Shy, deeply spiritual and almost an actor. The lesser-known Mary Robinson
The former president’s autobiography reveals a little of the private person behind the public figure. She talks to DEAGLÁN de BRÉADÚN
MARY ROBINSON carries out her public duties – senator, president of Ireland, United Nations high commissioner for human rights, among others – with a serious, even sombre demeanour. But in her new autobiography, Everybody Matters, she takes the unusual step of revealing some of the inner feelings she experienced in these roles and during her early life.
The daughter of a hard-working, well-to-do family doctor in Ballina, she has always had a sympathy and concern for the oppressed and unprivileged.
“We weren’t rich, but certainly comfortable,” she told The Irish Times in Dublin this week. “The ethic was very much the importance of work and religion.” Robinson says she was shy as a youngster. “I still am.”
In the book’s honest account of her early years, she describes how close she came to entering religious life. Relatives who were powerful and committed nuns exercised a strong influence over the young Mary.
Her plans changed when her parents sent her to finishing school in Paris, an institution known as Mademoiselle Anita’s. There the Ballina teenager began to read Simone de Beauvoir and Françoise Sagan. The Algerian war to secure independence from France was under way, and she recalls how its fallout pervaded the atmosphere. “There were some attacks in Paris at the time; you had to carry your passport.”
It wasn’t all grim; a magic moment came when she saw the singer Edith Piaf perform. “She was wonderful.”
Robinson recalls being very impressed by the professors from the Sorbonne who came to Mademoiselle Anita’s. Their approach was a long way from old-style rote-learning. “It was teaching to make you think.” She came across the same approach later, studying law at Harvard University.
Another great influence, one that has stayed with her, was Eleanor Roosevelt, a ground-breaking figure in the definition and articulation of human rights.
There are some parallels in their careers. As a pupil at Mount Anville Secondary School, in Dublin, Robinson came across Roosevelt’s advocacy of universal human rights in the school library. “I read that and I thought, Wow.”
She was also inspired by various poets. Chapters of her book are prefaced with lines from her friend Eavan Boland and from WB Yeats, Seamus Heaney and Derek Mahon, among others.
She lost her nun’s vocation in Paris. Did she also lose her religion? “Not really, no. I’m a deeply spiritual person, and I believe the teachings of Jesus are the highest moral standard you can have.”
She won a scholarship to Trinity College. Now chancellor of the university, she smiles about her admission in her book that she once gatecrashed the Trinity Ball by climbing a ladder. At the time the college’s Historical Society, said to be the world’s oldest undergraduate debating society, did not admit women. “These are things that I think we need to remember.”
Admitting she was “the class swot”, she achieved first-class honours in three degrees in 1967, two from Trinity and a barrister-at-law degree from the King’s Inns. When she went to Harvard a friend from Trinity, Nick Robinson, came along with a bunch of flowers to say goodbye, but she had already left. They married three years later.
Her time at Harvard was exciting and inspired her. The anti-Vietnam War movement was at its height, and Robinson was impressed by the idealism of classmates who, instead of seeking jobs in New York law firms, were joining anti-poverty groups or the campaign against racism.
She returned to Ireland and was appointed Reid professor of law at TCD, a post later held by Mary McAleese. More significantly, in political terms, she was elected to Seanad Éireann as an Independent on the Trinity panel in 1969, at the age of 25.
Robinson began a long struggle to change the law banning contraceptives in the State. She pays warm tribute to the senators John Horgan and Trevor West for their support when she tabled a bill in the Seanad to change the law. But the conservative political system clamped down on her. “I think it’s the only time in the whole history of the Oireachtas that the Seanad would not even give a first reading and print [a bill].”
Robinson tells how, as well as having political ambitions, she was briefly attracted by the stage. This ended when she failed an audition at the Focus Theatre, which espoused Stanislavsky method acting. “I was told to imagine an object and think myself into being it, and I had the imagination to imagine myself into my briefcase, would you believe, but the trouble was, I had my eyes closed and I was told, ‘No, no, you can’t just close your eyes and think you’re a briefcase.’ ”
When Robinson’s legal colleague John Rogers came to see her in her home before the 1990 presidential election, she was taken aback when he asked her to run in the election, with the support of the Labour Party. She finally agreed, with the aim of working “for the people of Ireland as their head of state – and not just be the figurehead head of state and the ‘spokesperson for the Government’ head of state”.
Taking office after the dramatic campaign was a challenge. “If you think of the hurly-burly of the election and meeting everybody and being so involved in the issues – and, then, the sort of silence and almost loneliness of the Áras.”
She found the move from the Irish presidency to her role as UN high commissioner for human rights more difficult. “I was warned that it was a very difficult job,” she says of her five years in the post.
She regrets leaving office shortly before her seven-year presidential term had expired, to take up the UN position. There was “a lot of pressure” from the UN’s then secretary general, Kofi Annan, for her to start as soon as possible. “Very shortly afterwards I realised that it was a real mistake, because it had given people the sense that somehow the presidency hadn’t mattered as much as it did matter or was somehow a stepping stone.”
In 2007 she joined a group known as the Elders, with Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and other distinguished figures, to contribute their wisdom on international problems. She enjoys this work as well as her other activities, such as heading the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.
Robinson’s work is not over. She has put the “story so far” into a book, based on the dictum of Ela Bhatt, the celebrated rights activist from India, another member of the Elders, who said: “Our experience is not just our own property – it must be shared.”
Everybody Matters (Hodder Stoughton) will be launched in Ballina, Co Mayo, by Taoiseach Enda Kenny on Monday