Higgins pays tribute to 'vital role' of Irish emigrants
PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins signed off on his state visit to the UK by meeting dozens of Irish emigrants on the grounds of a cathedral that was bombed during World War II.
All barriers were stripped away as the President and his wife Sabina listened to stories told by Irish people living in Coventry.
During his final engagement, Mr Higgins quoted the late Nelson Mandela and Seamus Heaney as he commended Coventry residents for their courage and conviction in rebuilding a city that was devastated during the blitz.
"You rebuilt and dedicated your cathedral to reconciliation and forgiveness – reminding the world, at a dark time, that humanity and compassion had not been extinguished," he said.
As Mr Higgins climbed the steep steps of the cathedral, local schoolchildren cheered and waved tricolours.
In a short address, Mr Higgins described Coventry as a "place that enjoys great renown as a symbol of peace and reconciliation".
He said there was a special connection between the West of Ireland and Coventry, and added that his only regret from the visit was that Seamus Heaney was not there to celebrate the occasion with him.
But Mr Higgins used his final speech from the remarkable visit to pay tribute to the Irish community living in the UK.
"You, and all Irish organisations, play a vital role by providing a 'home from home' for our community," he said.
He added that there was virtually no aspect of British life "that has not been enriched by contributions from the Irish community".
"That success is due in no small part to the determination and character of those who settled here in more difficult times – some, indeed, who are in this room today," he added.
But the President pointed out that while it was important to recognise the positive contribution by Irish people in the UK, emigration had resulted in a "terrible human cost".
"So, while we rightly celebrate the legacy of the contribution of Irish emigrants to this country, we should not forget the terrible human cost exacted by this aspect of our history on our own people, the leaving and the left, and the emptied landscape of possibility."
After his speech, both Mr and Mrs Higgins spent over 30 minutes meeting those present in Coventry's Guild Hall. He was joined by Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore and his wife Carol.
There was a military honours staged at Baldonnel airport last night as Mr Higgins touched down, bringing the much-heralded state visit to a close.