Wednesday 11 December 2019

First Family reveals grace and humility amid pomp

The President's wife and children, and his right-hand man, are a vital support.

President Michael D Higgins with wife Sabina at Windsor Castle. Photo: PA
President Michael D Higgins with wife Sabina at Windsor Castle. Photo: PA
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

THE sun was shining, the cocks were crowing and the Presidential group was making its way across the buttercup-speckled fields on a farm in Oxfordshire when it struck me that amidst the pomp and ceremony of the state visit, something else had shone through. Amid all the grandeur, we had been afforded a unique glimpse into President Higgins's family life.

Let's be honest, the country didn't really know our First Lady before. And it was here that she had really come into her own.

With grace, class and confidence, she referenced George Bernard Shaw with ease, and laughed as a newborn lamb licked her ear.

And the official wardrobe – oh, the wardrobe! The thrice-daily outfit changes of blush pinks and royal blue – many designed by Louise Kennedy – made her one of the best dressed and most admired first ladies of any State visit in the history of Ireland.

Her rich literary knowledge and frisson of anti-establishment ethos (she quietly told a staff member at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that "philanthropy was all well and good but that the State on both sides of the water needs to wake up to funding the industry for the good of our mental health, for which they are also responsible") made you realise why she and the President first experienced a great meeting of minds, and fell in love.

We also caught a glimpse of Sabina as a good mother, too. A woman who has managed to keep her family humble and grounded despite their stately role.

When someone needed a bag placed out of sight before Sabina's big arrival at the art academy, the panicked woman thrust the bag at a man before realising he was a news reporter "Oh, I'm terribly sorry, I can't ask you," she said.

A man at the back of the group spoke up: "I'll do that!" And with that he was gone on the errand before returning to his place in the line-up. It was the President's son, John.

Later during the tour, I said to John that his mother looked beautiful.

"Who is your mother?" the academy director asked innocently, at which point John gave a bashful nod at Sabina.

Her daughter Alice Mary displayed the same humble qualities. When Sabina took a moment to introduce her children to the group (such was the low-key approach they were taking) and say how proud she was of the pair, Alice shook her head, laughing in embarrassment.

Of course the President, too, oversaw, a flawless visit from start to finish. He revelled in his moment in history, becoming emotional while delivering his speech at the House of Parliament in London on Tuesday.

He conversed easily with dignitaries with great literary and cultural knowledge but still spoke casually to farmers about tractors he once drove.

He threw his head back with laughter in the royal box when Glen Hansard shared a joke with him from the stage at the Royal Albert Hall.

And he was adored.

On his final day crowds lined the street in Stratford-upon-Avon, delivering him three cheers in the sunshine.

Inside, as he and Sabina walked around Shakespeare's home, there was another present, Kevin McCarthy, the executive assistant, so controversial six months ago, now the clearly acknowledged invisible hand that makes the Higgins's entourage run on smoothly oiled wheels.

McCarthy is seen as the backbone of Higgins's presidency, offering solid advice and a helpful presence in an otherwise isolating job. And on this trip he was right there, by the President's side, every step of the way.

He has commanded front-page newspaper headlines and here he was, patiently waiting in a butter-cupped field in Oxfordshire.

So what was he really like?

His smile was warm and he had a startled demeanour when I greeted him.

Dressed in a sharp navy suit and immaculately polished brown shoes, he seemed even more nervous than the four-day-old lamb I had scooped up that day.

We shared pleasantries and he spoke of how impressive the palace was.

He had a small personal camera with him, capturing memories as he went along, always a few feet behind President Higgins and Sabina as they walked out in front.

But all the while he was clearly protective of the President, and his role as his right-hand man, giving very little away.

He was a very nice, affable and friendly gentleman, and I could understand why the President has him on his team.I had only asked if he was enjoying the week when he stopped dead in his tracks: "Is this an interview?"

Not the type of reaction I had received when making similar small talk with with any other member of the President's staff.

But at least we could see him walking down the steps of the plane when the President first arrived. Last out, and helpfully carrying Sabina's travel bag.

"I can't, I'm sorry," he said when I tried to converse a little more.

"There's only one thing worse than being talked about," I offered.

He didn't seem so sure.

"Yes, I wonder who originally said that," came the polite reply.

We spoke about Michael D's own poetry and he told me how he enjoys hearing the President's poems at his readings but unfortunately doesn't possess copies of his earliest work.

In Stratford, as Sabina and the President spent a moment viewing the room in which Shakespeare was born, Kevin McCarthy waited outside the door.

He also kept back as they stood together listening to a romantic song in the sunshine. But then the President enthusiastically beckoned him over.

"Kevin, where's Kevin?" he asked looking around, before bringing him into the loop and telling him how the lady had familial ties in Skibbereen, Co Cork, where his aide was also from.

And with that the President was gone on to his next official engagement.

Sunday Independent

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