Circumstance, but little pomp

Gown has yielded to town, or the plain people of Ireland, in the twenty-one years since Dr. Patrick Hillery departed from office as our last male President. At Mary Robinson's inauguration in 1990, at Mary McAleese's in 1997, official Ireland was not as austere in its habits as imperatives both fiscal and moral have now compelled it to be.

The television cameras did not linger long on the NUI convocation of Chancellors and Pro-Vice Chancellors, i.e. the presidents of the colleges, immediately noticeable for their striking gilded robes. Nor was it easy to discern the judicial conclave – Chief Justice Susan Denham wore no semblance of her role, while the wigs which signal Ireland's British constitutional inheritance were mothballed by her colleagues. So too were those other pretensions to respectability, British in provenance, which we once aped – the vice-regal throne and the vintage Rolls Royce.

On this date of immense importance in the wider British Commonwealth, the 1918 armistice, it was also heartening to see the first ever attendance at an inauguration of First and Deputy First Ministers of working devolved government in Northern Ireland. Mary McAleese assuredly should take comfort from both this fact, and that Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson - once extremes of two political poles - are now at peace with each other.

Only the religious elite on the dais still wrapped themselves in vestments, and they were tellingly undermined by the plain-speaking and jolly representative of the Humanist Association of Ireland (this was the first time we agnostics and atheists have ever been acknowledged at the inauguration). Where all of the denominations vouched Michael D's success to divine agency, we knew really that the man's capability and intellect was not owed to any higher power.

Arguably more impressive than the President's (rousing) inaugural address, by reason of being so surprising, was Taoiseach Enda Kenny's on-message rejection of materialist folly. He even managed a cogent use of metaphor about wounds healing from the margins (of society). Congratulations to the unacknowledged speechwriter buried somewhere in the Civil Service for that one.

And with great serendipity, a ceremony host to such speeches ran parallel with the conclusion of Seán Quinn's bankruptcy proceedings in Belfast. Once a man who could boast that he was the richest in Ireland, now his reckless under-capitalisation of his insurance firm and alleged pawning off of his assets to relatives in return for laptop computers caught up with him. The man, as much as his mismanagement and greed, is disgraced and his type utterly rejected by the Irish people.

The symbolism of the establishment chimed the correct note then. This is all that we can hope for from a ceremonial office, one which at its best may invigorate or act as a lightning rod for discourse about Irish society.  Nobody expects him to be able to invoke against the EU-IMF triumvirate any measure of power. But Higgins never let anyone labour under such an illusion, rather unlike another candidate who took every opportunity going to wave about a copy of the Constitution. A document which she had, it seemed, never read.

Finally, Michael D Higgins also defied expectations, and deviated from the example of his two immediate predecessors in one significant way – he made not a single reference to W.B. Yeats in his inaugural!

 Image top: wfbakker2.