Our gift to Ireland

President praises province's peaceful co-existence

By MIA URQUHART - The Telegraph Journal

New Brunswick's example of peaceful co-existence is its "greatest gift to Ireland," Irish President Mary McAleese said during a weekend visit to Saint John. Picture of Mary Mcaleese

"It has much to teach the rest of the world about living in harmony - a place where competing cultures have learned over time to find a peaceful co-existence," the Irish President said.

She told a gathering of the Irish-Canadian Cultural Association of Saint John that Irish immigrants who came to Canada seemed to be able to set aside their cultural differences better than those who remained in Ireland.

"While the intra-Irish relationship in Canada was not always without rancour, the Canadian tradition of respect for freedom and for the individual allowed Orange and Green to reach out and gain a greater understanding of the other."

The St. Patrick's Society of Saint John is a good example of that, she added, with its tradition of alternating the presidency between Catholic and Protestant.

The 47-year-old elected President has been on a whirlwind tour of the Maritimes. On Saturday, her plane from Halifax touched down in Saint John at 11:50 a.m. From there, she was politely hurried between six carefully planned events throughout the city - all under the watchful eye of dark-suited RCMP security officials.

The first stop was the luncheon at the Delta Hotel hosted by the Irish-Canadian Cultural Association of Saint John.

She told the appreciative crowd how at-home she felt in Saint John, so much so that she felt as if she was on a tour of Ireland.

"New Brunswick itself has a charm all of its own, and in a way, reminds me of the landscape described in the old Celtic tales, with great forests and mysterious fogs, even magical tides that cause the river to run backwards."

Not to mention, she added, the familiar names like O'Donnell, O'Connell and Ryan.

"And I think the Barrys have colonized this country," she added, to great applause from the crowd.

She recognized the huge influx to New Brunswick of Irish immigrants that began before the Loyalist came to this province en mass.

"And the years 1845 to 1854, the years of the Great Famine, New Brunswick saw the biggest influx of Irish people who came to escape the ravages of hunger and disease.

"Canada gave succor to those fleeing the Famine, which Irish people all around the world have been commemorating in recent years."

She praised New Brunswickers for helping the sick and dying who arrived by the thousands, only to succumb themselves in some cases.

"Many of the Irish who came here may have been an impoverished burden on the community."

Despite that, she said during a speech Saturday night at a dinner at the Trade and Convention Centre, "so many of the inhabitants of Saint John displayed bravery of an exceptional, exceptional hue: the carpenters who went to Partridge Island to build additional fever sheds despite the risk to themselves, and, of course, the small number of medical staff."

To remember those who died, President McAleese laid a wreath at the Celtic Cross, which was erected in 1967, in the South End of the city overlooking Partridge Island, the first immigration station in Canada.

President McAleese paused in front of the cross to read its inscription: "This monument was erected in memory of more than 2,000 Irish immigrants who died of Typhus fever, contracted on shipboard during the voyage from Ireland in the Famine Year 1847, and of whom 600 were buried on this island. This cross also commemorates the devotion and sacrifice of Dr. Patrick Collins, who, after ministering to victims of the disease, himself contracted it and died."

Although many immigrant Irish moved on to other parts of the continent, many stayed in New Brunswick, weaving their culture into the fabric of the province and at the same time, maintaining contacts with the Old Country.

"In doing so," she said, "you help strengthen the ties between our two countries and keep alive the link that stretches across the ocean and across the years."

She also talked briefly about the Irish peace process during a tree-planting ceremony at the University of New Brunswick's Saint John campus.

Planting a tree, she said, is "always an act of faith in the future."

"In Ireland, we have planted a tree of hope ourselves this year. I am referring, of course, to our peace process, the delicate plant which is so vitally important to us all. It is still young, very fragile and vulnerable to those that want to destroy it, such as the callous perpetrators of the terrible bombing at Omagh."

She said she is confident that the determination of the Irish people will help sustain the seedling of peace and see it "go on to become mighty as an oak tree, sheltering us all in its shade and with roots deep enough to withstand the strongest storms."

Though her position, like that of our Governor General, is largely ceremonial, she did take time at Saturday night's dinner to promote the trade and business interests of her country.

President McAleese, who left Saint John yesterday for Quebec City, also held meetings with city officials during her visit here, and with Premier Camille Thériault and federal Solicitor-General Andy Scott.

Mia Urquhart is a reporter for the Saint John Times Globe.

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Visit the Telegraph Journal who published this article October 13, 1998