Michael D. Higgins


Life
1941- [Michael Daniel Higgins]; b. Limerick, 18 April; son of Republican who deserted his family; raised in Clare from age of 5; ed. Ennis, Co. Clare, and UCG; afterwards ata Indiana and Manchester Univs.; served in Irish Senate [Seanad Éireann] as Taoiseach’s nominee, 1973-1977; Labour TD for Galway West, 1981; fought leadership contest on retirement of Michael ’Leary; lost seat in 1982; elected Mayor of Galway, 1982-83; returned to Seanad Éireann for National University of Ireland, 1983-87; Labour TD for West Galway, 1987-2011; Mayor of Galway, 1991;
 
first recipient of Sean MacBride Peace Prize, Helsinki, 1992; appt. Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition, Dec. 1994-June 1997; overturned prohibition against Sinn Féin broadcasts and established Irish Film Board; instrumental in setting up Teilifís na Gaeilge [TG4]; human rights commentator; mooted as Labour candidate in 2004 presidential elections in the wake of hip operations, but did not stand;
 

m. to Sabine Coyne of Focus Theatre, Dublin; mooted and then confirmed as candidate in 2011 presidential elections; his speeches and conference addresses issued as Renewing the Republic (2012), pinpointing the failures of the Irish state and critiquing the free market system; elected 9th President of Ireland, 11 Nov. 2011; visited, Argentina, Brazil and Chile, Oct. 2012; omitted references to Christianity in Christmas addresses of 2012 and 2013; returned Qeen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland during presidency of Dr. Mary McAleese with a state visit to England, April 2014 having visited unofficially in Feb. 2012;

 
issued a poem “The Prophets are Weeping”, lamenting sufferings of refugees in Iraq and Syria [‘The Prophets are weeping, / At their texts distorted, / The death and destruction, / Imposed in their name’] and panned by some literary critics, Jan. 2015.

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Works
Poetry
  • The Betrayal (1990), ill. Michael Mulcahy;
  • The Season of fire (Brandon 1993), 90pp., ill. Michael Mulcahy;
  • An Arid Season: New Poems (Dublin: New Island 2004), 96pp.;
  • New and Selected Poems (Dublin: Liberties Press 2011), 180pp.
Miscellaneous
  • Renewing the Republic (Dublin: Liberties Press 2011), 229pp. [reviewed by P. J. Drury in The Irish Times (28 Jan. 2012), Weekend, p.11.];
  • contrib. num. journalistic writings incl. ‘Beware of Mimicking the Actions of the Fanatic’, The Irish Times (20 Sept. 2001) [q.p.]
Films
  • presented a television programme on Monserrat (“The Other Emerald Isle”), and documentary on Noel Browne.

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Commentary
Eamon Grennan, review of An Arid Season, in The Irish Times (4 Sept. 2004), Weekend, p.13:’[... T]hough Higgins declares in one poem his dedication to “the blinding light/ Of the ordinary”, too many of the poems are damaged by his use of a language that doesn’t practise what he preaches. So even a poem of affecting memory can slide into a language that distances us from its experience, is clotted with abstractions. This sort of thing, replacing plain speech with cumbersome rhetoric, does most damage to the poems of spiritual questioning. [...] The most successful pieces in the collection are those emerging out of Higgins’s political experience, in which we hear the refreshing sound of a genuine speaking voice. Poems such as “Pol Pot in Anlon” “Veng”, “Meeting”, and the exuberantly satiric “Revivalists” have a vivid verbal energy missing from the more calculatedly “poetic” private meditations. They are animated by the voice - humorous, intelligent, passionate, compassionate, at once practical and utopian - that comes, I’d say, most naturally to Higgins as a poet, and the one he might turn to more frequently.’ quotes: ‘Carrying a bag at night, / Fighting for the shoe polishing in morning / With competitive brothers, Little Fikri said / Goodbye Mr Michael. / On television / General Evren spoke for the length two episodes of Dallas; / In the Hotel I was packing again, / For my return home.’ In this and other poems cut from the same cloth, Higgins manages to bring his moral experience and his language into an honestly telling alignment. [...]’

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Carol Rumens, ‘Michael D. Higgins is No Poet’, in The Guardian (1 Nov. 2011): ‘As Michael D Higgins is announced the new president of the Irish Republic, no doubt we'll be told repeatedly that the politician is also a poet. Having read the poem “When Will My Time Come?” I wonder where this assumption comes from. / Admittedly, the opening line “When will my time come for scenery” isn't bad. It's the rest of the poem that's the problem. / After a jerky gear-change it offers a modest joke: “... Decades ago I was never able/ To get excited / About filling the lungs with ozone / On Salthill Prom.” Then we get serious. The speaker missed noticing changes of light in the sky, and adds, “...when words were required/ To intervene at the opening of Art Exhibitions/ It was not the same.” Why would it be? And why that clumsy verb “intervene”? / There's nothing wrong with the idea that the conscious mind can interfere with emotional spontaneity. But “tyranny of head” is awkward and introduces a weak sort of metaphor. “All play on the strings of the heart” isn't much better. / The third verse, though, is the most laboured. “Healing,” when it's used in the pop-psychology sense, is a word should be kept out of poems. As for “realm of pain” this is pure Patience Strong. The four lines about the journey of the Hero see the driver of this poetic vehicle overturned in a ditch, wheels spinning. They are meant to conjure the pathos and loneliness of aging. If only. / The last verse “When my time comes ...” looks towards the speaker's death, not, I trust, his presidency. The elemental explosion of light, air, water, fire and earth might have been a dramatic image, if it hadn't been cushioned in platitudes. The last line is the worst: “I live for that moment.” / An anonymous report of a poetry reading Higgins gave in 2007 for the Greek-Irish society ended with the following “... always he would add not as a politician, but as a poet he would know immediately like Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney or Brendan Keneally ‘when a poem is made’.” Not only does Higgins not know when a poem is made, it's almost sacrilegious to mention him alongside Irish poets who actually do make decent poems. / The Northern Irish poets have a phrase for rubbish poetry. I first heard it from Longley himself, though I believe he said he got it from Frank Ormsby: mad-dog-shite. I'm afraid I think this is the category into which “When Will My Time Come” effortlessly slips. Whoops!’ (See online; accessed 13.02.2012; and note - the poem “When Will My Time Come?” was printed in The Guardian, 28 Oct. 2011 - online.)

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Quidnunc’, The Irish Times (16 Jan. 1993): his father a lifelong republican sentenced to death by the Free State but reprieved, the Cork Examiner having called for his execution (for blowing up Mallow Bridge); a nanny with an Anglo-Irish accent, trained in a Limerick big house, was hired to look after him [Michael]; very much involved with Fianna Fail at UCG; Higgins visited Nicaragua during the revolution.

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Emer O’Kelly, ‘Prophets may be weeping but I think poets are too!, in The Irish Independent (15 Feb. 2015): "[...] The Prophets are Weeping” is a lament (it follows no particular poetic form) inspired by the flight of refugees from northern Iraq and from the civil war in Syria, so it has the highest of motives. It says, in part: "The sun burns down/On the children who are crying,/ On the long journeys repeated, / Their questions not answered. / Mothers and Fathers hide their faces / Unable to explain,/ Why they must endlessly, / No end in sight, / Move for shelter, for food, for safety, for hope.” Indeed. How recognisably, instantly, predictably, right. Who would argue? It is vicious, savage, unforgivable that children (and indeed adults) should be subjected to such a cruel distortion of their lives. We can only applaud the sentiment. Perhaps, and I write with the greatest respect, the President’s poem might have achieved a better result if he was a better poet. Frankly, “The Prophets are Weeping” is clunky, awkward and formless, and its language is banal. / In 2012, President Higgins’s collection New and Selected Poems was savaged in Books Ireland by the critic and academic Kevin Kiely, who said he could be accused of “crimes against literature”. He also said that Michael D Higgins, Abbot Mark Patrick Hederman, and the late Catholic mystics John O'Donohue and John Moriarty “make up a school of the bland, the imprecise and the ultimately incomprehensible.” A year earlier, the English poet Carol Rumens, who has taught at Queen’s in Belfast, in UCC, in Stockholm University, in Hull, and was visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Bangor in Wales, caused a few ripples by writing in The Guardian that it was “almost sacrilegious to mention him alongside Irish poets who actually do make decent poems.” She was referring to an anonymous review of Michael D Higgins’s work which compared him to Michael Longley, Seamus Heaney and Brendan Kennelly. And however Irish hackles may rise at such a sweeping - not to say immoderate - damnation, the problem remains: national pride aside, Michael D Higgins is not a very good poet. And poets who aren't very good don’t often do justice to profoundly serious issues.’ [Available online; accessed 15.02.2015.]

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Quotations

The Betrayal, poems (1990), ill. by Michael Mulcahy
Title poem, ‘for my father’, contains lines on de Valera: ‘It was 1964, just after optical benefit / Was rejected by de Valera for the poorer classes / In his Republic, who could not afford, / As he did / to travel to Zurich / For their regular test and their / Rimless glasses.’ And, ‘you [...] debated / Whether De Valera was lucky or brilliant / In getting the British to remember / That he was an American.’
“Requiem for a Parish Priest” [‘When things were simple / ’Twas easily known / When souls were won and lost / When shepherds called the shots / and good sheep knew their place. [...] even if it was in the snug he sang / Or wandered through sections of Canon Sheehan’];
“Nocturne 1” [‘Pretence at intellectual conversation. // But then you come, / Night, / With your terror, / Why do you not claim your victory now?’]
“The Hole in the Heart Lover” [‘How fortunate those children of love / Who with energy / Can freely embrace / And love / Beneath / Perhaps the envious gaze of the gods.’];
“A Race Night Reflection in the University City of Galway, 1970” [‘Forgetting that one occasion / When ribs were broken in their rush / Towards a visiting Irish-American President / At a garden party in Aras an Uachtarain.’ [...] ‘Walking past your great stone Cathedral, / I cannot but think of you, cross Michael of Galway, / Pompous heir of the Apostles [...] friend to none save those / Too tired or too cowed to question / A metaphysics long out-dated [...] arguing for the distinction / Between false teeth and condoms’;
“When the Muse Visits” / for Brendan Kennelly, ded. [BK] who ‘provided a sheltering place’ [‘What you are allowed / In the foreplay of your soul, is sacred. / You have been chosen, poet, / Hold the Muse con respeto / In your embrace’];
“Corrib Love” [‘Old flesh on old flesh’, seem to be having a problem with aging; “Dark Memories” [‘And vow that, for her at least, / We, her children, would escape.’], rather like My Dark Fathers; ‘The Age of Flowers” [‘the day-release prisoner / Of repression / That is your father’].

Other poems [in no order] are “Relatives assisting”; “The Master”; “Jesus Appears in Dublin in 1990 at the Port and Docks Board Site”; “Our Beautiful Yute” [‘the party with the ‘th’ defect’]; “Nocturne 2” [a concoction of clichés]; “Life skills Course for Joyriders”; “The Age of Granola”; “The Prison” [Foucaultian reflections on Pentonville, Mountjoy, Loughan House, and Leinster House].

Reference

Notes
Contra Conor: Mary Corcoran & Mark O’Brien, ed., Political Censorship and the Democratic State: The Irish Broadcasting Ban (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2004), includes as a final piece Higgins’s riposte to the opening piece by Conor Cruise O’Brien defending the banning of Sinn Féin/IRA exposure on RTÉ.

Pike Theatre: Mary Kotsonouris recounts that Michael D. Higgins, TD, unsuccessfully sought Government reassurance in Nov. 2002 that all the papers connected with the failed prosecution of Alan Simpson of the Pike Theatre in relation to his staging of Tennessee Williams's Rose Tattoo in the 1950s. (See John McBratney, review of Kotsonouris, “’Tis All Lies, Your Worship”, Tales from the District Court, in Irish Times, 23 July 2011, Weekend, p.11.)

Arid Season: New Poems (2004): ‘[...] the distillation of over ten years’ work. Inspiring and evocative, this long-awaited new collection is reflective of the changes that were taking place, not just in the poet’s life, but also in the world at large. “It was a time,” says the poet, “when I often felt that langauge was losing its meaning. Life was being commodified in all its aspects; values seemed out of fashion.”’. (New Island Press - online; acccessed 02.10.2010.)

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