Irish president presses his case for ending world hunger, helps launch Irish studies program

UC Berkeley students have a responsibility to share the lessons and skills they learn at one of the world’s top public research universities to end the human rights problems of world hunger and poverty, Irish President Michael Higgins advised them during a keynote address on campus Monday.

Higgins spoke at International House as part of an extensive West Coast tour, focusing on a common theme of his presidency: the call to halt the debilitating and potentially deadly malnutrition and hunger facing an estimated 680 million people in developing countries, as well as increasing numbers of residents of developed countries.

Irish President Michael Higgins meets Berkeley students and announces seed funding for an Irish studies program. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

Irish President Michael Higgins meets Berkeley students and announces seed funding for an Irish studies program. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

“There is so much you can change,” Higgins encouraged listeners in the International House’s Chevron Auditorium during a visit sponsored by Berkeley’s Institute of European Studies (IES).

He commended Berkeley public policy professor and economist Robert Reich for his work on income inequality, which Higgins said is integral to his own and others’ fight for economic, ethical and environmental equality.

An institution ‘with a bit of Irish’

Introducing Higgins, Anthony Cascardi, Berkeley’s dean of arts and humanities, noted that two earlier presidents of Ireland visited the campus over the years, and that Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney spent time as a visiting lecturer at Berkeley, “an institution that has a bit of Irish in its blood.”

It also has more than a bit of Irish in its collections at the Bancroft Library, where Higgins stopped in to inspect an exhibit containing a 1970 notebook of Heaney’s; a privately printed copy of W.B. Yeats’ poem Easter, as well as a letters from Yeats to one of his mistresses; and a rare signed, first-edition copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Irish President Michael Higgins examines Western Americana materials at the Bancroft Library. (Photo by Peg Skorpinski.)

Irish President Michael Higgins examines Western Americana materials at the Bancroft Library. (UC Berkeley photo by Peg Skorpinski)

Also on display: the diary of Patrick Breen, a surviving member of the ill-fated Donner Party that met mishap after mishap crossing the Sierra in the winter of 1846-47; and a unique fragment of a Sophocles play from the Bancroft’s Center for the Tebtunis Papyri that underscored ties between Berkeley and papyrologists from Trinity College in Dublin.

While at the Bancroft, Higgins and his wife, Sabina Coyne, signed the original guest book of Hubert Howe Bancroft, a bookseller, entrepreneur, publisher and historian whose collections were purchased in 1906 by the University of California.

Higgins’ final campus stop was the Morrison Library, where he announced that the Irish government is providing $40,000 in seed money for an Irish studies program at IES that will become operational in the 2016-17 academic year. It will be directed by Eric Falci, an associate professor of English whose expertise includes contemporary Irish poetry.

While Berkeley has been one of the few universities in the United States with a Celtic studies program teaching Irish Gaelic, and most western European nations are already represented at IES, Ireland was not.

Higgins said he hopes the grant will enhance exploration by Berkeley students, faculty and alumni of social, cultural, scientific and economic relations in and with Ireland.

Finding a certain truth

“Whether in the arts or in science, the goal of educators is to inspire in the next generation of minds the passion and discipline to study and to imagine, in an effort to make sense of the world around us,” he said.

“Whether with the lyrical pen wielded by poets such as Seamus Heaney or equations and observations of a physicist,” Higgins continued, “their shared goal is to find a certain truth and gain a greater appreciation of the worlds we inhabit and to bring us closer to those we imagine.”

He said the expanding links between Berkeley and Ireland also will manifest in events and debates on contemporary issues of mutual concern and interest.

Falci echoed Higgins’ remarks.

“We intend to reach out to the large and active Irish-American community in the San Francisco Bay Area, and to devise programs and activities that attract attention on and beyond the campus as we bring together and foster an intellectual community around shared interests in Ireland and Irish America,” said Falci.

Video of Higgins’ speech is available onlin, as well as the text of his address.