PRESIDENT Michael D Higgins has been made the freeman of a town he used to reach by bike at the end of an eight-mile cycle each morning during his school days.
Raised in a farmhouse at Ballycar, Newmarket on Fergus, Co Clare, the President yesterday became only the second man to be accorded the Freeman of Ennis, following the honour bestowed on boxing champion, Muhammad Ali in 2009.
At the ceremony yesterday at Waterpark House in Ennis, mayor of the doomed Ennis Town Council as a result of Government plans, Cllr Peter Considine (FF) wistfully said: "It took us 400 years to give this honour and now we have given it twice in three years and I suspect this is probably the last one."
President Higgins attended Ennis's St Flannan's College from 1955 to 1960 where he spent two years as a boarder and three years as a day boy where each day he completed the 16-mile round trip by bike from his home to the college.
Nicknamed by his classmates at St Flannan's College 'Snowball' for his blond hair, President Higgins quipped yesterday: "I had a lot of blond hair at the time."
Outlining his close ties to Ennis, President Higgins said that his father – one of a family of 10 from Ballycar – got his first job at the turn of the century in Ennis.
Yesterday, the President's brother, John and sister Kathleen were present to hear Cllr Considine talk of their brother's renowned hand-ball skills at St Flannan's.
"I'm told from his class mates at St Flannan's that President Higgins was a feisty combative sportsman and his technique in playing handball could be described as closed fist and overhand swipe."
This prompted President Higgins to recall "one of the most humiliating experiences of my life in an alley when I was drawn against Pat Kirby".
He said: "I broke his service twice during the half hour which wasn't bad against someone who went on to be world champion."