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President of Ireland visits Oak Forest

President IrelMichael D. Higgins speaks during his first visit Irish cultural athletic center Chicago Gaelic Park Sunday May 11th 2014

President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins speaks during his first visit to the Irish cultural and athletic center Chicago Gaelic Park, Sunday, May 11th, 2014 in Oak Forest. | Gary Middendorf/for Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 13, 2014 6:32AM



As if to reinforce his stressing the importance of institutions like Gaelic Park to the Irish-American community Michael Higgins, the president of Ireland, and his wife shook the hand of everyone who came to hear him speak Sunday.

That’s a lot.

There were roughly 750 people in the Emerald and Tara rooms at Gaelic Park, the Irish-American social club in Oak Forest, an official said. But after a Mass was held and after he spoke, Higgins and wife Sabina slowly made their way around the tables of 10, exchanging glad tidings with all they met.

“He’s no American politician. His breakfast is getting cold,” quipped a Chicago police officer assigned to a security detail that kept close tabs and Ireland’s First Couple.

It was a typical appearance for Higgins, 71, who was elected in 2011 and has not announced his plans for 2018, said Sarah Martin, his communications manager. He always makes a point of visiting with as many as he can at each appearance, Martin said.

“He calls himself the president of all the people, whether they’re home or abroad. He’d hate to go home and not meet everyone,” Martin said.

He shook hands with Tom Moore, who lives in Chicago’s 19th Ward, brought his wife and their extended family to the event.

“We’ve been to Ireland three or four times, and we have to go to Gaelic Park to meet the president of Ireland,” Moore, 67, said with a laugh. “This place brings people together and my grandkids learn about their Irish heritage.

Higgins, who spoke briefly in Gaelic, stressed the importance of places like Gaelic Park for people who come here from Ireland, and for Irish-Americans who’ve been here for years.

“Many of you who are here this morning will remember the welcome sense of home and continuity you received from the GAA in Chicago as you may have battled with homesickness, a sense of displacement and the many other issues and emotions involved in creating a new home far away from family and friends,” he said.

Higgins briefly touched on “the undocumented,” the estimated 50,000 illegal immigrants from Ireland in the United States.

“It is a subject I continue to raise in my meetings with those that have influence and I’ll continue to hope for a resolution to this issue that causes so much despair and so much distress, and is an impediment to full participation in this society,” he said.

Places like Gaelic Park, he said, make it “reassuring to know that so many of our diaspora still retain their love of GAA sports, and their enthusiasm for supporting their county team, finding within that enthusiasm an indelible link to home, parish, village and town, and a means to connect with other members of our diaspora wherever in the world they may be,” Higgins said.

Judy Hannigan, of Orland Park, said it was “really cool” to chat with Higgins, even for a few moments.

“My son-lin-law is from County Clare and he’s a Higgins, too. I don’t think they’re related. It’s fabulous to have (President HIggins) here. It’s important for Irish-Americans to have a place to come. This made my son-in-law feel at home when he came here,” Hannigan said.

Visiting Gaelic Park was a natural for Higgins, who takes great pride in the 2,600 Gaelic Athletic Association clubs worldwide, including a new one in South Africa. When he arrived, He met about 25 local youths who play Gaelic football greeted him.

“I have been greatly uplifted to see, and indeed sense, here this morning, how closely the role of Gaelic Park in the Chicago Irish community echoes the role of GAA clubs at home in Ireland,” Higgins said. “The GAA is not, and never has been, just a sporting organization. It is an association that has woven itself, not just into the history of Irish towns and villages and the annals of many family lives, but also into our national psyche and sense of place.”

Making his rounds, Higgins wished “health, happiness and a good life” upon John Walsh, of Tinley Park, who turned 100 a week ago, daughter Sheila Walsh said. “I”m 100 years young,” Walsh told a reporter.

Gaelic Park President John Devitt said having the president of Ireland pay a visit “is a great honor and a confirmation of what we do here.”

“When you can build something that draws people to it, that keeps the culture alive,” Devitt said.

“We don’t exclude anybody here. If you love Ireland or the Irish sense of humor, we don’t ask what your last name is. This is America, a melting pot. You have to be inclusive of everyone.”

Sunday’s visitors included past presidents of Gaelic Park; Anne Anderson, the Irish Ambassador to the US; and the Irish Consul General Aidan Cronin, based in Chicago.

During his whirlwind visit to the Midwest, Higgins has a busy schedule that includes meeting with philanthropic, educational, and Irish-American cultural groups; Gov. Pat Quinn; and officials of the Art Institute of Chicago, which opens an exhibit of Irish artists on St. Patrick’s Day 2015, Martin said.

On Saturday, Higgins received an honorary doctorate from Indiana University where he gave the commencement address. He received his masters in sociology there in the 1960s and later taught at Southern Illinois University.

“I enjoyed my time in Carbondale when I was teaching there,” he said. “I send my warmest regards.”



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