How can a seventy-year-old head of state inspire a crowd of students, and why would they take any interest in what he has to tell them? As President Michael D. Higgins visits UCD, Kate Rothwell finds out why he was one of the most anticipated guests of the year
Rapturous applause greets a small, bespectacled, elderly man as he enters the Newman Building’s Theatre L. This man is not a film star or sportsman, and although he does enjoy the accolade of being an acclaimed poet, it is not for his collections of verse that the Law Society and student populous of UCD is bestowing upon him such a genuine and hearty welcome. The cheerful figure that steps forward to speak both warmly and emphatically, his gesticulations and a surprisingly booming voice emphasising his obvious passion and a lilting western accent accentuating his charm, is President Michael Daniel Higgins, the ninth and current President of Ireland.
The seventy-year-old comes across as more sprightly than senior, but is quick to make a quip indicating both his age and his own memories of university. “It’s forty-seven years since I was auditor of a debating society myself, so you must excuse me if I occasionally am forgetful.” Yet this lengthy absence from such a society has anything but dulled his speaking skills, and the first topic he tackles is in fact that of youth. Making what he calls “a humble admission”, Higgins states that, “There are very few people I know who would like to be old, but there are very many older people who would like to be young,” and speaks of the common desire of those past their youth to have “time and energy, to be able to ask all the questions again, to be able to pose all the discourses in a new way.” Whatever about time, Higgins displays an infectious energy that outstrips even that of the packed lecture theatre of admiring youthful spectators, whose approving peals of laughter reverberate around the room whenever he tells a humorous anecdote, such as his reference to discussing his speech with the “First Dog” while walking in Phoenix Park, or when he makes a particularly shrewd comment.
Higgins’ success as a poet adds an extra level of cultural intrigue to his persona, and it is a little disappointing, while understandable, to hear the President state that he will not be publishing any poetry during his seven-year term, but he does indicate that he will, to some extent, continue to compose. “I am writing the occasional note to myself. I won’t be publishing while I’m President, but the existing books are doing very well.” A similar touch of wry humour is present in the reserved initial response to a question on his opinion of the current government. “Well, I can recognise the poisonous possibilities of the question.” This is swiftly followed by a polite statement saying that he does not comment on issues of government. He then decides to tackle the question’s reference to him as a ‘former politician’, a concept which he goes on portray as an impossibility. “It would be one of the most inauthentic things to do, philosophically and immorally for me, to invent a bogus persona that was post-political.”
It is easy to imagine that Higgins has well-formed personal opinions, which he knows better while in a largely apolitical representative role than to reveal. He refers to the constitution as a reason why he “can’t talk about certain issues that are current at times,” but goes on to remind us that his powers of observation will still be at work; “That doesn’t mean that I’m not in a reflective silence.” Higgins understands the importance of professional impartiality in his presidential role, and this air of mystery no doubt means that any eventual post-term poetry will be read with heightened interest by those to get an insight into both the man himself and the life of a President.
Having begun by saying that he wants his presidency to be one of ideas, Higgins goes on to expand on a range of concepts that he values greatly within society. He appreciates creativity not only in the traditional artistic sense but also “in the sense of achieving excellence in everything,” and describes Irishness as involving “issues of imagination, in relation to Irishness not in an isolated sense, but Irishness in a sense incorporating being European, being global, being responsible.”
Responsibility is also an issue that Higgins does not take lightly, and he explains the contemporary Irish understanding of ethics as being linked to a debilitating national spiritual crisis. Yet he perceives a new, positive spirituality that is something more self-reliant than its predecessor. “It is my belief that one of the greatest challenges that has faced recent generations has been the emptying of life of ethics, the emptying of life as, for example, the source of inspiration became some kind of control exercise to fear, and dogmatic assertion within religion destroyed spirituality to a point. Our trust was lost, for example in institutions, but I want to say to you that it is a time for the spirit again. We are embodied spirits as much as anything else, but that spiritual strength and solace lies partly within people themselves.”
Higgins obviously has a clear sense of his own interpretation of morality, as he refers to the profound effect that scenes of horrific injustice should, and indeed must, have on our ethical sensibility. “I dealt with it in some of my books – about going, for example, as I have often done, into human rights situations where I’ve seen dead bodies and you’re taking the plane home again … Unless you allow your life to be changed by what it is you are witnessing and unless you allow it to inform your ethical sense it has been a waste of time.”
The very thoughts that led him to come to this conclusion are subject to another philosophical idea that the President supports; that is the separation of thinking from reasoning. “Thinking involves more than narrow reasoning in a measurable calculable way. Thinking involves something of imagination, intuition; it involves inspiration in that sense. It is that when you allow yourself then to live fully alive, abandoning fear.”
This perfect existence is not the only ideal that Higgins presents, as he also describes a “serious university” as “one that is allowing all the sources of knowledge and wonderment to enter into the formation of students. That’s what important … the exciting people, the genuinely original people, the innovative people are people who are able to draw the sources of knowledge and wonderment together.”
The septuagenarian also comments on the changing perception of these “innovative people” who dare to present new ideas in their own lifetime by their own peers and then by the generation that follows them. “When you look at the history of a university, in culture or the sciences, you notice something very interesting. The really interesting discoveries in the sciences for example, have sometimes come from people regarded in their time as nuts, but after they were established as right they were then immediately regarded as geniuses, and then they become invoked by the universities that might have once regarded them as eccentric.”
Higgins is too dignified a character to be classified as in any way eccentric, but he still defies the traditional stereotype of a senior citizen. He urges young people to strive for excellence and new ideas, regardless of any discouraging reception of their efforts, and assures them that they will “have the extraordinary opportunity of putting your ideas into practice and changing the world in your own way.” This is an opportunity that Higgins clearly saw and continues to see as too precious to let slip by. He speaks with great enthusiasm and excitement about his planned presidential seminars, where the topics of youth and ethics are set to return as central themes.
So does this speaking at length about philosophical ideas confirm the notion that the Presidential office is essentially a ceremonial role? It might, if it wasn’t for Higgins successfully combating this notion before it is even broached. “In order not to be a victim of the accusation that I was dealing with things in the abstract, I have at the moment been fulfilling an enormous number of obligations, just not obligations but things I wanted to do … I’ve been to prisons, mental hospitals, I’ve been in different cities … I’m trying to privilege, as it were, that community side of things.” Here he again touched on an existential crisis faced by the general public, but summons an image of this resulting in a stronger, more positive community to the fore. “But the good news of it all is that, like I have said, the public are not cynical. The public have taken an enormous beating in the disappointment that they feel and the anger, justifiably, that they feel in those in whom they placed trust. But they are full of hope at the same time; I discern it everywhere.”
Higgins expresses in a modest, self-deprecating manner the difficulty he faces in having to “just go out and be inspirational”, and reminds us that inspiration is something that cannot be attained from someone else, “You have to find it in yourself.”
“It is a time for inspiration,” he says. Yes President, indeed it is.