As I write, Michael D Higgins has been voted in for a second term as President of Ireland. I have encountered Michael D Higgins twice in my life. Once was on his first campaign trail, in a library during a book festival. And the other occasion was years before that, in a community hall deep in the Connemara countryside.
Higgins was invited to speak at a training weekend for people involved in community radio, as I was at the time. I spent most of that weekend indulging in debauchery, but carved out time to hear him speak at a debate about racism. And I was emboldened to ask him a question.
Black vs White
As a teenager, I watched the film Ben-Hur. As I watched the final chariot rate, I noticed that the horses drawing the chariot of Ben-Hur, the hero, were white. The horses drawing the chariot of Messala, Ben-Hur’s enemy were black. At a discussion around the dinner table, my father remarked on the symbolism of the colour choice. He observed that often, the word black was used to symbolise evil or disaster, while the word white symbolised purity and goodness. I was struck by this. It hadn’t occurred to me before that words could be used in this way.
Now, in that room crowded with broadcasters wielding microphones, I asked Michael D Higgins why the words black and white were used in this way. I no longer remember his answer, but I remember his aura of serious thought, the weight he gave to the question. This was a question he considered worthy of his attention. Afterwards, my radio colleagues remarked on the intelligence of my question.
Acting as Ventriloquist
But it wasn’t my question. It was my father’s question. I took the credit for it at the time, then tucked the memory into a dusty corner of my mind. But the recent presidential election unlocked the memory. I told the story to some siblings, and as I recounted it, it hit me with force that this hadn’t been my question. I had just been acting as my father’s ventriloquist. He had been dead for just over a year when I asked the question. Since then, I have not been able to hear his voice, in that hall in Galway, his voice was loud and clear. And he would be tickled to know that he had put a question to the future President of Ireland.