My great-grandfather and his family in County Cork stood up and walked out of Mass in 1923 (along with two other families) during the Irish Civil War when the capture of one of their friends and allies was announced. This was news to me, though it answered a few questions that I had. However, I had to sit still and politely smile and sip my tea without seeming too excited or fidgety. Why? I was sitting next to the President of Ireland, and it was he himself who told me about my ancestors walking out of Mass with his own cousins.
On March 22, I had the privilege and honor of meeting Michael D. Higgins, the President of the Republic of Ireland. I had written to President Higgins at the beginning of August last year about the connection we shared to a small village (about 250 people) in northern County Cork. My great-grandfather’s brother was the Captain of the local Irish Volunteers there and fought for Irish independence. During research for a school project, I found out that President Higgins’ mother was from the same village and also worked for Irish freedom. The President’s mother and my great-uncle would have worked together before my great-uncle died while evading arrest by the British.
I had written the letter in August as a long shot – my mother said that I take “ask and you shall receive” to a whole new level. When I mentioned this at tea, the President, his personal secretary, and the Aide de Camp all laughed along with my cousins. When I sent that letter off to Ireland, I hadn’t expected an answer, and had even given up on an answer as time passed. However, the Head of Protocol reached out to me and over the course of several weeks, we were able to arrange a date and time for a meeting.
Two of my grandmother’s cousins and myself arrived at the tall white gates and were let in by a guard. We drove along the winding pavement to the visitor’s car park and began to admire the beautiful grounds despite the rain. The Áras, which is similar to the United States’ White House, was set behind two small gardens that were shaped like harps – the national symbol of Ireland and her President. Even when it came to tea, the fine porcelain tea cups, saucers, and napkins were decorated with little gold harps. Each room of the Áras was incredibly ornate; busts of past presidents lined one hall while their official portraits hung in a different room for meeting foreign dignitaries. Hand woven carpets and chandeliers from the early 1800s adorned the space as well. The couch that the President sat on during tea? That was Marie Antoinette’s!
My cousins and I spoke with the President for about 45 minutes before the Aide de Camp signaled that time was up. During the visit, we spoke of Irish history, village life, the very conservative government of Ireland in the past, and the Irish Civil War. The capture that upset my ancestors at Mass during the Civil War was the capture of the President’s own father, and the President had his personal secretary show us documents of that capture.
Before our tour of Áras, the President said goodbye to us and asked me to continue researching the Irish War for Independence and the Irish Civil War due to our village connections. I was also given his cousin’s contact information to learn more about local history. I love Irish history as it is, but when the President of Ireland asks you to delve deeper and find out more? Well, you can’t say no! And yes, before anyone asks, the President is that small.