For someone who worked as an actor for years and trained herself to handle all the pressures of being on stage, Sabina Higgins might be excused if she felt floored this week.
fter writing a letter to The Irish Times in which she called for peace between Russia and Ukraine but failed to highlight Russia as the aggressor, the wife of President Michael D Higgins has been widely condemned. Not just in Ireland, but in Ukraine too.
The controversy was exacerbated when the outspoken Russian Ambassador to Ireland Yuri Filatov praised her contribution. Her comments were also picked up by Russian media. When the story wouldn’t go away, she felt compelled to issue a statement this week. She said the letter, which was posted on her section of the presidential website, had been written in a personal capacity. “I have from its outset strongly condemned the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine and I cannot be but dismayed that people would find anything unacceptable in a plea for peace and negotiations when the future of humanity is threatened by war, global warming and famine,” she wrote.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin called for the country to “move on”, but her intervention provided spice for political anoraks and many others in a traditionally quiet time of the year.
It also shone the spotlight on an 80-year-old woman who has been seen by many as a calm and personable presence in Áras an Uachtaráin over the past 11 years. Although she is a frequent companion to her husband on his various duties, as well as hosting several of her own engagements, Sabina Higgins remains something of a mystery for many.
Irish Independent columnist Mary Kenny has known her for well over half a century. “Sabina really is a very warm-hearted person,” she says. “I think her natural milieu is more in the world of the arts and the theatre than in politics directly.
“Obviously, she’s always been supportive of Michael D, and I guess perhaps their worldviews would be similar; but I would say hers is very much along the lines of being a pacifist. I think she’s also keen on the Green movement, and aligned in this with her daughter Alice-Mary [the independent senator].”
Another figure, a friend from the art world who has been close to Sabina for years, says she “retains a curiosity about the world that shines as bright now as it did when I first got to know her decades ago”.
“She’s great company,” the acquaintance says. “Very down to earth, but with a fierce intelligence. Her love of the arts has never dimmed. If anything, it’s intensified. One of the things she loves most is going to see new productions in the theatre. And she has a passion for all the arts. As a trained actor who’s married to a poet, that really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“One of the reasons the arts community was so thrilled when Michael D became President was because there were two people who were going to be in the Áras who have a deep love of the arts and an understanding of artists in a way that almost no politician or similar figure in public life would have. And that has absolutely been the case since 2011. I don’t think you’d find a single musician or director or painter with a bad word to say about either.”
Another figure who has known Sabina for years believes the fallout from her contentious letter would have caused her considerable pain this week. “She is a very gentle, decent soul,” she says. “Believe me, the last thing she’d ever want is to upset Ukrainian people: she’s not naive, she knows how much they’ve suffered. She called for peace — maybe she should have worded in differently, but her heart was in the right place.
“Anyone who knows Sabina,” she adds, “knows she is passionate about human rights and freedom of expression. She abhors conflict. And I think she will have been dismayed that her letter has become a story that’s rumbled on for days. I think she’ll have been embarrassed that she might have unwittingly caused issues for the President — but she was writing in a personal capacity. She’s made that clear.”
Former minister Shane Ross was among those who said this week that she should be able to voice her personal opinions.
“The idea that the president should now come in and defend his wife’s position is to me somewhat ridiculous,” he said. “She’s entitled to, and does, express her opinion.”
Sometimes those opinions have made the news, such as the time in 2016 when she said the Irish abortion laws were “an outrage against women”. She used her key 1916 speech at the graveside of Countess Markievicz at Glasnevin Cemetery to warn against “empires of greed”. Eyebrows were also raised when she talked about visiting the anti-war campaigner Margaretta D’Arcy in prison: the veteran actress had been jailed over her opposition to the use of Shannon airport by the US military.
But nothing has provoked the sort of backlash that her letter on the Russia-Ukraine has done.
Sabina Coyne was born on September 15, 1941 and grew up on a small farm in Cloonrane, Milltown, on the Galway-Mayo border. She went to primary school in Ballindine, Co Mayo, and marked herself out early as a bright, inquisitive pupil.
Her love of the arts was fostered by her mother, who would read Charles Dickens novels to her. She soon became a voracious reader. Like many teenage girls from rural Connacht, Sabina moved to Dublin after school to work in the Civil Service. Her first port of call was the Land Commission, but the pull of the arts was strong.
She was in her early twenties when she began to act. Early 1960s Dublin was a good time in which to pursue the craft thanks to a smattering of small, independent theatres run by passionate devotees.
She soon came into the orbit of Deirdre O’Connell, an Irish-American acting tutor who had studied in New York in Lee Strasberg’s famous Actors Studio. Future pupils would include Robert de Niro. O’Connell was determined to bring Stanislavski’s system of acting to Ireland. Named after the great Russian theatre director and actor Konstantin Stanislavski, it’s a deeply immersive technique that gave birth to what has become known as method acting. When O’Connell started teaching it in Dublin in 1963, it breathed new life into the city’s theatre scene.
Sabina Coyne was one of her first students and the two women became firm friends. They were close in age — O’Connell was just two years older. An indication of their friendship can be gleaned from the fact that Sabina was Deirdre’s bridesmaid when she married folk singer Luke Kelly of the Dubliners in 1965. O’Connell herself was a folk troubadour of considerable talent and had performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island.
It was Kelly who helped with much of the funding O’Connell needed to set up her acting school and theatre. After a number of locations, the Focus Theatre finally found a permanent home in Pembroke Place, south inner Dublin.
Sabina was there at all stages of its early development and for the very first production it staged in 1967 — Doris Lessing’s Play With a Tiger. She had come to national prominence the year before when she starred in the RTÉ series Insurrection, a dramatisation of the 1916 Rising. It remains the most notable role of her career.
A versatile performer with a passion for plays from European masters Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, she soon attracted the attention of discerning theatre-goers. “She was a fine-looking girl,” says Patsy Murphy, a theatre friend and arts teacher from the time. “She was very intense, very focused on her art when I knew her. She was a great girl and, when I look back over her career, she’s done nothing but good.”
Anthony Roche, emeritus professor of drama at UCD, was an undergraduate English student at Trinity College Dublin when he started going to the Focus around 1970. “I have a very clear memory of Sabina performing at the theatre,” she says. “She was a very fine actress and really shone in the European classics. She was very striking, very compelling as a presence on stage. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. Her line readings were hypnotic.”
She often played opposite Tom Hickey. “Tom was also very fine actor,” Roche recalls, “and he would have been a very welcome guest at events at Áras an Uachtaráin until he died a few years ago.
“I would have seen Sabina in [Chekhov’s] Uncle Vanya and [Ibsen’s] Hedda Gabler, as well as other continental and American plays. She really made quite an impact.”
Chris Morash, the Seamus Heaney professor of Irish writing at Trinity’s English department, says the cultural impact of the Focus, which closed in 2012, cannot be underestimated.
“It had an importance that was way out of proportion to its tiny capacity,” he says of the 72-seat venue. “But what made it important was Deirdre O’Connell, who had brought the Stanislavski idea of ‘emotional memory’ to acting in Ireland. That was very different from the way the Abbey, for instance, had traditionally worked with actors.
“When we think of the Focus now, it’s a kind of Who’s Who of great Irish actors. Gabriel Byrne was involved at one point, the great Tom Hickey, Olwen Fouéré… It was also somewhere where you could see excellent productions of important European and American plays.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Barry Houlihan, archivist at NUI Galway, and author of Theatre and Archival Memory: Irish Drama and Marginalised Histories, 1951-1977. “Sabina Coyne is a key part of the legacy of the Focus — and of the [Galway theatre] Druid too,” he says. “She was among that new generation of artists who were looking outside of Ireland for inspiration and wanted to do something new.”
Houlihan points out that Sabina was there at Druid’s early development too. “Druid was the first regional professional theatre company outside of Dublin at that time. And, as with the Focus, you had a lot of women at the fore. Garry Hynes and Marie Mullen were pivotal in the theatre’s early stages.”
Druid began in 1975 and Sabina acted in one of its first productions. “She was in a play called Children of the Wolf with Marie Mullen and from all the reviews I’ve read Sabina got very well reviewed and while she wasn’t as prolific in the Druid as she had been in the Focus, she certainly made an impact.”
Her acting career stuttered after the first of her four children, Alice-Mary, was born in 1975, although she would continue to act on occasion until about 1990. Her life changed in 1969 when she met Michael D Higgins. Mary Kenny unwittingly played the part of matchmaker when she threw a party in her flat on Shelbourne Road, Ballsbridge.
Kenny recalls the moment in her forthcoming book, The Way We Were: Catholic Ireland Since 1922. (Sabina will be guest of honour at its launch on September 15.) “Insofar as I recall it at all, I remember it as noisy, chaotic and great fun,” she writes. “My sister Ursula…. studied for a time under Deirdre O’Connell, and was transfixed by her magnetic personality and passionate dedication to drama. Ursula said she’d bring a friend to this mad party, and so she did: she brought Sabina Coyne.
“I think it was Michael O’Leary [the late Irish Labour leader and tánaiste] who brought along his colleague, Michael D Higgins, then a firebrand radical — but also a poet and a most articulate speaker and writer. Sabina and Michael D met at that soirée, and thus I am credited, in Wikipedia, for having introduced the President to the First Lady. I’ve exercised some bragging rights about having made their match, but in truth, it was just serendipity, and the marriage of true minds.”
The pair wed in 1974 at St Mary’s Church, on Haddington Road, a short walk from where they first met.
“I think Sabina loved her acting life in Dublin in the 1960s and 70s,” Kenny says, “and it might have been a bit of a wrench to return to Galway and raise four children. That’s to say, I felt she might have liked to continue with her theatre work, but she chose, anyway, to be supportive of Michael D’s political career.”
Kenny says Sabina’s respect and support for her husband’s career has long been reciprocated. “Michael D thinks the world of her and well he should. She has been there for him through thick and thin and like a lot of women in the ‘70s and ‘80s, she had to put her own career on hold when they had children. But she was a very modern woman back then and she still is.”
The President himself has often spoken about Sabina in glowing terms. Last year, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, he referred to her as “my great partner in my life” and made frequent reference to her.
“She has an extraordinary talent [for recalling poetry] that I haven’t at all, she must know a thousand songs and poems,” he told the Sunday Independent. “You give the first line of something, and she can do the whole of the thing. Her mother was the same. Her mother was wonderful. She knew all the stars. I remember bringing something down to her, wrapped in newspaper — she’d read the paper before she’d look at what was inside. There are touches of seanachaí in that.”
https://www.independent.ie/life/sabina-higgins-takes-centre-stage-a-pacifist-who-found-herself-in-the-firing-line-41892282.html Sabina Higgins takes centre stage: a pacifist who found herself in the firing line