.

New Brunswick’s creative and entrepreneurial re-connection with its past and Ireland’s future bodes well for both.

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