Riches of Clare: President Hillery's Visit to the Orient

Clare Champion, Friday, February 14, 2003

The Riches of Clare exhibition at the local authority-run Clare Museum charts the country's history over 6,000 years using authentic artifacts. In this article, museum curator, John Rattigan, writes about a visit made by Dr Patrick Hillery as President of Ireland to Japan.

Clareman, Dr Patrick Hillery, served two seven-year terms as President of Ireland. In September 1983, towards the end of his first term, he undertook a State visit to Japan where he visited, amongst other places, Izumo Taisha, a Shinto temple. Shinto is a religion we are not too familiar with in this part of the World. The name Shinto is derived from the Japanese words "shin tao" which means "the way of the gods", and unlike most other religions, it has no real founder, written scriptures or body of law. It only has a very loosely-organised priesthood. An ancient and exclusively Japanese religion, Shinto emerged at about the same time Christianity arrived in Ireland, circa 500 AD. It was originally a mix of nature worship, fertility cults, divination techniques, hero worship and shamanism, not unlike the celtic religion that Christianity replaced in Ireland after the arrival of St Patrick.

The temple at Izumo Taisha, where President Hillery visited in 1983, is considered the oldest and most important Shinto shrine in Japan. It is made up of a number of shrines, with the main one dedicated to Okuninushi-no-kami deity, the most important of Shinto gods. According to the Kokiki and the Nihon Shoki, the two oldest books in Japan, the main shrine was the largest wooden structure in the country prior to 1200 AD, at a height of 50 meters. However, after a fire at the site, the height of the building was lowered in about 1200 AD to a height of 25 meters, with the present main shrine dating from 1744.

The Shokokan, another shrine, contains objects relating to worship at the Shrine, and also with the family that has been in charge of the shrine since ancient times. Amazingly, the 83rd generation of the Senke family are currently keepers of Izumo Taisha, and the family claims to be the second oldest family in Japan after the Imperial family.

The main religious festival at Izumo Taisha is held in the tenth month of the lunar calendar, usually in November, when it is believed that the Shinto gods and goddesses come to the site to have their annual meeting, and believers flock to the site at this time.

While a guest at the temple, the Hillerys were presented with a small wooden plaque carrying, an engraved image of the temple, which is now part of the collection at Clare Museum.

Apart from Izumo Taisha, other sites visited on the trip included the snow-capped Mount Fuji, Tokyo, and Nagasaki where one of two atomic bombs was dropped on Japan in August 1945.

Although Ireland and Japan have always enjoyed cordial relations, with a Japanese embassy in Dublin since 1964, President Hillery's visit to Japan was the first high-level exchange between the two countries. As a follow-up, President Hillery received the then Crown Prince and Crown Princess (the present Emperor and Empress) during their state visit to Ireland in February 1985, as the then Emperor was too old to travel.

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