Analysis: at a time when politicians are unpopular and distrusted, the current occupant of Áras an Uachtaráin continues to capture the public imagination

From politicians using their relationships with celebrities to relate to a specific demographic to promoting their perceived similarities with a wide audience, notions of politics and celebrity have overlapped and interacted closely in recent years. How has President Michael D Higgins transformed into a celebrity politician?

By virtue of the necessity of winning over the general public, celebrity politicians show how they relate to their respective electorates. In doing so, they hope to be viewed by the public as a likable and accessible alternative to traditional, formalistic and institutional politicians.

Political leaders are confronted with the paradox of how to appear stately so that we trust them to govern, while at the same time being relatable so they can claim to represent us and to be authentic. Such an undertaking, however, does not guarantee the desired results, but it does appear to have worked favourably in the president's creation of a publically-palatable image.

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From RTÉ Archives, Michael D Higgins appears on an episode of Bibi in 1991 talking about the use of language in politics. He was then billed as "politician, poet, journalist and writer"

Celebrity politicians want to promote an image that they are 'normal’ or ‘just like us’ as opposed to one in which they are clearly absent from common life challenges. Social media has been a powerful tool in presenting President Higgins as an identifiable, ordinary, imperfect and accessible politician.

He is the first Irish president to serve during the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Images have circulated of several instances where the president is seen queuing at an ATM. Most of the subsequent commentary pokes fun at the idea that the head of state firstly has to conduct such a mundane task as withdrawing cash and secondly that he is forced to stand in a queue to do so.

Other images that are regularly shared across social media include President Higgins on a BMX bike at Sea Sessions festival while on the campaign trail in 2016 and celebrating Robbie Brady’s late goal against Italy in the stands at Euro 2016. A photograph of him at a concert in Slane in 1984 ‘prompted the Irish to dote over him even more’. Pictured smiling broadly in jeans, sandals and an open shirt, captions for the photograph often describe it as an iconic photo ‘taken of the president at Slane in 1984’. Of course, he was not president at the time that the photograph was taken, but commentary prefers to blur the distinction between then and now in order to portray the president as a more relatable individual.

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President Michael D Higgins on the Tommy Tiernan Show in 2020

Associations with other celebrities can be an important phenomenon that politicians can use to connect better with a disgruntled public. When President Higgins appeared on The Tommy Tiernan Show in 2020, he was described by the host as ‘one of my best friends’. President Higgins’ response was ‘it’s shared’, demonstrating the close relationship with the two individuals and the collision of the very different worlds of comedy, entertainment and politics.

In appearing on the top-rated Saturday night chat show, President Higgins utilised his friendship with a popular Irish comedian and presenter to mobilise media spectacle and appear before what is a potentially brand new audience. Former US president Barack Obama is another politician who has been successful at garnering support by utilising the contemporary obsession with entertainment to his advantage in order to appear more personable. Obama achieved this by participating in a podcast with Bruce Springsteen, appearing on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee with Jerry Seinfeld and creating a Netflix animation series with his wife Michelle.

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From RTÉ Archives, news report on the 1994 negotiations between then Minister for Arts Michael D Higgins and director Mel Gibson which led to the filming of Braveheart in Ireland

Part of President Higgins’ relatability is conjured through casual, informal encounters with the public and various social media platforms present these encounters as spontaneous and more authentic than the usual arranged, formal and scripted meetings that politicians are associated with. He has often been spotted walking the grounds of Arás an Uachtaráin posing for photographs with the public and stopping for brief chats. While these encounters with a public figure or the president's behaviour in obliging photographs and conversation are hardly remarkable, he appears to be lauded more than other politicians for breaking with perceived presidential decorum to engage with the public spontaneously.

President Higgins’ image has transferred successfully into popular culture and in particular, within the creative and artistic community. The Michael ‘Tea’ Higgins knitted tea cosy not only captures the president's visual features of white hair, glasses and suit, but it also taps into Ireland’s tea drinking culture. The Miggle D Giggles soft toy allows users to have their own giggling president by squeezing his belly and listening to him laugh and Peter Donnelly’s illustrated children’s book tells the story of the President of Ireland making his way across Dublin city in search of his glasses.

The Saw Doctors applauded Michael D Higgins and his prowess as a politician, lecturer and activist in their 2002 song Michael D Rockin in the Dáil. Who could forget the tongue twister lyrics sung at great speed as ‘Michael D lectured me in sociology, I was in UCG for the degree, For social policy, global equality, He was the king of the arts faculty’.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ray D'Arcy Show, illustrator Caoimhe Hennessy talks about her Christmas card featuring an illustration of President Michael D Higgins and his dog

Pets are useful presidential accessories and can be used strategically in public by carefully gauging the best and worst times to present them to the public. President Higgins’ Bernese Mountain dogs Bród and Misneach facilitate the creation of specific presidential qualities - loyalty, honesty and a publicly palletable tenderness. Both dogs, as well as Síoda who died in September 2020, appeared prominently in photographs with global dignitaries and world leaders on visits to Ireland. President Higgins and his dogs have even featured on a Christmas card by illustrator Caoimhe Hennessy, emphasising the role that his pets play in his charming and personable public image.

In a 2019 survey by international data company Yougov, President Higgins was voted the third most admired man by Irish people, behind David Attenborough and Barack Obama. In an era where political elites and politicians are increasingly the subjects of declining trust and popularity, President Higgins continues to capture the public imagination and has fit into the role of celebrity politician with ease. However, as we continue to consume and share these light-hearted images and encounters with the president, we must be mindful that the spectacle of celebrity is never a substitute for political substance.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ