Personal Journey: Up close and personal with Ireland's president

The writer (left) with twin sister Madge Dale and Irish President Michael Higgins in Shantalla, Galway.
The writer (left) with twin sister Madge Dale and Irish President Michael Higgins in Shantalla, Galway.
Posted: February 17, 2014

My twin sister contacted me in early 2013 with a proposal: "We are going to celebrate our 66th birthday in Salthill, Galway, Ireland." She had lived in Salthill for two years and the people and place had entranced her.

She rented an apartment on the Promenade in Salthill. The "Prom" is a walkway along the Galway Bay and beaches. Salthill is to the Irish as the Jersey Shore is to Philadelphians. There are a couple of casinos, a bingo hall, an aquarium, and many restaurants and cafes.

Our visit in 2013 coincided with the Gathering, an initiative sponsored by the National Tourism Development Authority and Tourism Ireland. The intent was to have the Irish who live outside of Ireland return to their homesteads and neighborhoods for events like family reunions, clan gatherings, and sports.

We received an invitation from my sister's Irish friend, Pearl, to attend a reenactment of the 1843 "monster meeting" held in her neighborhood of Galway called Shantalla. It was at Sliding Rock Park that the original gathering of more than 100,000 Irish participated. The famous "Liberator" of Ireland, Daniel O'Connell, held 40 of the monster meetings in 1843 throughout the country. "Monster" referred to the number of Irish that attended these gatherings; one may have had more than 500,000. O'Connell was petitioning for religious freedom and repeal of the union of England and Ireland. On Sunday, May 26, 2013, at Sliding Rock, the celebration started with marching bands of youngsters playing all kinds of drums. There were costumed reenactors who recited the speeches made in 1843. Finally there was a Catholic Mass celebrated on the Rock, with songs and musicians playing fiddle and guitars. During the Mass, the gray skies changed to blue with bright sunshine.

A tent set up below the Rock housed a tea table set up for the guest of honor, Ireland's President Michael D. Higgins. An announcement was made prior to the ceremony that attendees not request photographs with the president, as he "is on a very tight schedule." But that turned out not to be the case. Higgins posed for photos with all who asked and many did, including us. My sister and I introduced ourselves and said we are twins. Higgins replied, "I have sons that are twins." My sister told him she would have voted for him in the 2011 election if she were an Irish citizen.

After his picture sessions, the president walked across the street to visit with the oldest resident of Shantalla. I liked to think they shared a cup of tea and one of those lovely Irish scones with fruit.

Now I understand why my twin sister would like to be Irish. Maybe I would, too.


Kate Overath-Speck writes from Delaware County.

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