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A President’s Speech. Michael D. Higgins gets the job done.

December 27, 2015

The key to performing the office of ceremonial Head of State is to appear ordinary and special at one and the same time.

S/he has to sound authoritative enough for you to want to shut up and listen to them for a few minutes at a time, but not so patrician as to sound as though they think they are doing you some sort of favour just by giving you the time of day.

Anyone claiming to “represent” a nation successfully has to offer some kind of reflection of that nation as a whole – an impossible but intriguing task. Some countries are unlucky enough to have hereditary Heads of State – and those (un)representatives tend to be gauche, tongue-tied and clumsy.   The most famous hereditary head of state in the world makes speeches that sound like a hostage being forced to read out a prepared statement at gunpoint.

Ireland offers something like this every December…

Michael D. Higgins does the job very satisfyingly.  The problem with trying to be inclusive – of course – is that you end up sounding very bland.  But Michael D. Higgins has decided that he has a mandate to be interesting – a mandate to use language poetically, though not eccentrically.  “What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”  When you hear a successful speech from a HoS – you feel that you’ve experience something that hasn’t just been imposed upon you – but rather something that comes, in part, from you – that is, in part, and expression of who and what you already are – arranged in terms that are familiar and surprising at one and the same time.

There are many reasons why an elected HoS is always going to do this job better.  Because they’ve had to develop certain persuasive skills to get to where they are – they’re already better public speakers.  A hereditary HoS – whose words have been treated as oracular and special since birth – is always useless at speeches, because the outcome of those speeches have never been in doubt.  They’ve never known what it’s like to give a “real time” transformative speech.   Even when supposedly performing “live” – everything is prescripted, including and especially the audience’s response.

The Irish Presidency’s official residence – Áras an Uachtarái – is, after all, a large house and a nice house – but not a palace.  It’s large enough to welcome any visiting worthies you’d care to mention, but it isn’t big enough to overwhelm or intimidate.  And an Irish President has the use of it only for their tenure in office.  An individual gets to stay in it, but it serves the nation as a whole.  So when the film of the presidential speech makes use of the house – it’s to make viewers feel that it’s partly their house as well.

And if people don’t like a President’s Christmas speech, or don’t like a President – that’s OK too, because s/he will only be around for a few years and s/he is, after all, a mere attempt at representing a nation.  There’s nothing treasonable about criticising a president, because no individual should be “above” criticism in a sensible polity.  I like Michael D.  I admire him.  But I don’t venerate him – and nor do I think he wants veneration.

He made my Christmas a bit warmer and more interesting this year.  And I think he will next year as well.


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