Who is Michael D Higgins?

By Jennifer O'Leary
Dublin reporter


The official polling published at the beginning of the Irish presidential campaign notice listed all of the candidates' names, addresses and occupations.

Michael D Higgins occupations were listed as a 'lecturer' and 'poet'.

The latter was indicative of the bohemian tinges the 70-year-old has espoused, alongside a 30-year-political career with separate roles as a sociology professor and a published poet.

Born in Limerick but raised in County Clare, the eldest of the seven presidential candidates is known to the voters affectionately as simply, Michael D.

He studied sociology and lectured at University College Galway before entering politics, joining Fianna Fail briefly while a student, but soon after switched to the Labour Party.

He ran unsuccessfully in two general elections before being elected to the Dail in 1981 only to lose two years later.

However, he was re-elected in 1987 and retained his Galway West seat until he retired from the Dail in February of this year.

Throughout his political career he took what was, at many times, a radical stance.

"He is a man of principle and always has been," explained Fergus Finlay, a former Labour Party strategist.

"Even at times when it was deeply unpopular he took part in protests about human rights issues here and in other parts of the world."

'Moved to tears'

And while some of his peers may have diluted their radical stance as part of a trade off for realpolitik, Michael D Higgins retained his.

"He was very active and one of the leading figures in the campaign against the war in Iraq in 2003," said senator and academic Ivana Bacik.

"I remember being at one speech he gave and looking around and seeing people moved to tears by his words, he stood against imperialism and what he saw as human rights abuses in other countries as well as in Ireland."

As Ireland's minister for arts, culture and the Gaeltacht in the 1990s, he scrapped the controversial Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, re-established the Irish Film Board and set up the first Irish language television station, Telefis Na Gaeilge (now TG4).

"I think there are an awful lot of people in the arts around Ireland, a lot of theatres, a lot of places where people come to perform and dance to do all sorts of things that owe a lot to Michael D Higgins," said Mr Finlay.

"His legacy has been huge and successful in generating Ireland as a force to be reckoned with abroad," said Ms Bacik.

"And there has been a benefit for Northern Ireland too in terms of cultural tourism and the creative arts."


Away from politics the father-of-four has published three volumes of poetry.

However, being 70 and given the gruelling demands of the presidential campaign, his age has featured as an issue in this election.

"He suffered a leg injury a couple of years ago and it hasn't, it appears, fully healed," explained Mr Finlay.

"It has made it look a little older but what people have been surprised by is his appearances on television have been full of vibrancy and full of life."

So what would mark a Michael D Higgins presidency out from the other six candidates?

"I think it will be remembered as a period when he stood for decency," said Mr Finlay.

"We going through a very tough time now in Ireland and I think the election of Michael D would actually give a little bit of pause to some of that."