President, Members of GB, distinguished guests, colleagues, parents, partners, friends and especially, you, the graduates,
The most important graduation speech in a European context was given on June 5th 1947. The speech was given by a great hero of mine, George C. Marshall, who was then the US Secretary of State. Marshall used this speech which transformed Europe, it was the genesis of the Marshall Plan – an action that essentially saved Europe and ultimately lead to European Union. It is said that Marshall gave the speech with his head down as if he did not care a great deal as to whether people listened to him or not.
Perhaps this was because his Deputy, Dean Acheson had advised: - Conferring speeches are to be endured and not heard.
Indeed Father Flynn of St. John’s University had described the role of a speaker at a graduation ceremony even more clearly when he stated that:
“A speaker at a graduation ceremony is like a corpse at an Irish Wake. They need you for the party but they don’t expect you to say anything”
I like this view because it suggests little is expected of me, while it is debatable as to how much you should party. In any event, I have been asked to give you a few words of advice, so here goes:
I want you to picture, if you will, a very poor peasant walking home in the middle of winter in the Steppes of Russia. He sees a beautiful little bird on the ground and realises that the bird is freezing. Being a kind man he picks up the bird and looks around to see if he can put it in a warm place. Eventually he sees some cow dung or cow pat and says ‘Ah, if I put the bird there the heat from the cow dung will warm it up’. So he puts the bird in the cow dung and walks on – sure enough, after a while the bird starts to warm up and recover and starts to sing. As it does, some of the dung gets caught in its beak.
Just then a man passes by – looks down – sees the bird is choking, says ‘what a stupid bird’, picks it up and puts it on the side of the road. An hour later the bird is dead.
What are we to take from this? I suggest there are 2 lessons and a moral there.
(1) Sometimes it is your friends who land you in it.
(2) It is not always your friends who got you out of it.
(3) The moral is this: If you are in it and up to your neck in it – keep your mouth shut.
My second piece of advice is don’t link the correctness of the advice you receive to the title/position of the person who is giving it.
“A Navy Captain was in charge of a battleship with malfunctioning radar in thick fog. The look out reported seeing a light on the starboard side. The Captain ordered the signal man
‘Signal that ship we are on a collision course, advise you change course 20 degrees’.
Back came the reply ‘Advisable you change course 20 degrees’.
The captain said ‘Send I’m a Navy Captain – change course 20 degrees’.
‘I’m a seaman second class’ came the reply ‘you had better change course 20 degrees’.
The Captain was furious. ‘Send I’m a battleship – change course 20 degrees’.
Back came the reply ‘I’m a lighthouse’.
The Captain changed course.
Always remember that the answer you get depends on the question that you ask.
2 priests (one a smoker one a non-smoker) had an argument over whether it was disrespectful to smoke while praying. They decided to resolve the issue by writing to the Pope.
3 months later, the non-smoker says to the smoker ‘The Pope has confirmed that it is wrong to pray and smoke at the same time.’ The question he asked was ‘Is it ok to smoke while praying’ and the pope said no – that praying is a special communication with God and it would be disrespectful to smoke.
The smoking priest said ‘that’s extraordinary because the Pope’s reply to me is that it is ok to smoke while I am praying’. The question he had asked the Pope was ‘is it ok to pray while smoking’ and the pope answered that it is ok to pray at anytime and therefore it is ok to pray while smoking.”
My fourth piece of advice is trust in your own ability and success will come. For some of you this may happen quickly, for others it will take much longer, the important thing is to do what you do to the best of your ability and recognition will come.
Let me go back to George Marshall to illustrate this. In 1914 one of the most senior officers of the US army, a General Bell advised his fellow senior officers to keep an eye on George Mitchell then a 34 year old Captain – he described him as “the greatest military genius of America since Stonewall Jackson”.
In 1918 General Pershing, Commander of the 2 million strong US army in WW1 said that Marshall was the best officer in the army. Almost 20 years later Marshall was still at the rank of Colonel. By 1939, he had been promoted to Brigadier General – the lowest rank of General. At the outset of WW2, Roosevelt realising that the US army was very small, was ill-equipped and ill-prepared sought advice as to how to address the catastrophic situation.
He called Pershing to the Oval Office, who told him there was only one man who could rescue the situation. Roosevelt took the advice and by-passed some 40 generals senior to him and appointed Marshall as General of the Army and Commander over all US forces. Marshall was 59 years old.
Subsequently, Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill, even Stalin described him as the greatest man they ever met. When Harvard University awarded him an Honorary degree in 1947, they stated that he brooked comparison with only one man in US history and that was George Washington.
In 1953 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for organising and delivering the Marshall Plan to rescue Europe. This exceptionally gifted, humane and unique individual had to wait until he was in his sixties before he was able to make his contribution.
So, great if you get your opportunity early in your career but if you do not then do not give up, continue to develop and believe in yourself.
Finally, I would ask you to become advocates for Higher education. You are the beneficiaries of the efforts and demands of your parents’ generation who demanded better education opportunities for you. It is salutary to note that 50percent of your parents’ generation were not allowed finish secondary education – almost 60 percent of your generation will have completed higher education.
The future of this country is dependent on we having an excellent system of higher education. International experts have attributed the great economic success of this country over the past 40 years to our investment in Higher Education. Ireland needs a strong higher education sector more than ever and paradoxically the funding of undergraduate programmes is lower than it has been in over 10 years.
Now more than ever Higher Education needs its strong advocates. I ask you to become those strong advocates and ensure that those coming after you have similar opportunities to what you have had.
Again congrats to you and your families. Guim Rath De oraobh is go fada buan uilig sibh.