I am delighted to have this opportunity to pay my first visit to New Bedford and I want to thank the President of the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, Chris Donnelly, and the officers of the Society for inviting me to join you this evening on the occasion of your Annual Dinner Dance. I would also like to acknowledge the other honoured guests here this evening including the Mayor of New Bedford, Scott Lang, and I would like to congratulate the honorees who are to be recognised here tonight.
We are celebrating Ireland’s national day but we are also celebrating the contribution of the many Irish immigrants who came to New Bedford and helped to build the City and to create the strong sense of community which still exists here today. Many of the Irish immigrants who came here in difficult circumstances, retained a deep affection for their homeland which has been passed down through the generations. In Ireland we recognise that Irish identity is not confined to birthplace but extends to families and their descendants.
The revision we made to Article 2 of our Constitution ten years ago redefined what it was to be Irish and the Constitution now stipulates that:
‘the Irish nation cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage.’
Over the course of the next few days I will be meeting many groups and attending many events to mark St. Patrick’s Day, our national holiday. It is a holiday we now share with the world and it is heart warming to see that here in New Bedford the tradition of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is an inclusive community event where those who are Irish by birth or by association can come together to celebrate the day.
I know that the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick as an organisation has a long and distinguished history. It is one of the oldest Irish organizations in the United States and, in the early years of its existence it was particularly active in mobilising support to aid victims of the great famine in Ireland, and also for those who fled Ireland at that time to start a new life in America. When Ireland eventually emerged as a free and independent country, the role of the Society underwent change as it sought new ways of developing ties of friendship between America and Ireland.
The history of this society can be traced back to 1941 when it was formed as the Robert Emmet Club – named after a very significant figure in Irish history. This St. Patrick’s Day dinner dance is the highlight of the Society’s year and continues a tradition established in the mid-1950’s when the club held its first function.
I want to offer my congratulations to the organizing Committee who are responsible for tonight’s dinner. Judging by the very large gathering here this evening, the reputation of the Society and the support for this, their main fundraising event in the year, go from strength to strength.
The connections with Ireland that exist here are strong, and deeply rooted. Indeed, I just recently learned of the exploits of a New Bedford whaler, the Catalpa, purchased by the Irish-American organization Clan na Gael, which sailed for Australia in 1875 and succeeded in rescuing six Irish Fenian prisoners in 1876 from Fremantle Jail in Western Australia and brought them safely to the United States.
I am proud to celebrate the National Day with an organisation that has shown its steadfast commitment to supporting various local and regional causes, with a central focus on promoting Irish culture and education. The Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick is a fine example of an organisation that represents the best of what it is to be Irish in America. Through its varied activities it shows to the outside world its Irish heritage with pride and confidence.
I want to commend you for the work you do to support your local community and particularly for maintaining the links with Ireland and your Irish heritage.
We have seen incredible progress in Northern Ireland in the past year, with the further consolidation of the Institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and progress towards increasingly normalised politics.
While the attacks by dissident republican paramilitaries last week were truly appalling acts, it is important to remember that those who perpetrated these atrocities are a tiny minority on the fringe of society who do not represent any community in Northern Ireland.
I want to stress that the efforts of a small few who would seek to drag Northern Ireland back to the past will not be allowed to succeed.
The two Governments will work closely together with the political parties in Northern Ireland to ensure the enormous achievements of peace and stability are sustained and embedded.
The peace process and the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland is an Irish success story and one of which we are rightly proud. However, it could not have happened without the steadfast support that the United States has given to us.
That support continues to this day and remains vital as we move forward in consolidating the peace which was so hard won.
Thank you all for your continued friendship and goodwill towards Ireland and, in particular, for your very special welcome to me as this year’s representative of the Irish Government and people.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraimh go léir – Happy St Patrick’s Day to you all.