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Opening speech at TradFest

Available languages: en

Brussels, Belgium, 12 June 2017

Thank you Ambassador and I am delighted to be here at the official opening at what has now become an annual event and I congratulate you, the Tradfest committee, and your Embassy colleagues on this incredibly dynamic and rich programme that you have prepared for us over the next seven days.

This programme is celebrating Irishness through the arts but more importantly not just celebrating but also reminding us of the deep links between our own home and this country that so many of us have come to live, to work and to raise our families in. 

Making connections – through whatever medium - has always been a part of our Irish way of being in the world, and our history of mass emigration has meant that doing so has often been the key to our emotional survival in the world outside our island home. That is true of course of many countries but there is something about the intimacy and connectedness of our small population that makes that desire particularly acute.

The British Prime Minister Theresa May commented during the recent UK election campaign that ‘Those who are citizens of everywhere are citizens of nowhere’.  This was her attempt to downplay the sense of isolation that some of her citizens felt at the decision to leave the EU.  Yet for most Irish people, to be a citizen of Ireland is to be a citizen of everywhere because such is the breadth and depth of our migration that no matter where we go we will almost certainly find an Irish man or woman and when we do we won’t rest until we have found that point of connection between that person and ourselves.

And when you add that, to what else binds us in far off places, from the GAA  to music and beyond, then an event such as this which touches so many of the wellsprings of our particular and collective memory, gives it a relevance that goes way beyond the singing, the dancing, and the poetry.

But Tradfest is not just about cheering up the homesick.  This week is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Messines in Flanders, of which you will hear more at a separate event, in which young men from the 36th Ulster Brigade and young men from the 16th Irish Brigade fought and died together in the famously poppied fields where many of their bodies now lie. 

For far too many decades, their sacrifice and that of other young Irish men in Belgium  and elsewhere on the battlefields of Europe were almost wilfully ignored in favour of the clashing narrative of the Easter 1916 Rising , but it is a testament to many people, from politicians to writers  and this week to the Tradfest that those sacrifices and that eternal bond between Ireland and Belgium is being remembered. And in sharing the events outside the capital we are reminded that this small country is so much more than Brussels and bureaucrats.

The opening concert tonight features the wonderful Mary Black and for me and possibly for many of you her music and her voice have been part of the soundtrack of much of my adult life. She has that gift that gives to us the gift of occasional transcendence. When she sings, and I think in particular of when she sings Song for Ireland, I challenge even the most contained of the Irish expats not to reach for the tissues.

So amid all the charged politics we are currently living through, this Tradfest offers us a chance to do what we are so often counselled to do, to live in the moment, to stop thinking for just a brief period, and through the music and the words to remind ourselves of what keeps us together in community and not that which drives us apart.