In her inaugural speech in Dublin Castle, Mary Robinson celebrated becoming the first woman president of Ireland by making the speech all about everyone but herself. "The Ireland I will be representing is a new Ireland, open, tolerant, inclusive," she declared, right at the start. Then, evoking Irish lore and geography, she drew a mental map for her audience of what that tolerant state looked like:
The recent revival of an old concept of the Fifth Province expresses this emerging Ireland of tolerance and empathy. The old Irish term for province is coicead, meaning a “fifth”; and yet, as everyone knows, there are only four geographical provinces on this island. So where is the fifth? The Fifth Province is not anywhere here or there, north or south, east or west. It is a place within each one of us — that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in. Ancient legends divided Ireland into four quarters and a “middle,” although they differed about the location of this middle or Fifth Province. While Tara was the political centre of Ireland, tradition has it that this Fifth Province acted as a second centre, a necessary balance. If I am a symbol of anything I would like to be a symbol of this reconciling and healing Fifth Province.Even in her inclusiveness, Robinson embraced not just Irish citizens on the island, but "a vast community of Irish emigrants extending not only across our neighbouring island — which has provided a home away from home for several Irish generations — but also throughout the continents of North America, Australia and of course Europe itself. There are over 70 million people living on this globe who claim Irish descent. I will be proud to represent them."
That's a big embrace. And perhaps appropriate for a woman who has gone on to give many speeches, first in her presidency and then as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Robinson evoked both storytelling and women: "I want this Presidency to promote the telling of stories — stories of celebration through the arts and stories of conscience and of social justice. As a woman, I want women who have felt themselves outside history to be written back into history, in the words of Eavan Boland, 'finding a voice where they found a vision'."
What can you learn from this famous speech?
- Use all the languages of your audience: Robinson deftly alternated English and Irish passages in this speech, and they're not repetitions, so the Irish passages are unique. No surprise: They center on her commitment to the Irish language and its role in modern culture. (You can click on a link in the text to see translations into English, a smart tactic in presenting a speech text online.)
- Give us a sense of place: From the mythical fifth province to Ireland's role in the new European community to those wandering people of Irish descent living on other continents, this is a place-based speech. Robinson does well in describing her vision of the nation and its localities, then taking the listener worlds away to see Ireland's place in the world. You can do the same no matter what your topic is, if you take the time to reflect the location of your speech, locations important to your audience, and places you want to take them, imaginary or otherwise.
- When you're representing a group, make sure it's all about them: From her first words, Robinson addresses the citizens and makes this speech about them, their essential Irishness, and their place in the world. There's leadership in such humility, and you can model that in your next speech in a leadership role, whether that's at the parent-teacher association, your place of worship, a local elected office or a committee you chair.
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