Flor MacCarthy’s The Presidents’ Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland

The Presidents’ Letters is back by popular demand. This time it’s in paperback and I’m delighted to be launching it for my very own paperback writer pal Flor MacCarthy. And delighted also to be doing the honours here in the west of Ireland because indeed so many of our former presidents came from the west as well as our current office holder Michael D. Higgins…..And that’s where I’m going to begin, with a personal story concerning my dad and Michael D. and the Áras….

My dad had always wanted to visit Áras an Uachtaráin ever since he a was a little boy walking through the Phoenix Park with his father and bumping into our first president, Douglas Hyde, who was out for a stroll. It was around 1939 and the two men had a warm and friendly exchange. Douglas Hyde and my grandfather, Tom Mannion senior, both hailed from Roscommon and Tom Mannion junior, my dad, dined out on that story for the rest of life, and one of the last people he told it to was Michael D. Higgins who made his wish come true to visit the Áras.

It was in the summer of 2018, just months before he died and dad was in the early grip of Alzheimer’s but with a razor sharp memory of times past….(like meeting Douglas Hyde) and now he was on his way to meet Michael D. This lifelong wish of my dad’s to visit the Áras happened very quickly in the end. We were at a family funeral in Dublin and the president and his wife Sabina were at home and the diary was free so of course the Mannions could drop by if it suited…if it suited…we were all there and all free…as I said it was all very sudden and I hadn’t told many people.

So after the funeral my dad finished his cup of tea and chat with sympathisers, reached for his walking stick, put on his cap and did a polite semi-bow to sympathisers saying, “If you’ll excuse me now I’m off to the Áras to meet the president” and mourners nodded and smiled….Of course you are Tom. Give him our regards….

But Tom Mannion was indeed off to the Áras along with his entourage including moi! The Mannion clan had multiplied and everybody was free to go to the Phoenix Park…

What an afternoon we had. We signed the visitors’ book and saw the names of the last two visitors on the previous page. Harry and Meghan. No titles! Just the names….With a little flourish of the pen from Meghan who dabbles in calligraphy. I don’t know who came after the Mannions but the Duke and Duchess of Sussex just got in ahead of us! Well, we lined up and were greeted like royalty ourselves when President Higgins and Sabina emerged to shake each of our hands and kindly pose for dozens of photographs taken by the endlessly patient army staff on our behalf. We had a beautiful high tea of cakes and pastries, a tinkle by my son on the grand piano, a look around the president’s study, a tour of the rose garden by Sabina ,who held the hands of both my parents so they wouldn’t trip, playing with the dogs Bród and Síoda, checking out the time capsule….Two hours later we were still there! And that says a lot about our hosts. My lasting memory was of my dad singing Galway Bay to the president and his wife who made him feel like the only person in the room.

I must have sent a dozen thank you letters to all of the people who made this happen only to learn later that they are now in the archives! I’d have got better stationary if I’d known all correspondence is kept – the great and the very ordinary…..

And that’s what is so special about Flor’s book. It’s a treasure trove of momentous occasions and little nuggets of detail which are sublime in their ordinariness. All captured through the beautiful art form that is letter writing.

Flor has been forensic and rigorous in her research and selection of correspondence to and from the Áras – with the invaluable help and expertise of archivist and now good friend Niamh Ní Charra – I remember myself and Dave hooking up with them both in Galway one night in the very early stages of this project when you were still rummaging through hundreds of boxes – 600 in this college alone from Mary Robinson’s archive – but I hear it went up to 750….So I feel I’ve been there from the beginning….Hearing the outline of an idea Flor had carried around for years. Now I have to say that the end product, the content really jumps off the pages (Flor has deftly managed to create a most charming book that comes from an innate feel for the subject matter…).

There are some 350 letters, telegrams, photos, notes, drawings….Letters from palaces, parliaments and prisons, from war zones, refugee camps, from people’s parlours, from schoolchildren with the most fabulous drawings especially of the two Marys…..And most have never been published before….So you’re taken along on a mini-rollercoaster of memories and emotion as you turn each page.

It’s a beautifully produced book….It weaves sophisticated letter heads with scraps of paper  and it’s one of those scribbled notes that has come to the fore again with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, and one of my own personal favourites because of the story attached to it. I heard Flor tell it so eloquently one morning talking to Ryan Tubridy and I was transfixed….

It was on the occasion of the Queen’s state visit to Ireland and her speech in Dublin Castle where she spoke as Gaeilge….From words on the back of an envelope….Probably, says Flor, one of the most important documents in the book. President McAleese had hoped the queen might say cupla focal, very cupla…But Buckingham Palace ruled that out because of how easily it might go wrong and become fodder for the media….Then a few days later a diplomat from Northern Ireland, Francis Campbell, was visiting Mary McAleese. They had a friendly relationship, both from the north and both former journalists, and he said to Mary McAleese…..What would you have suggested the queen say as Gaeilge if it had been approved?….And the president said, I’m not going there Francis….It’s a no go area…Ah no, seriously what would you have said?…And then he pulled an envelope out of his pocket and she wrote phonetically…“A Uachtarán na hÉireann agus a chaired”….And that utterance became the stuff of legend when Queen Elizabeth stood up at the banquet in Dublin Castle and delivered those words….And Flor tracked down that grubby little scrap of paper in Australia where Francis Campbell is now a lecturer, and that invaluable document is immortalised in her book.

I also loved the letter of Jackie Kennedy to President de Valera in the wake of JFK’s funeral. In her neat and crisp handwriting in blue biro – she spoke of her husband’s trip to Ireland the summer before, saying it meant more than any other trip in his life, and that he would never have been president if he wasn’t Irish…She said she and the children had now named their house Wexford….And the whole tone of the letter indicated a warmth and special regard between the two. Indeed de Valera took time out to visit her and the children on a state visit to the US in 1964.

De Valera also charmed Princess Grace of Monaco when he gifted her daughter Caroline an Irish pony named Babbling Brook. And again we see a thank you letter written in Grace’s own distinctive hand…Chubby squared lettering in a black felt pen….You simply cannot underestimate the power of seeing somebody’s own handwriting. The message is so much more impactful and makes the sentiments so personal. Princess Grace tells Dev that they are all enchanted with the pony and Caroline is learning very quickly to ride her.

Caroline herself sends a labour intensive pencilled thank you typical of a 4-yr-old. And then 79-yr-old Dev sends a letter back telling her that her mammy and daddy will know when she’s ready to jump great big fences…And he signs off with love and slan leat…Telling her it’s the Irish for goodbye. Letters like this offer a peep into the softer side of presidential correspondences, rarely looked for and never seen until now. These are from a man who went from death cell prisoner to head of state.

As writer Joseph O’Connor says in the introduction to the chapter on the arts…Dev must sometimes have looked out through the windows of the Phoenix Park and wondered how did I get here?…And realising that the only dangerous weapon he would face that day would be a letter opener!

Joseph O’Connor also tells a great yarn about poet Patrick Kavanagh attending a reception at the Áras wearing a green woollen jumper and sandals without socks…Causing quite a stir and leading to a memo from one civil servant instructing that he bever be invited back! Kavanagh was there as a freelancer for the Irish Press using his pan name Piers Plowman. All of the invited press had access-all-areas but the memo states that none of them abused the privilege with the exception of Mr. Kavanagh….who, I quote, “Generally behaved as if he were one of the principal guests rather than a press representative…..His presence and appearance were the subject of a considerable amount of comment…Under his coat he wore a green woollen jumper and on his feet sandals without socks. He looked untidy and not altogether clean….I understand he is generally regarded as not being particular about his appearance.” Joseph O’Connor says surely it would have been a worse faux pas if he had worn sandals with socks!!

Joseph, as I said, has written the introductory essay to the chapter on arts and the Áras.

There are 11 themed chapters in the book with introductions from historians, academics, writers and journalists putting them in context. And I have to say my colleague, David McCullagh has a great opening line in his essay on politics and the presidency in chapter 1.The president’s role in politics is easy to define: he or she doesn’t have one – at least not in active party politics.

And that was the tone set by Douglas Hyde and Sean T. Ó Ceallaigh that the office was above politics.

De Valera was the third president and main architect of the 1937 constitution and he was central to ensuring that the role of the president would be largely that of a ceremonial figurehead with limited powers to be used in very specific circumstances.

That’s not to say there weren’t a few spats over the years with President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh resigning from office after being called a “thundering disgrace” by defence minister at the time, Paddy Donegan, for referring an emergency powers bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality, and you can read the minister’s pained letter of apology in the book. Ó Dálaigh showed courage in resigning but that’s no surprise given this president was the man who offered to take the place of IRA kidnap victim Tiede Herrema in 1975. He believed he could talk sense into the kidnappers but he was prepared to die either way. This letter was never published but this astonishing document is on record and there to see reproduced in the book. I honestly think it’s one of the most compelling documents that Flor has unearthed.

Likewise Paddy Hillery displayed a steelier side when he didn’t bow to pressure from Taoiseach Charles Haughey to refuse a dissolution of the Dáil, on the assumption that the party would be able to form a minority government without having to go through an election.

However, he used the diplomacy of his office when he came under a bit of international pressure from US President Jimmy Carter, who wrote a letter asking him to boycott the 1980 summer Olympic games unless the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan. The president replied that he had forwarded the letter to the government.

But roles evolve and boundaries are pushed out and there is a power in symbolism beyond the politics of the day. And our first citizen can wield such influence in representing the public on the big issues of our day….Issues like inclusion, equality, anti-racism, international solidarity, climate action.

Our two Marys broke political moulds, asserted themselves as independent thinkers and used their platform to highlight matters close to their hearts.

There’s an article written by Hilary Clinton on inspirational women that she posted to the Áras with a handwritten note….To Mary Robinson with admiration. And she shared a favourite quote of hers and Mary’s about female empowerment….From 200 years ago: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves”. The article is reproduced in the book.

Elsewhere there’s a lovely photo of Mary Robinson and Douglas Hyde’s sec Bridget Murphy who lost her job when she married because of the marriage bar. Over half a century later Bridget Murphy volunteered on Mary Robinson’s election campaign. Mary had as a lawyer worked for the removal of that bar.

Mary Robinson shook hands controversially with Gerry Adams ahead of the IRA ceasefire and then left the office early to become UN High Commissioner for human rights. She’s vocal and widely respected internationally on her climate justice work. It was she who said “my own approach was to seek forgiveness not permission”.

Mary McAleese was all about building bridges and the Áras became a key meeting ground for communities from her native northern Ireland, reaching out to loyalists in particular.

It’s so wonderful that Flor has two former presidents, the two Marys, not only giving her access to their archives but coming on board and contributing to the book as well.

And of course our current president Michael D. Higgins is a master of the spoken word and his speeches promoting economic justice and reconciliation are designed to fire people up while keeping within the conventions of the office.

There’s no doubt that Michael D. has been an enormously popular president. I was drawn to a letter by an Irishman who moved to the UK in 1973 and wrote to the president after the state visit in 2014.

Philip O’Connor had been studying at Birmingham University when the bombings occurred and shortly afterwards told how he was hitchhiking to Holyhead to get the ferry home when a British army officer picked him up and then drove miles out of his way for fear the Irish student might meet some anti-Irish sentiment. Philip never forgot this kindness and put it a letter to the president. The letter concludes…

“In my local pub here in Bath, I’m known as Irish Phil. Today I went in and all my English friends were saying how impressed they were by the Irish president. That you got it ‘just right’ just as Queen Elizabeth did in Ireland three years ago”.

That letter says it all really and it’s from the heart.

It shows the innate gift Michael D. has for connecting with people. Michael D. Higgins the academic, the statesman, the orator also has the common touch and you see it in so many of the letters selected by Flor.

In a letter to Shane McGowan on the passing of his mother he praised the musical talents passed on to her son….And a few lines scrawled in his own hand at the end of the letter saying he looked forward to meeting up with Shane when circumstances allow.

He also wrote to a man of his own vintage, Mr Bob Dylan, wishing him well on his 80th birthday.

A letter as well to upcoming artist Shane Gillen who sent a portrait of the prez during lockdown…Micheal D. liked what he saw and it helped boost Shane’s profile and demand for his work.

And there’s the plaintive letter from a girl named Louise who is homeless and living in a bedroom in emergency accommodation with her family of 6 asking president Higgins if he can call someone to help them.

And the president replied and he met the family at focus Ireland and told Louise she had shown great courage and initiative in writing the letter. And he passed it on to all the relevant authorities whom he said he knew would continue to assist them. And I don’t know where Louise and her family are today but I like to think that his engagement made a difference.

Mary Robinson said “We should write letters because it’s so much more meaningful for both the sender and the recipient”….And there’s no question but getting a handwritten letter is like nothing else particularly in this digital age.

And of course the digital age has revolutionised the way we access information in nanoseconds but it’s also a breeding ground for misinformation, lies, inaccuracies and fake news. Never before was there such a need for facts and truth, and faithfully recorded records by archivists like Niamh Ní Charra and for the libraries where these documents are physically filed and stored safely for future generations to access.

Douglas Hyde, Sean T. O’Kelly, Eamon de Valera, Erskine Childers, Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, Patrick Hillery, Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins – Flor became attached to all nine of them and she kept a photograph of them close by on her writing desk but when coaxed she admitted she had a soft spot for Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, a distinguished lawyer, patron of the arts and crucially a prolific letter writer!

Flor MacCarthy has deftly managed to create a most charming book that comes from an innate feel for the subject matter…And she gets it just right like Her Majesty and president Michael D. Higgins.

I cannot help wondering how nobody thought of doing this before……Well, Flor I’m glad nobody did because this book fell into the right hands.

Teresa Mannion

Teresa Mannion is a Senior Journalist with RTÉ news and has been reporting in the west of Ireland for over 15 years. She is married to the editor of the Connacht Tribune Dave O'Connell, and they have two adult sons, Cian and Tom, both alumni of University of Galway. Teresa and Flor MacCarthy go back a long way from their early days as reporters in the RTÉ Newsroom in Dublin.