Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Irish Presidency and the Presidents who came to Athy

The Irish Constitution of 1937 which established the office of President was adopted by referendum rather than by the Dáil of that year. As a consequence it can be rightly considered as a people’s constitution and not one allied to any one political party. The role of the President is that of Head of State, but his or her functions are largely symbolic and ceremonial. Real political power rests with the Houses of the Oireachtas, while the President, irrespective of his or her background, is required to be above politics. The first President of Ireland was County Roscommon born Douglas Hyde, who prior to taking up office had already played an important part in the Gaelic cultural revival of the late 19th century. He was the first President of the Gaelic League and when elected President in 1938 was 78 years of age. He was succeeded by Seán T. Ó’Ceallaigh who, so far as I can ascertain, was the first Irish President to visit Athy in an official capacity. Sean T. had been in Athy, first as Minister for Local Government when officially opening in 1932 the Michael Dooley’s Terrace Housing Scheme. He would return at least twice to Athy as President of Ireland. One visit was to the County Show in the Showgrounds and the second occasion was to join a formal dinner in the Leinster Arms Hotel, organised I believe, by Macra na Feirme. Éamon de Valera was President from 1959 to 1973 and while he passed through Athy on several occasions, he did not make a formal visit to the south Kildare town. As Sinn Fein leader and later as leader of the Fianna Fáil party, he attended a number of meetings in Athy over the years. The first such visit was in the company of Arthur Griffith when he spoke from a platform in front of the Town Hall in 1919. His one-time political colleague, Erskine Childers, succeeded Eamonn de Valera as President in June 1973. Erskine Childers, whose father was executed during the Civil War, died suddenly in November 1974. The fifth Irish President was the former Chief Justice Cearbhall O’Dalaigh. He was the first President to resign from the position which he did towards the end of his second year in office. He did so, he claimed, to protect the dignity of the office following disparaging remarks by the then Minister of Defence, Paddy Donegan, after President O’Dalaigh referred an Emergency Powers Bill to the Supreme Court. Next in line was Patrick Hillary, a former government minister and EEC commissioner who held the presidency from 1976 to 1990. Like his predecessors, Cearbhall O’Dalaigh and Erskine Childers, President Hillary did not come to Athy on official business during his 14 years in office. President Mary Robinson’s visit to Athy in 1994 to unveil the monument commemorating the founding of Macra na Feirme marked the first occasion in several decades that an Irish President came to Athy. Hers was a presidency which showed greater relevance than ever before and as she claimed in her inaugural address the Ireland she represented was a new Ireland, open, tolerant and inclusive. Her resignation from the highest office in the land to take up the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was a disappointing and surprising end to an inspiring period as our President. Our first female President was succeeded by Mary McAleese, who like her predecessor brought a sense of energy to the position which was lacking during the time of the elderly male former politicians who had gone before them. The 9th President of Ireland is Michael D. Higgins, a man who has been a good friend to Athy as a government minister and as President of Ireland. Michael D. came to Athy when as Minister for Arts and Culture he opened the Aiseiri boat project in Nelson Street. The Aiseiri was an old canal boat recovered from the canal in Tullamore and brought to Athy where it was to undergo restoration over several years. The participants in that community project were young unemployed boys and girls and Michael D. approved funding for what was a very important community project. He returned a few years later as the Aiseiri project neared completion to open a Jim Flack exhibition in the local Heritage Centre. The canal boat when fully restored operated as a short trip touring vessel on the Barrow and the Grand Canal and was the precursor of the current boat hire project which has proved very successful. Michael D. Higgins’s visit to Athy as President of Ireland occurred when he opened the SHACKLETON AUTUMN SCHOOL in October 2012. His attendance that Friday evening in the Town Hall created enormous interest and the venue was full to capacity for what was a memorable occasion. President Michael D. Higgins has done our country proud, particularly so during the early years of the Decade of Commemoration. We can be justifiably proud of his cultured contribution to Irish public life.

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