Michael D Higgins: The history man

President Michael D Higgins delivered the oration at the Annual Michael Collins Commemoration in Béal na mBláth. His speech can be accessed here. The President called for “courage and honesty” as we approach the commemorations of the War of Independence and the Civil War. He said “no single side had the monopoly of either atrocity or virtue.” The President’s acknowledgment about the immense personal suffering endured by the anti-treaty side in the years after Civil War is significant and overdue.

The President’s speech can be understood in the context of his very personal history.  Below is a detailed piece about his father which was researched from files in the military archives. This process of researching John Higgins gave me a greater appreciation of the hardship experienced by Republicans during the Civil War. My grand-uncle was a member of Michael Collins intelligence team and later became involved with the Squad during the War of Independence. He was Michael Collins aide-de-camp at the Treaty Talks and a pall bearer for his coffin. He would have been proud of the words spoken by the President at Béal na mBláth yesterday.

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First published in the Sunday Business Post 3 April 2016
Newsworthiness: gave a stirring speech on the commemoration of the 1916 Rising at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin – and had to turn down an invite to a 1916 event in Belfast due to unionist opposition

It was the moment that President Michael D Higgins had been waiting for. A big crowd. A chance to talk about the meaning of the Irish Republic and its cultural heritage.

So it was no surprise that his speech at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on Easter Monday night was full of passion and energy.

“Casann an roth. The wheel always turns. What generations have created – beautiful, flawed and full of promise – we now entrust to the next.”

A clenched fist punctuated the President’s speech. Research by psychologists suggests this simple hand reflex is associated with memory recall. And given his father’s experiences in the struggle for independence, there were plenty of family memories for him to tap into.

Memory recall

Michael D Higgins had begun his preparations for the commemoration speeches last November. His desk in Áras an Uachtaráin has 15 books on the Easter Rising which have been published in the last year. They are peppered with his scribbled thoughts. For extra material, five of his staff visited Kilmainham Gaol last month.

For a speech earlier this month on the role of women in the 1916 Rising, Higgins reached deep into the well of the military archives to enunciate the voice of the wife of executed 1916 rebel leader Eamonn Ceannt.

He showed just how complex the revolutionary era was by talking about the experience of Áine Ceannt afterwards, in the War of Independence and then the Civil War.

Her house was raided three times by the British military forces during the War of Independence. Then when the Civil War broke out, it was stormed by the troops of the Free State in February 1923.

She described how she was most upset by the Free State soldiers’ destruction of a photograph of Eamonn which even the British auxiliaries had left untouched during previous raids. Her story has personal meaning for Higgins because one of his own parents also suffered in the conflict.

His father John enlisted with the Ballycar Company of 1 Battalion, East Clare Brigade during the War of Independence. He was promoted as a Lieutenant with the Charleville Coy, 4 Battalion, Cork 2 Brigade. His records, available on the online military archives, are heartbreaking.

Post-independence Ireland was a cold place for people like John Higgins who took the anti-treaty side of the Civil War. He spent most of 1923 as an internee in the Curragh camp.

Before the Civil War, he was on a respectable salary of £130 a year and £50 travelling expenses as a grocer’s assistant in Charleville.

Despite a local deputation to John’s employer on his release, the appeal for his old job back was rejected. “At the time, very few people would employ an ex-internee,” John wrote in his 1935 application for a pension. He finally found a position for less than a third of his previous wages as a junior assistant in Newbridge.

The Proclamation’s bold promise of “equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens” did not apply to Anti-Treaty IRA members like the President’s father. His exhausting battle for a pension, again detailed in the Military Archives, was another case in point.

“I have heard all the others that were up with me have their pension granted to them for some time,” John writes, in a beautifully handwritten letter to the Department of Defence. “I would like to get it fixed up soon, as business is not so good with me, and I could do with a little money to keep me going.” The date is November 18, 1937.

His application for a military service pension for four and half years’ service during the War of Independence and Civil War was denied. A four page sworn statement, four handwritten letters of reference, collaborating statements and petitions were deemed insufficient.

John made his fifth written appeal to the Department of Defence in February 1941, two weeks before his son Michael was born.

The grind of wartime poverty asphyxiated hope. John’s health deteriorated. Bronchitis was aggravated by years on the run. His wife Alice struggled to cope with four young children. The oldest girls, who were twins, stayed in Limerick. They were sent later to relatives in England. Michael (5) and his brother John (4) went to live with their loving aunt and uncle in a half-slated, half-thatched small farmhouse in Ballycar, in Clare.

Higgins later went back to the dilapidated ruins of his adopted childhood home for a TG4 interview, broadcast shortly after he won the Presidency. “Our stay here was only meant to be temporary, but it became permanent. It was lonely,” he said.

And he spoke of having a very clear memory of his father coming to visit him from Limerick.

“I remember him coming up the road. He would walk from Newmarket-on-Fergus a mile and a half away. We would walk part of the way, I remember, as he was heading off again.”

There is a pause. A memory instinctively recalled. He turns from the camera to regain composure. “That was hurt,” he said.

Twenty-two years after his first application, and ten appeals later, Lieutenant Higgins was finally granted a military pension. He was awarded £32:16:3 annually in 1956.

He died in 1963, “to where those dying too slowly were sent, a poorhouse”. That was his son’s description in The Betrayal – a poem for my father, an emotionally raw account about the day he brought his father to the county home. It is a poignant reflection with flashes of intense anger at the failure of post-independence Ireland for abandoning the poorer classes.

The wheel always turns

Higgins is known to dislike the reduction of his family narrative as a singular explanation for his character and motivation. But it was affecting to watch him struggle with his emotions as he remembered his father. Listening to the catch in his voice felt like an intrusion on private sorrow. It gives “context and complexity” to Higgins, to appropriate words from his 1916 speeches. An appreciation of his clenched fists and pure joy during his televised centenary address on Easter Monday night. How the wheel always turns.

Higgins did manage to perfectly capture the public mood with his plain speaking throughout the 1916 commemorations. He officially remembered the past by acknowledging that “a hospitality of narratives” exists. It is okay to be proud of Ireland. Ownership of republicanism has maybe even been depoliticised. An emancipation from the fear of looking back.

His “ethical remembering,” as he described it, was not the self-serving narrow nationalistic exercise which dictated De Valera’s 1966 commemoration. The Easter Rising was relocated within the theme of inclusion, a word that has dominated Michael D’s life.

It was unfortunate that it did not appear to convince some unionists. Last week, Higgins had to pull out of a civic dinner in Belfast to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, because some unionists had declined invitations. His office said he did not want to become embroiled in matters of political controversy.

Profiles of him will probably refer to the President as the quintessential Galwegian. A dyed-in-the-wool Galway United fan, the ESB clerk who went to University College Galway as a mature student, a gaeilgeoir and proud mayor of the city.

Less known is his prominence in the Galway chapter of the Legion of Mary. The divine intervention of a fellow member who changed the course of Michael D Higgins’ life with a loan that enabled him to enter university.

A self-made man with the persistence of 12 years and five failed election attempts before securing political office. The 25 years as the Galway West TD. A campaigner against Irish entry to the European Community in 1973 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

The radical firebrand who boycotted US president Ronald Reagan’s visit to Ireland in 1984. A passionate human rights activist with an ability for oratorical flourishes that command attention, even if you disagree with the cause.

The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht who established TG4. And not perfect: ideologically unyielding and over-sensitive to criticism were characteristics attributed to him in a 2008 book by Richard Fitzpatrick on distinguished natives of Clare.

Wily politician

All that is by way of the past to understand the now. Ireland’s traditional relationship with the Áras is of a ceremonial office that exercises symbolic but not substantive power.

As talks to form a government enter their second month, there is a possibility that Higgins will be the first president to exercise his discretion to refuse to dissolve the Dáil. Given the abstruse Dáil arithmetic, it is not beyond the bounds of probability that the Taoiseach will advise Higgins to grant a second election.

Given that the pace of government formation is akin to a herd of snails travelling through porridge, it is likely that Enda Kenny or Micheál Martin will fail to secure the support of a Dáil majority.

The refusal by the president to dissolve the Dáil may be the impetus needed to force the hands of parliamentarians to negotiate more convincingly. It may suffice as ammunition for party leaders to tell their members they have no choice but to do the impossible. Higgins is a former minister, a wily politician who knows his way around the political judgment block.

A safe pair of hands for a second term in 2018? He will be 77 then, younger than Eamon de Valera who was 84 when he went again in 1966. But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. The real test is about to begin.

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