Radio review: Mining for diamonds in letters from the presidents

Nuala McCann

The Ryan Tubridy Show RTE 1

Journalist Flor MacCarthy, the author of The Presidents' Letters, had the germ of an idea for her book for a long time.

She reminded Ryan Tubridy of that when she was a guest on his show.

It went back to a time when they ran into each other… it just happened to be in the library.

“What are you doing here nerding out?” he asked.

Turned out she was scratching an itch. She had gone looking for letters to and from the presidents of Ireland, she told Tubridy.

But she couldn’t find a compilation of them anywhere.

She had thought someone would have compiled them.

But no-one had.

Then when lockdown hit, she ran out of excuses and decided to do the job herself.

It turned into a mammoth task.

MacCarthy said there were 660 boxes of letters for Mary Robinson alone.. then she got a call to say they had found another 100 boxes the other week.

Wouldn’t you want to give up?

Well, a very enthusiastic MacCarthy explained, it’s like mining for diamonds.

She found a letter from Seamus Heaney who was missing in Greece when news of the Nobel Prize broke.

When he and his wife were located and they flew home landing back in Dublin, he was taken straight to the Aras for a little reception.

Of all the receptions that he had been to in his life, this was the one that mattered most to him, his letter said.

There’s something about seeing a handwritten note, looking at a signature, that is special.

MacCarthy said there were a few ‘did you know’ moments too.

Take, for example, the note from De Valera that was left on the surface of the moon – it was sent with the astronauts in Apollo 11.

And Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh was persona non grata at the Aras at one stage.

He did some journalism and was invited to a press conference.

He arrived at that long ago reception wearing a green woollen jumper and sandals without socks.

At this stage, Tubridy piped in with the old joke that sandals plus socks would probably have been more of a fashion faux pas.

Yes, of course MacCarthy was plugging her book – and yes, of course, Christmas is looming on the horizon and a book like this makes a great gift.

But it’s no hard sell. There are indeed diamonds.

She found letters to Bob Dylan and Joe Biden and beautiful letters from children and old age pensioners to the Irish president.

She said that Mary McAleese understood why a letter from the president was so important – that a sympathy letter from the Irish president is a sympathy letter from Ireland and the heart of Ireland.

Despite all the mining through the archives, MacCarthy was brimming with joy at all her discoveries – for all her hard work, she probably deserves a letter from the president.

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