What difference does the word make-President Higgins State visit to China.

President Higgins State visit to China.

I have always admired orators, well spoken words can take us out of ourselves, giving a shared experience rather than an isolated one. They are non material and work beyond and outside routine categories and yet can deal with daily experience in a transforming way.(*) The arrival of President Higgins to Beijing embraced and expressed many aspects of culture shared by the two countries.

State Banquet Dec 9th  farewells photo niamhcunningham copy









The first speech I heard was when President Michael D Higgens opened the Irish Design 2015 exhibition titled “Weathering” in the famed Ullens gallery UCCA in 798.



Wood_Cube_Boxes_Cillian_O_Suilleabhain_LDF2014_SAY_Webpage_290_153_c1Higgins spoke of how the exhibition” is inspired by the weathering of the island of Ireland by the Atlantic Ocean and the rugged and beautiful landscape this creates. It is created by craftspeople who, through a gentler form of weathering, work with local materials to reflect their sense of place and produce functional objects which combine contemporary ideas with traditional techniques.”


Joe_Hogan_290_153_c1The virtues of Irish artists going back as far as the Book of Kells and the Tara Brooch were praised .”Ireland shares with China a strong sense of societal connection with our ancient traditions of craft and design,” Mr Higgins said.

He also spoke of how culture was central to the Irish experience, which in recent years had included “poverty, illusory affluence and then poverty again”.

Later that afternoon at the design exhibition Ciaran Hogan weaved a basket while chatting to a small group of us about the time of year willow was harvested and how it could be treated for flexibility and colour. Some of the Chinese artists with me were responding and connecting with this familiar tradition. Ciaran was representing his own work and his father’s, master weaver Joe Hogan.

Riverdance photo niamhcunningham

Later the same day a lively evening of Irish Culture at the Forbidden City Concert Hall included poetry by the wonderful Paula Meehan, music by the well loved Sharon Shannon and her band, erhu player Sun Huang and cellist Zhao Xuyang and dancers from Riverdance came from X’ian where there are currently on tour.



On the final night of the Beijing visit there was a reception at the Embassy of Ireland for the Irish community. Michael D Higgins reffered to various Irish communities in Beijing such as Irish Network China, Gaelic football and the Beijing celts (soccer) were given a playful reference as the beautiful game (Pele) with a little cough.

President's reception at Embassy

After the speech everyone queued up in line to shake the Presidents hand and have a quick word. There was plenty of line jumping which revealed either some of us were either here too long or had such habits before arriving. My quick word in the presidents ear was about Irish Wave collaborative exhibitions which take place here with with Irish and Chinese artists  every March. Time was up and my sound bite over.




Personal view


There was one other event ……

Tuesday is a teaching day and that afternoon I asked my students to guess where I was going later that day. They always perk up when you are about to tell a personal story. I told them I was off to the Great Hall of the People . That the two presidents were having dinner (State Banquet) and I could be somewhere in the room. I promised to tell them about it the following week.


I don’t often wear my grandmothers blouse on teaching days. My Gran passed away 20 years (it was she who gave me my first oils when I was ten and taught me how to prime the back of the board from orange crates), it was her blouse for attending weddings and funerals, something decent to wear on special occasions.

Table arrangements State banquet dec 9th photo Niamh Cunningham copy

The guidance for dress code was business attire and decided that it would be the blouse I inherited. Off I went, dusted off the chalk on the jacket and headed on the special bus to the state banquet. My grandmother was an irrepressible woman, fearless on many levels and not very shy, always “dropping in” to visit numerous households on her drive up to Carlow to visit my family. Even with the traces of chalk dust, perhaps a touch dowdy but she would have approved the choice. I think she may have been winking in the clouds above.



(*) some words were borrowed from John Tusa’s essay -Why art matters