independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Sabina: the rock who could take Michael D all the way to the Park

Whatever about her husband's suitability for the job, few doubt that Sabina Higgins fits the bill as a potential First Lady in the Aras. Not so much the woman behind the man, as the woman with the man. It's a two-in-one package and remarkably similar to the incumbent and her husband.

Sabina and Michael D are, outwardly, a greyer version of Mary and Martin McAleese. Most noticeably, they are unashamedly close and not at all averse to holding hands -- a trait that cynics sigh at, but most others find reassuringly gratifying.

They both grew up on West of Ireland farms; he in Clare and she in Mayo, separated by the county which would become home for most of their lives.

As he pursued his studies at St Flannan's College in Ennis and later at UCG, the young Sabina Coyne was busy immersing herself in books and hatching her grand plan to be an actress. Her mother read Dickens and related the tales to her children at every opportunity.

"We were reared on stories and I can remember my mother telling us about Little Nell as she milked the cows," she recalled in an interview last year.

The theatre beckoned and she headed to Dublin in the early 1960s where she soon met with a coterie of like-minded young women. Chief among them was Irish-American actress and folk singer Deirdre O'Connell.

The pair soon founded the Stanislavski Studio, an acting method based on the theatrical theories and acting methods of Constantin Stanislavski. Later they would form the Focus Theatre. When Deirdre O'Connell married Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, Sabina Coyne was her bridesmaid.

Her life was to change forever in 1969 when she attended a party at the home of Mary Kenny on the night that the journalist was appointed Women's Editor of the Irish Press. Michael D arrived in company with Michael O'Leary and Michael Mills and chose to sit beside the "willowy young woman with long flowing blonde hair".

She was immediately smitten as he gave voice to many of her own thoughts. "He said all I wanted to say so clearly, so I reached out and held his hand," she remembered. He proposed to her at Christmas 1973 and they married the following July.

Having come from a life in the theatre, she quickly found herself thrust into the drama of public life. At the general election of 1977, she was bundled into a car and told to speak on behalf of her husband outside a church. She has taken part in every election campaign since.

After a faltering start to his career in politics --he was twice unsuccessful in his bid for a Dáil seat in Galway West -- Michael D made the breakthrough in 1981. He was re-elected in February 1982, but lost his seat in November of that year. His regained it in 1987 and was successful at every general election since, before finally standing down in February to pursue his bid for the Presidency.

On a trip to Colombia last year, he fell and smashed his kneecap, but still managed to throw his weight behind his heir apparent in Galway West, Derek Nolan.

Though clearly uncomfortable walking on his injured knee, he canvassed vigorously. After a couple of hours of knocking on doors one showery evening, accompanied by the Irish Independent, he rounded a corner to be greeted by Sabina, who had patiently waited for him by the family car.

He says she changed his life: "She is somebody I regard as a rock, somebody who I would keep coming back to and whom I wouldn't have to be explaining myself to either," he said.

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