Dr Kieran McCarthy. Conferring Address, Humanities Conferrings, National University of Ireland, Cork, 17 October 2019

President of UCC, distinguished members of the academic platform, ladies and gentlemen, and most significantly graduates here this afternoon. It is an immense honour to be able to address you.

Those who have collected their degrees this afternoon you should be very proud of your achievement. Have no doubt that the top platform is very proud of you and your family and friends present are beaming with pride. Days like today are ones to be treasured.

In our busy lives, we often don’t take the time out to celebrate our achievements. And I hope that for many it won’t be your last parchment or your last efforts in learning something new, and that today is just one chapter in an interesting and engaging journey of your life that you are trekking across.  Whether you are a young student or pursuing education from an older adult’s perspective, lifelong learning is very important.

 Do take the moment to reflect on the scroll within your hand, and please don’t consign it to a drawer but do frame it and put it up. And most importantly use what you have learned – whether that be new skillsets or the beginning of a lifelong love with sub-topics within your chosen subject fields.

It’s twenty years since I graduated with my BA degree in archaeology and geography – and one of the first aspects I learned is that the afterlife of a BA degree is up to yourself. From the perspectives of a humanities degree, you have all learned new skills sets, new ways of looking at the world, at society, at community life – to mind it, to engage with it, to push forward narratives, and add to knowledge itself.

I took what I learned from UCC and applied it to a hobby which has also become my career – that of a local historian plus have applied it to my several other hats – in my community work, my local government work and my European work. I am for all intents and purposes one of many local historians which Ireland possesses – guardians of stories and story-telling and who are very passionate about their home place.

I spend large tracts of my time collecting histories and memories of Cork’s past gone by. I criss-cross the landscapes of Cork City and regions looking to find what makes it tick and looking to see how this “tick” can be harnessed to make my home city, region and its communities a better place.

The heritage of Cork survives in various conditions from complete disappearance to physical and metaphorical ruins to surviving because it is being used in everyday lives in a personal way.

Shortly after my BA degree, I embarked on a post degree personal project – an exploration of the River Lee Valley from source to city; I estimated at the start of my personal project that it would six months- in truth it took six years to reach the weir at the Lee Fields.

One aspect for certain is that the more I researched the places within the valley or the more doors I knocked on, the more information came to the fore. What is also apparent is that everybody’s view of the world is different. It could be an insider’s view or an outsider’s view, such as my own. For most people I have met, heritage was a personal and collective experience focusing on their own roots. In fact, the historical data played ‘second fiddle’ to their personal stories. It has been interesting to see how stories and values have been handed down, and how each successive generation has taken it in turn to hold a torch for some element of the past in the present.

One recurring aspect is how much the region’s cultural heritage runs metaphorically in ‘people’s blood’. There were a large number of people who noted, ‘my father used to say’ or ‘my mother used to say’. That sense of inheritance is important and it is more than just honouring people. It conjures up debates about achievement and loss, and it is more than just recalling the memory of a few. For each person I interviewed many more are represented through their life experiences. One is allowed to ponder on the power of the individual and their contribution to society, whether at a local or international level. The evolution of ideas can be mapped.

So one of the most abiding aspects I have learned over the years and one I have become a very firm believer that everyone has a story to tell – and everyone engages with the world in their own personal way. Hence respect for each personal perspective is paramount. But not just the personal perspective but how stories interact with each other in community life.

All of you will bring what you’ve learned back to a community you’ve come from or you will carve out a career in a new communities.

With the humanities degree you receive today you are the next generation of a community of story collectors and story tellers. There is a power in the scroll you hold. You now have the responsibility to be guardians of what you have learned.

From my own journey, I regularly see the power of a community outreaching and working together. Of course, the nature, depth and value of participation in creating inclusion or bringing people together are significant factors. As an exercise, in preparing for this address I broke up the respective letters of community, I came up with the following thoughts, which I wish to share, and which I hope connect to some of where you find yourself this afternoon:

  • The C is for citizen; active citizenship develops a sense of belonging. One is also taking ownership of one’s life direction. So please Use your degree.

  • O is for onus and responsibility. I think that any community in particular has a responsibility to its people and must move forward with a plan as best as possible. So please move forward with your plan.

  • The first M of community is for motivating. A group of people together can be inspiring, encouraging, empowering and enabling. You are an enabler of your own future.

  • The second M is for moving forward. The future is a worrying element for many people. But as we grow older we all grow wiser. You can’t buy wisdom, go and earn it.

  • U is for understanding. From my own travels and attending community meetings, every attender has something to bring to a community. As a result, community has various meanings to people. Listen and engage with people to carve your future.

  • N is for the next generation in the community. New people bring vibrancy and energy to any work they engage with. Most are also looking for opportunities to develop their talents and to fit in. Community adds to help people develop in personal ways. Stay fresh and dynamic and stay focussed.

  • The I is for ideas. Brain storming and a plan on paper is important. People need direction, something to work toward. Otherwise, the heart of the community will become stale and disillusioned. Flesh out your ideas.

  • T is for tolerance of the ‘other’. Working together as a team, getting everyone involved is important. People working together can stop the decline of local living places and bring them to renewed states of stability and viability. Everyone’s story is important to the mosaic, which is life.

  • The Y of community is about the yearning to be part of something- to do something purposeful, to hone our personal talents, to create and sustain strong bonds. Yearn and go do.

These are just ideas. If you are a story-teller, then building community capacity must be a core element of your future plan in passing on knowledge and developing a sense of identity and a sense of pride.

If you are the story tellers of the future, then today closes a page in one chapter but as you walk out in a few minutes into the Atlantic light of Ireland’s southern capital, a new page will appear. It is up to you what you wish to write on it.

Enjoy the celebrations and thank you for listening to me on your special day.