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)

Photo of the Day – 51 Irish coffees for St. Patrick’s Day

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! If you’re celebrating today in America, you’re probably planning to drink green beer or a nice pint of Guinness, but why not warm up with an Irish coffee, spiked with whiskey (Irish, of course)? In today’s Photo of the Day, Flickr user jrodmanjr snapped these 51 coffees in action at San Francisco‘s Buena Vista Cafe, which claims to have brought the drink to the United States from Ireland’s Shannon Airport and holds the Guinness World Record for most Irish coffees served. A fun photo bonus: another Flickr user caught the same coffees (and jrodmanjr) at the Buena Vista.

Take any pics of your favorite beverages while traveling? Upload them to the Gadling Flickr pool and we may use it as a future Photo of the Day.

Smoke if you got ’em: Washington DC to OK hotel smoking

Non-smokers probably won’t be too excited by the news, but cigar smokers will rejoice. The Washington DC City Council passed a measure last week that eases smoking restrictions on hotels in our nation’s capital. The Special Event Exemption Emergency Act of 2010 carries an amendment that offers a way for hotels to be exempted from the city’s smoking ban. If you prefer your hotels sans puffing, there’s no cause for alarm – the rules are pretty narrow.

Hotels will be allowed to host special cigar-smoking events once a year, as long as at least 500 people are in attendance (which means the venue must be large enough to accommodate this number of guests). Also, the hotel will have to notify the Department of Health and pay a $250 fee. Quite simply, it has to be a pretty hefty occasion.

As with any “emergency” measure, you’d be correct to assume that this law was passed with something specific in mind. In this case, it was the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day dinner, organized by the social organization the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick. Historically, the patron saint of Ireland is toasted with brandy and a cigar.

In Washington DC, most emergency legislation lasts for 90 days, but this measure stretches out for 270, as the council also wanted to protect a charity event called Friday Night Fight, which is held on November 11. Last year, it raised more than $2.8 million for Fight for Children.

St. Pat’s Day starts early in East Hampton

It’s time to get your green on.

The Montauk Yacht Club in East Hampton New York has had it with the snow and is prepping for summer weather by opening the resort a few weeks early. The Long Island resort has decided to open its doors on St. Patrick’s Day, a few weeks before its normal opening season and just over a month from now.

If you’ve always wanted to party like P-Diddy in the Hamptons, but you don’t have Diddy-dollars, this is your deal. To celebrate the signaling of Spring, the Montauk is hosting a lucky break rate starting at $109/night (promo code: GREEN), and the resort will offer free shuttles to the Montauk St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Sunday, March 22, 2010 from 12:30pm-4pm.

The Montauk Yacht Club Resort & Marina is located on 35-acres of waterfront property at the East End of Long Island, New York. The see-and-be-seen celebs converge during the summer season and guests can stay at one of the 107 guest rooms, 23 villas or dock at one of the 232-slips in the yacht marina.

Traveling the day after St. Patrick’s Day can be hellish

Happy St. Patrick’s Day, to all of you aside from the guy who sat next to me on an EasyJet flight from Prague to London a couple of years ago (the morning after St. Patty’s day) and almost threw up in my lap.

He had a black eye and body odor of a dying donkey. I am trying to make peace with you man, I really am. I also hope I never have to be stuck next to you for 90 turbulent minutes.

Tomorrow morning must make one of the worst days to fly anywhere, especially around Europe and especially on a budget airline from a destination known for its cheap liquor. Honestly, I don’t think i will ever fly out of Prague on March 18 ever again.

Thanks, kittyroara, for the lovely photo. By the way, do you ever fly budget airlines to or from Prague?