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President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins - Address to the guests

President Michael D HigginsA Dhaoine Uaisle,

Is mór an pléisiúr dom a bheith anseo libh inniu chun an tionscnamh tábhachtach seo a sheoladh. Is mian liom mo bhuíochas a chur in iúl do Frank Taaffe agus do Chónaidhm na Cumainn Staire Áitiúla as ucht a gcuiridh dom bheith anseo libh, agus daoibhse ar fad as ucht na fíorchaoin fáilte sin.

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today to launch this wonderful Hidden Gems Forgotten People project, the fruit of the collaboration of two local history federations, the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and the Federation of Local History Societies.

Your two federations, made up as they are of over two hundred local societies, constitute an incredible national network that does valuable work in organising local events, lectures and visits as well as joint activities in Ireland and the UK.

Connecting communities to their local areas, keeping alive the knowledge of special places and preserving the memory of the people that have made your communities what they are is such an important contribution to the rootedness, and diversity too, of communities. It is not, I believe, an exaggeration to say that the sense of connection to place, to the past, in all its manifestations, and to those memories are vital elements for the quality of our lives and for the well-being of our society. They make up an essential part of who we are. Jane Austen had an interesting point to make about history through Catherine Morland, the heroine of her early novel, Northanger Abbey, when she has Catherine say:

"History, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all - it is very tiresome."[1]

Catherine Morland's remarks leave open the possibility that she might just be interested in an alternative type of history - a history whose focus is not limited to the quarrels of great men, wars or pestilence - rather a more inclusive history that tells the stories of local places and ordinary people - a history that includes the stories of women - in short, a history which is made up of the stories of all of our lives.

Our own great poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote of the global in the local, the universal in the particular in his poem "Epic" -

"That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said : I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance."

Such ideas of history seem to me to be at the heart of your project.

Hidden Gems and Forgotten People seeks the involvement of local societies and citizens in identifying interesting but lesser known places and people; places that might not make it into tourist guidebooks but which have historical interest or significance locally. This project draws on the local wisdom as it draws together the local recollection of women and men who may have made a significant contribution to their own locality, or more widely, but who have been largely forgotten over the years.

Your project's aim to document these places, and to celebrate these people, and to recover them in memory is admirable. Most communities, both rural and urban, have hidden gems, places of local interest, marking an event or person of significance to the community. Your project also provides a platform where people can share their own "hidden gems" and perhaps hear something new about their own locality. Such sharing forms a bond that contributes to a real sense of community.

Your story of one such person, Carrickfergus-born, Sean Lester, who attained the position of Secretary General of the League of Nations in the 1940s, until the organisation's demise, is a great example. The local resonance of an international success story provides depth and texture to a biography of global significance.

A number of entries displayed on your website caught my attention. The Killeen at Ballycar in County Clare, where I spent some of my childhood, is one such site - a site for the burial of those who did not fit the community norms of the time - its recognition today can be seen as a mark of our growing inclusiveness as a society. The home of the last Governor General, Domhnall Ua Buachalla is another tale which caught my attention, if only because he chose, or perhaps was influenced, not to live in my current residence in the Phoenix Park.

Local familiarity, and the fact of being taken for granted, can sometimes prevent many of these gems becoming more widely recognised and thus they can remain hidden from the rest of us. However each one has a story to tell and that story is part of our wider local history. Many people who have contributed significantly to the local area, and in some cases to the wider world, may remain unrecognised and, sadly, forgotten.

Most districts can lay claim to sportsmen, storytellers and other characters of note that, while little known outside of their own communities may be iconic within its history. This website provides you, and hopefully many more, the opportunity to rescue such forgotten personalities and hidden treasures from obscurity and allow them to take their rightful place in the story of our national history.

The panels which I am launching today with some of the texts from your website will be used to publicise your project, and hopefully will result in many more stories being submitted and published. Your simple format, of a short text and a single photograph, should be an encouragement for contributions from those who may not come from an academic background.

I am reminded of the School's Folklore Scheme of the 1930s. This was a project developed by the Irish Folklore Commission where children attending national schools were encouraged to collect material about their local history, monuments, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, songs, customs and beliefs, games and pastimes, traditional work practices, crafts and placenames. The children collected this material mainly from their parents and grandparents and other older members of the local community. The scheme generated over a half a million pages of valuable material - making it one of the largest and most important folklore collections in the world.

I know that there are many differences between the Folklore Scheme and your own project, not least that the former is made up of manuscripts handwritten by schoolchildren, but it hints at the wealth of local knowledge which exists in our communities. You also have the added benefit that, unlike the Folklore Scheme, your project includes the whole island.

Many of you here, and many others who are not here with us today, have contributed to the success of this project, be it in writing the texts included on the website or in other ways. However I would like to specifically acknowledge the contribution of Patrick Devlin and John Hulme from the Federation for Ulster Local Studies and of Larry Breen from the Federation of Local History Societies who have played, and continue to play, a key role in the development and management of the project. Without their contribution we would not be here today.

Guím gach rath ar an tógra íontach seo agus tá súil agam go mbeidh fás agus forbairt air sa todhchaí.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

[I wish you the very best for this wonderful project, which I hope we will see develop and grow.

Thank you all very much.]

[1] Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, 1803, p87

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