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Dr. John Ennis' address to convocation

Address to convocation

Dr. John Ennis

In the winter of 1941, in Russia, at the height of World War Two, a young boy called Yevgeny Yevtushenko, like many others, was involved in the daily battle to survive the slaughter, starvation and mayhem of the Nazi invasion. Later, he was to become the brightest star among a new young generation of Russian poets. In his long railway poem Zima Junction he depicts a cross-section of Russian society, where people tell their stories in the period of thaw beginning in post-Stalinist Russia. In another poem recalling the awful days of 1941, he wrote of his only guarantee of survival then, the party card he carried close to his heart.

Membership of group, community, nation, province, tribe, union, team or family brings with it individual human and social bonds that can last a lifetime and see one through bad times. Today is one of those very special bonding days for celebration you, as graduates, will have in your lifetime. Tomorrow, or the day after, though, you will have largely dispersed to do other things to further your careers and livelihoods. Happily you live in a time when it’s so much easier to keep in touch. Make sure you do that. Keep the bonds established here at Grenfell College alive and vibrant.

In everyone there is the loner and the group person. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the balance. But, like the young Yevtushenko, keep the party card close to your heart. You may need it sometime. Look out for your friends. They may need it too.

I’ve been involved with matters Newfoundland now for some six years and I thank everyone involved in the bestowing of this honorary doctorate upon myself. In an e-mail to a colleague here, I asked if he knew who the culprits were, but I remain as wise as before. Because it arrived out of the blue, I suppose it was all the more exhilarating. Family back in Ireland and my Canadian cousins in Ontario join with me in expressing appreciation for your generosity.

I was on the subject of community. West Moon, that great Newfoundland play by Al Pittman, who also taught at Wilfred Grenfell, is a dramatic piece about community, about what happens when a community dies or is abandoned, forced to the edge as in an outport. In the living context we’re in, none of us knows what’s to befall us tomorrow, much less the day after, as the years go by. We can only survive and prosper through a kind of communal instinct deeply embedded in the psyche or soul. Some years ago, in 2003, academics from here in Sir Wilfred Grenfell College and Waterford organized a conference to examine all of this in various contexts. We titled it Living at the Edge/Living at the Centre. We published the proceedings a copy of which will be in the Ferriss Hodget Library.

There’s hardly any doubt I think that at some future stage you’ll be living at the edge for whatever particular set of circumstances. It will be important for you to remember, if you find yourself so beleaguered, that you are at that time closest to being at the centre through a mental shift of consciousness. You must make your own importance as an individual human being. That’s what your education at Wilfred Grenfell, Campus of Memorial University, has been all about at the end of the day.

What happens in the individual context is replicated at the community level. In the conference referred to, we looked at the respective positions of Ireland and Newfoundland & Labrador, one on the edge of Europe, the other on the edge of Canada. If you’re on the edge, do you whinge or do you get up and do? In this latter mindset, the edge becomes the centre with a lot to offer. The various projects we’ve been jointly involved in over the years have been intended to extend this philosophy.

What is important for you is the independent, tolerant, mindset you take from your years here at university, to continue to cultivate that, which is ultimately more important than, say, the post-this or post-that styles of interpretation which like current technologies have a limited lifespan. I mean the power of noble ideas and the notion of service to others. Ideas are harder than granite to break. You can’t see them, but the air hums with their diversity in our world village. We’d better get more used to this. Globally now there’s nowhere on earth more than a few steps away. We sleep our way into cultures and certitudes totally at odds with ours. Concepts so powerful they bring down towers.

They’re indestructible. They permeate everything. The renditions of Guantánamo and torture by water only polish them like diamonds. Poets write of them in bardic solitary in poems scribbled in toothpaste or scratched with shale pieces on foam drinking cups somehow passed to attorneys, as selected by Marc Falkoff and published recently in a brave and beautiful book poems from Guantánamo the detainees speak by University of Iowa Press. Neither will time eliminate concepts any more than half a millennium could kill off the notion, say, of Irish freedom among those who believed in it.

Such ideas contribute to the concept of the heroic, however interpreted. In Newfoundland, the heroic is well embedded in ballad and poem, in family and community, sketched without compromise in the work of David Blackwood. This is a worthy heritage. Those of you fortunate enough to be born in Newfoundland are worthy heirs to it, those of you like myself who spend some time here – we are among its beneficiaries. Sometimes, for us in Ireland, Canadian models are heroic indeed and still shine like beacons in our times. In the immediate post-Famine period of 1847 many Irish made their way to Canada. Some of those who did not die at Gros Ille made their way to Toronto and encamped en masse on its outskirts. They even outnumbered the inhabitants of that city. Most had famine fever still raging in their bodies, but the city took care of them. This is an historical fact. Our president, Mary McAleese, came last year to Canada to publicly acknowledge this generosity. The question she poses to us in Ireland today is, - have we the same generosity of heart when immigrants arrive with modern-day maladies or in flight from the war-torn regions, say, in Africa? Canadian models of goodness abound as I’ve discovered.

Sometimes, too, the ordinary as in ordinary common sense, if you can display it, becomes extraordinary. Last summer at the height of what’s become our rainy season, Leonard Cohen gave three magnificent sell-out open air concerts in Dublin. Each evening the rain poured down on blue raincoats and all. But he had quips each performance to match the weather and the times. Ireland had just voted NO to Lisbon. World headlines briefly. On Saturday he said on our Lisbon NO, “Thank you for continuing to bewilder the world”. Our No meant no to yet another incipient superpower on the make; no to federalism as opposed to YES for union; no to majority as opposed to YES for consensus; no to more centrality from Brussels as opposed to YES for regionality (for ultimately any country is only as strong as its collective regions are allowed to be): a popular no in defiance of mainstream political parties preaching YES to compliance. We’re not flavour of the month in some countries of Europe, countries at certain historical times centre-stage in the world for all the wrong reasons. A Europe at peace for some fifty years out of a thousand.

The power of popular hard-won conviction, then. In preparation for this award today, in correspondence with Roxanne who organised the details – Thanks Roxanne – I was told I’d have to give back these robes . . . but I could keep the hood. When I get back, I’ll hang it in my office beside other headgear from Newfoundland. A cap in the proud grey and white colours of the Newfoundland railway engineer, and now of the Railway Society of Newfoundland. It was presented to me by octogenarian Winnie Hickey after we launched the railway poems here in Corner Brook in 2006 and I donated the proceeds to your Railway Museum. The power of the idea is well encapsulated in Winnie Hickey, who I referred to as living heroine in the book. Historian Fabian Kennedy in his own book A History of the Newfoundland Railway in one magical moment among many describes the vision of prime minister Whiteway as he looked west at Little Shoal Harbour and saw the birth of a new nation over one hundred years ago made possible by people who laid the rails and who made Corner Brook possible and Grenfell College where we’re gathered now. By the 1980s, the railway had become a subject of disbelief, even ridicule, for many but not for all. When the railway stock was being sold off abroad or dismantled, somehow a rusty engine was saved. With herown hands, Winnie Hickey sanded it down and re-painted it so that an idea would not die. In that way she kept faith with an idea, a concept that had physical shape in the form of an engine. You will be familiar with the patience of Robert de Bruce, King of Scotland, and how he learned it. In Ireland, some would say our greatest statesman ever was King Brian Boru. When his band was reduced to seventeen, and the country overrun, he had to take a basic decision: to give up the fight or to continue. He chose the latter road. In the brief golden age of his reign a millennium ago, when a shore-to-shore oneness was achieved we haven’t seen since, he began to lay down highways across the country as we’ve discovered. So, after an interlude of some years in Ireland we’re concluding what he started.

Maintain self-belief in difficult times. Only last month in a world Professor Randall Maggs describes in his Sawchuck hockey poems, Waterford hurlers in Ireland were slaughtered in the All-Ireland Final before some eighty thousand people in our major stadium in Croke Park. ( Some sport historians have commented on the relationship between hockey and hurling). Early next morning, a young student was spotted pinning to the campus notice board the names and photos of the defeated in a double capital V for the W in Waterford with the caption “Keep the Faith.” I don’t know who the student was, but I suspect he may be a leader some day. I read your great Wilfrid Laurier described as the ill weakling who stood his ground and John Diefenbaker described as the outsider who refused to quit. These days we celebrate the vision and achievements of former Grenfell Principal, John Ashton, courageous to the last.

There were seventeen in King Brian’s original band. There are seventeen hundred of us in the Railway Society of Newfoundland. A living diaspora. We’re not going away, you know. We carry the party card for an idea that won’t die. Winnie Hickey’s signature is on mine. I’m as proud of that card as Yevtushenko was of his. Yes, I’m right proud of it. Have a good day and a good life to follow.