Tuesday 17 September 2019

Tribal homecoming to city that stole his heart

Thousands line the streets for hero's welcome

MICHAEL D has made some proud entrances into the City of Tribes over the decades, walking the winding streets as a councillor, a city mayor, a TD and a senator.

But none as proud as last night, when he arrived in cavalcade on to Eyre Square as the president-elect of Ireland, swept into the highest office in the land on a torrent of votes -- 1,007,104, to be exact. Which is an extraordinarily shout of approbation from a nation that is particularly fractious in these troubled times.

And for a while there, it looked as if Michael D's long-cherished dream of becoming Uachtaran na hEireann was slipping from his grasp. But then the voters looked at the stormy waters that engulfed Sean Gallagher, and fled back into the safe harbour of the Galwayman.

So he came home last night to Galway West to thank the people who gave him 57.6pc of first-preference votes.

And the first part of Michael D to emerge from the car was his smile -- a beam as wide as the Atlantic, a confection of elation and relief.

He was greeted by an equally ebullient Tanaiste and fellow Galwegian, Eamon Gilmore, who had been chatting about his long-time colleague while he waited outside the Meyrick Hotel. "There is a very special relationship between Galway and Michael D and Sabina," he said. "These are the people who know Michael D best."

And yet minutes later there was a telling moment which showed how subtly things have already begun to change. As Eamon and Michael D stood together on the hotel steps and listened to a stirring introduction by local Labour TD Derek Nolan, a sudden rain shower began. A solicitous Eamon opened a large and distinctive red-and-white Labour-logoed umbrella, which blew inside-out. But even as he regained control of it, he was swiftly handed a replacement from the hotel, which was a suitably neutral shade of green.

It couldn't have been clearer -- Michael D Higgins isn't Labour anymore.

But he is, as he proclaimed in his speech, "of Galway". Even though he was born in Co Limerick and raised in Co Clare, it's Galway where he begins and ends.

About 5,000 people had come to welcome him home, and much of his speech was addressed to them. "I came to love Galway, this extraordinary city of generosity that has a great heart," he told them.

And in a laughing reference to Galway's propensity for producing feisty sons and daughters, he made reference to his own longevity as a politician. "One thing that you didn't need to do in Galway was to ever trim the message -- the more radical you were in a way, the longer you lasted," he declared to a cheer of approval.

It was a passionate speech, and it laid down early markers about how he wished to utilise his time in the Aras.

"I want to pledge now to use every breath I have for the next seven years to try and be inspirational at home, as we leave behind the false basis of that for which so many have and are paying a great price," he vowed. "We have moved past a chapter where the individual counted -- now it will be about what we can do together."

He wove words and phrases of Irish through his speech, and when he proclaimed, "I think there is nothing wrong with saying it publicly and often -- I love Ireland and I love its people," it could have sounded trite, except it was said by a man whose gra for his country, its people, language and culture lies deep in his bones.

For what a few days it's been for him. In Dublin Castle on Saturday, the candidates slipped in quietly and milled around the floor with supporters and staff and media. Martin McGuinness gave Dana a big bear-hug and Sean Gallagher hovered around the fringes, looking a little at sea.

Even when the candidates gathered on the stage for the crowning of Michael D, the mood was one of restrained jubilation -- although an emotional Eamon Gilmore almost swept the pint-sized president off his feet with a fervent embrace.

The losing candidates were gracious in defeat and in their praise of the winner. David Norris hailed him as "a poet, a visionary and a scholar"; McGuinness described him as a "man with a huge heart -- I'm very confident that he'll be one of Ireland's greatest presidents".

Gay Mitchell said nothing at all. In a breathtaking show of ungraciousness, he chose to snub the event and stay at home licking his wounds, leaving his Taoiseach with the task of thanking the Fine Gael campaign team.

It was a bloody battle, but there's a feeling abroad that the best man won.

After his speech in Galway last night, Michael D talked of a radio interview he had done earlier in the day.

He had a message for "those who say politics doesn't matter," he explained. "I quoted the award-winning animation, 'Give Up Yer Oul' Sins' -- I said, give up yer oul' cynicism."

As presidential edicts go, it's not a bad one, really.

Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News