A Conversation With Michael D. Higgins, The President Of Ireland

Ireland’s president has been a poet, a factory worker, a statesman and a traveler. At 71, he’s still very much the crusading liberal interested in social justice issues in Latin America, the Middle East and around the world. He grew up poor in Limerick and followed a meandering career path that eventually led him to politics.
These days, he’s an Ambassador and champion of Ireland who wants Americans to visit the Old Country. I’ve been interested in all things Irish since studying abroad in Galway in 1993 and had a chance to speak with him earlier this year about why he digs the Midwest, how his liver survived St. Patrick’s Day in Bloomington, and why the demise of the Celtic Tiger economy in Ireland is a good thing for Americans who want to visit Ireland this year.

You studied at Indiana University in the ’60s and later on you taught at Southern Illinois University. Tell us about your experiences in the Midwest?

I flew into New York, stayed in a youth hostel in Times Square and then took a Greyhound bus all the way out to Bloomington. Everything was closed when I arrived, but the people were very warm, very generous. Bloomington was beautiful, especially in the autumn because of all the trees.How did you end up studying sociology in a graduate program in Indiana?

An Irish professor had toured in the U.S. and was then trying to recruit Irish students to study there. I was accepted at Berkeley, but Berkeley had allocated all of its scholarship money, while Indiana had not, so because I could get a fellowship there, that’s why I went to Indiana. I went in late summer, 1966 and was attached to an empirical based program called the Indianapolis Area Project. I was there for a year and a half. It was a training program for young social researchers. I was looking at attitudes toward religiosity amongst different social groups.

I had good results in school but because of my family’s (financial) circumstances, my brother and I worked in a factory, so I did that. And then I was a clerk and was writing and then I borrowed some money and went to work in England for a time.

You studied in the U.S. at a time when there were a lot of protests against the Vietnam War. Did you take part?

It was an interesting time to be in the U.S. I would have been very strongly critical of the draft, but your permission to study in the U.S. was dependent on staying out of trouble.
You had to be careful. If I was correcting exams in those days, if you gave someone below a C, it changed their draft status. So I would call in students and say, ‘Look, do you want to have another go at this paper?’ It was an unorthodox approach to teaching to say the least.

Did you envision back then that you’d go into politics?

I wasn’t only interested in sociology. Politics might have been at the back of my mind, but matters literary interested me most at that time. I read Allen Ginsberg. I wasn’t used to having to wake up early for 8.30 a.m. classes. It was a huge cultural experience for me, but one that I very much enjoyed.

What did you enjoy about the Midwest?

I played handball; I was brought to basketball games. I was invited into everyone’s homes; there was hardly a day when someone wasn’t inviting me somewhere.

If you were a single Irish man in Bloomington around St. Patrick’s Day you were massively at risk. It was very demanding, but my liver survived it all. I enjoyed the Midwest; I had the warmest feelings about it.

Were you drinking Guinness in those days?

Guinness? Oh no, you’d be very foolish to order a heavy drink like that. I liked to go to Nick’s English Hut. I think it’s still there.

Have you been back for a visit to Bloomington?

I went back as Minister in 1996 but school wasn’t in session. I’d very much like to go back again, but these days I have to travel with an enormous apparatus so it isn’t easy to plan.

In your inaugural speech last year, you said that Ireland needed to re-engage with the Irish diaspora around the world, and you’ve been trying to champion Ireland as a tourism destination. Why should Americans visit Ireland now?

They would find Ireland a great value right now. In my memory, I’ve never seen such values on hotels and guesthouses and so forth as there is right now. It’s also great value because part of the excesses of the Celtic Tiger years has been blown away.

And those with Irish roots can go back to learn more about their ancestry.

By now the original census materials from the 19th and 20th centuries have been put up online and digitized. So it’ll be possible for people to trace where their ancestors came from – even on a brief holiday.

There’s incredible warmth towards people who come from the United States to experience Ireland. And it’s a beautiful country to visit and the people have time to stop and talk to you. With the Celtic Tiger, there was a certain emphasis on getting things done, but now we’ve gone back to the best of ourselves and I very much welcome that.

(Photos by the Irish Labour Party and Irish Typepad on Flickr)