A rapt audience of almost 1,000 listened to President Higgins as he retraced his early upbringing in Limerick when he was bestowed the Freedom of Limerick, the first person to receive the honour from the new Limerick City and County Council.
The honour, which goes back to medieval times, was historically the preserve of the former Limerick City Council, who gave it to figures such as John F Kennedy, Pope Paul II, and the first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde.
Speaking at the ceremony in the old Milk Market, President Higgins recalled how his father came to the city from Co Clare to work as an apprentice barman in Greene’s bar in William St. He went on to run a number of pubs of his own.
President Higgins told of the characters who frequented the snugs and the constant smell of bacon from the nearby pig factories. He said he passed one of the old pubs owned by his father on his way to yesterday’s ceremony.
“It used to be the Arch and then O’Brien’s pub,” he said.
He said his childhood had moved through many parts of the city. “At first my father rented a premises as a pub in Little Catherine St, which was later Finn’s restaurant, and later pub at old No 3 Upper William St,” he said. “There were five snugs in one of the pubs and I remember the people who used to frequent the snugs.”
He said the family, due to their poor circumstances, lived over the pubs and at other various addresses.
“We constantly moved between a number of rented flats in the city,” he said. “Me and my brother were brought to live with our uncle in Ballycar, Newmarket-on-Fergus, on August 15, 1946. We were five and 14 years of age at the time. We visited Limerick from time to time.”
President Higgins singled out the late Jim Kemmy and his work as a historian and politician.
He said: “I remember in particular his commitment as a representative of the working people of Limerick. Jim was deeply committed to Limerick in all of its aspects.”
He recalled how Kemmy introduced him to the McCourt brothers and the music of the Cranberries.
President Higgins said being made first Freeman of Limerick by the new council was a special honour for him and his family.
Paying tribute to Limerick’s sporting tradition, President Higgins said: “I remember my first visit to the Market’s Field with my friend Donie McMahon, who has since passed away. We went on an old red Honda to see our first soccer game there.”
The President praised the City of Culture and the national and international attention it focused on Limerick.
The Cathaoirleach of Limerick City and County Council, Kevin Sheahan, praised President Higgins’ impact on Irish life as a poet, educator, politician, and a champion of human rights.
Mr Sheahan said: “You have given a voice to communities throughout Ireland and abroad whose causes would not have been promoted if it were not for people like you. Here in Limerick, we are proud to call you one of our own.”