Excerpts from Bill Clinton’s address at the 2011 Irish America Hall of Fame celebration.
“Most of us go back to Ireland and feel immediately at home in a way that’s impossible to describe. Most of us feel an inexpressible pride, not only in our roots, but in the fact of the peace and the fact that, even amidst this horrible economic calamity, no one is talking about getting rid of it. I want to just take two minutes and say something really serious. The success and the endurance of the peace and the continued involvement of the Irish American community, not only in the North but with the Republic as well, brings with it both a staggering opportunity and a profound responsibility to help the Irish respond in this moment of economic calamity and social and psychological chaos. We just had an enormously profoundly upsetting election change in the deck chairs of the Irish political scene. And here’s what I think: number one, there’s an economic problem, but I also think that getting through the economic thicket requires us to deal with the profound damage to the Irish psyche done by this collapse.
When I was a little boy, I heard stories about the Great Depression. I grew up in a state where the income was barely 50 percent of America’s average, so whatever was happening in the United States Great Depression, you could multiply by a factor of 50 percent in my native state. When President Roosevelt came to Arkansas to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the state [in 1936], one of these Works Progress projects distributed whitewash to people to paint their houses so when the president drove by on the route he would see, not that they were prosperous, but that the people were proud enough to have him there that they could at least make their houses white. Except there wasn’t enough whitewash so they only gave people enough to paint the fronts of their houses, but paint it they did and happy they were, and they endured.
The thing that’s troubled me most about this whole economic crisis in Ireland has been the rise in the suicide rate, not just among the young, but…among people in their prime working years, who feel somehow their whole lives have been robbed from them…But it is not the end of the world. It is the beginning of another chapter in Irish history, and somehow we need to help our friends there, not just to recover, but to keep their heads on straight while they are recovering so they can think about what the real choices are before them. A good friend of mine was one of the young, phenomenally prosperous Irishmen who took his life, and it made me think about this all over again.
I thank you for this honor, I’d like to just make you laugh, but the impacted sense of shame from this economic crisis and the paralysis of it has put our beloved homeland in another fix. They have voted themselves to make a new beginning despite the political changes, but we should never assume again that any given level of prosperity is permanent, that any economic arrangement cannot be improved, and that any clever thing we knew may not be changed by a little arrogance. And we should remember that what we loved about Ireland was how green and beautiful it was and how beautiful the poetry and the prose are, and how wonderful the music and the dance is, and that is what we remember about life. I am convinced that if every one of us had 30 lucid minutes right before we passed away, we would spend almost none of it thinking about how cool it was when we got rich. We would think about who we liked and who we loved and how the flowers smelled in the springtime, and when we made the passage from youth to adulthood, and what it was like when our children were born or when we gave our daughters away at the altar. The thing we always loved about Ireland had almost nothing to do with whether it was financially successful or not. It was what it was at the core. Ireland will be great and prosperous and wonderful again, simply by recovering what it is at the core. So it is for us not only to give them good advice, and investment and support, but to scrape away the barnacles which have clouded the vision of the place we love. Thank you and God bless you.”