Paradigms to fore as welter of words reveals simple truth

Thu, Jan 26, 2012, 00:00

The high-falutin’ language could not hide what we already know – that Michael D is both a gentleman and a scholar, writes MIRIAM LORD

RELAX, MR President. You’re in your granny’s ...

The last time Michael D was in Dublin Castle he sat behind an ornate desk on a dais in a packed St Patrick’s Hall and signed a very impressive-looking document.

That was in November, when he became the ninth Uachtarán na hÉireann.

From Professor to President.

He was back again yesterday, behind the same desk, before another big crowd, appending his name to a different piece of parchment.

President to Professor.

On both days, his wife, Sabina, watched proudly with their daughter and three sons. The big difference this time was that Michael D dressed up for the event.

It is a long tradition of the National University of Ireland to confer an honorary degree on the President after his or her inauguration.

“Today’s conferring is almost a family event, and all the happier for that” said NUI chancellor Dr Maurice Manning, who conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws (LLD) on Michael D.

The introductory citation was read by Dr Jim Browne, vice-chancellor of the NUI and president of NUI Galway.

“The presidency of Michael D Higgins may well reverse the adage of campaigning in poetry but governing in prose. Already, he is asserting the true value of rhetoric, purposefully and forthrightly deployed, evincing the defining quality of this truly extraordinary man – integrity.”

He is a man who “personifies and combines so many decencies that, taken individually, we perceive to be ordinary” and he is, to paraphrase the late president Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, “somewhat paradoxically, the primus inter pares or first among equals”. You had to be there.

There was a lot of Latin.

Proceedings began with members of the NUI Senate and professors leading the chancellor and the President in the Academic Procession to the top of the hall.

Michael D beamed from beneath a very fetching tasseled bonnet, wearing the scarlet and purple-edged gown and hood of the law faculty. Well, we thought it was purple, until a quick perusal of our invaluable “Academic Dress Booklet” told us the colour was “prune”. Nonetheless, he looked lovely, as he processed to the tuneful stylings of the Dublin String Quartet with his fellow boyz and girlz n da hoodz.

There was a heavy duty turnout by the country’s top academics to see their favourite scholar awarded with Ireland’s highest academic honour.

David Norris, who unsuccessfully contested the presidency, was among the crowd. “Sometimes we find it hard to fill the seats at these events. But there was no problem today – lots of people wanted to be there because it was Michael D,” confided one university official.

Following the conferring, the President – now a doctor in civil and canon law – addressed the gathering, which included representatives of the Government, the Council of State, the judiciary and the diplomatic corps.

He didn’t hold back, delivering a 25-minute speech which reprised many of the points he made in his inaugural address, but tailored for his audience. It was titled: “The role of the university at a time of intellectual crisis.”

It was a cracker of a Michael D speech: we counted a head-wrecking nine paradigms along the way, although a few may have slipped through the “interstices” as we considered how “utopian alternatives must be accompanied by a praxis that is envisaged and one that is applicable within, and in the context of, institutions”. As Ernst Bloch might have said, before we cantered through the reconstruction of 19th century Europe, the Glass-Steagall Act and the libraries of Alexandria.

“Is it not as important to experience the development of the self and one’s connection to citizenship and history as it is to become a useful unit in a consuming culture?” asked the President.

“Universities function within a culture and how they negotiate that relationship defines their atmosphere. That warmth of a community of learning has been, I feel, at times put under threat from the underestimated aggression that comes with a surrounding culture of extreme individualism.”

We were introduced to Keynes and Kant, Adam Smith, Friedrich Von Hayek, Jürgen Habermas, Edward Said, Max Weber, H Stuart Hughes, Marx and Freud.

His delighted audience stood and applauded at the end of a learned and thought-provoking speech. On the other hand, it could have been cramp.

And we viewed Deputy Joe Costello in a new light – Joe being the man whose job it was to confine Michael D to digestible soundbites during the election campaign. Eamon Gilmore should have given him a medal along with that junior ministry.

The President’s speech might have gone over the heads of the hacks covering the ceremony, but it didn’t because we were above in the minstrels’ gallery wondering if we should take a few paradigms and have a lie down.

There was a private lunch afterwards attended by Michael D and his family, the university presidents and registrars and their partners, and Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn. We do hope Quinn didn’t ruin the nice atmosphere by bringing up the difficult subject of their salaries.

As for the President, he was in his element, happy as a sandlark under his doctoral bonnet with its prune tassel.

For all that, the academics could have dispensed with the wordy citation and Latin flourishes and distilled everything down to a few words.

Michael D: a scholar and a gentleman.

But that would never be them.