President Michael D. Higgins, at a formal ceremony in Clonmel Town Hall on Friday last was conferred with the Freedom of the Borough of Clonmel, the highest honour that the historic council can bestow on behalf of the citizens of Clonmel. On a perfect day, when the sun shone brilliantly, and the townspeople turned out to greet Michael D and his wife Sabina, the whole occasion seemed to fit perfectly in place.
Here we had before us, our President, the ninth person to hold the highest office in the land, the first Labour Party member elected to the position, being conferred with the Freedom of Clonmel, almost on the centenary of the foundation of the party by working class icons Connolly, Larkin and O’Brien, in the very same historic chamber. To round it off perfectly, the occasion took place during the term of Labour Party Mayor, Councillor Darren Ryan.
But it was all that and much much more, for which the Borough Council and officials and Oireachtas members and dignataries had gathered. It was to honour our new, all-inclusive President, whom Mayor Ryan reminded us had received a mandate of 1,007,104 votes in the Presidential election last October. It was an “enormous mandate” the Mayor remarked, but one he had fullest confidence the President would carry out magnificently. “There is no better person than you to represent our great country and I have every confidence in you to carry out your role with great distinction and honour.”
The Mayor outlined to those assembled a brief outline of the impressive life of labour in every sense of the President’s career, from his student days and his earlier career as UCG lecturer and on to his political career after choosing that path. A career of 25 years in Dail Eireann and nine in Seanad Eireann, to becoming the first President to have served in both houses of the Oireachtas. His stints as two-time Mayor of his adopted Galway City, his work as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, in a portfolio very close to his heart. And also of the President’s extensive campaigning for human rights throughout the world and for which he was deservedly honoured by being the first recipient of the Sean MacBride Peace Prize of the International Peace Bureau in Helsinki in 1992.
The Mayor also put on record how honoured he was to represent the town at the President’s inauguration on November 11 last. It was, without doubt, one of the highlights of his term of office, he said. The speech delivered by the President, that day, Mayor Ryan said “was on public record as being one of the most inspirational speeches ever made in this country.”
On that occasion the President extended an invitation to the citizens of the country for participation and inclusiveness and support, to become involved in communities, to be creative, imaginative and practical in their shaping of the country’s future, in remaking our economy and society, back to where it should be and not to where it had sadly gone.
Following the Mayor’s words, the town clerk, Ger Walsh, read out the roll of honour of previous recipients. One could appreciate fully, in those moments, the magnitude of the honour being bestowed .... William Gladstone, Sean T. O Ceallaigh, Eamonn De Valera, Dr. Pat O’Callaghan, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, Sean Treacy.
The honour of proposing the motion to bestow the Freedom of Clonmel to President Michael D. Higgins fell to Councillor Siobhan Ambrose (Fiannan Fail) and the motion was formally seconded by Pat English (WUAG).
According to the motion the honour was bestowed on our nation’s ninth President in recognition of his elevation to the office of the President of Ireland, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the academic, cultural and artistic life of our country and as a token of the high esteem in which he is held by the people of Clonmel.
President Higgins is the 22nd person to be thus honoured, and the fifth President of Ireland to so accept. The very first recipient was Charles Stewart Parnell who was honoured on January 9, 1885.
The President said in accepting the honour that it was “with a great sense of respect towards those who have contributed significantly to the development of this town through the years.”
He went on to say that “Clonmel, is, indeed, a town surrounded by an abundance of rich lands and valleys. It is also, of course, a town with a rich and varied history, a dynamic and lively town with a proud cultural heritage.”
In a very interesting address to the chamber with invited guests from all walks of life present, President Higgins spoke about Clonmel’s journey through the ages right back to its Anglo Norman beginnings, to the contemporary centre of tourism, culture and trade that it is today.
He said “like all of the best journeys, Clonmel’s historic pathway has been an interesting one with many changes of direction along the way; twists and turns that brought about its fortification in the 14th century in response to the depredations of a Scottish army; imbued it with an impressive industriousness and innovation as it developed into a commercial hub during the Elizabethan era; saw its historic bravery as it resisted the Cromwellian army in the 17th century; and led to its growing importance during the twentieth century as a location for multinational enterprises and high technology industries.”
Breaking from a prepared script on many occasions, the President went on to say that this same resilience that existed in our ancestors is the resilience that was needed in our young people today in the difficult times that we now find ourselves in.
Of his many passions in life, in academia, poetry, arts, culture and the plight of the poor and the working class, the President touched on many of these topics in his wide-ranging speech.
Admiring the “very beautiful room” that the ceremony was taking place in, the magnificent craftmanship of the roof, the stonework, the imagination, “all product of human labour” he said.
Of the Labour Party itself, of which he was a member from 1968 to 2011, but is now no longer, he appreciated very much exactly where he was, in the same room as Connolly, Larkin and O’Brien. A Labour Party which only the previous Sunday unveiled a plaque in the same chamber to commemorate the centenary of its founding in the town. “What an historic room this is,” remarked the President when connecting its past with Clonmel of 2012.
He said: “It was here in Clonmel, of course, on 28 May 1912, that James Connolly tabled the motion that resulted in the establishment of the Irish Labour Party. The party founded by James Connolly, James Larkin and William X. O’Brien has played a significant role in the history of Ireland – both in terms of its contribution to parliamentary democracy and the establishment and consolidation of the trade union movement. In Connolly’s motion he noted that questions such as the feeding of hungry children and the need for medical insurance required the establishment of the Party.”
Clonmel is “a town proud of its unique history, a history embodied in its many beautiful buildings, in the lovingly preserved areas of its medieval walls and towers, its ancient streets, the tasteful conversion of some of its former churches into functioning buildings and, of course, the exquisitely restored Main Guard which is such an important landmark for all those familiar with the town of Clonmel.”
The President paid tribute “to those involved in local government in the town. The ultimate purpose of local government is to promote the well being and quality of life of communities and citizens at the local level. This is a serious undertaking as local government impacts on many aspects of people’s day to day life - in their business, in their homes and in their social and sporting amenities. The complex web of wider society is held in place by contributions from many sources - not least by local government, in both its representative and service provision roles.”
In concluding President Higgins said: “There are so many qualities which make receiving the Freedom of this Borough a pleasure. I feel a particular pleasure at becoming associated with a town with such a proud literary past. Not only is Clonmel the birthplace of both Laurence Sterne, whose work was translated into all the major European languages, and Marguerite Power, Countess of Blessington, a great Irish novelist; it was also at one time the residence of Anthony Trollope, a wonderful writer for whom I have enormous respect.
“Clonmel is a town which is not only steeped in history, medieval character and literary tradition but also one that has built on its heritage to become a dynamic and innovative commercial and business centre. I thank you all for this great honour and accept the freedom of Clonmel with great pleasure.”