WAC-6 Closing Ceremony Speech

Remarks by President McAleese at the closing ceremony of the 6th World Archaeological Congress, O’Reilly Hall, UCD, Friday 4th July 2008

Dia dhíbh, a cháirde go léir.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for welcoming me so generously to the conclusion of your week of study and discussion at the World Archaeology Congress. Let me reciprocate your welcome with our traditional céad míle fáilte. I hope you have felt welcomed here, if not by the weather then by the atmosphere, for it is a great honour for Ireland to host this gathering of archaeological scholars and practitioners. You are so important to our self-understanding and our sensitivity to the ancient legacies which archaeology opens up to us. Thank you very much to Gabriel [Professor Gabriel Cooney, Academic Secretary of the Congress], for the kind invitation to participate and to act as Congress Patron, a singular honour for a mere lawyer …

Actually it seems a fairly ungrateful thing to inflict a lawyer on you right at the end of a tiring and intensive week of discussion and debate among experts and equals. Surely this should be light entertainment or R&R time, or is it that like most other professions, archaeologists take mischievous delight in seeing a hapless lawyer flounder in an area she knows very little about. The last lawyer to make an impact on Archaeology was Charles Dawson, the alleged perpetrator of the Piltdown skull hoax… so I suppose I should be grateful for a warm reception.

Mind you given the fact that Ireland’s past has been a very hotly contested area maybe the presence of a lawyer is not so inexplicable. You are in Ireland at a good moment in our complicated history, a time when instead of ransacking the past for ammunition to throw at one another or heavily editing it so that it suits our political perspective, we have begun to salvage the rich reservoir of shared memory, of stories long suppressed because they did not suit certain mindsets. Just as you have a broad and inclusive audience here, we too have broadened out our deliberations on the past, drawing in and listening carefully to voices that were previously silenced or overlooked. It is helping us to build a healthier future.

I know that you have had the opportunity to see and explore some of the richness and diversity of Ireland’s archaeological heritage on the mid-Congress tours. I hope that among the 1,500 or so of you who have participated in this week’s events, that at least some of you will take the opportunity to extend your stay and to see a little bit more of contemporary Ireland, to see what strides we have made in the past 5,000 years!

The World Archaeological Congress is a vital forum for debate and dialogue about the past. I am particularly struck by your care to include those who do not often get the opportunity to participate in forums like this – to scholars from the developing world and members of indigenous communities whose cultures you study.

Historical debate is tailor-made for contention, for the push-me pull-you of facts and theories, of hypotheses and discoveries, of enigmatic fragments and staunchly held beliefs. Sometimes the perceived is even more powerful and influential than the real in shaping our version of reality and our core identity. Yet the real is what you are after, and your vocation as investigators of our world’s archaeological legacy is a vital part of our civic education, in fact of our very human formation. Your scholarship helps us come to terms with those things which have shaped us and you help develop our consciousness and sense of responsibility as custodians of the past, the present and of the future.

I hope the time you have spent here delving into Ireland’s heritage has been fascinating and fulfilling. For a small, offshore island we have generated more than our fair share of drama and historical footnotes over many centuries and we have a long, legendary engagement with many other parts of the world.

Ours is an impressive narrative of human inflow and outflow with some remarkable recurring themes – the 9th century travelling poet and scholar Sedulius Scottus, who covered as much of Europe then as Ryanair does today, famously complained in verse to the Bishop of Liège that

“there’s never a drink for me,
No wine, nor mead, nor even a drop of beer.”

He obviously missed at least some of the comforts of home, as have generations of Irish emigrants who took our language, culture, music, dance and stories to every corner of the globe, building for us an illustrious global family and a vast cultural reservoir from which to draw afresh in each new generation.

Today we have our own recently arrived, large, immigrant population in Ireland, enriching our lived experience, deepening and broadening our heritage and giving us this opportunity to become a place where cultural diversity thrives comfortably and spontaneously.

So you have come to us at a time of sea change, from conflict to peace, from longstanding underachievement to the best-educated, problem-solving generation our island has ever produced. Step by step we are building a future to fascinate historians and archaeologists of the far future and part of our journey into that future necessitates that we journey into the past, carefully, desirous not to distort or disturb as so often was the case, but to understand, to acknowledge, to stand in awe, to share in solidarity, to be amazed by what you help us to know and humbled by what we cannot yet know or understand, to be reminded of the too-short spell we spend on this earth and of our duty to use that time well.

These are things with which you help to cultivate our minds and hearts and souls, pushing us beyond perception and prejudice with facts carefully, painstakingly gleaned and analysed. These are the things you cannot measure or display in a museum but they are very real in their life-enhancing consequences and we are grateful to all those who chose this vocation to understand humankind more comprehensively through the lived lives of our ancestors.

Thank you very much for inviting me to close this Congress. I hope you leave with a store of memories and friendships and a renewed sense of vocation to keep you going for a long time to come.

Go n-éirí go geal libh agus go raibh míle, míle maith agaibh.