Monday 10 December 2018

Emotional goodbye as President Higgins apologises for lost letters

President Higgins and his wife Sabina as he meets his relatives at Irish reception held in Abbey of the Roses Warwick Australia
President Higgins and his wife Sabina as he meets his relatives at Irish reception held in Abbey of the Roses Warwick Australia
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

It was the thought of the thousands of lost or unsent letters home that caused President Michael D Higgins voice to crack, and then break.

He was in the small outback town of Warwick in south Brisbane - best known for its rodeo and rose garden - on the penultimate day of his Australian State Visit.

Warwick is the final resting place of the President’s great uncle Patrick, and his great aunt Mary Ann who sailed to Australia on board the Montmorency in the 1862.

In the 19th Century, President Higgins told the crowd, remaining in touch with the Old Country was a heroic effort.  

There were financial cost, the distance emigrants had to travel to post offices, and the length of time it took their words to arrive on home ground.

The emigrant’s desire to shield their families from the difficulties they were facing was another factor, Higgins said.

President Higgins and his wife Sabina as he met his cousin Tom Higgins among relatives at Irish reception held in Abbey of the Roses Warwick Australia
President Higgins and his wife Sabina as he met his cousin Tom Higgins among relatives at Irish reception held in Abbey of the Roses Warwick Australia

As a result, the writing stopped, the letters went unsent, and the families drifted further apart. Better to lose touch, then cause pain.

“So it is incredibly important on this visit as an Irish President to be able to say I am sorry for that broken connection,” President Higgins said pausing to regain composure.

“There is nothing we can do about the letters that didn’t come but there is a lot we can do about building our future relationships,” he said.

Although it may not be as well known as some of the other stops on Higgins 24 day visit - Warwick has a strong Irish connection.

They were by no means the only Irish to move to the grassy town; by 1891, 32pc of the population of Warwick had been born in Ireland. Between the years 1860 - 63, 25,000 Irish people arrived in Warwick as part of the Queensland Immigration Society.

“Out to the east there is a small town called Killarney, spelt exactly the same,” Mayor of Warwick Tracy Dobie, says. “I think Irish came here because they liked the loamy land.”

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There is only one Higgins family still living in Warwick but Therese Saville, the great grand daughter of Mary Ann Higgins thinks Irish phrases and words pepper the local dialect. 

President Higgins during a reception where he met with his relatives
President Higgins during a reception where he met with his relatives

“And people say ‘They’ve gone to a better place’ when someone dies,” Therese Saville said. “That’s a very Irish thing.”

Having arrived in Warwick on Saturday, President Higgins spent Sunday morning visiting his relatives graves where he was struck by “the lexicon of Irish names”.

“They are all there - they Ryans, the Fitzpatricks and the Blakes,” he said. “And you can construct the social history.”

He laid a wreath on his great uncle and great aunt’s tombstone before making his way to the the Abbey of the Roses for a Australian Irish barbecue.

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There was a substantial spread laid our for the President with Guinness marinated steak and Australian and Irish coleslaw.

On the lawn were some, but not all, of President Higgins’ 243 relatives including Sister Gabrielle Ryan - the great granddaughter of Patrick Higgins - who had made contact with the President’s family when she realised she was related.

Sr Ryan had been in Ireland attending a Sister of Mercy conference when she first reached out to her distant family.

“I found a Higgins still living in Ballycar where my grand uncle Patrick was born…so I rang hi,” she said. “He was John - the President’s brother. He lives on the farm there. Having the President here today is the crest, the culmination of all that research."

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