Mary Robinson

Remarks at an Exchange of Toasts with United States President Bill Clinton - June 13, 1996

Mary Robinson
June 13, 1996— Washington, DC
State dinner
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Mr. President, Mrs. Clinton, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, first of all, for your very warm words of welcome here this evening, and indeed for the extraordinary welcome that you have extended on this state visit to the United States.

I've been very conscious from the moment that I arrived for the formal ceremonial greeting this morning that there was a sense of history about today. And it is a way of taking stock of the very warm longstanding and special relationship between Ireland and the United States -- the links that have developed over more than 200 years; the way in which the Irish have come to this country and have made a very diverse and very significant contribution to building up; and the very different ways in which this country has prospered has become the great nation that it is.

And as we stood in the line earlier this evening and greeted guests individually, I thought that you personified that contribution. You came from so many walks of life. You are making such a diverse contribution. You are proud of the contribution you're making in the United States, but you're also proud of your Irish heritage.

And it certainly was for me a very special occasion of understanding how fortunate we are on the island of Ireland that so many of you want that strong and continuing bond and link with us; that you're contribution here in what you are doing does not mean you cannot also have that very close sense of linkage and involvement with Ireland. And you have, in fact, what Seamus Heaney has called, in the way a poet can very simply, you have that two mindedness that is very precious to us; that you can have a strong link with us while making that very wide-ranging and very important contribution here in the United States.

I do have a sense of history coming here today -- a sense of personifying the very close relations. And I have looked back at the last occasion when a president of Ireland came on a state visit to the United States in May of 1964. I have already referred to the circumstances under which President De Valera came. And he came in the aftermath of a visit to Ireland of President John F. Kennedy that left a huge impressionate impact of the Ireland of the early of 1960s. It was an extraordinary visit for the whole of Ireland.

I remember going to Galway and shaking hands with President Kennedy. I was, I think, determined to shake his hand in the crowd, and I achieved that. There was no photograph there to record it as somebody else had their photograph recorded. (Laughter.) But I did it. I swear I did it. (Applause.) And I still remember it.

And I know that my distinguished predecessor in office, President De Valera, when he came to the United States in May of 1964, carried with him a sense of the Ireland that he had the honor to represent and all the history and all the sense of it. And I read the speeches that were made on that occasion. And there were important historical references, and there were also -- I'm glad to say -- lighter moments as happily there have been on this occasion.

I noted that President De Valera referred to the fact that he had been born here in the United States. But he said, I also have another strong link with this country. He said, I am a chief of an American Indian tribe. And that is something that I, too, have the honor to claim. I am a chief of the Choctaw tribe. I am the first woman to be a chief of the Choctaw tribe. I gave serious thought this evening to wearing the wonderful headdress which was given to me in Dublin, but somehow I didn't think that it would quite fit with the rest of the outfit, or that I could really manage to carry it off on an evening like this.

But the reason why there is that connection is one that I think it's worth bearing in mind in having, as we must on an occasion like this, a sense of history. The connection with the Choctaw people goes back to just over 150 years ago -- the worst year of the great potato famine, 1847. It had begun in 1845, and the potato crop failed. It failed again in 1846. And in 1847, that was the worst year of starvation and of emigration. And the Choctaw people who had been displaced from their tribal lands learned about this people far away on an island that were starving and were destitute. And they raised $173 and sent it for the relief of the Irish famine victims. And that has never been forgotten in Ireland.

And I must say, it was for me a special moment just over a year ago to go to Oklahoma and to specifically thank and pay that tribute to the Choctaw people for the connection that they had made with the people of Ireland. But it is also one of the many and diverse links that are there that we very much treasure. And we treasure them in a modern context of knowing that this bond is stronger now than it has ever been. And it is evident in that nurturing friendship that the United States has been extending to Ireland and extending at a most important time on the island of Ireland. It was very evident in the visit which President Clinton and Mrs. Clinton and their delegation paid at the end of November, first of all to Belfast, and Derry, and then coming to Dublin.

That visit remains very much in the mind and the imagination and the imagery of the connection between the United States and Ireland. People are aware that it gave an opportunity for an expression of a determination to build a sustainable peace. And you are helping us to build that sustainable peace in so many practical ways.

And so in having a sense of history, I have a sense that this is a moment when the long friendship between Ireland and the United States has come to a fruition, has come to a particular stage of development when it is so important for us certainly in Ireland. And I sense that it also means a great deal to the very many here in the United States who cherish their Irish heritage and their bond with Ireland. And all of that, I think, is gathered together in this particular evening. I'm conscious of the warmth, of the hospitality, of the friendship, and of the support.

President Kennedy -- or, President Clinton, I'm sorry -- just what's in a name -- sorry. President Clinton said this morning that he hoped that the warmth and hospitality he was extending would match the kind of hospitality that he had received in Dublin. I think he has to be aware that to say that to an Irish person means that the night is young, here we are, we're only beginning to start to enjoy this evening. I remember that President Clinton was led astray to a Cassidy's Bar, and I'm wondering where we're going to be led astray later this evening. (Laughter.) I mean, we're really only beginning.

And I think I want to say that I'm expressing this Irish sense of great gratitude for feeling so at home and that this is a very special evening for all of us and a way of saying that the links are stronger than they have ever been.

Thank you for the wonderful warmth of your welcome. And I, in turn, would like to invite you to rise and join with me, for the second time today, it will have to be a slainte -- a slainte, a very special toast to the very deep friendship between the people of Ireland and the people of the United States and the linkages between our peoples, and to the way in which the people of the United States are so supportive of peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.

Thank you.

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