Irish President Michael Higgins is retracing the steps of his youth through the United States’ Midwest, meeting along the way with groups seeking to help undocumented Irish citizens here.
The chief purpose of Higgins’ week-long visit was to deliver the Commencement Speech at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., where some 48 years ago at the age of 25, he came to earn a master’s degree in Sociology – long before Bloomington became the setting for the 1979 classic “Breaking Away.”
“Those who have the benefit of education must always guard against an arrogance of knowledge,” Higgins told the graduates, as reported by the Indiana Daily Student. “They must always base their intellectual endeavors on the merits of curiosity, equality, respect and must remain open to new ideas.”
A scholar who has lectured at University College Galway and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Ill., before ascending the ranks of Ireland’s Labour Party and being elected Ireland’s “Poet President” in 2011, Higgins worked humor, anecdotes and plenty of Irish language into his speeches to groups around Indiana and Illinois.
“When I came originally to the Midwest, I came on the Greyhound bus,” Higgins told the well-dressed attendees at a reception in the ornate Gold Coast room of Chicago’s The Drake Hotel. “You get an opportunity to meet all the people of the United States and they soon filled me in on what it was like in The Hoosier State.”
Higgins addressed crowds of Irish-Americans, elected officials and business and civic leaders at breakfasts, lunches and after-hours performances at venues around Chicago. Among attendees were some of the hundreds of cousins Higgins counts in the United States, Australia and around the world.
He spoke in English and Irish about the importance of the Irish diaspora’s support for Ireland over the years, singling out for praise the late Chicago Police Chief Francis O’Neill, a Cork native whose work recovering lost dance tunes produced music books and helped revive Irish musical traditions.
County-by-county arguments persist about variations in some of the old tunes, prompting some musicians to dismiss others with lines such as “Just because he’s got O’Neill’s book he thinks he knows the tune,” Higgins said to laughter at Chicago’s Irish-American Heritage Center.
At the venue visited by his predecessors Mary McAlese and Mary Robinson, Higgins, a former Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, and his wife, Sabina, and Irish Ambassador to the United States Anne Anderson watched performances of the Trinity Dancers , the American Academy of Irish Music and the Heritage Center Choir.
At the modern blue-glass state government building, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn talked to Higgins about a law he signed last year allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. At City Hall, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel welcomed Higgins – a former Galway mayor — to “The Westernmost County of Ireland.”
But Higgins said he was perhaps most moved by his meetings with the undocumented Irish living in America. He said his conversations with leaders here give him hope that the U.S. Congress might finally be ready to pass an immigration reform bill that would allow the undocumented the chance to go home and visit family while still be able to apply to stay in the United States legally long-term.