The president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, visited several sites in Boston Saturday, calling the city “the capital of Irish America.’’
The visit, his first to Boston after being elected in November, was planned as part of the annual remembrance of the Great Irish Famine that began in 1845.
In a probing and professorial speech at Faneuil Hall’s Great Hall, Higgins acknowledged the complex legacy of the famine, which he called Ireland’s “greatest social calamity.’’
Higgins later participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Boston Irish Famine Memorial on the corner of School and Washington streets.
Sparked by a potato blight, the famine killed nearly 1 million Irish and drove an even greater number to immigrate to the United States and other countries. Boston in particular was a top destination for those fleeing the famine; In 1847 alone, 37,000 Irish arrived in a city whose population was just 115,000.
Boston was selected as the international location for the Irish government’s annual commemoration of the famine.
In a pointed moment, Higgins decried the failure of the world community to stamp out hunger.
“To international relations, governments, and the institutions which generations place their trust [in], it remains one of the great unresolved ethical challenges of our time - the daily needless loss of life to hunger and preventable diseases,’’ Higgins said.
The speech drew many members of Boston’s Irish community, who packed the hall near capacity. They greeted Higgins, who has made reconnecting with immigrated Irish a priority of his presidency, with warm applause.
His extensive remarks were distinctly academic, a reflection of his background as a professor, scholar, and poet. A copy of his speech provided to the media included footnotes and long quotes from other scholars and primary sources. During an interview, Higgins frequently recalled specific dates and figures, and sat next to a thick text on the famine stuffed with page after page of his own notes.
Higgins, 71, acknowledged his academic pedigree is “unusual, perhaps even in the Irish case as well.’’ But he believes that last year’s election victory, in which he received more than 1 million votes, validates his thoughtful approach.
“During the campaign, I made an issue of the price that would be paid for anti-intellectualism, and addressing that it was in everyone’s interest to be able to discuss issues in their complexity,’’ he said in the interview. “I just stuck with it now. The vote shows that there was, in fact, support for ideas.’’
Higgins cares deeply about the way issues are discussed. Recalling famine-era English criticism that stereotyped Irish people as lazy, ungrateful, and unworthy of assistance, he lamented the use of similar rhetoric in contemporary immigration debates.
“Remember, I’m trained as a sociologist,’’ Higgins said. “To me, the use of stereotypes is one of the laziest, most ignorant ways of portraying a people.’’
While the Irish presidency is a head-of-state position that generally precludes involvement in politics, Higgins seemed to signal his support for an E3 visa program proposed by Senator Scott Brown that would allow thousands of Irish to live and work in the United States in two-year increments.
“I don’t get involved in the day-to-day legislation, but obviously I am interested and concerned for all Irish,’’ Higgins said. “I see myself as a president for all of the Irish at home and abroad, so, yes, of course, I am supportive of anything that helps their situation.’’
Higgins described the difficulty Irish immigrants in the United States face.
“They have Skype now, so the break with home isn’t as severe as it was,’’ he said. “But if somebody dies at home, or there’s a wedding, they have real difficulties both exiting and reentering.’’
Higgins also recounted his many connections to the “handsome’’ city of Boston.
“Boston is maybe the most Irish of all the cities,’’ Higgins said. “And I was mayor of Galway twice, and Galway is a huge component of Boston’s Irish population.’’
Higgins spent his honeymoon here in 1974, staying at the Sonesta Hotel in Cambridge and dining at a restaurant on Boylston Street that served macrobiotic food, a culinary trend his wife, Sabina, followed.
Asked if he had a message for Boston’s Irish population, Higgins extended an invitation to “The Gathering,’’ an Irish tourism campaign that calls for Irish immigrants and their descendants to return to Ireland in 2013.
He also implored them to remember the famine.
“My message to them about it is, never to forget, but to use our memories in a way that empowers us and that enables us to make an amnesty of the bad part of it.’’