The small town of Ballina in County Mayo, Ireland, erupted with joy on March 17, celebrating the first parade honoring Ireland’s patron, St. Patrick, since 2019. With flags flying and traditional music playing, the community turned out in celebration. Children marched with faces painted in the national colors of green, white, and orange. Dignitaries urged the crowd to stand in silence while the Castlebar Brass Band played a stirring rendition of Ukraine’s national anthem in solidarity with the people of that beleaguered country. A Ukrainian flag flew from the bandstand, as did the Stars and Stripes, in honor of Ballina’s most famous son, President Joe Biden. There were dramatic performances from Irish dancers, and even the sheep and turkeys of rural Ireland proudly marched in honor of their heritage. All sorts of costumes were in evidence, even one resembling the famous saint. This was a day to celebrate and to rejoice in Irish freedom, and honor all those who could not be there to do that with us.
This year has been a year of commemoration here in Ireland, it being 100 years since the signing of the treaty that granted freedom to three-quarters of Ireland, and since the Civil War that ripped the nation apart. Those tragic events have to be remembered, and the heroism of those who struggled for Irish self-determination recognized. This weekend saw the national ceremonies to honor the 6,638 people who died during the COVID pandemic, and the medical staff who worked so hard throughout those two dreadful years. Wreaths were laid and attention paid to all that was sacrificed by the people of the nation to try to contain the virus, and though it is not yet over, the restrictions have been lifted. The masks are disappearing, and crowds are gathering in a triumph of life over death.
Ireland is a country with a long memory. Joe Biden traces his family roots in Ballina back to the tragic days of the Great Hunger in the 1840s, when Ireland lost 2 million people to death and emigration. He is keenly aware of his family history, and prides himself on being a “Ballina man.” He has visited the town many times, and a visit is strongly rumored to be happening this summer, though the international situation may make that difficult. He was vice president the last time he visited, and made a promise that he would be back as president. His large family of cousins, the Blewitts, were guests at the White House during this year’s St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. In this town, President Biden is spoken of fondly as Joe. He endeared himself to all with his unassuming and friendly demeanor. “He is an inspiration to all our students,” Ballina teacher Deirbhle Walshe said; “he shows them what they can aim to be. It’s important to know that they can have ambitions and dreams.”
Ballina is a town that creates presidents, and Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson, grew up here on the banks of the River Moy, where her father, Dr. Aubrey Bourke, practiced medicine for 60 years. A tireless pioneer for women’s rights throughout her public life, she was elected Ireland’s president in 1990, and served for seven years before being appointed as U.N. commissioner for human rights. When she was elected as president, she initiated the practice of lighting a candle in the window of the presidential residence to represent the 80 million people of Irish origin scattered throughout the world. It represented the light in the window to guide them home. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009, and has continued her work on the impact of climate change, and how it affects the less powerful nations of the world.
The home where Mary Robinson grew up has been transformed into the Mary Robinson Center, Ireland’s first Presidential Library, dedicated to inspiring personal leadership in the service of promoting human rights, gender equality, women’s leadership, and climate justice. “She was always ahead of the pack,” noted Kathleen Walshe, a local educator; “she advocated for women’s rights for years, and when she ran for president, she appealed to the women to come out and vote for her, and they did. It’s fitting that the focus of the center will be on women as leaders, and those whose voices do not get heard.”
Local business owner Derek Leonard spoke of Mary Robinson’s relationship with Ballina as being one of a lifelong commitment to the town. “She has represented us all over the world, and we are proud of her. This center will make a great difference to Ballina, and will bring people from everywhere for the human rights lectures that are planned. We have already had many famous people who represent the world’s underserved communities. We had Senator George Mitchell here, who brokered the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Ireland. It’s wonderful to think that Ballina is becoming a center for peace and understanding in the world, and that’s what the Mary Robinson Center will bring.”
On his previous visits to Ballina, President Biden visited Mary Robinson’s childhood home, and promised that he would come back and visit the center when it opened. In June of this year, the building will be dedicated and open to all, an impressive site on the banks of the River Moy. It will bring together people concerned with climate justice and peace, and place Ballina firmly on the world’s map.
It’s ironic that Ireland’s long and sad history is replaced by a narrative growing in confidence and pride in all the achievements made by this new nation. “Isn’t it wonderful to think.” noted Derek Leonard, “that we have a free country and education for all.”
Elaine Weintraub, a Vineyard educator and co-founder of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard, is an Irish immigrant. She was in Ballina for the first parade since the pandemic.