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FROM IRELAND TO IRELAND HOUSE: MARY ROBINSON DELIVERS A MESSAGE OF DIGNITY AND PORTENT

"Where after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works…unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world." ~ Eleanor Roosevelt, chairman of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, 1948
Weaving the words of Eleanor Roosevelt into the framework of her speech on human rights, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson cleared the air on the topic, clarifying that dignity and safe access to clean water are intrinsic human rights often taken for granted in the United States.

"The rights to food, health care, water, shelter in our part of the world, people never think about them because they're there," Robinson said when she spoke at Old Dominion University Oct. 10 on the topic "Human Rights in the Contemporary World" for the Waldo Family Lecture Series on International Affairs.

Robinson, who had flown from Prague, Czechoslovakia, to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Atlanta and finally to Norfolk to deliver the lecture was greeted warmly by local officials and the singing of the Irish blessing "May the Road Rise Up to Meet You" by fourth-grade students from nearby St. Patrick's Catholic School.

Also at the start of the program, Norfolk City Councilwoman Teresa Whibley proclaiming Oct. 10 as Human Rights Day, and ODU President Roseann Runte and Board of Visitors Rector Marc Jacobson presented Robinson with an honorary doctorate.

Robinson spoke passionately about the general state of human rights in developing and war-torn countries before bringing home the point that we are all daily accountable for our treatment of others and the choices we make as voters and consumers.

"Human rights work begins here, working in preschools, buying fair-trade products and coffee not sold by those who profit for the abused inn other lands where human rights are violated daily," she said.

An outspoken world leader, Robinson was Ireland's first female president, serving from 1990-97.

In a moment of levity, she recalled joking with her female presidential successor, Mary Patricia McAleese, about their maintenance of an elected matriarchy in Ireland, "We would tell the tale of small boys who grow up and weep on their mother's knee, 'Why can't I grow up to be President of Ireland?'"

Robinson resigned the presidency four months before the end of her term of office to take up the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002.

Robinson is the founder and executive director of the pro-human rights organization Ethical Globalization Initiative (www.realizingrights.org), housed in Columbia University's Earth Institute. She serves as an adviser to the institute, teaching in the international and public affairs department, and is a senior research scholar at Columbia Law School's Human Rights Institute.

Following her speech, which ended with a series of questions from the audience, Robinson followed Runte and other university officials to ODU's newest residence hall, where she assisted in cutting the ribbon on Ireland House, the first building in the highly anticipated new student housing Quad.

Each window of Ireland House was lit with a single light (donated by Dollar Tree Stores) in recognition of Robinson's famous act of placing a special symbolic light in her kitchen window in Áras an Uachtaráin, as a sign of remembering Irish emigrants around the world. (Placing a light in a darkened window to guide the way of strangers is an old Irish folk custom.)

"We continue this tradition here at Ireland House to extend to each of our students a welcome home to Old Dominion," said Runte.

The $22 million building opened to new resident students two days later, marking a significant advancement in Old Dominion's shift toward a more residential campus. Nestled between Webb Center and the Health and Physical Education Building, the Quad will eventually house 900 students in four buildings, surrounded by grassy common areas and activity spaces. It will be open to upperclassmen who are members of university-recognized organizations. Ireland House is a four-story, 65,000-square-foot building that features 204 beds in a suite-type setting.

The Waldo Family Lecture Series on International Relations honors the memory of Loren Pierce Waldo Jr., William Joseph Waldo, Robert Hendren Waldo, Susan Waldo O'Hara, Julia Ann Waldo Campbell and Harry Creekmur Waldo.

Established in 1985, the series was modeled after the Weil Family Lecture on American Citizenship at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Personal ties to Old Dominion University and to the Hampton Roads community led the Waldo family to select ODU as the home of their lecture series. Because of the area's significant military presence and international port, the family chose international relations as the lecture series' theme.

Over the years, renowned speakers in the fields of government, foreign affairs, journalism, education and public service have visited the campus and met with students and faculty. Support for the lecture series comes from the Waldo family, friends and the business community.

This article was posted on: October 16, 2006

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