Volume 13 Number 4
Ireland's President a Voice of Contradiction
01 August 2000

Mary McAleese, President of Ireland, has long been dedicated to justice, dignity and equality for all in a divided society, writes Peter Hannon.

President Mary McAleese has always been a breaker of barriers--and she has needed to be.

She was born in Northern Ireland in the Belfast area of Ardoyne, a small Catholic enclave within Protestant dominated areas. She grew up in a deeply divided society where to be Catholic was to be treated as second class. When the recent round of 'Troubles' erupted in 1968, she saw the terrors of riots and intimidation at first hand. Family friends died in bomb blasts and gun attacks; her father's business was raked by machine gun fire; and her deaf brother crawled home bloodied from a loyalist beating.

Then there was the ceiling placed on future expectations. She tells of the day she spoke as a young girl of her desire to become a lawyer: 'The first to say, "You can't because you are a woman; no one belonging to you is in the law," was the parish priest who weekly shared a whiskey with my father. It was said with a dismissive authority intended to silence debate. My mother had inculcated into us a respect for the priesthood bordering on awe so I watched in amazement as the chair was pulled out from under the cleric and he was propelled to the front door. "You--out!" she roared at him. "And, you," she said to me, "ignore him!" It was the only advice I ever received from either parent on career choice!'

Yet, for all her strong views on the need for change, the President remains firmly rooted within her church. 'We love our churches,' she says. 'They are our hearth and home. We want them to be places of open, not locked, doors.' And this not just within Ireland. She sees the meeting of Western religions with those from the East not as a dilution but an enrichment. 'Reconciliation in Christ frees us from anxiety about our identity,' she says. 'We exist in relation to him, not through comparison with those who differ from us.'

Her story has been one of barrier- breaking: becoming a law professor at Trinity College Dublin, followed by difficult years working in RTE, the Republic's TV station, when she ran head on into an establishment wary of anyone from a Northern, nationalist, pro-Church background; then appointed as the first woman, Catholic, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Queens University in Belfast; and finally, having grown up in Northern Ireland under British rule, her election as President of Ireland, a country where she had no vote. Taking as her theme, 'the building of bridges', she made her intent clear when one of her first, controversial acts as President was to take Communion in the Protestant Cathedral in Dublin.

As you drive up to Aras an Uachtaráin, her grand official residence built for past British rulers in Phoenix Park, Dublin, you are inevitably reminded of Ireland's costly colonial heritage. Yet she now speaks for a country of burgeoning self-confidence, with a major European role. The 'Celtic Tiger' is now outperforming any economy in continental Europe.

'I ask myself, what will the next generations do with this new self-confidence?' she says. 'Used wrongly it could wither and die. But our different traditions have such rich wells of experience to draw on. Free of the sediments which can cling to past pain and hurt, these wells could offer healing around the globe where the Irish have an outreach out of all proportion to an island of just five million people. This is our historic tradition. As Christians it is our calling.'

Yet she is not naïve about the cost of removing such sediments. A vivid illustration from her own experience is given in her book, Love in Chaos*. In 1991 Archbishop Robin Eames, head of the Protestant Church of Ireland, and Cardinal Cahal Daly, Roman Catholic Primate of All Ireland, invited her to co-chair a working party on sectarianism in Ireland and the churches' response.

She writes: 'We assembled 17 men and women of virtually all Christian denominations. We had been involved in ecumenical discussion over many years, some were close friends and had never uttered a cross word to one another. We were all genuinely concerned about the awful crucifixion of sectarian hatred. We set out enthusiastically to cook up an agreed ecclesiastical recipe which we, the good guys, could administer to the bad guys who presumably would queue outside our churches like starving people at relief camps.

'At one point an American Mennonite agreed to write a paper on the history of sectarianism in Ireland. He seemed a sensible choice. He would not write an Irish Catholic nationalist version nor a British Protestant Unionist version. For months, until we discussed his paper, our attitudes had been monuments to civility. That nasty sectarianism was out there. We were all decent Christian people.

'The day his paper was read there was spontaneous combustion. We heaped abuse on each other and on the writer so spontaneously, so unguardedly, that I was certain there would either be 17 minority reports or no reports at all. We had deluded each other, bringing to the table not our honesty and our trust that we would be loved no matter how honest we were, but our practised dissembling. We learnt that day that, in conflict based societies, festering silence is unhealthy because each side believes itself, rightly or wrongly, to be the victim of the other; that each must have its say, must speak out its pain and be listened to in respectful silence. We must learn to listen even when every word burns. The embrace of God's love does not demand that we suppress our hurts. But others have hurts, too. In the case of our Working Party we were so horrified by our public vehemence that contriteness and humility descended on our labours. We finished our work; but, for most of us, the journey into self-knowledge and self-reconciliation had just begun.'

'We are called,' she says, 'to be voices of contradiction within our own cultures; to move from "duck the blame" mode to "I am responsible for my own lot".'

Mary McAleese's husband Martin is a dentist by profession. Their family means much to her, and their three school-age children provide a lively counter-balance to the demands of public life. 'When my first daughter, Emma, was born,' she recalls, 'I approached the new role of motherhood with the jaundiced eye of older sister to five brothers and three sisters. I had had babies up to my tonsils throughout my teens. I was surprised therefore to find myself so totally smitten with my own daughter. But when I discovered two years later that I was expecting twins I hit an unexpected crisis. How was I going to divide this wonderful river of love for Emma between two more children?

'How little I knew! When the twins were born I saw how rudimentary and pathetic was my comprehension of love. Here were two babies each with their unique river of grace and love. Not only did I not have to share Emma's love, it was now enhanced.

'Exclusivity is not in the nature of God,' she goes on. 'He has no favourites. You cannot divide love. Its nature is to multiply, to draw in, to make each feel important and completely at home, to reconcile.'

She heads one chapter in her book, 'The discipline of love', emphasizing Mother Teresa's insistence on 'giving until it hurts'.

McAleese's spiritual convictions can be traced to her family as well as her church. She talks of her grandmother who 'lived poorly and frugally on a tiny farm in the West of Ireland. The richest aspect of her life was her faith and, in particular, her prayer life. She walked several miles each day to morning Mass, winter and summer, rising earlier and earlier to arrive at the still, dark chapel an hour early. She would light a candle, say the Stations of the Cross and then sit in the candlelight till Mass began. At first I thought her strange. Later I was grateful for the gift of her teaching, though she never once explained to me what she was doing, or why. But I knew, even then, that in the stillness was the Source which gave her courage, hope and meaning. She wanted to spend as much time as possible in his company, to learn the feel of love and how to live by his commandment to love.'

This practice of prayer, meditation and listening for God's direction is vital to the President. 'Ultimately the choices are mine,' she says. 'It is worth asking where God will be when I make those choices. Will I listen in humble silence while he speaks his words or will I regurgitate my own? Am I ready to be a blank sheet of paper for him to write on?'

'Can one person make a difference?' she asks. 'What have we done with our sense of expectancy?' And, against the background of a fragile peace process in Northern Ireland, she says, 'It is a matter of deciding what we must do, not what we want to do.'

* Love in Chaos, the Continuum Publishing Co, New York, 1999
Peter Hannon


Interesting article; no wonder she's president! Would she be interested in becoming England's PM?
Ken Gooch, 08 March 2007