Irish President Michael D. Higgins is looking forward to reconnecting with his past American life during his six-day visit to Chicago and Indiana that gets underway this Friday, May 8.
During a Tuesday morning phone interview with the Irish Voice, Higgins fondly recalled the extended period he spent in the U.S. in the 1960s both as a post-graduate student and a teacher. One of the engagements on the president’s schedule sees him returning to his alma mater, Indiana University in Bloomington, to receive an honorary degree and deliver the commencement address.
Higgins and his wife, Sabina, will start their trip in Chicago with a Friday morning meeting with Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Also on the Chicago itinerary are visits with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and several engagements with local Irish Americans at events in Chicago Gaelic Park and the Chicago Irish American Heritage Center.
Higgins will give an address to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. He will also connect with Irish American business leaders at an event organized by the American Ireland Fund.
The president, who pointed out that he was inaugurated on “the 11th day of the 11th month of 2011,” stressed the importance of the relationship between Ireland and Irish America, particularly as it relates to Ireland’s continued economic recovery.
“I think visits like my own and visits of members of the government are very important. I think it’s important to listen to what the experience of the diaspora is,” Higgins told the Irish Voice.
“The [Irish American] assistance has been invaluable to us in coming out of the recession. It’s wonderful to be able to build on the goodwill and the assistance of so many in the diaspora who are so deeply committed to their land of origin.”
The immigrant experience, Higgins points out, is one that that he easily relates too. Many members of his father’s family left Ireland for Australia; others went to England and the U.S., including Higgins’ daughter Alice Mary, who studied as a Fulbright Scholar in New York at the New School for Social Research.
“I have been encountering Irish scattered all over the world. I think that they are very important. I think that good communication with the diaspora is very important,” the president says. “I think I would like the migrant experience to be made more central in the way we talk about ourselves.”
Higgins laughed when asked about his fondest memories from 1966, which he spent as a student in Bloomington, IN.
“I traveled by Greyhound from New York to Bloomington. The Greyhound terminal is a great place for meeting all of America,” he recalled.
“I was single, I was 25, and I was overwhelmed by all the hospitality mainly because I was on my own. I kept being invited to all these houses . . . the lectures started very early in the morning at 8 a.m., and there was a great emphasis on mathematical ability and statistics which wouldn’t have been one of my strengths at the time. But I just had to survive.”
The diversity of America was also a new encounter for Higgins, he says.
“People in Ireland sometimes think of the United States as a homogeneous space, but there were many differences between New York and the Midwest, just as there are many differences between, say, Galway and Yorkshire.
“And I began listening to Willie Nelson,” Higgins laughs. “It’s Willie Nelson country in the Midwest.”
Higgins earned a Master’s Degree in Sociology from Indiana University, and later returned to the U.S. as a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He’s made several visits here during the course of his academic and political career, giving lectures on both coasts.
This month’s trip comes on the heels of the first-ever Irish state visit to Great Britain that Higgins completed last month at the invite of Queen Elizabeth. The historic occasion attracted worldwide headlines and firmly cemented the new and improved relationship between Ireland and its closest neighbor.
“We have the best possible relationship [with Britain] that we’ve had for a long time in terms of trade, culture, the economy and the Irish in Britain,” Higgins said.
“The visit was one of incredible warmth. It was very important to many of the Irish in Britain. At the final event in Coventry there were tears in their eyes. They thought it would never happen.
“The warmth from the other side, from my host, Queen Elizabeth, who knew that my father and my uncles had been involved in the War of Independence, was wonderful.”
The Queen and the Irish president spoke about many things, Higgins said, including history and their shared love of horses.
“We were very pleased with everything. We had a packed program – packed by the way because our host added extra things into it as they approached our visit with such enthusiasm.”
Though the Irish have battled extremely difficult times due to bank bailouts that resulted in a broken economy, Higgins says those who have remained in Ireland have shown a resilience that isn’t surprising, given Ireland’s history of people journeying abroad.
“I think the fact is that [the Irish] have had to reinvent themselves so regularly if you think of it,” he maintains.
“I think that what strikes me as president going around the country is first, this kind of anger as to why did this happen, did it have to happen, and then an argument about how much of it is global, how much is European, and how much of it is due to ourselves?
“Then people get on with it. People are now doing new things in the agriculture business, doing new things in nutrients. In other words, they get real.
“Generations of Irish in history have had to adjust to circumstances. I think it is, if you were to ask me to put a word on it, I think it is creativity.”
Those who choose to leave Ireland, Higgins points out, are well equipped to be successful wherever they land thanks to a superior education system. And he’s hopeful that the Irish economy has turned a corner to such an extent that those who leave can someday return home.
“What we’re doing, of course, is intellectually subsidizing other economies [when Irish leave], so that’s the challenge, to expand our economy and to create opportunities for people,” he says.
“Emigration, I think, is a great wrench for families. It’s a great wrench for a parish and a great wrench for a community.”