Belatedly watching Michael D. Higgins’ Christmas broadcast in Canada.
Michael D. Higgins is still with us at the year’s end.
And while we damn this damnable year of 2016 for all the hatred and stupidity that was in it, one of my preferred memories involved seeing Michael D. Higgins at Kilmainham Jail, placing a wreath in memory of the executed leaders of 1916. It was a windy day and the wreath blew over, and the President of Ireland (being the closest person to the wreath), jumped forward to set it back in place. This was a cherishable moment illustrating how the person occupying the title of Head of State knew himself to be just a servant of the state.
And the Christmas speech itself, with its commitment to concepts of hospitality, generosity, compassion and civility is itself a fine rebuke to the triumphant viciousness of 2016, an evocation of an Ireland that is implicit in generations of experience but has yet to be realised. I can never see Michael D. without thinking “oh bless”.
Michael D. is popular without being populist. He doesn’t dumb things down because he refuses to believe that people are dumb. He’s not above criticism, and he doesn’t want to be, because in a republic, the unquestioning veneration of any human being is understood to be a bad thing. He’s a flawed human animal with a chequered past, but he’s a better man than I’ll ever be. He has the capacity to make people feel that they can, with a bit of work, be better than they are. He also communicates the reality that there is no worthwhile thing called “patiotism” that doesn’t involve a sense of co-dependence and communality. You cannot declare that there’s no such thing as society with a national flag waving behind you. Or should not. Without a social conscience, you lack the basic grammatical structures that anything worth considering as a “national interest” are made of.
He offers the spectacle of what someone with a mandate can do, someone who doesn’t pretend to be “above politics” (as though politics were some essentially grubby domain to be eschewed) but rather someone who has used his political acumen and commitment to craft a presidential style that is homely, inclusive and, in its own way, very dignified. He is someone who likes his job, who likes meeting people and listening to them, and who shares his long experience to sponsor better, broader, and more inspiring imaginings of Ireland.