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Building a bridge

Oration honouring Walter Patrick Kirwan
Friday, May 30, 10 a.m.

We must commence this presentation with a revelation: there is mystery woman in Wally Kirwan's life - a lady of whom he never speaks. To this lady he has given unwavering devotion for years. And who is she? Her name is Cathleen – for she is Cathleen ni Houlihaun, the symbolic representation of Ireland. Wally's devotion to Cathleen ni Houlihaun committed him to work for four decades in the service of his country. But, she, like all major Irish figures, mythical or real, has been viewed in varying ways by the great Irish writers. Yeats’ Cathleen ni Houlihaun is an old woman transformed during time of strife into a “young girl [with] the walk of a queen.” A later dramatist, Denis Johnston, pictured her somewhat differently: as a foul-mouthed old whore from the Dublin streets. Significantly, both want a blood sacrifice and require the death of the young to revive Ireland. So while Wally may have thought he was working for an Ireland represented by Yeats’ Cathleen he must have wondered at times if she had done a runner and become Johnston’s common and vulgar creature; and worried that the Ireland long vaunted as the land of “saints and scholars” had become the land of “bagmen and bully-boys.” Never a chance of that here in our pure little island kingdom.

From 1978 on Walter Kirwan was assistant secretary general to seven Taoisigh, seven Irish prime ministers. There, among other responsibilities, he was deeply involved throughout the Northern Ireland Peace Process. This was unquestionably a Sisyphean task: the rock was rolled up the mountain and each time it rolled back down again. But, with persistent souls like Wally Kirwan working the floor, drafting texts, encouraging enemies to converse, each time that rock rolled down it did not go as far. So the proposals of the New Ireland Forum of 1983 (which Margaret Thatcher dismissed absolutely) led quietly to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and on finally to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that, though as painful as the road to Calvary, has produced the current level of peace in Ireland. All recognize it is not perfect but most are pleased to see the silenced guns replaced by speaking tongues, tongues speaking across a divide so wide that most believed it uncrossable. To achieve this required an infinite patience with politicians as well as with people (there is a difference) and a capacity never to lose a sense of the ultimate goal – that children and their parents and ordinary people and, yes, politicians, might be able to live in the North without the battery of bullet or of slogan or of the hideous terror of insecurity. Wally Kirwan was a major figure in shutting down the Cathleen ni Houlihaun who called for the blood of the young and in replacing the bullet with the ballot box, in diminishing the fears of Protestant Ulster by ensuring that it would have a definitive voice in any unification of Ireland, and in bringing Britain and Ireland to the table in constructive discussion. This all takes an intense energy, a giving personality and a mind capable of finding solutions people will accept. Wally Kirwan has all that.

As this bridging of the North-South divide moved to a conclusion, Wally Kirwan began to build a bridge on another axis – in the development of the Irish Newfoundland Partnership. What John Bruton initiated he put into effect and, despite Newfoundland’s dilatoriness and the fact that the partnership had little real political value in Ireland, ensured Ireland’s involvement. More recently as Memorial’s Coracle Fellow he has continued to strengthen the connections between the two countries. Of particular note is his role as the organizing force behind the development of an Irish Newfoundland Field Studies Centre at Tilting. He will need to keep a watching brief on this last proposal to ensure that, in the current chilly climate, Tilting is not moved to Corner Brook. For his important role in the Irish Peace process and for his work in reforging the links between Ireland and Newfoundland, Vice-Chancellor, I present to you for the degree of Doctor of Laws (honoris causa), Walter Patrick Kirwan.

Shane O’Dea
Public orator