Irish President greets IU students during trip

Nick’s English Hut doesn’t usually come up in normal conversation when traveling internationally, but it was the first thing Irish Republic President Michael D. Higgins commented on when he saw the jet-lagged state of the IU students who came to visit Áras an Uachtaráin, the presidential mansion.

The residence for the Irish president is Aras an Uachtaráin, in Phoenix Park in Dublin, Ireland. It was finished in 1751 and was originally the home for the viceroy until 1938, when the first President of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, moved in.

President Higgins stopped by for a short meet and greet with students traveling as part of a course titled Covering the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. He went down the line of students and professors, learning their names and majors as he went.

And while he’s not a large man — only 5 feet 4 inches tall — his presence instantly focused the attention of the room.

Higgins is not only the president of Ireland, he’s also a published poet and studied at IU-Bloomington in 1967 and earned a Master of Arts degree there.

He gave the commencement address in 2014. Winnifred Sullivan, an IU professor of religious studies, called it one of the best commencement addresses she remembered hearing.

From floor to ceiling, the presidential mansion and the surrounding grounds for the president of the Republic of Ireland are bedecked in history and symbolism.

Every time a world leader comes to Ireland, they plant a tree, said John Grennan, a military aide to the Irish president. World leaders including Barack Obama, John F. Kennedy, Queen Victoria and Pope John Paul II all planted trees that line the area around the house.

But while Grennan has met presidents and monarchs, and even called former President Barack Obama “very charming,” he told IU students his favorite people who come to visit aren’t necessarily the world leaders. Rather, he said it’s the people who move him emotionally, such as the children from Chernobyl.

Grennan said he remembered one person in particular from Chernobyl, 22-year-old Sasha. He was one of thousands affected by the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion which released massive amounts of radioactive waste into the town and area.
Grennan said Sasha had spent years in a mental institute or a prison.

That wasn’t because he had done anything wrong, but because there was no place for him other than prisons or poorly funded mental institutions. The people living near Chernobyl couldn’t help survivors, and it took years of work and countless international volunteers for improvements to begin.

That stuck with Grennan.

Michael D. Higgins, the president of the Republic of Ireland and also an IU alumnus, greeted IU students and professors Sunday, March 11. He completed a Master of Arts at IU in 1967 and later gave the 2014 commencement address.

“They had nowhere to put him, so they put him in prison,” Grennan said. “People like that stick with you.”

On a happier note, Grennan said one year he even got to see one of his favorite people, Martin Sheen, who happens to be a close friend of President Higgins.

Martin Sheen is the actor famous for portraying President Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing.”

After talking about a few of the different leaders and celebrities he met while serving as the president’s military aide for more than 13 years, Grennan then went through each of the four staterooms with the students, explaining their purpose and some of the history contained in them.

One room included portraits for all the past presidents of Ireland and a table around which each Irish government had met at least once.

In another room was a pink settee, which Grennan said belonged to Marie Antoinette.

Before leaving for other business, Higgins wished the students well and told IU professor Elaine Monaghan to give IU President Michael A. McRobbie his regards.