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Friday 20 April 2018

Michael's rise from humble beginnings to first citizen

Newly elected President of Ireland Michael D.Higgins and his wife Sabina celebrate at Dublin Castle Count Centre last night with his family (from left), Alice Mary, Michael, Daniel and John Photo:Mark Condren
Newly elected President of Ireland Michael D.Higgins and his wife Sabina celebrate at Dublin Castle Count Centre last night with his family (from left), Alice Mary, Michael, Daniel and John Photo:Mark Condren

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

HE grew up in humble circumstances far removed from the pomp and ceremony associated with Aras an Uachtarain.

Michael D Higgins was born in Limerick in 1941 but, aged five, he was sent at the to live on his unmarried uncle and aunt's small farm in Clare. He grew up there alongside his younger brother with the "delights and simplicities of country living", milking cows and sowing turnips.

But he spoke during the presidential campaign about the darker side -- being separated from the rest of his family until he was 19.

"I experienced the wrenching experience of only seeing my parents and two sisters during their monthly visits from Limerick, and the unfolding disintegration of family life due to the poverty and lack of work opportunities of my father over many years," he said.

His father John was an intelligence officer for the IRA battalion in the North Cork brigade during the War of Independence -- but fought on the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War.

His health suffered while he was "on the run" and he was later hospitalised in 1946 -- the year Michael D was sent to Clare because the family could not make ends meet.

But Michael D did get a few breaks that changed his path in life. He had a marvellous primary school teacher called William Clune. He made an impression on a fellow ESB worker who gave him a £200 scholarship to go to university.

And at University College Galway, he became chairman of the Fianna Fail cumann before a meeting with his idol Noel Browne convinced him to join Labour instead.

Michael D became a university lecturer in Galway, where he taught sociology and political science. Then he quickly moved into politics. He first ran for the Dail in Galway West in 1969 without success.

But that same year, he met his future wife Sabina at a party in Dublin hosted by journalist Mary Kenny. The couple were married in 1974.

Even though the '70s were supposed to be socialist, Michael D failed in three attempts to get elected to the Dail during that decade.

But Sabina started campaigning for him in 1977 and supported him through thick and thin. Many years later, Michael D was reading some of his poetry at an event in Galway when one bored onlooker turned to her -- without knowing who she was -- and said: "It's awful rubbish, isn't it". He got a "withering look" from Sabina.

He thanked her and their four children during his final presidential campaign conference in Dublin, saying it had brought his family closer together. Indeed, their only daughter Alice-Mary is his deputy director of elections.

Michael D was finally able to start "rocking in the Dail" (to use the words of the Sawdoctors song) at the 1981 general election. At a time of political turmoil, he held onto his seat in February 1982 general election and then lost it in November 1982 general election.

That year, he tried to become Labour party leader but was defeated by Dick Spring.

Michael D then became a "university senator" like David Norris and also began writing a column in 'Hot Press' magazine in 1983, which he was to continue for 10 years.

He admitted to smoking cannabis as a young man but said he later gave it up because drugs were a way of avoiding reality.


He became well known nationally in the 1980s for his protests against the visit of US President Ronald Reagan to University College Galway. He condemned the US government for arming and financing the Contra rebels in Nicaragua due to its dislike of the democratically elected left wing government there.

Michael D got back into the Dail in 1987 and his political career took a giant leap forward when he became Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in 1994. He set up Telefis na Gaelige (now TG4) which played a huge role in promoting the Irish language.

That played to his advantage during the station's presidential debate when he was also able to show that he was the only fluent Irish speaker among the seven contestants.

Michael D also got Mel Gibson to make 'Braveheart' in Ireland by offering 1,600 Defence Force Reserve personnel for the epic battle scenes, and the use of several historic sites and castles, as well as tax incentives.

During his time in the Dail, he visited Somalia with President Mary Robinson in 1992 -- and the suffering he saw reminded him of his childhood.

Michael D was presented with the Sean MacBride Peace Prize by the Swiss-based International Peace Bureau in 1992 in recognition of his work. His acceptance speech featured his well-known opposition to the economic vision of Margaret Thatcher. "Today it is the ideology of the transcendent market that constitutes the most sinister violence of our times," he said.

It is not very different from the "Real Republic" he talked about during this presidential campaign almost 20 years later.

During his time in opposition, he could be passionate and he could also be fearfully long-winded and fond of complex phrases when a simple one would do. But he retained his strong voice on human rights.

He contacted the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to try to get the British hostage Ken Bigley released by his Iraqi captors. He travelled to the Gaza Strip and to the West Bank to see the suffering of the Palestinian people -- and also the rocket attacks endured by Israelis. And he marched in Dublin against Iraq War in 2003.

He became a favourite character on Mario Rosenstock's 'Gift Grub' sketches on Today FM -- which actually helped keep up his profile among younger people. He tried to run for president in 2004 but was denied a Labour nomination because the party felt that Mary McAleese was unbeatable.

Michael D held onto his seat in Galway West until he retired at the last general election.

During a human rights visit to Colombia last year, he fell and smashed his kneecap and that affected his mobility during this presidential campaign.

He was often asked if he was too old to become president at 70. He said it was "not the years in the life, but the life in the years".

Irish Independent

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