What is an ambassador of conscience?

“When I first walked into the offices of Amnesty International’s global headquarters in London, the words of the son of a farmer from Derry were written on the wall.”

Colm O Gorman, Exectuive Director, Amnesty International Ireland.

The stunning Seamus Heaney: Listening Now Again Exhibition is currently at the Bank of Ireland Cultural and Heritage Center on Westmoreland Street in Dublin. Heaney is one of the greatest Irish poets of his generation. It’s wonderful to see his work so appreciated and honored here in Ireland, and around the world. He’s quoted by politicians and activists worldwide, from Bill Clinton to Mary Robinson, and from Bono to Barack Obama.

Seamus wrote about the extraordinary in the most humble of places. His poem ‘Digging’ is a favorite of mine. Heaney wrote in dark times. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize it was for works both of lyrical beauty and ethical depth. He was the conscience of Northern Ireland. He struggled but persevered to respond ethically to the sectarian violence that gripped his and my homeland for decades.

In 1985 Mary Lawlor, then the chairperson of a local Amnesty International group in Dublin who would go on to become Executive Director, approached Seamus and asked him to write a piece to mark International Human Rights Day. Mary gave Seamus a dossier filled with the stories of Prisoners of Conscience, women and men who had suffered torture, imprisonment and silence, the kind of women and men on whose behalf Amnesty International has worked for in the past fifty-two years. Seamus was inspired to write one of his best-known poems, “From the Republic of Conscience”.

Seamus’ poem ends with the narrator being told that he is now an ambassador of conscience – a person who has a duty to speak out against injustice – and is warned that this duty will not end, that he will never be relieved.

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