Sabina: My love for the President
Ireland's first lady Sabina Higgins opens up about her life with the President and tells the secret to a happy marriage, writes Niamh Horan
She is our first lady, the President's rock, his touchstone and constant companion for more than 40 years of a turbulent life in the maelstrom of Irish politics.
Now in the demanding, albeit calmer, waters of the Aras, Sabina Higgins is able to spend more time at the side of her husband.
She has fulfilled the role with elan and is clearly relishing a hugely busy, but eclectic, schedule at home and abroad. In an unusually frank interview, it is clear that this is a golden period in their marriage, a time to reflect on what has made their relationship endure in the autumn of their lives.
She was a guest at the inaugural Tiffany Ireland Funds lunch for women in business and philanthropy last Wednesday, and after the event, Mrs Higgins spoke to the Sunday Independent about her love for the President, describing how his humour first captured her heart. She opened up about their life together in Aras an Uachtarain.
Sabina says she was immediately taken with Michael: "In his younger days, he was just so full of vibrancy and humour - he [still is, but] can't be so much now because so much of life is so serious [in his role as the President]. But he was brilliant, even then," she says. "And he was brilliant at conversation and at a table, and he was great, great fun… you know [it was an easier time than now]. And he just had this aura around him and I loved being part of that," she smiled.
"He had great humour and he had a great feel for people and great wit. I mean, he was so witty, even in those days, and such a centre of attention."
President Higgins proposed to her at Christmas 1973 and they married the following July in Dublin's Haddington Road Church.
"It was amazing," Mrs Huggins says, "because all of us in Focus [Theatre - she was an actress when she met her future husband] were part of a family and suddenly, he came along and he was part of the family."
She quickly played a key role by his side in his career in politics and academic life. Forty years after they exchanged vows, she is thoughtful and reflective about what keeps their relationship strong.
"I think an understanding of life," she says. "You occupy a big world. And you are not dependent on the other. We are so very committed to each other, but we are also very committed to humanity and to the world.
"We have a lot in common. We both love literature. We like drama and music. And we are very committed to the world, so really there wouldn't be any time to go looking beyond," she laughed.
Asked if President Higgins, known for his love of poetry, still recites to her, she replied: "You see, I love him speaking. I have always loved it, I think he is wonderful. So I am at functions with him all the time and he gives terrific, wonderful lectures and talks on aspirations for humanity. He will be now in New York, and in the city of New York, he is going to be giving a lecture and it will really be about our aspirations for humanity… and the importance for a woman's place to be recognised, and he speaks so well, and these things are so important… it's like poetry in a way."
President Higgins once described Sabina as his "rock" and, in turn, Mrs Higgins now says he is her inspiration. "He is my inspiration. He is doing so much good that I am so happy to be able to support it that I feel I am a part of it," she says.
"Whenever I am at any event, I feel like I am giving out that love and that care and that support for what he is saying. So, really, I feel like I am part of it in that way. It's like being in a drama. I mean, all our life in a way is a drama and I am a supporting actor."
When it is remarked that she seems visibly in love with the President, she smiled: "I wouldn't be able to say those things, but I am delighted someone is saying them."
She also talked of the romance the couple still share. Speaking about Valentine's days and anniversaries, she said: "We have lovely occasions like that and he gave me a great big beautiful bunch of flowers for my birthday, which has only just gone by - I am a Virgo - and my daughters and son, Alice, Mary and John, were able to share that day with us, so that was lovely."
She said the couple now enjoy some of their more informal engagements as quality time together: "We are on the go all the time, every day. I mean, last week we were in Fermanagh and then I was in Castlebar and then went down to Cork for the Thomas Kent [State funeral]. And then we were in Galway and then we were in Dublin for the book club, so lots of times we get to go to view a match together or you are at the concert hall and that is lovely, you know, to hear music together. So it is an official function, but it is enjoyable where he is not having to make a speech, so that is a lovely quality time when it's other people who are carrying the main event."
Asked if her role of first lady is more difficult than she had imagined, she said: "It's all-consuming, but you feel it is a great privilege. You are on a [wave] of energy and it is enjoyable all the time, and even though you're constantly busy, I am able for it. And I enjoy it. I think it's easy for me because I love people and my background in the theatre and in politics, you know, the barrier between yourself and the public just disappears. And then, I suppose, for 40 years of being in the public life and when the children are growing up, you really give yourself completely. So I don't do anything else other than just be."
"There's a lot of people in the world who really want to [change things] - they have a goal for humanity… and I think that driving force… you'll never be tired or bored. There is so much you would like to do and be part of, so there is a vibrancy all the time," she added.
Ms Higgins was speaking at the lunch in Patrick Guilbaud's restaurant, at which non-profit organisations Daisy House and Women in Politics, were spotlighted. The lunch was hosted by Claire Byrne in a voluntary capacity, and Loretta Brennan Glucksman was honoured for her tireless philanthropic work.
A native of Cloonrane, on the Galway-Mayo border, Sabina Coyne moved to Dublin to work in the office of the Land Commission at 18 and was drawn to theatre through her love of acting. She learned her craft under Deirdre O'Connell, an Irish-American actress who had trained at the Actor's Studio in New York. Under her watchful eye, Sabina soon founded the Stanislavski Studio, an acting method based on the theatrical theories and acting methods of Constantin Stanislavski.
In 1963 she and Deirdre became founding members of the Focus Theatre, where Sabina worked with actors such as Tom Hickey, Timmy McDonald, Mary Elizabeth Burke Kennedy, costume designer Joan Bergin, and many others.
When Deirdre O'Connell married singer Luke Kelly in 1965, Sabina took on the role of bridesmaid at their wedding.
She may be presiding over 1916 commemorative events this year, but in 1966, Sabina was one of the cast of Insurrection, RTE's TV series dramatising the events of the Easter Rising to mark the 50th anniversary. She was also known for her roles in Chekhov and Ibsen plays.
Then, in 1969, fate played a hand and Sabina was introduced to Michael D. Higgins. Their introduction took place on a night she attended a party at the home of journalist Mary Kenny, on the night that Mary was appointed Women's Editor of the Irish Press. Michael D Higgins was also invited to that party, along with Michael O'Leary and Michael Mills.
Michael D and Sabina were immediately enamoured with one another and their relationship quickly progressed.
After marrying five years later, Sabina moved to Galway, and quickly found herself at the centre of public life alongside Michael D, taking part in her husband's election campaigns.
All the while, she continued her work in theatre and community arts, working with Druid and An Taibhdhearch, among others. She returned to education as a mature student when she was 60 and received a BA in Arts and an MA in Theatre from NUI Galway. She continues to be passionate about drama and theatre and the arts in Ireland.
Her husband Michael D Higgins was elected the ninth President of Ireland on October 27, 2011, and Sabina has taken to the role of first lady with grace.
In 2014, she made headlines when she showcased Ireland's finest fashion talent during the President's historic Royal visit to Britain.
Iconic Irish designer Louise Kennedy designed the blush pink dress the first lady wore with the royals at Windsor Castle to much acclaim from fashion experts.