Miriam Lord: Michael D outshines dragons on ploughing fields of Screggan
President’s ploughing championship visit leaves challengers with ground to make up
It wasn’t so much a speech as a performance.
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,” cried Michael D, galloping back to battle with a small pair of scissors, a length of green ribbon and an extravagant sweep of the arm.
Those weren’t the actual words spoken by the President – but it’s the essence of what he said during a rousing 20-minute speech on the ploughing fields of Screggan.
There was no time for subtlety in his soliloquy, for not only was he officially opening the National Ploughing Championships, he was also unofficially opening his campaign to win a second term as president of Ireland.
Seven years a slave to constitutional constraint can be difficult for any occupant of Áras an Uachtaráin, but it must place a particular strain on somebody like Michael D Higgins, who was always very partial to a blistering political argument.
So when he made this latest trip to open the largest outdoor event in Europe this year, he had much more to do than merely cut a ribbon and utter some stirring words about our deep-rooted connection to the land.
Michael D was a man on a mission, at the start of a mission.
He is not yet officially off the leash, but you wouldn’t have known that on Tuesday. President Higgins was only short of dancing up to the microphone when called upon to speak.
“May I say what a great pleasure it is to be here again at . . . the Ploughing!” And with that, he was off, chewing the scenery with quivering gusto, waving around the fistful of papers he would have been consulting had he not sashayed off script within minutes.
There was hardly need for amplification as he held forth like a veteran thespian declaiming to the audience at the back of the theatre, only he was standing in the middle of a field, and the back of the house was the Slieve Bloom Mountains.
There were extravagant sweeps of the arm and, at one stage, a hand held high in the air like Jim Larkin’s statue in O’Connell Street. Which is fair enough, as big Jim and the 1913 lockout was mentioned in the course of the speech, after which the President launched himself into a simmering throng of admirers in front of the stage.
Also mentioned was the 19th-century writer and revolutionary James Fintan Lalor who spoke of the right of the people to live on the land in security, comfort and independence.
“We remember him as well as all of the others we paid tribute to over the last few years: Tone and Pearse and Connolly and others,” carolled Michael D, before reflecting on the next period of national commemoration to come next year when “we’ll be celebrating the first Dáil with all its great promise”.
A reminder stitched in there for potential voters of how, as President, he presided over the delicate 1916 centenary commemorations.
He spoke of the importance of the ploughing festival, which “invites all of the people of Ireland to realise the importance of farming as a way of life and of the importance of sustaining it and addressing its issues in a practical way”.
As President Higgins spoke, one of his rivals for the job, Seán Gallagher, stood to one side of the platform, also facing the crowd.
The man who came second in the election seven years ago was one of two former Dragons’ Den participants who were also on the Áras trail in the sprawling Screggan grounds.
It was a bold move by the candidate, who pressed the flesh and made himself very visible in the vicinity of the President. At midday, when Michael D eventually made it through a crush of well-wishers to the stage, Seán had already strategically positioned himself at the foot of the steps. The President would have to pass by him, but so too did a battalion of men in green IFA blazers augmented by a few more wearing chains of office. They blocked the view. Gallagher moved forward, to no avail. Snubbed?
But no. Somebody must have whispered something to Michael D because he turned and belted his way past the blocking blazers and warmly greeted the businessman, thanking him for a note he had sent to him.
“So, I’ll see you shortly,” said Seán.
“Oh, you will,” replied President Higgins, loudly.
He told reporters he will begin his campaign in about a week’s time.
“I’ve never run away from a campaign in my life, for goodness sake,” he declared, adding that he had been fighting them for nearly 40 years.
Whatever happens, he hoped the campaign would be dignified and about “the real issues”.
It was a difficult beat for the three declared candidates who were in Laois for the first day of the championships. Joan Freeman, Gallagher and Gavin Duffy strolled around the stands and exhibitions, doing their best to meet as many people as possible. Duffy’s small team had a big roll of stickers which they tried to hand out to passing children.
The only VIP who got a very positive reception and a surprisingly high recognition rate from the crowd was the new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris
He was with his wife Orlaith, and they wore matching wellies. Lovely expensive Dubarry boots which were admired by many.
They did interviews and did their best to explain how it’s early days and the opinion polls putting Higgins miles ahead are not indicative of how the situation could change as the campaign progresses. Gallagher and Duffy, while expressing undying admiration for the incumbent, stressed the need for him to participate fully in any TV debates.
Michael D, for his part, was letting it be known that he is up for the fight. He spent the day visiting stands while his security details, gardaí and a private security firm hired by the National Ploughing Association kept the crowds at bay as best they could. The President was mobbed.
Not a good thing for the candidates to see. Screggan belonged to President Higgins. He was the star of the show on Tuesday. They will have to engage on different fronts if they are to peg back his lead. They will. They have to.
The only VIP who got a very positive reception and a surprisingly high recognition rate from the crowd was the new Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. He was the recipient of good wishes from many people as he got his first experience of the ploughing.
As the afternoon wore on, news came through that a third “dragon” had made the ballot sheet. Peter Casey is the latest alumnus of the business themed entertainment programme to join the chasing pack.
What should they be called: A showboat of Dragons? A bluster? A congratulation?
Michael D worked his way though a large number of stands. Loving it. He met Jessica McGrath from Monkstown in Dublin who told him her grandmother Maureen Sheehan was delighted to received her 100th birthday cheque from him last Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Marie Finneran from Laois managed to get the President to sign a hurley for her son Luka (12), who plays for Four Roads.
“It’ll be used in the under-12 county final on Saturday against St Dominick’s,” said Marie.
The campaign is under way in earnest.
“I haven’t got going yet,” said Michael D.
Oh, yes he has.
This is going to be fun.