'A president for all the people': Celebrating 80 years of Michael D Higgins

In honour of the president's birthday, we went through the archives to track through the historic politician's long life
'A president for all the people': Celebrating 80 years of Michael D Higgins

President Higgins turns 80 today. Picture: Joe Giddens/Getty Images

Michael D Higgins wears many caps: politician, father, husband, teacher, poet, keen Galway supporter. Of course, there’s also his current role as president, and few countries have as much love for their leaders as the Irish do for Michael D Higgins.

From recession recovery and protests to fights for equality and a pandemic, the past decade has thrown a lot at our ninth president since he was first elected in 2011. Yet through thick and thin, ‘Miggeldy’ has remained a national treasure that the population is proud to present on the national stage.

This past weekend, our tea-cosy-inspiring hero turned 80, and with a lack of good news for some time, the Irish people were looking to celebrate, tuning into Friday's Late Late Show to hear the president speak and also to a special event featuring dancers and playwrights that aired on TG4 last night — a channel which he helped establish way back when.

In honour of the occasion, we went back through the archives to celebrate 80 years of President Higgins, tracking his journey from young open-shirted Slane attendee all the way to international dignitary.

A travelling teacher 

Michael D and Sabina Higgins on their Wedding day. Picture: President.ie
Michael D and Sabina Higgins on their Wedding day. Picture: President.ie

Michael D Higgins, the son of a War of Independence fighter and Charleville bar worker, was born on the 18th of April 1941 in Limerick and raised by his aunt and uncle in County Clare.

After working in a factory and as an ESB clerk in Galway, at aged 20 he became the first in his family to attend third-level education, on a £200 loan, studying at what was then known as University College Galway, as well as the University of Manchester and Indiana University in the US.

After completing his masters' degree, he became a lecturer in political science and sociology in NUI Galway and was a passionate proponent for accessible education, travelling the west to provide evening classes for anyone interested.

Higgins in his prime at Slane Castle in 1984. Picture: President.ie
Higgins in his prime at Slane Castle in 1984. Picture: President.ie

As a student, Higgins originally joined the Fianna Fáil party, but later switched his allegiances to Labour, serving as a public representative in the roles of councillor and Lord Mayor of Galway before being elected to the Seanad and then Dáil Éireann, where he spent nine and 25 years, respectively. He kept his Galway West seat in the latter office from 1987 all the way up to his presidential election in 2011.

Higgins making the front page of the Cork Examiner on April 22nd, 1976 as a senator.
Higgins making the front page of the Cork Examiner on April 22nd, 1976 as a senator.

As the country’s first minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht, the Gaelgoir and fluent Spanish speaker also re-established the Irish Film Board, set up TG4, repealed censorship under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Acts, and bulked up budgets for theatre, dance, and literature in the 1990s.

Higgins with US actor Marlon Brando. Picture: President.ie
Higgins with US actor Marlon Brando. Picture: President.ie

The arts have long been close to the president’s heart, having published four collections of his own poetry, two collections of essays, and acting as a columnist for Hot Press magazine from 1982 to 1992.

The Higgins' in their home in Renmore, Galway. Picture: President.ie
The Higgins' in their home in Renmore, Galway. Picture: President.ie

Through it all, he never strayed from his passionate left-leaning beliefs, publicly denouncing the Iraq war in 2003, supporting pro-choice for women, standing up for the rights of various groups at home and abroad, and promoting peace in various regions from Nicaragua to Somalia.

In 1992, he was the first recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize and in 2016, he received an award from the Chilean Government for his role in helping to save thousands of lives during the Pinochet regime.

Michael D Higgins with US Senator Ted Kennedy in Nicaragua.
Michael D Higgins with US Senator Ted Kennedy in Nicaragua.

As former labour leader Frank Cluskey reportedly commented during an emergency party meeting in the 1980s: “Trust Michael D to take the easy option. He chose saving the world over saving the Labour Party.” 

The people’s president 

The Higgins family walking down Shop Street in Galway in the Sport for All Walk 1987. Picture: President.ie
The Higgins family walking down Shop Street in Galway in the Sport for All Walk 1987. Picture: President.ie

“I will be a president for all the people,” Higgins said upon being elected as the ninth president of Ireland, with 1m votes cast in his favour. “I want to be a president too for those who didn’t vote...I will encourage and work to recover, and always in my mind too will be those who have gone away and I will be their president too."

And so far, he’s kept his promise, with one of his first acts of duty including asking for a 23.5% pay cut. He’s travelled all around the world to promote Ireland and has publicly denounced homophobia, violence, and racism in his speeches.

President Higgins attending the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland last year.
President Higgins attending the 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland last year.

He’s met with world leaders, welcomed figures like the Pope to Dublin, and strengthened Ireland’s relationship with the U.K., becoming the first sitting Irish president to complete a state visit to Westminster and later hosting two of the royal family’s most famous members: Prince Harry and Prince William. 

When he ran for a second term in office in 2018, he handily won the election, securing over 50% of votes cast.

 President Higgins and his wife Sabina with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie
President Higgins and his wife Sabina with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. Picture: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina Coyne, a former actress, have become beloved figures of Irish politics since moving into Áras an Uachtaráin. 

Their adored Bernese mountain dogs Bród and Misneach, a more recent addition, are even more popular, with the public mourning the passing of pup Síoda earlier this year.

President Higgins and the Duke of Cambridge petting Bród last year. Picture: Julien Behal Photography
President Higgins and the Duke of Cambridge petting Bród last year. Picture: Julien Behal Photography

While the role of president doesn’t carry the same weight in Ireland as it does in other countries, Michael D Higgins has managed to carry on his predecessor’s tradition of grace in the seat, successfully becoming a rare non-polarising figure in turbulent times.

President Higgins meets with former director of Dublin Zoo Leo Oosterweghel in the gardens at Áras an Uachtaráin.
President Higgins meets with former director of Dublin Zoo Leo Oosterweghel in the gardens at Áras an Uachtaráin.

With headlines from international media outlets calling him one of the most popular politicians in the world, it’s safe to say that Miggeldy is a welcome constant in the current anxiety-inducing waves of the pandemic and will hopefully continue to be so for his remaining three years in office - and wishfully, another 80 more.

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