I am deeply honoured to be invited to address this dinner, an honour that has also been given to three other former Taoisigh of Ireland, Garret FitzGerald, Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern.
Others who have spoken at this dinner include President Harry Truman, Senator Robert Kennedy, Senator Hubert Humphrey , Senator Eugene McCarthy, Senator Bob Casey, and Governors Bill Scranton and Martin O Malley.
The life of St Patrick has very important lessons for us in the 21st century
St Patrick was above all a Christian man of faith. His faith was so deep that he was prepared to go back among a people who had previously enslaved him to share that faith, that good news, with them. He did not do it for material wealth. He did it because of belief in a cause, a reality, greater than himself, greater than all humankind. I believe that faith, and a consequential willingness to work for a cause greater than ourselves is something we need to rediscover, and foster, in this generation.
St Patrick was born Welsh or British, and a citizen of a Roman Empire, a Roman Empire that encompassed most of western Europe and the Near East. But by the time he died, the Roman Empire had fallen, Rome itself had been taken, and Europe did not rediscover its unity until modern times.
Two reflections on that.
Irish people should remember where St Patrick came from. If, as is likely he had brothers and sisters, their distant descendants are probably living today in Wales, the South west or the North west of England. This reminds us of how much our two islands, Ireland and Britain, in the North Atlantic have in common, of the good things we have given to one another, and continue to do to this day.
Perhaps even more topically, in these anxious economic times, we should reflect of what happened to the economy of Northern Europe during St Patricks life time.
When he was born there was considerable prosperity, a common currency system for all of Europe based on silver coinage minted in the name of the Roman Empire. This currency, this means of exchange, enabled citizens of Rome, including St Patrick’s family to trade across long distances, to buy and sell good, and to enjoy a good standard of living.
By the time St Patrick died, this system had collapsed.
Because it was cut off from Rome, silver was no longer available in Britain to provide currency. Anyway, there was no political authority strong enough to stand behind an alternative currency, and ,as a result, scholars now believe that living standards fell dramatically, to perhaps a quarter of their previous level, and stayed at that level for centuries. All that happened during the life time of one person.
This shows the fragility of all economic systems, how dependent they are on political conditions, and how change can be sudden and destructive, as well as slow and benign.
While St Patrick had his mind on other, arguably much more important things, we can learn a lot for today from what happened to the economy during his life.
We need to be careful to value and maintain a political system that encourages trade, sustains credit, and keeps all of us open to the needs and aspirations of people far away from us, and very different from us, as different as the Irish who captured and enslaved St Patrick as a boy must have seemed to him.
In a word, economics and finance are important, but they are dependent on a robust, believable and strong political system, something that existed when St Patrick was born, but had disappeared by the time he had died.