. . . . on a lark in the park
THERE IS A playground in the Phoenix Park not far from Áras an Uachtaráin that in my house is known as the “President’s Playground”. We go there a lot because it has one of the finest examples of the lying down swing you are going to find on the north side of Dublin. I love those swings. You can lie down and tune out when all that frenetic playground parenting gets too much which, if I’m honest, is 99.9 per cent of the time.
When we drive away from the President’s Playground I always point to the gates of the Áras and ask, “Who lives there?”
And my daughters always chirrup: “Michael D Higgins” – just like I’ve trained them to.
People who claim they’ve never trained their children to parrot stuff for their own amusement are either lying or morally superior to most parents I’ve met. I know somebody whose toddler used to stand up at parties and say, “I don’t know what a tracker mortgage is.” It never got old.
Anyway, last week I was up in the Áras myself for work watching the President and his wife, Sabina, do a wonderful job of welcoming members of the European Gay Police Association to their home. It’s always a pleasure to be in that house, partly because of the stunning architecture and partly because of the quality of canapes on offer. It goes without saying they are seriously fancy and exquisitely made, but the chefs there also have a way with, say, the humble cocktail sausage that I’ve never been able to replicate at home.
In addition to snaffling a few sausages on sticks while on the premises I also managed to wangle myself an invite to the President’s first garden party, which was being organised a few days later along the theme of “family”.
I rushed home to tell the girls. “Guess who has invited us to their house on Sunday?” I gushed. “Noddy?” one of them said hopefully.
I ignored that and just blurted it out: “Michael D Higgins!” I triumphed.“He’s having a party!”
In fairness, they don’t know Michael D from Big Ears but they couldn’t have been happier if they’d been invited to attend Cinderella’s glass slipper fitting.
The two of them jumped on the bed and, being their Mother’s daughters, started to speculate about the kind of vittels Michael D might provide. “Cup cakes!” “Chocolates!” “Ice-cream!” He’ll definitely have ice-cream, I said, adding, unnecessarily I see that now, “from the President’s ice-cream van.”
On the morning of the big day we had arranged to meet some friends at Dublin Zoo. The girls were up from 5am so I had anticipated some tiredness-related tantrums and, sure enough, after around an hour both of them went into meltdown mode.
The reason for their disquiet appeared to be the fact that we weren’t at that moment in Áras an Uachtaráin eating ice-cream. It was divide and conquer time. I took one screaming child while my boyfriend sat down beside the other one who had flung herself on the ground not far from the gorilla enclosure.
As we headed for the seals, the child I was trying to subdue started to do something even more disconcerting than her world-famous ear-splitting scream. She started to yell, “I want to go to Michael D Higgins’s house nowwwwww” on a terrifying loop, while people tried not to stare.
Eventually, after a nap in the car, they calmed down and we took ourselves off to the Áras. The photo opportunity with Michael D and Sabina is all a bit of a blur. I was optimistically hoping for a picture that I could smugly send as this year’s Christmas card. Instead, from my daughter’s faces you’d think they had been forced at gunpoint to meet their President.
Ah well. It turns out Michael D and his friendly staff throw an excellent garden party with entertainment ranging from hip hop to sean-nós and even sometimes combining both in a culturally inventive group called hip-nós. Even one of my children, complaining loudly about a lack of the Presidential ice-cream van (oops) and the fact that what they actually wanted to do was go to the President’s Playground and “not just his back gaaaardennnn”, couldn’t spoil a magical afternoon.
In quieter moments I looked around and thought about how, as minister for culture in the 1990s, Michael D had taken 30 acres off the Áras to give to Dublin Zoo. I wondered if he rued the day. On balance I didn’t think so. Children were cartwheeling across his lawn and rolling down hills and playing hide and seek under Queen Victoria’s tree and trying to go for a swim fully clothed in his fountain (one of my offspring obviously).
The President had spoken earlier about wanting the house to be for families in all their contemporary forms: those people who love, or at least tolerate, us unconditionally. Fearing another tantrum, we departed early with happy hearts and pockets stuffed with strawberries dipped in chocolate, which we planned to eat en famille while tolerating each other in recovery mode on the President’s lying-down swing.
In other news . . . if you’d like to go to the Áras to meet the President for one of his garden parties, there are plenty of opportunities throughout the year. Just write a letter to President Higgins, Áras an Uachtaráin, Dublin 8 or email firstname.lastname@example.org