Inspired by our own long walk to freedom Ireland found a true friend in Mandela
FROM the moment Africa's "greatest son" set foot on Irish soil, Nelson Mandela was welcomed with open arms.
His tireless struggle for freedom has inspired our next generation, as his anti-apartheid campaign has been recounted in Irish classrooms the length and breadth of the country.
But his spiritual connection with Ireland had begun before he was ever released from prison in Capetown.
From behind bars he had accepted the Freedom of the City of Dublin, sending a message that he regarded the Irish as the "original freedom fighters". Within months of his release he travelled to Ireland in 1990 to accept it in person.
And, in a typically generous retort as he visited Dail Eireann, he told then Taoiseach Charlie Haughey and TDs that the "stirring reception" from the people of Ireland had warmed his heart and body.
Mandela went on to quote Yeats, as he commented on the affinity between the Irish and black south Africans. He noted that "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart".
He felt support, including the strike against apartheid by Dunnes Stores workers, had all contributed to help secure his release from prison. "Even behind the thick prison walls of South Africa's maximum security jails we heard your voices demanding our release," he said on his visit.
It was not his last visit to Ireland. In April 2000, Mandela spoke warmly about the country, as he discussed Irish development aid at Government buildings.
"Mandela never really retired. He was always engaged in humanitarian causes and his name will forever be by-words for confronting prejudice and underpinning equality," recalled then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
And, once again the former South African President took pride of place when he visited to perform the official opening of the Special Olympics World Games under the glare of the international spotlight. Spontaneous applause erupted at Dublin Airport in 2003 as Mandela, then a frail figure at the age of 84, landed.
An audience of millions tuned in to glimpse him receiving the games' torch – aptly titled the Flame of Hope.
He was in the presence of 80,000 people who had thronged Croke Park to cheer on the athletes.
Mandela walked out on to the stage with U2's Bono as the music of 'Pride' boomed out. The singer introduced him as the "President of everywhere and everyone who loves and fights for freedom".
Mandela spoke of how he felt "immensely privileged" to be able to attend the opening. There were few things in life that could give him greater pleasure, he said.
And the crowd showed the privilege they felt as they gave him a standing ovation during his speech.