Thursday 21 September 2017

So, Michael -- does the 'D' stand for Dude?

The Aras candidate's admission that he smoked cannabis came as no surprise to his 'Hot Press' readers, writes Damian Corless

It shouldn't have come as a surprise when presidential favourite Michael D Higgins admitted this week to smoking cannabis as a young man.

He had already spoken about it in a 1993 interview when he was recalling his rock 'n roll youth.

He said: "I do remember smoking marijuana, yeah. But I never took drugs in any other form.

"I just wasn't interested. I drank alcohol, of course, but I completely and totally reject the idea of using drugs to 'expand your consciousness'."

It was an intriguing insight into a man whose slight stature, bald pate and white hair made him seem like an elderly gent even when he was a relatively young man. But the image belies a very different dude.

As our picture on Page One shows, Michael D was once a man about town who liked to hang out at rock gigs in Slane, his shirt buttons undone, soaking up the vibe, man.

Around this time, he would also have been seen rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities and British rock stars in Dublin's trendy Pink Elephant nightclub.

The likes of UB40, Def Leppard and Spandau Ballet would all have partied there at the time, as well as members of U2. As politicians go, he was as cool as it gets.

This side of Michael D was familiar to regular readers of Hot Press in the 1980s. The Dail deputy wrote a fortnightly column for the music magazine in which he spoke candidly about the issues of the day and his own personal journey.

Higgins had been asked to do the column after giving an interview to Hot Press's rising star John Waters. Michael D was a vocal champion of the Left, which marked him out from the political herd and endeared him to the magazine's editor, Niall Stokes.

That endearment wasn't shared by all the staff. One recalls: "Michael D's columns were considered worthy but deathly dull. He also bore a startling resemblence to the 'Nowhere Man' character in The Beatles' movie Yellow Submarine, which made him the butt of some cruel jibes."

Of course, Michael D was anything but a Nowhere Man. He was fully aware that some people held what he described as "a sneering disregard" for his writings and his poetry and attacked the anti-intellectualism of those critics.

He insisted: "Some responses (to his columns) were nothing more than a glorified sneer, such as 'When you've sorted out politics, come back and tell us about it.' But you do not have to sacrifice intellectual rigour, academic freedom and the highest scholarship to be engaged in contemporary society. I make no apologies for how I am in this respect. I don't believe I should have to."

One of those he clearly regarded as a leader of the anti-intellectuals was Gay Byrne, who spent the 1980s repeating the mantra that "the country is banjaxed", blaming the political class for the ill health of the state. He retaliated by stating that Gaybo had lowered the tone of The Late Late Show by populating it with "vulgarians".

When he was attacked by Eamon Dunphy, he gave as good as he got. He accused Dunphy of being "a mouthpiece of the Right", making "ignorant and boorish remarks" and being "a yahoo". He added: "Dear Eamon, what you have been writing represents a disgraceful intolerance and anti-intellectualism."

Referring to Dunphy's working-class upbringing in Dublin, Michael D said scathingly: "Only Eamon, it seems, knows what real poverty was. The rest of us did not and do not know."

Grinding poverty was a key feature of Michael D's own young life in the 1940s. His father suffered from poor health, caused in the main from excessive drinking. With his father very ill, his mother sent the five-year-old Michael and his younger brother to live with their aunt and uncle on a farm in Co Clare.

During his Hot Press years his attitude to the demon drink was ambivalent. He would show up at rock events organised by the publication and would merrily join in the festivities.

At the same time, he would occasionally use his column to warn of the evils of drink. Sometimes the tone would be deadly serious, sometimes frivolous.

He once wrote: "I know of two Munster TDs who got so fed up with all their correspondence that they had a few drinks before tackling any of it. One thing led to another and the dreadful aftermath to their little session was that they decided to put the letters out the window of the train."

He devoted one entire column to a dinner he'd had with a Galway-based professor of pharmacology who believed he may have discovered a cure for the hangover in the form of Evening Primrose Oil (he hadn't).

Michael D left determined to moderate his ways, having been given an expert lesson on the damage caused by "cultural alcohol abuse".

He wrote, with humorous intent: "I was in a state of grief for my damaged hippocampus (the part of the brain that deals with memory). I drove home with a sense of mourning for those brain cells which had gone forever but I had the sensation that I had been talking to someone who was committed to a healthier and better way of life than that which any dependency too easily acquired allows."

He concluded: "So there we are, onward to clean living."

In that old interview from 1993, Michael D explained why he swore off drugs.

"I've seen too many appalling casualties," he said. "I was studying with Alfred Lindesmith, who wrote the first two books on opiate abuse. I saw many people try LSD but I would have been terrified because of those I saw becoming dependent on drugs and manipulated on a personal and social level because of that dependency."

In the end, Michael D concluded that drug-taking was a form of opting out of useful society.

He argued: "I read a thesis by somebody called Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds and it was an analysis of Timothy Leary and his movement. And definitely what I realised was that the real danger in absorbing those beliefs was that once you said 'It's all in your head, man' you were departing from all the social connections in terms of solidarity and so forth.

"Then, if you described big business, as some did, as 'the machine' and said, 'I'm against the machine', you found that, in terms of California, for example, all these people were not only avoiding confronting structures and analysis. Consequently, they then opposed the state and state provision and the people who abused their confusion were the New Right."

During his Hot Press years in the 1980s Michael D visited Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cambodia and other places of repression, campaigning vigorously for human rights. His bete noir was US president Ronald Reagan, whose administration funded right-wing groups in Latin America.

When Reagan landed in Ireland for a state visit in 1984 Higgins was one of a small number of Oireachtas members who attempted to read their protests into the official record. They didn't succeed because the microphones were switched off and they were drowned out by their colleagues.

Meditating on the ageing process during the 1980s, he singled out James Dean, Jimi Hendrix and Mick Jagger as figures to be admired for embodying the proper, questioning, challenging spirit of youth.

But youth for him is a state of mind. He reflected: "The myth of youth compartmentalised from the elderly is one which did not, does not, exist in many cultures. The biological life is a process that need not determine the intellectual, the political, the erotic and the economic conditions of existence."

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