Thursday 22 March 2018

A free-spirited, outspoken and fearless First Lady

Sabina Coyne performs in the Focus Theatre in 1970 (Picture: Fergus Bourke)
Sabina Coyne performs in the Focus Theatre in 1970 (Picture: Fergus Bourke)
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

Not long after the Higgins family's move into Áras an Uachtaráin, Sabina injured herself by falling off a chair while hanging curtains.

"She didn't realise there were people around who would do these things for her," said an insider.

Free-spirited, outspoken and very much at home in the limelight as a 'method' actress, Sabina Higgins does not spring from the typical 'First Lady' mould.

An observer at the Irish Book Awards shortly after the inauguration of Michael D Higgins noted that while looking a picture of poise, she had also kicked off her shoes under the table.

Sabina Higgins, née Coyne, was born in Cloonraine on the Galway-Mayo border and went to school in Ballindine and Claremorris, Co Mayo.

Hers was a bookish house and her mother used to tell her Charles Dickens stories while milking the cows.

At 18, she moved to Dublin to work in the office of the Land Commission while studying acting under Deirdre O'Connell, who had trained at the Actor's Studio in New York.

Sabina was bridesmaid at Deirdre's wedding to Luke Kelly of the Dubliners, and the two women were founding members of the Focus Theatre in Dublin - which never made any money but produced great experimental work.

In 1966, Sabina starred in RTÉ's acclaimed 1916 commemorative series 'Insurrection'.

Three years later, she was invited to a house party held by journalist Mary Kenny and met Michael D Higgins. The attraction was instantaneous, the couple told broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan in an interview before the Presidential nominations.

"I was just blown over the night I met him," Sabina said.

"I reached out and held his hand, and that was it."

In 1974 they were married in Dublin's Haddington Road Church and Sabina moved to Galway, where they raised four children.

Sabina supported her husband in public life while staying involved in theatre and community arts, working with Druid and An Taibhearch as well as community initiatives like the Educate Together schools.

"She is the one with her feet on the ground, a real organiser," said the insider.

"She has a great instinct and knows how things will go."

Anti-war activist Margaretta Darcy, a close friend of the First Lady, told the Irish Independent that while Michael D writes the poetry, "Sabina has the spirit."

"She is an extremely warm person," she said, recalling how Sabina had visited her in prison after she was jailed for damaging US planes that had landed at Shannon.

This is not the first time Sabina Higgins has spoken out on societal issues.

She used her 1916 keynote speech to warn the Irish people against the current less-visible, less-accountable "empires of greed" - a new form of capitalism which causes suffering across the globe and in the past, has also called for an end to violence against women.

Irish Independent

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