President Michael D Higgins gives inaugural lecture at ILAS

On Monday 30 November, President Michael D Higgins gave the inaugural lecture marking the official launch of the Institute for Lifecourse and Society (ILAS), following the Tánaiste’s visit to open the Institute less than two weeks before.

An NUI Galway alumnus, President Higgins congratulated the university on the “splendid building” that is the Institute for Lifecourse and Society, and paid tribute to the “breadth and depth” of research that is conducted within it by its 150-strong team of staff, “a formidable resource” led by Professor Pat Dolan.

Stressing the importance of the ILAS centre’s “capacity to cooperate across disciplines”, President Higgins described the Institute as “a response to a fundamental issue” that has existed in Ireland since the formation of the State, socioeconomic inequality, and highlighted that one of the centre’s “great strengths” is its “strong emphasis on civic engagement”.

Coinciding with the 50th anniversary of NUI Galway’s social sciences research centre, President Higgins’s lecture was inspired by his personal reflection on the enormous shift in social action and policy that has taken place since the college first opened as UCG; he said he found it “greatly inspiring to witness the real will that exists to envision a new version of citizenship, one that is fair and equitable and allows all its people to flourish.”

A notable academic, President Higgins also remarked on the “interdisciplinary character” of the Institute, and encouraged it to maintain its interest in “strong theoretical work”, while warning that to abandon work grounded in thorough academic research would be “disastrous” for all who participate in it.

Throughout his lecture, President Higgins repeatedly highlighted the distinction between “craft” and “science”, questioning which is more effective at a human level, and outlined his hopes that the Lifecourse Institute would be “an exercise of empowerment” for young people that would give way to “a new form of contemporary literacy” and re-engage “young scholars”.

In the latter half of his talk, President Higgins explored what he believes to be “welcome signs of change”, including the impending introduction of politics and society as a Leaving Certificate subject in 2016, a change he feels will foster future generations’ capacity for “transformative thinking”.

Repeating the importance of “crafting” in the Lifecourse Institute’s work (marrying theoretical research grounded by academia with a practical approach that embraces “the fullness of the person”), President Higgins revealed his hope that all who work in the ILAS centre are joyful in their approach to their practice, and that their work will lead to a better, more cohesive society in modern-day Ireland.

Renowned nationwide for his all-encompassing vision and perspective, President Higgins’s lecture did not just focus on the Lifecourse Institute and the work conducted within it; his talk was grounded in global issues such as the role of the State, economic policy, the migration crisis in the E.U., and the rise of extremism.

Contrasting the holistic approach taken by ILAS-based researchers, President Higgins expressed his frustration at what he perceives as a lack of an interdisciplinary approach worldwide, outlining his belief that society’s response to the suffering of individuals must be “immediate”, while also recognising that their “right has been denied”, and supported by a “clear vision” for progression.

Concluding, President Higgins reflected on the recent Paris attacks, and accepted that we live in “a time of understandable fear”, but encouraged all present to “face up to tough choices”, to “seize the opportunity to work together”, and not to “let words become empty”.

He reminded the audience that “the participation of citizenship was at the centre of the republicanism” that led to the founding of the Irish State; that “a true republic” should be judged on how it meets the needs of its people, “and of the stranger,” particularly as we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising.