A Presidential Salute to our Musical Legacy

President Mary McAleese lauds the Cultural Visionaries

On the 14th May 2003 President Mary McAleese hosted several hundred traditional musicians and friends at Aras an Uachtarain. In the course of an inspiring and thought-provoking address she said:

You bring that heritage alive, more importantly, you keep it alive and then the lovely thing too is of course you don’t just keep it alive in the way that you would a museum or a mausoleum you add to it like a garden.

You add your own genius to it, you buikd up new audience, you inspire new generation, you teach the next generation of performers and you give them the self confidence to take their stewardship and to add their individual genius to it.

You’ve opened up Irish music to countless audiences not just here in Ireland but right around the world. You’ve made us dance, you’ve made us cry, you’ve made us laugh and I think everywhere we’ve gone and everywhere we hear Irish music you’ve made us very, very, very proud to be part of this fantastic heritage. Its a fantastic gift. To have hone through life and never, never to have heard that voice, for example, or never to have heard that music, I can’t imagine what an awful nakedness it would bring to our lives, what an awful rawness.

You bring that lovely roundedness to our lives and wherever Irish people have hone in the world and indeed in whatever circumstances they have gone, whether they were coffin ship emigrant or whether they were the computer boffins that now leave our shores. Irish music has always been their comfort, very easily carried, a very lightly carried gift.

Many of them went to the New World and they didn’t carry much in the way of luggage but they brought the music and the dance in their heads. Sometimes they brought the fiddle or the tin whistle with them. But very often, no matter what their circumstances were, isn’t it extraordinary how the music very often, the music and the dance and the craic - that was their antidote to loneliness first of all. It’s what gave them the bit of comfort in their new homelands but it’s also been the gift that they brought with them to put at the service of their new homelands to us and to the Irish and around the globe your music has made so many friends for Ireland.

I don’t know if there is any better ambassador for Ireland than our music and the people who are the music makers. It’s a heritage that’s so deep, so rich, so ancient, a wonderful, wonderful thing, but as I said it depends on that fidelity, on successive generations taking on this amazingly sacred task of handling it on the next.

Thanks to people like you that musical legacy today, well it’s the best it’s ever been. It’s remarkable, it’s dynamic, it’s full of life, but I know only too well and you know that behind all the beauty of the music, all the beauty of the dance (I say that in the presence of my set dancing teacher) that there’s a lot of hard slog, a lot of sheer hard work. Every youngster who sets our feet tapping to the best of fiddle music or tin whistle music, had to start with a teacher and a sound that only a mother could love… but behind the performance is the practice (God, I tell you, you have great ears, God bless your ears).

And of course behind the music too is the scholarship. Somebody has to have the scholarship knowledge to be able to introduce and re-introduce the old sources, to be curious about the legacy, to be faithful to it also and then the confidence on back of that to be innovative, to do new things. And of course you have to have that passion, that search for excellence that is hallmark of what you do.

During September 2001, when I was very privileged to present awards at the 50th anniversary of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, one of the lovely joys of that evening was to present awards to two people who have been so closely associated with the foundation of Comhaltas - to Paddy McElvanney of course who is with us Thank God, today and enjoying himself I hope. His daughter said he was giving out so that’s a good sign!

And of course to Willie Reynolds, God rest him, Willie just passed away last week and it was nice to know that he got the invitation before he died unfortunately… but at least he knew that he was welcomed and that we’ll be thinking about him this afternoon and a big welcome also to his family who are here today. It’s a hard day for them to be here, a particularly hard day but I’d like to think that may be in some small way, or even in a bigger way, his spirit is with us here in a very, very special way today.

I know that for Willie and Paddy in their day going back all those years, over fifty years ago now, it was a big challenge to take on the launching of what has now become this incredibly accomplished organisation.

Accomplished not just in Ireland but in so many parts of the world.