After his first official U.S. visit, Ireland’s new President reflects on the importance of the diaspora and the unique creativity of the Irish.
Michael D. Higgins, the 9th President of Ireland, arrived in New York on the evening of April 30 for his first official visit to the U. S. The president and his wife, Sabina, went straight to a welcoming reception at the Consulate General of Ireland. In the five days that followed, they visited Irish immigration centers in the Bronx and Queens, toured memorials to the Irish Famine in New York and Boston, paid respects at the 9/ll memorial, attended a World Press Freedom Event at the UN, took in the hit Broadway musical based on the Irish film Once, and met with a wide array of members from the Irish American community.
The president delivered three key speeches – or papers, as he calls them, in his scholarly manner – at the American Irish Historical Society, at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University, and at Boston’s Faneuil Hall. Though differing in focus, each of them touched upon common themes: his belief that Ireland can progress from the damaging paradigms it once embraced, his immense pride in Ireland’s creative spirit, and his great sensitivity and regard for the experience and strength of the diaspora. They confirmed that this scholar, poet, former Arts Minister and Labor Party senator – outspoken and wise – is just what the country needs.
Speaking by phone from Áras an Uachtaráin, the presidential residence in Phoenix Park, Dublin, he told Irish America about his impressions from the visit, his belief in the Irish diaspora, and his plans to return.
Congratulations on a successful first official U.S. visit. What moments or exchanges stand out the most?
Yes, there was a very good reaction to the trip. I’m very pleased about that. Moments that stand out would be the opening night reception [at the Consulate General of Ireland], the second evening spent at the American Irish Historical society, where I met many people I had met before. Dr. Kevin Cahill [president of the AIHS] and I had met 30 years before in Managua, Nicaragua.
I think as well that the Irish immigration centers in Queens and the Bronx were wonderful – the local Irish communities had rounded up their friends. And then in Boston, certainly delivering the Famine speech at Faneuil Hall, and the visit to the Famine memorial was very, very moving.
Did Sabina (the First Lady) enjoy the visit as well?
Oh, very much so. Sabina enjoys the United States and you know, we had been to Boston on our honeymoon in 1974. Sabina’s relatives live in San Francisco. We visited our daughter, Alice-Mary, when she studied at The New School for Social Research in New York. We like the life in New York, it’s a great city. And then of course we have very warm memories of Boston. We remembered very clearly going down Boylston Street. We just wished we had more time – we had a very packed program, with 25 events in 5 days. But we were very, very taken by the warmth and the hospitality and the interest. We’re so glad that we had the opportunity to meet as many people as we did.
What message did you hope to spread?
That Ireland is a country that is teeming with creative people. That Irishness, as far as the 9th President is concerned, includes both those at home and those abroad. That we have been coming out of a bad decade of mistakes in economic policy, but we are a resilient people.
We have had to overcome obstacles in practically every decade and we are going to do so again. It’s going to be based on what we do best, which are all of the creative things – not only in the performing arts and the creative arts, but also in science and technology. Since I came back I’ve been doing practically four or five events every day, and I’ve just come from a school where they teach technology as a Leaving Cert subject. It’s just extraordinary what some of the students have invented, it would give you great hope. The country is full of prospects and it will make its way again, but it will be on a much sounder basis.
The speech you delivered at the Irish Consulate concluded with an invitation to join in “making an Irishness of which we can all be proud.” What role do you see Irish Americans playing?
I see them playing a very significant role. If you take the 44 million people who claim a direct relationship [to Ireland] in the United States alone, you add in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world, you get somewhere beyond 70 million. You place that in comparison to those of us that are actually living on the island on a permanent basis, and there’s a huge ratio of those who are outside. So in talking about Irishness – the identity, the inherited stories, the imagination that is associated with being Irish, it obviously would make sense to take this diasporic intelligence into account.
In the United States’ case, the example in my Famine speech [is] very interesting. There’s an enormous debate about [whether] the worst of the famine could have been prevented by state policy. And why? You have, in 1847, a very significant decision to make: You know the famine’s there, you know the potato is blighted, and you know that people are dying. The Quakers are doing wonderful things, but the London Times is more or less saying English benevolence has gone far enough and we can’t do anything about it, maybe this is the hand of God…With the Times there’s kind of a notion that nothing can be done, that the Irish have drawn this on top of themselves. But then, much later, after the great emigrations have taken place post-Famine, the Times writes another editorial and says “We have made perhaps a terrible mistake in underestimating the power of the Irish in America.” That there are millions of them there now, and they’re increasing and multiplying in a country that is going to be a great power, and that they will forever be reminding us [the English] of 700 years of mismanagement.
In a way, they were right, because when you look at every one of the great movements – the Literary movement, the Fenian movement, Irish music, the Independence movement, they all draw some inspiration from the United States…I think we haven’t made enough of it, we’ve been inclined to draw our stories from what’s in front of our faces. I’m very interested in the people who were transient, the people who carried the suitcases and the bundles. We owe it to them because they carried pieces of the Irish language and so forth. We owe it to them to take into account the migrant experience, the American experience, the general diasporic experience, in finding our Irishness. And I’ll be returning to that theme regularly during my presidency.
In my Thomas Flanagan Memorial Lecture at the American Irish Historical Society, “Remembering and Imagining Irishness,” I suggested that we have to take into account the real contribution to be made by people who have been through the process of migration. In the Boston paper – really, the visit hung around three substantial papers – responding to the Irish migration, I was making the point that you didn’t have one simple type of migration that was post-Famine, but several, all with different characteristics.
And of course I gave moral support – moral because I’m not a legislator, now – to the out-of-status Irish and to the short term initiatives in relation to E-3 visas, which of course is one of my concerns.
Since governmental systems are so different, when traveling abroad how do you explain your role as President of Ireland?
The Irish presidency is defined quite separately from other forms of presidency in different countries. Effectively, what it means is that I don’t get involved in day-to-day legislation. But I deal with issues that are longer in time than the period of a government, that are deeper in concern. Therefore I can speak, for example, about unemployment and about poverty, or about the intellectual assumptions behind particular economic thinking, or I might speak about the relationship between homophobia and suicide in secondary schools, or bullying. So while I’m not involved in the day-to-day, I’m not at all precluded.
I address, as I said, deeper things over a longer period. And that’s why I have been quite clearly defining my presidency as a presidency of ideas. I have, for that reason, given lectures at the London School of Economics on politics, on the question of universities in the contemporary climate. I’ve spoken at Trinity on the same thing, and at Magee College in the North. That’s really what I can do: I can effect discourse. Through that, I can effect consciousness. And then, about every six weeks I meet with the Taoiseach, and he and I, under Article 28 of the constitution, exchange views on his end of things and what’s coming to my attention as I travel throughout the country or abroad.
You participated in a film panel discussion at Lincoln Center. Given your leadership as Minister for the Arts in invigorating the Irish film industry in the ’90s, is it still something you’re passionate about?
I did indeed and it was wonderful. There was a wonderful small piece of animation, Granny O’Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty from Brown Bag Films, a re-telling of the fairy tale. And yes, of course it is. Martin Sheen has been here in the Áras to have lunch with me, and I spent an evening with Al Pacino not so long ago as well. It’s a wonderful area, film, and the Irish people are very good at it. It’s full of prospects.
What do you hope to do on future visits to the U.S.?
Well I certainly will visit the West Coast, and then I’ve had invitations already from my alma mater, Indiana University, and from others in Chicago. So I will be visiting the cities of the Midwest. And I would love to get back to New York any time. I will be jumping at the opportunities, because I enjoy it…Far before I was president, I used to sit down there on the porches [stoops] of the houses in the East Village drinking coffee, and it was a great experience.
Sabina and I were both very, very grateful for all the kindness that was shown towards us. We will be back.
We look forward to it. Thank you, Mr. President.
Slán agus beannacht.