Tuesday 21 May 2019

Mary Kenny: I have earned my footnote in history

It was graceful of President-elect Michael D Higgins to mention, in a number of recent interviews, that he had first met his wife Sabina at a party in my Dublin flat in 1969.

My previously cloudy recollection of that soiree -- you know what they say about the 1960s: if you can remember what happened, you weren't there -- was indeed revived. It was one of those entertaining but chaotic evenings -- I would start cooking for a party at 6.30pm when guests were expected at 7pm -- from which Ulick O'Connor stormed out, as he felt (unreasonably) that someone had insulted him.

But the significant part of the gathering turned out to be that Michael D -- an admired young left-wing academic -- was to encounter Sabina Coyne, who I believe had been brought along to the party by my late sister.

Sabina and my sister Ursula were both passionate students of the drama, as taught by Deirdre O'Connell of the Focus Theatre (sometime wife of The Dubliners' Luke Kelly).

For Sabina -- a lively and vivacious person -- and Michael D, the occasion was a meeting of true hearts. Marriage and four children followed, and I have earned my small place as a footnote in history in having made the match of the ninth Uachtaran na hEireann. In truth, it was a moment of serendipity and the lesson is, for anyone seeking love or romance -- go to every party that comes your way.

I would then have shared Michael D's left-wing vision of politics, but since that time our lives have diverged: over the years, I have been critical of some of his political values, and no doubt he has had scant respect for some of mine.

Yet I am sure he will be a president for all the people, and fulfil that mission to unite which is so vital for a charismatic and impartial head of state.

He has spoken of his desire to be a force for unity and inclusiveness, underlining the traditions in Irish life of "sharing" -- as in the harvesting tradition of meitheal.

Michael D feels that capitalism has too sharply stressed the individualistic values of money-making and we need to return to a more co-operative social approach.

A noble aim. But what divided Michael D's subsequent career from mine was that he has spent his working life in the shelter of the public service: as university lecturer, Seanad appointee, government minister.

While I have spent my working life battling through the cold winds of the market place, where every penny earned depends upon your "individualistic" ability to sell your labour.

'Right wing' and 'left wing' are too simplistic and crude as definitions nowadays: most people have opinions that encompass both.

The big difference is not between 'left' and 'right', but between those who live by their labour -- manual, professional or intellectual -- and those who enjoy security of tenure, a guaranteed monthly cheque, paid holidays and safe pensions.

Those of us out here in the market-place of capitalism are the true 'working class'. We live by the sweat of our brows, without any subsidy from the taxpayer. If that makes us 'right wing', so be it. I would simply say we have experience of the real world.

Thus, in our new president's mission of inclusiveness, I hope he will indeed include those of us of that working class who must earn our bread through capitalism, knowing full well that any other system -- Sandinista socialism, Tanzanian Maoism or Palestinian solidarity -- never can deliver the same working opportunities.

I share Michael D's dislike of the "loadsamoney" braggadocio of recent times, although the "loadsamoney" attitude ran through the public services as much as it ever did through the market traders.

But without the wheels of commerce -- as Fernand Braudel has shown in his history of civilisation -- there would be no arts, no culture, no film industry, no books.

The brilliance of Dutch painting was made possible by the rapacity of Dutch merchants in the East Indies: neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment would have happened without the risks -- and the greed -- of the merchant princes who sallied forth to plunder for wealth.

At the time I invited Michael D to my party, I'd have admired figures like Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky.

Today my heroes are more prosaic, perhaps, but more real: I admire entrepreneurs who start small businesses, with vision, industry and inspiration, battling through bureaucratic regulations about health and safety, employment law and working time EU directives.

Such valiant souls achieve something original, give employment to others, and are significant cogs in those wheels of commerce which make civilisation possible.

I don't expect Michael D to have forsaken his own Che Guevaras completely, but I hope he will also come to appreciate those who contribute to the common weal through the very tools of that much-despised agency: capitalist individualism.

Irish Independent

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