Snowball. Bet you don’t know what prominent Irish personality had that nickname when he was young.
I will answer the question without asking you to turn to another page or to wait until next week to find the solution.
The answer is Michael D Higgins himself, the man from Newmarket-on-Fergus who was called ‘Snowball’ after he entered St Flannan’s College in Ennis some 55 or 56 years ago.
I bet very few people apart from those who were in Flannan’s in the’ mid-’50s were aware of that. He didn’t have the nickname when he was playing around as a child in Ballycar all those years ago. He lost it after he had completed his studies at the college. But it stuck to him throughout his schooldays in St Flannan’s.
He was given the nickname because he stood out from other students with his shock of thick blonde hair above a body that was somewhat smaller than those of most other kids of his age. Snowball was also the name of some comic character on Raidio Éireann at the time.
That was before we had RTÉ or Teilifís Éireann and we depended on the wireless for much of our home entertainment. Characters like RÉ’s Snowball were almost as well known in the homes of Ireland then as were Fr Ted or perhaps even Gay Byrne in later years.
St Flannan’s, like most boarding schools in those days, could be a very cruel place indeed and some lads – and even some teachers – were given some very cruel nicknames. Snowball was one of the kinder names.
During the recent Presidential election campaign I switched allegiance for a while from Michael D to Martin McGuinness.
This was not because I thought McGuinness would make a better president than Higgins. My main reason was to express my annoyance with those, especially in the national media, who didn’t seem to mind having McGuinness as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland but were appalled at the prospect of him taking up residence in Aras an Uachtaráin.
That smacked of a partitionist mentality that has grown stronger down here over the years. To me, Martin McGuinness, Mary McAleese or Mickey Harte are as Irish as Bertie Ahern, Mary Robinson or Brian O’Driscoll.
Come to think of it, Peter Robinson and Ian Paisley are as Irish as any of us, whether they want to accept that or not. I believe that people like McGuinness and Gerry Adams had come around to accepting that fact. Just as Michael D Higgins would always have.
But that’s getting away from the point. I never thought McGuinness would be elected President. A lot of people who might have supported McGuinness, Gay Mitchell, David Norris or perhaps Dana Rosemary Scallon or Mary Davis, switched to Higgins over the last couple of days of the campaign.
At that stage, it became clear the contest had come down to a two-horse race between Higgins and Gallagher. They didn’t want Gallagher because he represented all that was wrong with previous Fianna Fáil administrations. So they voted for Higgins as the only one who could keep Gallagher out.
The result does not give us too much indication of the strength or weakness of Fine Gael or Sinn Féin because of that. We certainly know Fine Gael are far stronger than the miserable vote Gay Mitchell got. The Sinn Féin vote is probably somewhere around the 13.7 per cent that McGuinness got. Whether that vote goes up or down over the next few years is anybody’s guess at this stage but this is a time for celebration. I believe we elected the best candidate on offer. This Friday is a great day for Ireland when Michael D Higgins will finally realise his long-term ambition to become our President.
He had to fight hard in the early days to get the nomination. His party had refused to let his name go forward when he wanted to contest seven years ago and then earlier this year it looked for a while as if they were going to block him once again.
However, during the course of the campaign, Michael D was able to let others fling the mud while he sat back and allowed himself to be carried into the Áras.
They say that in succeeding Mary McAleese as President, Michael D has a hard act to follow. But they said the same about Mary McAleese when she was elected to succeed Mary Robinson.
I have no fear about Michael D’s presidency. I imagine it will be totally different to that of Mary McAleese. He is a man with a dream of the just society but there is nothing he is going to be able to do in Áras an Uachtaráin about bringing that society about.
The President’s hands are tied and he has to steer clear of controversy. For example, if there is anything in the Budget next month to further widen the gap between rich and poor there is nothing that the President will be able to say or do about it. Even though he might like to.
But having known the man fairly well over the years I find it hard to believe he will bury himself in Áras an Uachtaráin only to emerge now and then with a few pious platitudes here and there. I cannot see him as a mere figurehead who will have no further concern about injustices in society. How he manages to juggle the limits of his office with his own strong feelings is something we will have to discover.
We all have our flaws. There are few of us perfect. The worst that can be said about Michael D Higgins is that he can be somewhat pompous on occasions. He can be full of his own self-importance. But so what?
There are a lot of people like that around but they are better able at hiding their flaws than Michael D is.
He is a man who really has nothing to hide. What you see in him is what you get. There was no dirt thrown at him during the recent election campaign because there was no dirt to throw.
He has worked hard all his life not only to improve his own living standards but also to improve the lot of those he represented in the Dáil.
He deserves every award he has got and we are privileged to have him as our president. Snowball has at last come into his own.