Standing ovation as curtain falls on hugely successful Irish State visit to UK

President Michael D Higgins exits on a high after speech to Royal Shakespeare Company and spontaneous walkabout in Stratford-upon-Avon

Michael D Higgins gives a speech on stage in front of the cast of Henry IV, Part 1 at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Statford-upon-Avon, during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish President. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire

Michael D Higgins gives a speech on stage in front of the cast of Henry IV, Part 1 at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Statford-upon-Avon, during the first State visit to the UK by an Irish President. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Wire


Attention all staff at Áras an Uachtaráin! For the next few weeks, you may have to tether His Excellency to the ground with strong twine and tent pegs. Why? Put it this way: the presidential party didn’t have to go home on the Government jet last night. All they had to do was lash a gondola to Michael D and he would have flown them at high altitude across the Irish Sea.

The President’s historic state visit to the United Kingdom has been a resounding success. And to cap a magnificent week, he exited yesterday with a standing ovation and the applause of noted Shakespearean actors ringing in his ears after delivering a tour-de-force performance from the venerated stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

As he left the auditorium, smiling and flushed with excitement, Michael D gave a final little bow to nobody in particular (and the world) before stepping into the daylight. There’ll be no talking to the man now. Still, who can blame him. Could it get any better? Well, yes. It could.

As he walked back to the queen’s Bentley following a private tour of Shakespeare’s birthplace, Mr Higgins threw caution to the wind and went on an unscheduled walkabout.

Outstretched hands
Happy as the spring lambs he met the day before in Oxfordshire, he bolted towards the large crowd gathered at the security barriers. Michael D ran the line like Obama, grabbing the pleading outstretched hands, his wife Sabina doing likewise a few paces behind.

The President of Ireland smiled into their camera-phones for them and thanked the locals for their welcome. When he was basking in the applause of the Royal Shakespeare Company – the great thespian Sir Tony Sher enthusiastically clapping with Falstaffian energy – we thought Michael D had died and gone to heaven. Until outside the Bard’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon, that is. As ever, the diaspora put in a strong appearance. “Go raibh maith agat!” he said to them, to the complete wonder of two burly English blokes.

“Look, ‘ees speakin’ in Irish. ‘Eees speakin’ in Irish.Wow! That’s amaaaazing!” marvelled one of them.

Brian Dolan from Castlebar, (28 years living away from Ireland) – “the time goes in a heartbeat, but it’s always going to be home” – was very impressed by the First Citizen. “I never ever thought I’d see our President in the queen’s car flying the Irish flag outside William Shakespeare’s house,” he declared.

“I came here because it’s important to show your respect. This visit means an awful lot to the Irish in Britain, and you have to give credit to the British establishment too – they’ve shown their own respect by returning the hospitality shown to them in Ireland three years ago.”

Peter Rehill (50 years in England) travelled from Birmingham with his wife Elizabeth. “I came here specially and it was worth the wait. I told him I’m from Monaghan town and herself is from Newry.”

Decent soul
He said the events of the week with the queen were “only fantastic . . . I think what they’ve done is great. I never thought it would happen in my lifetime. He’s done a good job and he’s a great wee man”.

After Michael D departed, the crowd seemed agreed he was a decent soul. An elderly woman remained at the barrier, being congratulated by two friends. “Are yis Irish?”

She is,” said the friends in unison, stepping back to let her speak. But the lady didn’t want to give her name. She was still trembling after her few words with Mr Higgins. “I won’t say anything because I have a very sick sister back in Ireland and I think it would be too upsetting for her to read about me, because I know she would really love to see me back again.”

She said she would have waited hours to see the President, if necessary. “I’m here over 40 years and that lovely man makes me proud to be Irish,” she said, tears welling up.

It’s so easy to be blase about belonging when you live at home. In the last four days, the depth of feeling displayed for their country by people who have made their lives in another land has been striking in its steadfastness. And very moving.

Mr and Mrs Higgins, meanwhile, were in their element with this visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Michael D was minister for arts during the rainbow coalition in the 1990s, and Sabina is an actress. As the saying goes, they were at their granny’s.

Among the local dignitaries who turned out with their chains of office for the occasion was Fiach MacConghail, director of the Abbey Theatre, who was invited as a guest of Culture Ireland. Also present were Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore and his wife Carol Hanney.

Eamon was a sort of Prince Philip to our head of State during his rather regal progress through the palaces and halls of England, walking along calmly in his wake, smiling and chatting amiably along the receiving lines.

He seemed to be enjoying Michael D’s growing happiness more and more as the days progressed. Before making their way into the playhouse, the VIP guests toured backstage and ended up in the Wig Room, where they saw Tony Sher’s exuberant “Falstaff” wig on a stand and his bushy eyebrows in a plastic tub. Michael D was gone so long we half expected him to make his entrance flaunting a head of powdered horsehair with Sabina tottering behind doing a Marie Antoinette.

Applauding proudly
Greg Doran, the artistic director of the RSC (who gave the President a big hug when they met) introduced his guest to the audience following some short performances from the company, including a rollicking excerpt from Henry lV parts 1 and 2 which is in rehearsals. “And now I invite you to the stage of the Royal Theatre Company,” he said to Michael D, who bounded up into the round, with the cast sitting behind him and Sabina applauding so proudly that her elbow-length silk gloves nearly burst into flames.

He launched into a learned and lyrical address on “A Shared Language” for some time, beginning with Vaclav Havel and finishing up with a poem from Robert Graves and throwing the literary and linguistic kitchen sink in between.

Michael D loves his poetry. We hear that on Tuesday in London’s City Hall he got involved in a little contest with Boris Johnston after they spoke of their mutual love of the classics. The pair began quoting some ancient Greek poem – Boris saying one line, then the President the next, and so on . . .

Yesterday, it was quite the performance again from Michael D, with hand gestures and extravagant bows towards the actors. It was delivered using an arsenal of pinched warbling, dramatic pitch changes and preciously rolled consonants. After the ovation, gifts were exchanged. A handsomely bound set of The Complete Works of Shakespeare from the RSC and a package wrapped in shimmering Cadbury purple paper from the President.

A nice box of Diary Milk, perhaps? Better again. A facsimile of The Book of Kells . The President floated home yesterday evening on the jet. When the wheels went up, we hear a mass Conga of relief took place among the foreign affairs/ foreign office officials. Full marks to the Tánaiste and Irish Ambassadors Dan Mulhall in London and Dominic Chilcott for the UK on the Dublin side on a job well done. But they’ll need those guy ropes to tether Michael D to the ground for a while . . .