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Read President Higgins speech to People's College students

30 March 2015

NO FEE 111

Speech on the Unveiling of a Portrait of Ruaidhrí Roberts, Founder of the People’s College

Teacher’s Club, Dublin, 25th February 2015

A Chairde go léir,

Tá fíor-áthas orm a bheith anseo libh ar fad don ócáid seo in onóir Ruaidhrí Roberts.

It is my great pleasure to be here with you in the Teacher’s Club, a venue I have often visited in the past for trade union, musical or Scoil Lorcaín events. Today it is to unveil a portrait of the late Ruaidhrí Roberts, former Secretary General of the ICTU and founder of the People’s College. May I thank Jim Dorney, President, Fionnuala Richardson, Director, the Central Council and the Student Committee for their kind invitation to join you this morning, and all of you for your warm welcome.

The People’s College was founded by Ruaidhrí Roberts in 1948, here in Dublin, to provide education for workers. Throughout Europe, those years of the late 1940s and early 1950s were important ones for the reconstruction of the labour and trade union movement. It was a defining period for the affirmation of workers’ rights, during which the bases of the European welfare state were established and the pursuit of social justice asserted as the ultimate purpose of economic activity in foundational international declarations and conventions.

The Declaration of Philadelphia, for example, is of that post-war period. Later this week I will give the Edward Phelan Lecture, organised jointly by the NUI and the ILO, in which I will refer to this noble Declaration concerning the Aims and Purposes of the International Labour Organisation, adopted in Philadelphia on 10th May 1944. At the time, a consensus was emerging on the rights attached to work. The decades of the ‘80’s and the ‘90’s were to see these principles left aside in pursuit of an aggressive competitiveness at global level.

The promotion of workers’ education is an integral part of the struggle for workers’ rights. Indeed workers’ access to education and culture in all its forms is a driving force of progressive socio-economic change. It is a path for both personal development and collective action, one that contributes to enabling workers to articulate their needs and aspirations, analyse the power relations at play in the productive world, and organise themselves so as to achieve both decent living conditions for themselves and their families and a more just society based on equitable labour relations.

Adult education is about empowerment. It is about acquiring the tools and skills – be they essential literacy and numeracy or more elaborate knowledge – that will enable citizens to think more consciously and critically and to challenge the inevitability of that which is too often presented as given and unchangeable. Such ability is even more important nowadays, when the masses of citizens are deemed by some to be too economically illiterate to understand, or have a say on, complex fiscal matters.

Throughout the 66 years of its existence, the People’s College has provided Irish workers with the tools and knowledge that enable them to shape their environment as critical and informed actors. It has provided them with a space from which to develop their intellectual and creative potential and build up their capacity for collective action.

I very much welcome today’s opportunity, then, to pay homage to the achievements of Ruaidhrí Roberts, as a visionary trade unionist who placed the provision of adult education for workers at the heart of his practice.

Ruaidhrí Roberts was born in 1918. He was General Secretary of the Irish Trade Union Congress for 13 years, from 1946 onwards, and he played an important role in the re-unification of the Irish trade union movement, which had split into the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) and the Congress of Irish Unions (CIU) in 1945. Roberts became General Secretary of the new Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) on its establishment in 1959 and remained in that role until 1982.

Ruaidhrí Roberts devoted much time and effort to the establishment of the People’s College and remained deeply involved with it until his death in 1986 – a date at which he was the College’s President.

Ruaidhrí Roberts’ determination and clarity of purpose were particularly evident in the early years of the College, which, as you know, were not ones that were propitious to the trade union movement’s secular ethos and inclusive vision of citizenship. Indeed in the Ireland of the 1950s, most education provision was associated with religious principles. The foundation of the People’s College thus generated intense opposition and controversy, with some wild allegations circulating about its philosophies. A rival Catholic Workers’ College was even set up which provided lectures for trade union members.

In spite of this opposition, combined with a lack of public funding, Ruaidhrí Roberts and his supporters kept the People’s College open and running throughout those difficult years. They successfully managed to secure funding from Forás Éireann, to which the College is now affiliated. And during the following decades, the College established strong links with many organisations that shape workers’ life in Ireland: not only is it affiliated to numerous trade unions, but also to the Irish Labour History Society (ILHS), the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (IFWEA) and the National Adult Learning Organisation, AONTAS.

Grounded in those supportive networks, and drawing on a compelling vision of truly inclusive citizenship and emancipatory educational practice, the People’s College has grown from strength to strength since 1948. Today it provides classes to approximately 1000 adults each year, across a varied range of subjects that include languages, social studies, literature and many other activities. The College’s Choir – which we have just heard perform – is only one example of the emphasis placed by the College on art, music and culture. I am also delighted that the College promotes writing, in particular through the Roberts Short Story Competition, established in memory of Ruaidhrí and his wife Nora, who was also instrumental in making the College the success it is today.

This variety of classes offered by the People’s College reminds us that education is not just useful; it is also enjoyable. One does not undertake learning only because it makes one more effective, or more readily “employable” – but because it enriches our life and experience; because it broadens and deepens our outlook on the world around us.

This is not to say, of course, that there is the slightest contradiction between knowledge being sought for itself, or for its practical utility. It is important, I suggest, never to reduce the world of work or the process of learning to one of mere immediate utilitarian significance. Workers and the relationships they establish with fellow citizens and their environment cannot be reduced to the status of tradable units of labour without immense social consequences.

May I, then, commend all of you who have been and are now involved in this great educational institution for promoting a holistic understanding of work and learning as a complementary and mutually reinforcing source of personal fulfilment and freedom, collective emancipation and democratic flourishing.

This idea was very well captured by Simone Weil, a philosopher who shared the daily life of workers in the 1930s, performing strenuous factory work despite her frail constitution. I quote her words, from her

“Man’s greatness is always to recreate his life, to recreate what is given to him … Through work he produces his own natural existence. Through science he recreates the universe by means of symbols. Through art he recreates the alliance between his body and his soul. It is to be noticed that each of these three things is something poor, empty and vain taken by itself and not in relation to the others. Union of the three: a working people’s culture (that will not be just yet)…”

This morning, as President of Ireland, I would like to express my gratitude on behalf of the people of Ireland, to all the men and women, from both yesterday and today, who have given of their time and skills to the People’s College’s important educational mission.

I wish all of you, who work and learn here, the very best in your future endeavours.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

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