Wednesday 7 December 2016

Elegant and erudite ideas from a class act

Non-fiction: When Ideas Matter: Speeches for an Ethical Republic, Michael D Higgins, Head of Zeus, hdbk, 352 pages, €24.99

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

Thought-provoking: Michael D Higgins with his book of speeches outside Áras an Uachtaráin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Thought-provoking: Michael D Higgins with his book of speeches outside Áras an Uachtaráin. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
When Ideas Matter by Michael D Higgins

Whereas Charles Haughey's volume of speeches was seen as a vanity project, Michael D's lofty tome is a thought-provoking anthology packed with ideology.

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When Charlie Haughey published a 1,200-page volume of his speeches called The Spirit of the Nation in 1986, it was widely mocked as a ridiculous vanity project. "I cringe at the arrogance of it… God help Ireland", was the fairly typical response of Fine Gael minister Gemma Hussey during a Dáil debate. Although Haughey's book was dutifully bought by diehard Fianna Fáil supporters, it is hard to believe that a single person ever read it from cover to cover.

When Ideas Matter by President Michael D Higgins deserves a lot more respect. Our ninth head of state has never been shy about calling himself an intellectual, and campaigned on the basis that his would be "a presidency of ideas". This anthology shows him living up to that promise, collecting 35 public addresses from his inauguration in 2011 to this year's Easter Rising commemorations.

The first thing you notice about Higgins's oratory is just how defiantly old-fashioned it sounds. In an age where politicians increasingly use colloquial language and snappy soundbites, he favours long sentences dense with academic language that demand total concentration from his audience. The President may be an inspirational figure, but he has never even tried to coin a slogan in the mould of "Yes we can" or anything that could be printed on a t-shirt.

Another Higgins characteristic is his sheer breadth of learning. A typical Higgins lecture will include elements of history, sociology and philosophy with a dash of literary criticism and a cúpla focail as Gaeilge thrown in for good measure. While his relentlessly lofty tone is sometimes off-putting, at least nobody can ever accuse him of dumbing down.

Above all, these speeches are notable as by far the most ideological ever given by an Irish president. When Higgins refers to right-wing icons such as the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, you can sense his contempt dripping from the page. At the same time, he lavishes praise on left-wing historians (EP Thompson), Marxist philosophers (Ernst Bloch) and even communist poets (Pablo Neruda and Victor Jara).

In other words, this lifelong socialist is still flying the red flag - just from a more elevated platform than before. He acknowledges this himself in his preface: "In truth what I have written I would have sought to write, irrespective of circumstance." His partisan approach often irritates conservative commentators who believe that Áras an Uachtaráin should be a politics-free zone.

On the other hand, expecting Higgins to totally suppress his beliefs was about as realistic as expecting Enda Kenny to stay neutral in last month's All-Ireland football final - and most people understood this when he was elected five years ago with more than a million votes.

When Ideas Matter also shows the President to be a class act. He is superb at tailoring remarks to fit the occasion, a good example being his Windsor Castle toast to Queen Elizabeth built around the Irish word 'scáth' that means both shadow and shelter. Some of the speeches here celebrate his personal links with a particular place (Britain, Chile and El Salvador), while others are dedicated to individual heroes, including Patrick Kavanagh and Kader Asmal.

Whatever might be Higgins's headline subject on any given day, however, the same themes recur over and over again. One is his hatred for unregulated markets, credit-rating agencies and anything that smacks of neoliberal Reagan-Thatcher economics. "The tendency of recent decades to regard the individual as primarily a consumer… rather than as a citizen who actively participates in society, has had an impoverishing effect on all our lives," he declares.

Perhaps the President's biggest hobby horse is what he calls "the ethics of memory", which can be loosely translated as the notion that all cultures and traditions deserve to have their past respected. Fortunately for him, he was elected at the start of a decade in which major centenaries seem to come along every other week. He quotes constantly from the work of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, arguing that his advocacy of "amnesty rather than an immoral amnesia" is the key to healing wounds in Northern Ireland.

Higgins's orations are erudite, elegantly written and always thought-provoking whether you agree with his arguments or not. The downside is that he can occasionally sound pompous and rarely uses one word when 10 will do. Even his greatest admirers should brace themselves for plenty of abstruse sentences such as: "The act of imagining needs some element of myth to retain belief, and as a mechanism for the retention of hope in the unrealised possibilities of being human and truly free, in joyous co-existence with others on this vulnerable planet of ours."

By their very nature, speeches are primarily designed to be listened to rather than printed between hard covers. Michael D Higgins in full flight, however, is well worth reading as well as hearing. It would be a shame if When Ideas Matter ended up as a 21st century version of The Spirit of the Nation - adorning many Irish living rooms but rarely taken down from the shelf.

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