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Opinion: What I discovered reading the letters sent to Ireland's Presidents over the decades

Flor MacCarthy shares the uplifting and often heartbreaking real-life stories she discovered while reading the Presidents’ letters.

‘A BACKSTAGE PASS to Irish history’. My favourite description of my book The Presidents’ Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland (New Island Books) is this one used in the introduction to her podcast ‘All About Books’ by Katy Conneelly.

The sense that behind each letter is a story is exactly what I was hoping to convey. Taken together, the 350 or so letters, telegrams, memos, cards, drawings and photos shine a
light on part of our heritage never before explored, and sketches the story of Ireland through the presidential correspondence files.

The earliest letter is the invitation to Dr Douglas Hyde to become the first Uachtarán na hÉireann in April 1938; the most recent is a message to Bob Dylan from President Michael D. Higgins to mark their 80th birthdays in May, 2021: “ As one eighty-year-old to another and as one poet to another..”.

And in between are letters from all the usual suspects: JFK, Princess Grace of Monaco, Indira Gandhi, Richard Nixon, Charles de Gaulle, Nelson Mandela, Queen Elizabeth II – a who’s who of the 20th century. These were the letters I’d expected to find, their visits to Ireland always made the news as did State Visits abroad by our presidents. But among them I found letters that stopped me in my tracks; the surprises, and there are lots of these: 

  • President Éamon De Valera’s message in Irish, flown by Apollo 11 and placed on the surface of the moon by US astronaut, Buzz Aldrin.
  • The letter written (but never sent) by President Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh offering himself in place of IRA kidnap victim Dr Tiede Herrema.
  • The heartbreaking poem presented to President Mary McAleese by Buncrana schoolboy Shaun McLaughlin, six weeks before he was murdered in the Omagh bombing.
  • The memo suggesting that World Heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was too ‘bombastic’ to be invited to pay a courtesy call on the president.
  • A scurrilous description of poet Patrick Kavanagh who wore a ‘green woollen jumper’ and ‘sandals without socks’ to a presidential reception.
  • Seamus Heaney’s letter to President Mary Robinson describing his delight at arriving back from Greece and going straight to Áras an Uchtaráin the night he’d heard he’d won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
  • The letter of thanks to Dev from four-year-old Princess Caroline of Monaco for the gift of an Irish pony.
  • The letter of sympathy from President Michael D. Higgins to Shane MacGowan on the death of his mother Therese, herself an award-winning singer

The list goes on… But of equal importance to me are the letters from Irish citizens who wrote to their president about every topic under the sun and from every corner of the world. Some of the correspondence from children in particular is hilarious, with letters and drawings on everything from the abolition of the death penalty to the abolition of homework!

Some of my favourite letters sent to the presidents include:

press letter 2 Source: Flor MacCarthy

A request from Mrs May Geiran in 1975 (above) asking Ó Dálaigh if he’d keep her ten-year-old son Myles in mind for the role of ‘King of Ireland’s Eye’. The president replied with a two-page handwritten letter in which he told young Myles all about the history and ornithology of the island, but regretted that there were no plans to appoint a king. [PS: Myles did grow up to become a ruler of sorts - he’s the Irish Ambassador to Slovenia and we sent him his late mother’s letter which he had never seen].

‘Teresa’ wrote a note to Robinson on her final day in office as she visited a Focus housing development. “You have been a huge ray of inspiration not only for me but for a lot of young mothers”. Another woman, Fatima wrote: ”You were the only one who spoke out on racism in Ireland…..you shine like a beam of light”.

A Dublin teenager ‘Louise’ wrote an emotional letter to Higgins to ask his help for her family living in emergency accommodation: ‘I live in a bedroom with my Mom, two brothers and two sisters that’s six of us in a bedroom. We can’t be a family not like this’.

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pres letter 1

There’s a section in the book on how the presidents’ postbag has evolved over the decades from pen and ink to social media, with the ‘First Dogs’, Bród, Síoda and Misneach having their own Twitter accounts.

And how the language in the correspondence has changed, from the formalities of the 1930’s: “Your most esteemed Excellency”, to text-speak now: “Hey Prez, you did us v v proud. Maith thu”.

Both former presidents Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have chosen letters from their terms in office and written about the importance to them of letter-writing. And we have a brilliant line-up of writers and historians who’ve written essays to put the letters in context eg: David McCullagh writes on politics; Lise Hand on visitors to the Áras; Joseph O’Connor on the arts and Samantha Barry wrote from New York on the importance of letter-writing to Irish people living abroad.

The Presidents’ Letters has been nominated for an An Post Irish Book Award in the The Journal’s category Best Irish Published Book 2021. To see the full list of nominees, visit the awards website. The awards will take place virtually on 23 November. 

About the author:

Flor MacCarthy

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