Mary Robinson’s ‘Light in the Window’ and its significance
Mary Robinson became the first female President of Ireland in 1990, promising to be a President for change, embracing inclusivity and community in her term. In her Presidential acceptance speech in 1990, the President-Elect committed to this, saying ‘I am not just a President of those here today but of those who cannot be here; and there will always be a light on in Áras an Uachtaráin for our exiles and our emigrants.’
Placing a lit candle in the window was an old Irish tradition to welcome friends or strangers on the road to shelter, often associated with Christmas. Here, its symbolism is to welcome home returning emigrants.
In doing so, President Robinson began an important dialogue on Ireland’s long history of emigration and exile. Redefining our emigrants as our diaspora was an invitation to acknowledge and embrace those overseas with an affinity to Ireland. Our nation of 3.5 million became a global community of 70 million people. It is estimated that over 40 million of those diaspora are living in the United States of America.
Mary Robinson’s tradition of the Light in the Window at Áras an Uachtaráin remains, and a Tilley Lamp is permanently lit at our Presidential residence to welcome home our returning diaspora. The original light lit by Mary Robinson at Áras an Uachtaráin will be lit in the window of her childhood bedroom, shining out from The Mary Robinson Centre over the River Moy in Ballina as a permanent welcome home to our diaspora.
Ireland’s history of emigration
For centuries, Irish people left home in search of opportunity, and at times to avoid hardship, persecution or famine. The emigrant’s farewell was often waked as a death would be, in certain knowledge that that person may never be seen or heard from again.
While increased access and improved communications has made it easier for more recent emigrants to connect home, factor such as lack of educational opportunity made writing home difficult, and a chasm existed that made returning home an impossible task for some.
‘Cherishing the Irish Diaspora’ speech by President Mary Robinson 2 Feb 1995 - https://president.ie/en/media-library/speeches/cherishing-the-irish-diaspora.
This speech was entered into the US Congressional Record by Senator Edward Kennedy 27 Feb 1995 - https://www.govinfo.gov/app/details/CREC-1995-02-27/CREC-1995-02-27-pt1-PgS3145/summary.