THE wife of President Michael D Higgins met with a jailed activist for two hours outside of the prison's permitted visiting times after making special arrangements with prison authorities.
Sabina Higgins personally rang Limerick prison to set up the visit with her long-time friend Margaretta D'Arcy (79) who was jailed last week for trespassing on Shannon Airport runway in 2012.
The Irish Independent has learned fresh details of the visit last Sunday - a day when prisoner visits are normally not allowed and require special permission. They are only granted on compassionate grounds.
News of Mrs Higgins' prison visit only emerged when revealed by the Shannonwatch campaign group, which has been pressing for an end to foreign military use of Shannon Airport.
The group clearly believed the visit from the President's wife was a boost to their cause, and it was only confirmed by Aras an Uachtarain after Shannonwatch released a statement.
Justice Minister Alan Shatter declined to comment on the visit but said Ms D'Arcy had "endangered lives" and it was a "matter of regret" she refused to sign a bond that would have granted her release.
However, President Higgins moved to play down the controversy yesterday, insisting his wife travelled to Limerick prison on a "personal and private" visit and it was not for him to comment further.
Ms D'Arcy received a three-month suspended sentence last month for illegal incursion of the runway at Shannon Airport on October 7, 2012, during a protest over US military use.
The sentence was activated last week when she refused to sign the bond and she was escorted from her Galway home to Limerick.
Mrs Higgins and the inmate have been friends in Galway for many years, and President Higgins spoke at the funeral of D'Arcy's husband, playwright John Arden.
At Limerick prison, it is rare for even solicitors to visit inmates on a Sunday. The controversial visit came about after Mrs Higgins herself rang Limerick prison last Saturday evening after it had closed to visitors, and requested the special arrangement.
At 11.30am on Sunday, Mrs Higgins, accompanied by another unknown person, went to the entrance gates of the Mulgrave Street prison in the city .
She was personally met by Mr O'Brien who welcomed her to the country's oldest jail.
He explained to her where she would be going and that he and staff were available if they could assist her in any way.
D'Arcy is in a cell on her own in the E2 wing of the Mulgrave Street prison.
Mrs Higgins and her companion were brought to a special visiting box, normally set aside for family visits, where she met with Ms D'Arcy for up to two hours.
Tea was provided. Afterwards, she was met by senior prison staff again. Mr O'Brien spoke with her for up to a minute, and Mrs Higgins left.
Last night, local councillor in Shannon Pat McMahon said it wouldn't look good "if the President's wife was getting special treatment".
Limerick Prison is open to visitors on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10am to 12noon and 2pm to 4pm.
President Higgins yesterday said his wife was simply visiting a friend and the "appropriateness" of the visit was irrelevant.
"That issue doesn't arise at all. Sabina was visiting a friend of long-standing whose health is frail and who was a fellow artist with Sabina and were in many performances together.
"Sabina is a person who can speak for herself as well and is a person of very good judgment," he said.
He added: "It's not for me to comment. It's a private and personal visit but it really is a private and personal visit to her friend who is fragile and a friend who is a fellow artist."
Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore described the prison visit as appropriate. "I think it is. I know Margaretta D'Arcy. She is an activist all her life.
"I hope her legal team are working on her behalf to ensure that she is released from prison as soon as possible," he said.
The US Embassy and the Irish Prison Service declined to comment last night.
In the Seanad, Sinn Fein's Trevor O Clochartaigh said the President should use his official powers to pardon Ms D'Arcy.
Barry Duggan and Sam Griffin.