Michael D. Higgins, poet and President of Ireland, was born in Limerick in 1941. He was educated at the National University of Ireland, Galway, as well as at Indiana and Manchester. For many years he was a lecturer in Sociology and Political Science at NUIG, becoming Mayor of Galway and Labour Party Dáil Deputy for his Galway constituency. His first collection of poems The Betrayal (1990) was followed by The Season of Fire (1993), An Arid Season (2004) and New and Selected Poems (2011). He has also written essays, collected in Causes for Concern: Irish Politics, Culture and Society as well as film narratives.
In 2011, presenting himself to the people as a lifelong socialist and intellectual, he was elected President of Ireland by an overwhelming and unprecedented popular vote. Neither the nineteenth-century Irish Liberator, Daniel O’Connell, nor the iconic Eamon DeValera achieved such phenomenal popular success. Higgins’ popularity and his life in poetry are intimately bound together, animated at the very core of his being by that sense of “emotional honesty which in turn impels him towards a stylistic candour, a simple, deep resolution to say difficult things in clear language,” as the poet Brendan Kennelly wrote of him twenty years ago.
With Michael D. Higgins it is foolish to try to distinguish between the private agony of poems and the public advocacy of Irish politics. In Ireland, public feeling is honoured in poetry, in the same way that a sense of irony is honoured in the British poetic world. Reticence and irony have no particular stature in the Irish narrative imagination, whereas boldness of gesture and the voice of honest indignation both carry immense literary power: as Yeats wrote in an earlier era, “I thirst for accusation.” In coming to politics through that trust in humane feeling, and maintaining his dual career of poet and politician, Higgins has maintained a powerful Irish and Celtic tradition, from the ‘Aisling’ poets of the Seventeenth Century to the Fenian and IRB poets of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Higgins has always been conscious of the private realms, as well as the public realm, that give rise to poems: in ‘When Will My Time Come?’ he writes in nervous anticipation of that moment in his life when he can admire only the scenery, the senses, the memories of a private world –
And, if there is healing,
It is in the depth of a silence,
Whose plumbed depths require
A journey through realms of pain
That must be faced alone.
The hero, setting out,
Will meet an ally at a crucial moment.
But the journey home
Is mostly alone.
It is interesting to note that the above poem has been subjected to periods of additions, revisions and excisions over the last twenty years, as if the poet was enduring a constant struggle to find that one adequately described place of silence. His instincts and impulses are Yeatsean, yet more democratic and, certainly, more demotic, in the manner of George Seferis – and Seferis’ intimate relationship with the political destiny of his country.
Higgins’ work is always a reflection upon the world, but a reflection combined with a call to action. In his writing career he is very much in the Western Ireland tradition of the novelist-socialist Peadar O’Donnell or of Douglas Hyde – Hyde is another Western Ireland scholar-poet with whom Higgins shares the distinction of the Irish presidency; he is most like Hyde in his combined sense of public duty and private passion for poems. In Hyde it was a life of translating Irish-language texts, whereas in Higgins we see another act of translation at work – a bold socialist effort to translate into literature the unheard cries of excluded communities and tribes. His most famous early poem ‘The Betrayal’ is one such act of translation. The writing of this work, dedicated to his father, was a moment of catharsis in the poet’s life; having written it he knew he’d brought the undescribed, unheard world of the Irish rural poor into the realm of literature: in other words, he had transcribed the hieroglyphs of the suffering poor and carried his transcriptions to the bourgeois literary Dublin audience –
Nor did you speak too much.
You had broken an attendant’s glasses,
The holy nurse told me,
When you were admitted.
Your father is a very difficult man,
As you must know. And Social Welfare is slow
And if you would pay for the glasses,
I would appreciate it.
It was 1964, just after optical benefit
Was rejected by De Valera for poorer classes
In his Republic, who could not afford,
As he did
To travel to Zurich
For their regular tests and their
The poem contains a feast of references that are purely Irish and local, yet the sense of outrage and honest indignation is something that crosses national boundaries. It is the poetry of a common humanity; poetry as both voice of feeling and witness document. In method and cadence it is sometimes reminiscent of the 1980s poetry of Paul Durcan or Brendan Kennelly, but it is the unmistakable voice of the Galway socialist, Higgins. His verse structure and narrative stance, that preliminary gait as the poet stands to address the lone reader, is shared with other poets like Rita Ann Higgins, Moya Cannon, Nuala Ní Dhómhnaill, Joan McBreen: all poets of the ‘Galway method’ or ‘Galway rhetorical’ style in contemporary Irish poetry. It is a method much derided by the traditionalists, the neo-conservative verse makers, but it is a poetic method and rhetoric stance that is now deeply embedded in Irish poetry-making. Higgins is now one of the key exponents of this open method.
New and Selected Poems, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2011
Causes for Concern, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2007
Renewing the Republic, Liberties Press, Dublin, 2011
Audio stream of President Higgins reading his poems
Liberties Press, publishers of President Higgins’ New and Selected Poems
Official website of the President of Ireland