From the Heart of Ireland ; Former Irish Leader Mary Robinson Will Bring Her Message of Human Rights and Global Justice to the University at Buffalo

By Neville, Anne | The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY), March 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

From the Heart of Ireland ; Former Irish Leader Mary Robinson Will Bring Her Message of Human Rights and Global Justice to the University at Buffalo


Neville, Anne, The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)


Mary Robinson made history as Ireland's first female president and showed her dedication to the world's poor and oppressed as United Nations high commissioner for human rights from 1997 to 2002.

Robinson says dedication to human rights across the world runs deep among the Irish people. It's visible in many television interviews from disaster-wracked and war-torn regions, where medical and food aid workers speak with the soft accents of Roscommon, Kilkenny, Cork or Robinson's home county of Mayo.

"It's very deep, and it's something I'm very proud of," says Robinson, 67, in a phone interview from her Dublin office. "It's in our DNA.? We remember somehow that we, too, had a terrible famine."

The famine, or Great Hunger, as it is called ? "An Gorta Mor" in Irish?started when the potato crops, which the poor people relied upon for food, were struck by blight in the mid-1840s. Other crops were not affected, but landlords demanded them for rent payments. It is estimated that about a million Irish people died of famine and disease between 1846 and 1849 and another million emigrated, reducing the island nation's population by 25 percent.

Robinson's term as president from 1990 to 1997 included many sesquicentennials of desperate times and events during the famine.

"I was very honored that it was during my time as president that we marked the 150th anniversary, so in 1995, 1996 and 1997 there were so many events, I unveiled so many different statues, plaques, etc.," she says. Robinson was able to express personally her thanks for one bit of assistance 150 years earlier from another oppressed people. In 1847, just 16 years after they were forced to walk from Mississippi to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears, the Choctaw people raised $710 to send to Ireland for famine relief.

In 1995, Robinson visited Oklahoma to thank the Choctaw for their stunning generosity so soon after their own famine and relocation. "We have a walk every year in the West of Ireland to mark that connection," says Robinson.

Robinson will be in Buffalo on March 29 to speak on human rights and other global issues in the Center for the Arts as part of the University at Buffalo Distinguished Speakers Series.

Trouble and triumph

Robinson says her nation, which experienced its own bloody conflicts in the past 100 years, also has helped guide other war- torn countries toward peace and harmony.

"The struggle for our freedom and for a full Irish sense of identity in the 20th century aligned us with a lot of other countries," says Robinson. "The peace process, making peace in Northern Ireland, was something that gave hope to a lot of other countries trying to come out of an internal civil conflict or struggle."

The latest challenges to Ireland have been economic. In the past few years, Ireland has been battered by the same market forces that have led to foreclosures, recession and unemployment in the United States. Up until the mid-1990s, the country's economy was flat and many Irish left home for employment and better lives. An economic boom from 1995 to 2007, dubbed the Celtic Tiger, had the nation awash in what turned out to be temporary, illusory prosperity.

Robinson says the inevitable crash was worsened by "the greed of relatively few, the bankers, the developers and the pressing on people to take out mortgages they could ill afford. When you have a 100 percent mortgage offered, it's hard to refuse."

When the Celtic Tiger collapsed into recession and high unemployment, says Robinson, it shocked the Irish, but "again we are displaying a resilience that is quite remarkable. It's almost as if we're saying, ?We caused this problem ourselves, not all of us, but those of us who should have known better. We've been poor before and we'll come out of this.'

"Even though times are hard now," says Robinson, "people are still very generous. They were very generous in supporting us in relation to Somalia, and the development aid budget is less cut than some other budgets, because the government knows that the Irish people don't want that one cut. …

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