“She communicated an inspiring message about the power of individuals to effect change in the world, saying: “The people have the power to redeem the work of fools.””
Singer-songwriter Patti Smith visited the Hist yesterday afternoon to receive the Burke Medal for Outstanding Contribution to Discourse through the Arts.
Following the presentation of the medal, Smith gave an engaging and intimate address to a chamber full of students, media, and fellow musicians Bono and Glen Hansard.
Despite the many accolades to her name, which were listed by auditor Ronan Mac Giolla Rua at the start of the event, Smith expressed her honour at receiving the medal. Invoking a humour that characterised much of her speech, she noted that though it is not awards that drive the work of artists, “receiving them is always nice.”
Smith’s was a deeply personal speech. She commented on the significance of this particular date for her as the birthday of her close friend Robert Mapplethorpe, the anniversary of the death of her husband, and the birthday of her grandson, the latter receiving a round of applause from the audience. In this, she established a bittersweet and emotional atmosphere that endured for the entirety of the event, captivating her audience.
Smith took the opportunity to espouse life lessons to the impressionable students listening intently. She emphasised the important lessons and values to be taken from both the good and bad events in life, referencing former Hist member Oscar Wilde’s commentary on the contrast between his watershed moments of arriving at university and being imprisoned. All of these moments, she stated, enrich us as human beings.
Not one to shy away from political and social commentary in her work, Smith discussed the importance of the opinions of ordinary people before reciting the lyrics to her song People Have the Power.
She described the background of the song, noting that at the time of its conception she had been doing a “very Irish thing” – peeling potatoes, an everyday act which led her to ask herself who “the people” really were. From this, she communicated an inspiring message about the power of individuals to affect change in the world, exclaiming that “the people have the power to redeem the work of fools.”
She concluded the event by performing an acoustic cover of her 1996 song Wing. A thoroughly captivating performance that left a number of audience members visibly emotional, it was a fitting end to such a poignant address. A quick glance at her medal during the instrumental demonstrated her pride at having received it, revealing a woman who remains humble despite her abounding success.
Despite the notable lack of Q&A that usually follows such events, this was undoubtedly a hugely successful event. Smith gave a visibly improvised address that nonetheless enthralled her audience, who were hanging on her every word. If anything, the lack of a prepared speech merely added to the personal and intimate feel to the event. Unsurprisingly, Smith walked out of the chamber to a rousing standing ovation. Meanwhile, the Hist may take pride in the thought that one of their biggest guests in years may very well have her Burke medal proudly on display for years to come.