New lady of the Áras

Sat, Nov 5, 2011, 00:00

PROFILE: SABINA COYNEAs a performer who likes to be close to nature, Sabina Coyne may find herself in an ideal role when she moves into the Park this week with her husband

ON FRIDAY Sabina Coyne will become Ireland’s first lady and move into the most famous house in the country. As always, she will be by the side of her husband Michael D Higgins, now the president-elect. Those who know the couple agree that Higgins’s candidacy was predicated on the consistent support of his wife of 37 years.

“You rarely see one out without the other,” says the Galway poet Mary O’Malley. “They are very close. A very solid team.”

“She has been hugely supportive of Michael D at all times,” says Tom Kenny, of Kenny’s Bookshop and Gallery in the city. “And she is very often with him. She has always been out campaigning with him, and she has a public presence. At the weekend , she was getting as many hugs and congratulations as he was.”

In a radio interview the couple gave to Miriam O’Callaghan last year, before Higgins had received the presidential nomination from the Labour Party, he described his wife as his rock. O’Callaghan told listeners at the end of the broadcast that the couple had held hands throughout the interview.

Sabina Coyne met Michael Daniel Higgins in 1969 at a party in the home of journalist Mary Kenny, when he was 28 and she was 27. The party was to celebrate the fact that Kenny had been appointed women’s editor of the Irish Pressthat day.

“I was just blown over the night I met him,” Coyne told O’Callaghan. “I reached out and held his hand, and that was it.”

Higgins remembered “this rather willowy person with long blond hair, who was very, very interested in the discussion we were having about life”.

“Did you fancy her?” O’Callaghan asked.

“Oh yes, I did,” Higgins replied. “It was a passionate moment.”

Coyne grew up on a small farm near Ballindine, in rural Co Mayo, in a house without electricity. She describes her childhood as idyllic. The house was full of books, and her mother told them stories from Charles Dickens as she milked the cows. Coyne believes that her first interest in acting was sparked by hearing these stories. “It was the beginnings of identification with other lives.”

She studied with the late Deirdre O’Connell, who established the Focus Theatre in Dublin and trained her actors in the Stanislavsky method. This entails using emotional memory to tap into the character an actor is playing. Coyne was a bridesmaid at O’Connell’s wedding to the singer Luke Kelly, and lived for a time on Raglan Road, the subject of the most famous ballad he sang.

During the 1960s and the 1970s, Coyne, who appears always to have been strong-minded, was unafraid of being openly different from the Irish norm. For example, she was on a macrobiotic diet, one of the hallmarks of being a hippy at the time.

During Christmas 1973, Higgins proposed to her. They married the following year. People who know the couple agree that it has been an exceptionally successful and joyful union of two distinct and somewhat esoteric personalities.

“I’m an emotional kind of person,” Coyne has said. “I wanted this man to be happy. He had life in such abundance!”

She has likened campaigning for her husband to “being in an improv. The curtains go back, and the election is on. I came from the theatre and went straight into the drama of public life.”

The couple have four children: Alice Mary, twins John and Michael, and Daniel. Following the birth of their twins, at least one press photographer was invited to snap an enraptured Coyne in her hospital bed, wearing a nightdress and holding her newborn boys. It is impossible to imagine the wife of any politician sharing such an intimate moment with media cameras nowadays, and can’t have been usual even in the 1970s.

Coyne still took on some acting roles, but once the children arrived she focused on raising them and maintaining a stable home life in a household from which one parent was so often away.

Paul Fahy, the artistic director of Galway Arts Festival, saw what he believes was one of her last stage appearances, in 1990. It was in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s St Patrick’s Day, for Druid Theatre Company. “She was very extrovert, very funny. It was a character role, and she was very enthusiastic. She’s not shy, and that stands to her when you are in the public eye.”

Those who know Coyne talk of her great dignity, presence, determination and drive. They say that she is articulate, cultured and devoted to her family and that she has always had a strong sense of social justice. She has stated publicly her aversion to the Iraq War and her belief that if Labour had been in government over the past decade Ireland would be in a much better state. It is said that she was a subtle, careful and essential background presence during the presidential campaign.

Although neither Coyne nor Higgins is from Galway, it is the place with which they are identified and where they have based themselves for many years. “I think she will miss Galway; both of them will,” says Tom Kenny. “They have a huge network of friends and supporters there. I suspect there will be many visits.”

As of last year, unsurprisingly, there were no plans for retirement. Coyne joked about returning to the theatre, mentioning her wish to play the classic role of Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days,in which the character is buried up to her waist in one act and up to her neck in the second. She told O’Callaghan: “I would love, in the far future, when we will be free, that Michael can read books and write and that I will be free just to look at nature.”

Although Sabina Coyne will be a busy woman for the next seven years, she is also lucky enough to have quite a lot of nature on her new Áras doorstep. The residents of Dublin Zoo will shortly be roaring a welcome to their newest, and nearest, human neighbours.

Curriculum vitae

Who is she?The first lady in waiting.

Why is she in the news?She’s about to move into Ireland’s most famous house.

Most likely to say“You’re never too old for a challenge.”

Least likely to say“Michael D, I think that poem needs another few drafts.”