Mary Robinson ‘close to breakdown’ on taking up UN post

Former president tells BBC about struggling with stress, and her problems with the Catholic Church

Former Irish president Mary Robinson became emotional during an interview on the Desert Island Discs programme on BBC4. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Former Irish president Mary Robinson became emotional during an interview on the Desert Island Discs programme on BBC4. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


Former Irish president Mary Robinson has revealed she was on the verge of a breakdown when she took one of the top posts in the United Nations.

In a revealing and intimate interview on BBC Radio 4, she also confessed her problems with the Catholic Church over its authoritarian stance on family planning.

Ms Robinson, who quit her presidency three months before her end of term in 1997 to take up the job as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she struggled with stress.

“I decided to get up earlier in the morning, come in, work harder, work later,” she said.

“I started taking sleeping pills and by the first Christmas in 1997 I was a wreck. I was exhausted.

“My eldest brother who was a doctor took a look at me and he told me, ‘Mary, you’ve got to watch it, you’re going into breakdown territory’.”

The 69-year-old said she ultimately decided to throw away her sleeping pills and take a break.

“I took an extra week and spent a lot of time walking by the lake and pulled myself together,” she said.

“I decided I’ve got to get on top of this. I’ve got to do this job.”

Ms Robinson became emotional during an airing of the famous Desert Island Discs.

She broke into tears as she recalled a trip to Delhi, when a crowd of children gave a rousing performance of We Shall Overcome — a song she chose as one of her desert island discs.

Ms Robinson, who was Ireland’s first female president as well as the first to meet the Queen at Buckingham Palace, also discussed her faith.

“I’m not somebody who goes to mass every Sunday because I feel I have to,” she said.

“I’m deeply spiritual and I’m seeking to understand the way in which so much of the Catholic Church is so authoritarian not supporting family planning. So there’s a great deal that I’m very, very troubled by.”

She said she still believes in the “gospel of Jesus as being the highest standard that we can attain”.

Ms Robinson campaigned from the earliest days of her career for the legalisation of contraception.

She said she received a lot of hate mail when she introduced a private members’ bill on family planning when she was first elected to the Seanad in the late 1970s.

“That affected me,” she said.

“I was 25 going on 26 and I remember walking down the main street in Dublin, Grafton Street, and feeling that people were going to jump out and say ‘I hate you, you’re the devil incarnate’.”

The former head of state also chose Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf and Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma as two other desert island discs, citing the latter as her inspiration during her race to the presidency in 1990.

She also chose a solar cooker as the luxury item she would hypothetically take to a desert island, and a book — The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing.


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