Michael Daniel Higgins, politician, human rights activist, university lecturer, poet, and the ninth and current President of Ireland, is born in Limerick, County Limerick, on April 18, 1941. He takes office on November 11, 2011 following victory in the 2011 Irish presidential election.
At age five Higgins is separated from his parents, whose struggle to make ends meet is partly the product of his father’s ill health. He is raised in modest means by relatives in County Clare and starts his working life as a clerk in a bank. With a loan from a benefactor, he enters University College Galway, now National University of Ireland, Galway, at age 20 and continues his study with the benefit of scholarships. He serves as president of the student council and becomes involved with the Fianna Fáil party. Under the influence of politician Noël Browne, he soon switches allegiance to socialism and the Labour Party. An unashamed intellectual, Higgins continues his studies at Indiana University Bloomington and the University of Manchester. Before beginning a career in politics, he lectures in sociology and political science at Galway and is a visiting professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Twice Higgins runs unsuccessfully for a seat in the Dáil Éireann, the lower house of the Oireachtas, before being appointed to Seanad Éireann, the upper house, by Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave in 1973. Higgins is then elected to represent Galway West in the Dáil (1981–82) and serves another term in the Seanad (1983–87), representing the National University of Ireland, before becoming a fixture in the Dáil in the seat for Galway West (1987–2011). He also serves two terms as the mayor of Galway (1982–83, 1991–92). Early on he earns a reputation as a leftist firebrand who opposes participation in coalition government. His radical commitment to human rights and to peace and justice in places such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cambodia, as well as his advocacy of progressive issues such as equal pay for women and the rights of people with disabilities, remain constant, but he mellows over the years to accept coalition rule.
In 1993, in the Fianna Fáil–Labour coalition government led by Albert Reynolds, Higgins becomes the minister for arts, culture, and the Gaeltacht (the districts in which the Irish language and the traditional national culture are best preserved). In that capacity he champions the Irish film industry and is responsible for the creation of the first Irish-language television station, Teilifís na Gaeilge (TG4). A poet who publishes four books of poetry before his election as president, Higgins earns a reputation as an impassioned and eloquent orator in both Irish and English.
By 2003, when he takes over the leadership of the Labour Party, the diminutive Higgins has become something of a national icon, known to most people simply as “Michael D.” He seeks Labour’s nomination for the presidency in 2004 unsuccessfully, but in 2011 he is elected the ninth president of Ireland with some 40 percent of the first-preference votes. In the process he bests heavily favoured independent Seán Gallagher, who stumbles badly in a televised debate just before the election, as well as Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army (IRA) leader who steps down temporarily as the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland to run.