Mary McAleese and Michelle Obama: Different stories, same message

The memoirs of a former Irish president and US first lady have a common message for us

President Mary McAleese and her husband Martin welcome US president Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to Áras an Uachtaráin during his official visit to Ireland in May 2011. Photograph: Alan Betson

Last weekend marked 10 years since Michelle Obama and Mary McAleese met on Irish soil. Ten years since that whirlwind visit where the Obamas’ first stop was Áras an Uachtaráin and Mary McAleese was in the final year of her second term in office.

McAleese includes a photo of the visit in the memoir she published last year. It is an image full of warmth: Mary and Michelle locked in farewell outside the Áras, each woman using two hands to clasp the other tight.

I wonder if they'd make good friends.

From the outside they seem quite different.

Mary Patricia Leneghan was born in Ardoyne in June 1951, the eldest of nine children. Among many remarkable achievements, she would go on to be twice elected to the presidency of Ireland, serving from 1997 to 2011. Her childhood role model was the politician and Catholic emancipation activist Dan O'Connell.

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born on the south side of Chicago in January 1964, the youngest of two. She became a corporate lawyer in a prestigious firm where she met her future husband, Barack Obama. She would support him as first lady when he was twice elected president of the United States, between 2009 and 2017. She describes the late American actor Mary Tyler Moore as her childhood hero.

Despite the differences in their backgrounds, these women are cut from the same cloth. I learned this in reading their recent memoirs. McAleese and Obama are both tenacious and principled women. They are full of vision and resilient in the face of challenge. They are elegant.

Despite being extraordinary individuals, they are also both highly relatable. And their memoirs leave me thinking about the same kind of things.

McAleese and Obama are advocates for pushing yourself into new environments. They both originally qualified in law before later changing pathway.


In Here's the Story, I learn about the many different hats McAleese has worn throughout her career. Barrister. Lecturer. Journalist. President of Ireland. Canon lawyer. Amateur poet.

Obama is no one-trick pony either. She left a steady career as a corporate lawyer to find work that felt more meaningful. This meant working in various public-sector roles before she founded a leadership-training programme for young adults across Chicago.

Obama calls this a swerve: it is to go off in a different direction to what is expected of you, or perhaps what you once expected of yourself.

I read her advice as: follow your heart, absolutely, but keep your head screwed on. Research. Network. Confide in trusted advisers. Consider work-life balance. Negotiate knowing your worth.

It feels like timely advice, given that Covid-19 has caused more Irish people than ever to soul-search and hunt for new careers.

I watch YouTube clips of Obama on her 34-city book tour, wearing outrageously jazzy outfits and sharing her mantra that becoming oneself isn’t a finite process.

I try fiercely to let that sink in.

Getting that one particular job won’t make me feel happy and complete. The same goes for the life achievement or award or dress size or fella.

Okay, Michelle. I understand.

Yes, I’ll repeat.

In her vocal criticism of the misogyny in the Catholic Church, McAleese gives a fantastic explanation of what it means to challenge. It’s about being well-informed; McAleese has a PhD in canon law in her back pocket.

And it’s about accepting that the hardest challenges can have personal conflicts. McAleese’s critique of the church whilst remaining devoted to her own faith exemplifies this.

Real challenge seems to be about choosing to shine a light on what others cannot – or refuse to – see. It’s about being brave and asking people to imagine something different.

A good example is McAleese asking the Catholic magisterium to imagine inclusivity. She wants them to imagine a Church where its 600 million female members – who sustain religion itself through the baptism of their children – can have a say in what modern Catholicism looks like. What the church advocates. How it is organised.

McAleese warns that challenge often means facing backlash. In Rome she was banned by the Catholic hierarchy from speaking inside the Vatican. And in 1997, when putting herself forward to become the first president of Ireland from the North, McAleese faced smears calling her a republican sympathiser. She was described in vitriolic criticism by the former Sunday Independent columnist Eoghan Harris as a “tribal time bomb”.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Michelle Obama has faced smears about being unpatriotic and having terrorist links. This was in response to her attendance at rallies where she asked the United States to imagine her husband as president.

With self-reflection and support, both women rose against these obstacles. They dug deep and held tight to their own beliefs. This brand of resilience has never been more desirable.

But on the cusp of 30, I fear the main problem for young people emulating it is that we’ve grown up seeking approval. This is implicit in an education system where you get a gold star and good report for being obedient. It’s online. Indeed, I was in the very first wave of the internet where the approval of hundreds of my peers on social media became measurable.

It has all left me with a craving to be liked. A dull, shameful feeling that, truthfully, is always there. And I wonder: if McAleese and Obama define challenge as asking other people to imagine differently, how can I possibly do this when I’ve been conditioned to want others’ approval?

Ah. I could stop chasing their approval. I could “challenge myself and unlearn where necessary” as McAleese neatly describes her own habit. We all probably could.

If there is one thing that Michelle Obama does stunningly well in her memoir, it is to tell you exactly how she feels. Nervous when starting a new job. Happy when spending quality time with her daughters. Vulnerable when Barack’s growing career often takes him away from his young family. She says this to him plainly. She accepts the fact but expresses the feeling anyway.

It made me think. How many of us actually do this – express ourselves? How many of us always know what we’re even feeling? I certainly struggle sometimes. It’s why I find writing hard but useful; you have to shake yourself until the honest words eventually fall out.

Research tells us that emotional intelligence pays off. Studies say it is the single most important factor in employee performance – and success – at work. And that it helps keep our heads right. Being able to name the negative feeling inside us is scientifically proven to reduce its intensity. A useful thing to know during a pandemic.

Because if we can’t cope with our own emotions, we risk getting stuck.

I think of McAleese growing up in Ardoyne. A homeplace with the highest number of murders in one community during the Troubles – 99 people dead within a square mile. McAleese writes about her anger when her brother was attacked by a loyalist gang and her devastation after the sectarian murder of two close friends on the morning of her own wedding.

But what if she had simply become stuck in those emotions? Imagine the domino effect. McAleese could never have created the bold, compassionate presidential vision that she did: building bridges. There would likely have been no British queen visiting Croke Park for the first time. No July 12th marked in the Áras.

And we may not have achieved peace in the North because McAleese was an important player in that success. Her 14 years as Uachtarán na hÉireann established critical cross-community relations. Her role in the Hume-Adams talks ahead of the Good Friday agreement was discreet but influential.

All of this is to say: our emotions – and how we cope with them – matter. They have the power to shape the physical reality of our lives.

The most powerful emotion throughout both memoirs is love for others. It’s easy to spot. It’s in the sacredness of the Obamas’ 6.30pm family dinner and the impact that losing a college best friend has on Michelle. To love one another is the very foundation of McAleese’s agenda during 14 years as President of Ireland.

It seems significant, also, that McAleese spends her first chapter mapping out a sizeable family circle and her final pages describing rural Roscommon where she now lives a stone's throw from her late father's homeplace. She is telling us what's important to her.

After a difficult 14 months where many of us have come to realise that family and friends are what matter most, it feels like a fitting note for McAleese to conclude.