A thinker unafraid to speak his mind
Of all the insults you could hurl in Irish public life, calling someone an intellectual was the most devastating, the writer Seán Ó Faoláin once remarked. What, then, are we to make of the imminent election of Michael D Higgins, for whom unashamed intellectualism has been a life-long byword, as the next president of Ireland?
Higgins himself remarked once that to be an intellectual was “a very much greater disability than being sexually perverse”. The result gives the 71-year-old a long-desired opportunity to, in James Joyce’s words, “forge the conscience” of his nation.
Expect now words, torrents of them, from the new president – in prose form and poetry, in English and Gaeilge líofa, delivered in that slightly high-pitched west of Ireland accent that somehow manages to sound posh and earthy at the one time. And that’s just Michael D – if anything, Sabina, his wife of over 36 years, can out-talk her loquacious husband with ease.
Expect, too, a breadth of vision to match the Labour politician’s record as a universalist and champion of worthy causes from Iraq to Nicaragua and El Salvador. It’s likely that the doors of Áras an Uachtaráin will be thrown open to the writers, poets and musicians of Ireland, many of whom threw themselves so enthusiastically behind his campaign.
Beyond that, who knows? Higgins gave little enough away during the campaign. He summarised his aims as follows: “I offer a vision of a radically inclusive citizenship, in a creative society, worthy of a real Republic – making us proud to be Irish in the world”. Within the constitutional bounds of the post, he now has a blank slate to make his own mark on the job.
Michael Daniel Higgins’s resilience was tested early, as he has documented in his poetry, and in his book, Causes for Concern. Born in Limerick in 1941, he was sent at the age of five, with his brother, in a black Ford 8 card to live with his unmarried uncle and aunt on a small farm in Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare.
His father, an intelligence officer for a north Cork IRA battalion during the War of Independence, had taken the republican anti-Treaty side during the Civil War. His health suffered, he was unable to get work, was hospitalised and never recovered. The two young boys saw their parents and two sisters on sporadic trips to Limerick.
Higgins would often quote Sean O’Casey’s belief later that poverty was a disease that got into a man’s bones. “And no matter what that man comes afterwards, it never leaves him,” he told Irish Times western correspondent Michael Finlan in April 1978.
After secondary schooling in St Flannan’s College, Ennis, Higgins worked in a factory at the Shannon industrial estate before he joined the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) in Galway.
He studied commerce and economics for one degree, took English literature and language and sociology for another, and studied at both Indiana and Manchester universities before returning home to teach at third level. What influenced his move into politics more than anything he read was, he said, “the waste of humanity that accrues from stopping people from developing their potential”.
His first of several bids for a Dáil seat was in 1969. That year he also met Mayo-born actress Sabina Coyne at a party in Dublin hosted by journalist Mary Kenny. The couple married five years later, and had four children – Alice Mary, twins John and Michael Jnr and Daniel.
In 1981, he was finally elected a Labour TD, and held his seat in the February 1982 election, but lost it in November of that year - when he was also defeated in his bid for Labour Party leadership by Kerryman Dick Spring.
He was twice mayor of Galway, and became a senator twice - on the university panel and as nominee of Fine Gael taoiseach Liam Cosgrave. He began writing a column for Hot Press magazine in 1983, and made his mark on international social justice issues during the 1980s for his opposition to the Reagan visit.
Then as now, socialists in the west were as rare as hen’s teeth, but Higgins persevered. Then, he was a passionate radical in the Labour Party, an opponent of coalition but never a devotee of the hard left, and a firebrand critic of “ranchers” and “reactionaries”.
The years mellowed him, and by 1992 he was happy to go into coalition and became minister for arts and culture. Des O’Malley said Higgins would “go mad” in government but this never happened. He set up TG4, introduced tax incentives for the film industry and abolished section 31 broadcasting restrictions.
After Labour lost the 1997 election, he turned to poetry and indulged another great passion by chairing the Dáil foreign affairs committee.
In the 1980s, when Labour was having another of its internal upheavals, then leader Frank Cluskey noticed that Higgins was absent. When told he was on an emergency mission to the Middle East, Cluskey quipped: “Trust Michael D to take the easy option, saving the world over saving the Labour Party”.
Now, as president, he has another chance.