FIRST citizen and now first freeman of Limerick, President Michael D Higgins has accepted - “with great humility” - the highest honour that can be conferred on behalf of the people of the city and county.
From Isaac Butt in 1877 to Paul O’Connell two years ago, the honorary freedom of the city was something that was handed out only 65 times.
Now President Higgins has become the first honorary freeman of Limerick, the revised title reflecting the new political reality of a city and county united.
Before a crowd of almost 1,000 people at the Milk Market - including relatives of the man being honoured - council chairman Cllr Kevin Sheahan said it was fitting that Ireland’s poet-president be recognised during Limerick’s term as City of Culture.
And Cllr John Sheahan remarked that “you can have a home in one of many different places - and we know that Galway is your home - but you can only be born in one place”.
For Michael D Higgins, that was in Limerick in 1941. He moved to Clare while still a boy but from his acceptance speech on Tuesday it was clear you can take the freeman out of Limerick but you can never take Limerick out of the freeman.
“My brother and I had been moved to our uncle and aunt’s home in Ballycar, Newmarket-on-Fergus. I remember my mother often talking about that time. Annie MP Smithson’s novels being published one after another and her journey to O’Mahony’s bookshop in O’Connell Street to buy these books as they appeared. We were five and four, my brother and I, and we visited Limerick regularly after that, including at times of great excitement such as the great fire in Todd’s (1959) which changed the city.
“I remember the Limerick of that time where you had an enormous choice of cinemas, the elegance of the Savoy. And then coming down William Street, there was the exotic hardware institutions like Boyds, which had its own employment policy, and on the other side of the road, the smell of the open bags of meal of Mrs Harris’ shop, who was more famous than her son Richard. And then as you made your way down towards Sarsfield Bridge, you had Spaights. There was a kind of elegance to it all and what held it all together was the smell of bacon from Shaws.”
The President recalled the many rented homes his family had taken in Limerick in and around wartime when his father struggled in the pub trade, including facing difficult times and unemployment.
There were fonder memories of travelling to the Market’s Field on the back of a Honda motorbike to his first ever soccer match and, in more recent years, his retreats for writing and reflection at Glenstal.
And he recalled the many Limerick people who had the pleasure of knowing over the years, including Jim Kemmy and the late poets Michael Harnett and Desmond O’Grady, with whose My Limerick Town he ended his speech.
The ceremony ended with a performance from Micheal O Suillebheain and the Carolan String Quartet.