Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Michael D. Higgins

Poetry and profanity–a couple of thoughts on Miggeldy and blasphemy

Michael D. at Arbour Hill

So Ireland has voted to #keepthepoet and take blasphemy out of the constitution. Miggeldy will have another seven years in the Aras. For any non-Irish readers I should explain, Miggeldy is the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. Miggeldy is an affectionate pet name for this president used widely by Irish people after a child’s school essay misspelling his name went viral some years ago. The name is a joke on how the president has been referred to for years, especially in the West of Ireland, as a popular left-leaning politician and minister. Back then he was universally known as Michael D. rather than as Minister or Deputy Higgins. It’s fitting for someone who has spent his entire career arguing for equality and fairness. Michael D. was the politician everyone would stop on the street to say hello to. Miggedly is the president who loves his dogs and is immortalised in a popular tea cosy. He’s also the president who had a pleasingly humanistic inauguration ceremony the first time round and who’s official speeches have made me repeatedly proud of one of my countries on a regular basis over the past seven years.

Since Mary Robinson took the job back in 1990 the Irish presidency has become a very aspirational role. The presidency was where the Irish people could try out new ideas for size. There have been two female presidents but no female Taoiseach for example. Seven years ago Ireland could have had their first openly gay president in the shape of Senator David Norris but instead voted for their first humanist president, someone who’s further left than the majority of TDs. Michael D. was elected before Ireland’s historic referendum votes in favour of marriage equality and to remove the 8th amendment banning abortion. The winds of change might have already been blowing but once again, it was the presidency that tried out the idea to look for a fit. I’ve often thought that in recent years the presidency has become the face Ireland wants to show the world, a “good room” in human form to be brought out for visitors and kept under plastic covers the rest of the time – and we’re almost back to tea cosies.

This election campaign has been a bit extreme though. Coming so soon after the abortion vote it was always going to be. That vote revealed a lie that had been told to liberal Ireland for a generation – there are more of us than you. That vote proved the lie and gave a breakdown. Of course there are complexities in any vote result, a variety of reasons why people may vote this way or that, but the abortion vote, like marriage equality before it, showed the breakdown to be  somewhere in the region of a 60/40 split. You see Ireland, like many other countries has always had two faces. There is conservative, Catholic Ireland – the country of greys and blacks, right wing, dogmatic tendencies and an ultra Catholic tone – and there’s liberal Ireland – the land of saints and scholars, dark cynical humour, dazzling discoveries. These two countries have always existed in theory. In practice Ireland as she really is is a balance of the two. The question is always what is the balance. It’s the balance we glimpse in referendum results. Divorce in 1992 told us it was 50/50. Since marriage equality we know it’s shifted a bit but you can never be certain.

So when it was announced that Miggeldy was in fact going to seek a second term (he had always said he would only do the one) they all came out of the woodwork. That’s how there were early stories about famine theme parks and anti-vaxxers and Dragons Den. Actually it all got very odd. In the end there was only one other contender. Peter Casey managed to garner around a third of the vote by dog whistling anti traveller sentiments and being generally reactionary. The last 24 hours have seen a flurry of articles explaining that Casey is not the Irish Trump. He’s not – but his comments about travellers did appeal very neatly to that section of Irish society who are reeling from discovering that they don’t have 50 % of the vote anymore, that they are now in the minority. They didn’t vote for Miggeldy the first time round, they didn’t vote for marriage equality and they didn’t vote to repeal the 8th. That lot have always been there, they just can’t say they’re in the majority anymore. It isn’t that long ago when Casey may well have won. This isn’t a sign that Ireland has a growing rump of right wing sentiment, it’s just an indication of where they are.

Which brings me to blasphemy. As well as the presidential election there was also a referendum on whether or not to remove “blasphemous” from the statement “the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.” This hadn’t been a major problem until 2009 when a clause on blasphemy was added to the Defamation Act, thus defining it in law. Now it might have been a pretty useless law that was ultimately unprosecutable but it was still put in there. It seems to have just been there to catch out comics with Tommy Tiernan inadvertently triggering the damn thing in the first place and Stephen Fry falling foul of it and ultimately setting the ball rolling to get rid of it. Well kind of. Most of the coverage of this blasphemy referendum has referred to the Irish people voting to remove the law on blasphemy. They’re not. The law will still stand but at least now politicians can no longer argue it’s a gap that needs filling and hopefully speedily remove the clause from the Defamation Act.

So having Miggeldy for another seven years is a good thing. Having further confirmation that liberal Ireland is still in the majority is a good thing – even if there is still a third of the population who would vote hard right conservatism. Given Ireland’s history this is actually a pretty good figure. There’s still a very long way to go but at least Ireland has decided to put a progressive face to the world.

What’s in a Name?

So Ireland has a new president.  Last Thursday the public hit the polling booths and resoundingly voted for Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins.  When the news broke journalists and bloggers alike tried to find a nice handy soundbite to stick our president elect into.  “Veteran politician”, “humanitarian”, “short”, “elderly”, many labels were bandied about.  The one that seems to have raised most eyebrows however is “poet”.

Now for those not familiar with President Michael D’s literary back catalogue, he’s well known in the west of Ireland, where he’s from, as something of a poet.  He’s not one of Ireland’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and he’s unarguably kept the day job as an academic and politician, but he has also published several collections of poetry with a couple of different publishers.  No one is making anything up when they say the guy is a poet. He’s even done poetry readings.

A couple of days ago The Guardian published an opinion piece by British poet Carol Rumens.  In the piece titled “Michael D. Higgins is No Poet” she dissects a poem of his the Guardian had printed as being apt on the day the result of the vote was announced.  It’s quite a hatchet job and it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, as you might expect.  A couple of people have asked me what I think of the soon to be presidential verse.  And that’s the thing, the one thing that’s probably most extraordinary about the Guardian piece.

I could understand it if the man had been elected poet laureate or had won some big literary prize but he hasn’t.  His presidency will be memorable or damp squib depending on his political skills rather than his skills with a pen.  Even if he was the poetic peer of the kind of little old lady who rings up a certain kind of radio show to share a certain type of topical doggerel it wouldn’t really affect whether or not he’s any good at the job he’s just been elected to.  The question of whether or not Winston Churchill was a good journalist or writer or whether Ronald Reagan could actually act is only ever going to be of mild academic interest.  Their reputations will rest on something different.

But it’s not just whether or not he’s a good poet.  The headline of the article suggests that because his metaphors are clumsy and his lines don’t flow he is not worthy of the word poet at all.  And that’s not fair.  I’m not writing this to bang the Michael D. drum, it goes beyond whether we’ve elected a bard or a bullshitter.  That phrase sticks in my head because it moves the goal posts. It taps into something that I have a sneaking suspicion goes beyond what convenient soundbite can be applied to a certain politician.

Titles matter.  There are some you win, some you’re appointed, and others you earn after a long grind.  The title of poet falls into this last category, like writer or artist or author or even, perhaps pushing it a bit, journalist.  It’s the kind of title that you only feel comfortable calling yourself when you’ve got to a certain stage. It could be getting that first paid gig as a journalist, a first book for an author, an independent exhibition for an artist.  Everyone has their own level but the bar tends to settle at a fairly average height. To use myself as an example.  I’ve written stories as long as I can remember, even used to make little miniature books as a kid to bind them, but I would never call myself a writer.  I would say I liked writing, or I wanted to be a writer.  When I started work as a journalist I still hesitated to call myself a writer.  Apart from anything else I was working in radio.

Despite the fact that in my weekends and at night I was working on a novel, I would only describe myself as a journalist.  I’m even happy to call myself a hack – I’ve worked to pay the bills rather than serve the art – but, despite the fact the novel was eventually finished and I’d even started on a sequel, the title of writer and especially author just didn’t seem to fit.

These days I’ll call myself a writer and even author, quite happily.  I’ve written two books that were published and sold in bookshops all over the country and all over the web.  I know that whatever I do now I’ve passed that point.  The title is earned. 

There’s a lot of debate these days with the explosion of “independently” published books – covering everything self published down and including what would once have been firmly termed vanity publishing.  It’s so easy for anyone who chooses to publish their work and sell it through Amazon onto Kindles across the planet. A bit more work and expense can produce an actual book that can be ordered online or even stocked in real bricks and mortar bookshops.  The industry is changing and so a lot more people are probably entitled to call themselves author or writer. 

I wonder if this is where the viciousness of the Guardian article comes from.  A poet feeling encroached by any Tom, Dick or Harry hanging their hats on her hatstand and claiming a muse because they wrote a haiku once and published it on their blog.  If that’s the case I’d like to send sympathetic thoughts to Carol Rumens. The market has recently got a lot more crowded and it’s harder than ever to get your voice heard.  Even if you take the route of traditional publishing with it’s long apprenticeship in furtive adolescent notebooks, building the confident to submit to publishers, the eventual dizzying acceptance, even if you take that well travelled route, these days it’s damned crowded when you get there.

That’s why titles matter.  We hit the milestones and want the rewards.  When I was growing up the child of actors I was told that you couldn’t call yourself a pro unless someone not related to you was willing to pay.  If you could get paid for your art you had passed the most important milestone. A certain level of ability and experience was assumed because otherwise you wouldn’t get the gig.  By the time I had hit my 20s I’d worked out that talent and experience weren’t necessarily the only things that could get you paid for acting but that’s another post entirely!  The long and the short of it was that amateurs just aspired to it.  They weren’t willing to put everything on the line to earn a living at it.  Only when you took that step could you earn the title of fully fledged artist…usually with the realisation that the living would be extremely hard won.

Of course it’s not always so black and white.  Over the years there have been plenty of writers who’ve kept the day job.  Chekhov was a doctor, Flann O’Brien a civil servant, the list goes on and on and on.  Of course Michael D. was and is a politician.  It’s easy to be churlish about those who have clung onto the security of a day job don’t have the temperament to be an artist.  We all need to eat. The old milestones are still there.  The bar you have to touch to win the right to call yourself the title.  The president elect published his first collection of poems in 1970.  He’s not part of the internet chatter where everyone you meet online seems to be working on a book.  

It’s easy to assume that this is a new phenomenon brought about by the ubiquity of schemes like NaNoWriMo.  But I’m not convinced in the sudden explosion of wannabe literary activity. In my teens and 20s in Dublin it seemed like everyone I met was writing a book. That might just be an Irish thing but I doubt it somehow.  The only thing that’s changed now is all those people hunched over their bedroom notebooks can see all the other people and wave and talk about their hope and plans for world domination. The thing is that regardless of how someone takes those first few steps to that first and most important milestone, it’s not really changed.  It might be easier than ever before to publish your words and more people might call themselves writers and poets than have necessarily earned the right, but the bar is in the same place.  Whether it’s the self published author who’s sold enough ebooks on Kindle to give up the day job, or the literary effete who’s built a solid reputation through publication in a respected small press and enthusiastic readings there’s still a certain line to cross. We all instinctively know where it is.  It’s not the size of the cheque, it’s the respect it’s given with.

All this has nothing to do ability.  It’s more about a solid commitment to your craft (at the risk of sounding hopelessly pretentious).  I don’t know Michael D. Higgins as a poet. I do remember him as a Minister for the Arts.  Back then he showed his commitment to the arts and was damn good at his job.  I’m delighted that, for once, the person we’ve elected President is going to champion Ireland’s artistic heritage.  For that alone I wouldn’t fling pot shots at his own literary endeavours. I’m sure the debate about whether or not Michael D. is a good or bad poet will continue for years to come. I hope though that no one else will be silly enough to question whether he’s a poet at all.  That’s a goalpost that doesn’t need to be moved.

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