Mary McAleese: ‘I’m a bit of an ’oul interrupter. That’s what I hope to be’

Former president Mary McAleese. Her new memoir, Here’s The Story, details her extraordinary life and career. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
The former president on criticising the church, building bridges, life during lockdown – and her new memoir

Mary McAleese’s apartment in the Dublin docklands is small and spotlessly clean. It’s mid-morning and you could eat your brunch off the pristine tiles in the sitting/dining room. When I comment on the Marie Kondo-ness of it all the former president of Ireland shares the credit with her husband: “Martin and I are both very particular about that kind of thing.”

The only thing out of place in the apartment, which has an impressive collection of pottery, hand-turned wooden bowls and several striking, colourful paintings, is a cardboard box of books on the floor.

McAleese, wearing a dazzling pink jacket she calls her “happy coat”, has written a memoir called Here’s The Story, a nearly 400-page book about her life so far.

Mary Leneghan, later McAleese, was a young woman who came of age in a place known by the media as the Ardoyne in north Belfast, an area that accounted for one in every five violent deaths during the Troubles. To her family and her neighbours it was simply Ardoyne.

The beginning of the conflict in Northern Ireland coincided with the start of McAleese’s glass ceiling-smashing years as a lawyer and academic. She was among the first three women to practise law in the North and was appointed as Trinity College Dublin’s Reid professor of criminal law while still in her 20s.

A largely unhappy stint as an RTÉ current affairs reporter followed, before a return to academia. After a bruising campaign she was elected president of Ireland in 1997 after Mary Robinson, serving two seven-year terms. She was the first woman in the world to succeed a female president and has since become a Canon lawyer.

RTÉ radio presenter Marian Finucane with then-presidential candidate Mary McAleese in 1997
RTÉ radio presenter Marian Finucane with then-presidential candidate Mary McAleese in 1997

The amazing life of Mary McAleese, from the bloodstained battlegrounds of working-class Belfast to the grand house in the Phoenix Park to, more recently, Vatican-botherer-in-chief, more than justifies her doorstopper of a book.

The couple bought this Dublin bolthole years ago, when the family was based in the Co Down village of Rostrevor. Their three children are all grown up now. One of them, their youngest daughter Sarah, is living and working as a management consultant in an apartment on a floor above. “What does a management consultant actually do?” McAleese muses mischievously and you can only imagine the good-natured family slagging that goes on when they all get together.

Former dentist and former senator Martin McAleese, wearing jeans and a shirt, has just left for a meeting at DCU – he’s chancellor of that university among several other jobs – but not before thoughtfully making sure his wife of more than 40 years has a spare mobile phone charger to hand.

Former president Mary McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson at Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph : Matt Kavanagh/ The Irish Times
Former president Mary McAleese and her predecessor Mary Robinson at Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

He features a lot in the book, from his early GAA ambitions to his ability not only to paint fences but to mend them. His extensive and sometimes dangerous work with loyalist paramilitaries in the pursuit of the “building bridges” vision of his wife’s presidency is recounted admiringly by her at great length.

During lockdown, McAleese has been crafting face masks from her husband’s old shirts in their home on the side of a windy hill near Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Roscommon, where her father’s family are originally from.

Sensing the way the Covid wind was blowing, on March 11th McAleese flew home from Glasgow, where she lectures as a professor of children, law and religion. The McAleeses had only each other, their dogs and 50 nearby nesting swans for company during lockdown.

'Covid has called us all to dig deep and not succumb to being selfish, to do the higher and better thing'

“I was very lucky I was living at home with a person who is easy to get on with. Look at all the people who have experienced domestic abuse ... I’m living with somebody who brings me my breakfast in bed. My mother is in the North, my grandchildren are in Dublin, I did feel a loss of all that but I had no reason to complain.”

The Roscommon house is close to the tiny cottage her father grew up in before he moved as a young man to the North. The couple have already booked plots in the cemetery in nearby Cootehall, because “god knows where that crowd would land us if left to their own devices”.

She’s had an industrious pandemic. The study in the Roscommon house has been commandeered by her as a sewing and knitting room. She is knitting a cardigan for a brother John, one of her eight siblings. McAleese, the eldest in her family, says she is also enjoying making alterations to her dresses “which, increasingly, I have to do more of because of the Covid stone …”

Like her, the book is full of these very human, sometimes surprising, moments. Sitting at her dining table she exudes the warmth, compassion and ordinariness in her language that made her beloved by so many as president.

Mary McAleese with Bertie Ahern during the 1997 presidential campaign, on Grafton Street in Dublin
Mary McAleese with Bertie Ahern during the 1997 presidential campaign, on Grafton Street in Dublin

For example, when I ask what she thinks about how the Covid crisis has been handled in Ireland and about #Golfgate – which led to the resignation of EU commissioner Phil Hogan – she speaks about one of her best friends Dympna Murphy who died, following a fall, during lockdown. The funeral was held around the same time as the infamous Clifden dinner.

“She was the mammy of our group, a former public health nurse. We are in a group of friends who’ve been going on walking holidays for donkey’s years, getting older and more bockety together. And we were so careful around her funeral, about what we should do and what we shouldn’t do … there are so many things people sacrificed but it was done for the higher cause.

“Covid has called us all to dig deep and not succumb to being selfish, to do the higher and better thing. So it was very disappointing. I can’t understand why someone didn’t say hang on, we’re going to have to make a judgment call here and cancel.”

She is “delighted” about the appointment of Mairead McGuinness as EU Commissioner but “disappointed” for Phil Hogan who she predicts will be poached for  “endless roles” because “he is a man of such ability”.

All this warmth and humanity is in contrast to the former president’s more combative edge. Observing McAleese over the years, I found her slightly intimidating and some journalist friends who covered her presidential campaign still recall stressful encounters with her on the hustings. She was famously hostile to the media at the time. In the book, however, you get a more complete sense of the environment and events that shaped McAleese’s life and which no doubt contributed to her steelier side.

The Leneghans lived in a mostly Protestant area and she paints a vivid picture of the “death, destruction, depression, dysfunction and dispersal” that made up life for her family and neighbours in Ardoyne. After a car bomb exploded close to her father’s pub on the Lower Falls Road, the family home was targeted by loyalists. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th, 1972, “loyalist terrorists fired the contents of two machine guns through every window of 657 Crumlin Road from which a light shone. Nora’s bed was riddled like a colander,” she writes.

The real story of McAleese’s affiliations was that, for years, she had been a key figure in longstanding antisectarian, ecumenical and cross-community work

There was nobody in the house at the time. McAleese had been at a party across the city with her sister Nora and had stayed in a friend’s house. The rest of the family were out at mass because it was a feast day. They returned to find bullet cases in the front garden.

(In one of several blackly funny moments in the book, McAleese recounts how, years later, trying to get her daughter Sara out of bed to go to mass to mark the anniversary of the attack she reminded her about the lives that were saved because it was a feast day, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception and mass had been obligatory. Sara retorted “Huh, sounds more like Immaculate Coincidence to me,” and threw the duvet back over her head.)

Moving to Dublin, for academic life in Trinity, she later took a job as a journalist in RTÉ. She is frank about her view that the broadcaster was ill-equipped to cover the unfolding story of Northern Ireland and how her being a Catholic from Belfast led to certain assumptions being made by her then boss Joe Mulholland.

When hunger striker and IRA man Bobby Sands was elected as an MP, she says Mulholland delivered the news angrily to her saying “your man won” as though McAleese was in league with the hunger strikers and a supporter of terrorism. Neither was true, although McAleese writes movingly in the book about the family trauma of a cousin becoming embroiled in both the hunger strikes and paramilitary activity.

President Mary McAleese outside Tyrone County Hospital on August 16th, 1998, after visiting some of the people injured in the Omagh bombing. Photograph: Findlay Kember/AP Photo
Then president Mary McAleese outside Tyrone County Hospital on August 16th, 1998, after visiting some of the people injured in the Omagh bombing. Photograph: Findlay Kember/AP Photo

Mulholland was not alone in his assumptions. Later, during the presidential campaign, rival candidate Derek Nally accused her of not being a “proper” person to be president, the insinuation being that she was a closet Sinn Féin supporter. The “groundless and opportunistic” remarks were also dangerous and led to the RUC putting a plan in place to protect her children who were still in the North.

The real story of McAleese’s affiliations was that, for years, she had not only been a key figure in longstanding antisectarian, ecumenical and cross-community work, but was also involved behind the scenes in the early Hume/Adams talks. She felt it was important to tell this story fully in the book, to show how dangerous the misperceptions of her were, not just to the safety of her and her family, but to the peace process. Understandably, these episodes contributed to her distrust of the media who she writes in the book hunted in “feverish packs”.

There was an Ardoyne-based priest who laughed at her for wanting to do law because she was a woman. He was ordered out of the house by McAleese’s usually deferential mother

“The people who were making the comments, they would have no knowledge of the North, but they might masquerade in newspapers, as, you know, as columnists,” she says. She’s referring to “gratuitously vitriolic” comments from journalist Eoghan Harris who, she writes in the book, subsequently admitted he got her wrong. “He did. Yeah, but he knew very little about the North,” she says dismissively. “I mean, seriously. How many of these people, if you were to ask them: ‘How much time have you spent there? Do you know what it was like to live there? Did you ever sit down and have a conversation with me for example about living there?’ No, they did not. They hadn’t a clue … I was always bemused by the cluelessness of people who talked as if they were experts and who got away with it. Until they didn’t.”

President Mary McAleese with Cardinal Seán Brady at a lunch in the Irish College and three other Irish-born Cardinals, following the elevation of Brady to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict, in 2007, in Rome. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
Then president Mary McAleese with Cardinal Seán Brady at a lunch in the Irish College and three other Irish-born Cardinals, following the elevation of Brady to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict, in 2007, in Rome. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

At one point McAleese came close to removing herself from the race rather than defend herself by revealing her involvement in the secret Hume-Adams talks, but then people like Redemptorist Fr Alec Reid from Clonard Monastery – the book is dedicated to him – John Hume, Seamus Mallon and others came out to refute the allegations. The tide turned. McAleese became president and for the next 14 years her cross-community mission continued.

If cleanliness really is next to godliness, perhaps I should have anticipated the pristine apartment. The Catholic Church, religious rituals and priests as mentors (and sometimes tormentors) feature hugely through McAleese’s life. She recounts memories in Ardoyne of daily lenten rosaries, prayer groups, Legion of Mary meetings and statues of saints in her various homes. When I bring up the intense religiosity she says “that’s how everyone lived”. I’m not sure. Her father was the Supreme Knight of Columbanus in Belfast and even when she went to Trinity she attended mass every lunchtime. And yet, ever the contrarian, she always questioned her faith and railed against the “maleness” that was such an integral part of the Catholic religion and wider society.

Experiences of sexism and misogyny are another strong thread. There was an Ardoyne-based priest, an uncle of Frank Kelly who played Father Jack in Father Ted, called Fr Honorius who laughed at her for wanting to do law because she was a woman. He was ordered out of the house by McAleese’s usually deferential mother. “You,” she told her daughter “ignore the oul’ eejit!”

The same priest flew into a rage because McAleese’s mother had a hysterectomy, after haemorrhaging following the birth of her ninth child. Fr Honorius insisted she should have asked his permission because she was “still of child-bearing age”. And yet, McAleese went for a celebratory dinner with the “thrilled” priest when she was accepted into Queen’s University’s faculty of law. Despite calling the priest an “oul’ eejit” her mother named a son, Phelim, after him.

Some might be surprised to learn she supported gay rights before he was born, becoming co-founder with David Norris of the campaign for Homosexual Law Reform

“What can I say?” smiles McAleese when I express dismay about this turn of events. “We are a very forgiving people.” When, as president, McAleese met Pope John Paul she was slightly less forgiving of his sexist “joke”. Offering his hand to her husband Martin rather than to the president herself, the pope smiled “would you not prefer to be the president of Ireland rather than married to the president?” In private session, McAleese told the pope his joke was sexist and improper. He was mortified and apologised. In the book she gets into scrapes with various higher-ups in the church, including Boston’s notorious Cardinal Law.

“I was always able to stand my ground and confront what I saw as unfairness and injustice,” she says now. “Call it God-given if you like but it inhabits me like a rising tide and it always has, along with an ability to challenge myself and unlearn where necessary.”

She has “unlearned” in various ways over the years. She supported the insertion of the 8th amendment into the constitution in 1983, for example, but voted yes in the recent abortion referendum. She was ahead of her time on other issues such as gay rights. She has grown-up twins, one of them, Justin, is gay and she campaigned with him in the same-sex marriage referendum. Some might be surprised to learn she supported gay rights before he was born, becoming co-founder with David Norris of the campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.

Mary McAleese celebrated the 12th of July in the Áras as part of her bridge-building initiative, with a visit from Ian Paisley. Photograph: Maxwells
Mary McAleese celebrating the 12th of July in the Áras as part of her bridge-building initiative, with a visit from Ian Paisley. Photograph: Maxwells

McAleese’s time as president was, in a different way, as progressive as Mary Robinson’s. As part of her vision to build bridges she celebrated the 12th of July in the Áras and hosted people who would have never have dreamed of walking through those doors. A grinning Ian Paisley even arrived, eventually. She was criticised for taking communion in the Protestant Christ Church Cathedral, part of her plan to reach out to all communities. Towards the end of her second term she hosted that historic visit by the Queen – the story behind the royal visitor’s history-making few words of Irish makes for a great yarn in the book – and afterwards former US president Barack Obama. She still exchanges correspondence, “the odd note and card”, with Queen Elizabeth.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth gives her speech during the state dinner at Dublin Castle in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Arthur Edwards/Reuters pool
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth gives her speech during the state dinner at Dublin Castle in Dublin in 2011. Photograph: Arthur Edwards/Reuters pool

When she looks back on her presidency does she feel proud?

“That first day in the Áras, I said to Martin as we were walking through the front door, ‘Well, we’ll know when we leave here hopefully, whether the great commandment to love one another really works.’ And 14 years later, we walked through the front door again into the car. I said, ‘I think that great commandment really does work.’

“That was the theme all the way through, to love one another, it never left my line of vision …” she says, talking about her desire to heal the deep wounds caused by sectarianism. Her decision, on leaving the presidency, to go to Rome to study canon law shocked some but it was all part of her grand plan. She now has a doctorate in canon law. In recent times McAleese emerged as one of the staunchest critics of the Catholic Church; she has called it “an empire of misogyny”. She remains, frustratingly to some, faithful to that religion.

President Mary McAleese and Dr Martin McAleese in the grounds before a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times
Mary McAleese and Dr Martin McAleese in the grounds before a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Does she hope that one day there will be women priests or even a female pope? “I really couldn’t care less,” she says. “I mean, I care that women are excluded from the priesthood. I absolutely care about that. But I think the arguments around the so-called theological impediments to women’s priesthood are pure drivel. I couldn’t even be bothered arguing with them anymore.”

She is on an even higher mission now. “What I’m involved in at the moment is saying to the church, to the management structure, if you insist that women cannot be priests, then tell me how you plan to include 600 million of them in decision-making, because you don’t have a plan for that. And they’re obliged morally to have a plan but they don’t.

“They think it’s enough to say ‘sorry, you can’t be involved because you can’t be a priest’. Of course, therefore, you can’t be a bishop. Therefore, you can’t be a maker of the magisterium. Therefore, you cannot contribute to the decision-making and the teaching and the moral stances that are taken by the church. This is a huge exclusion.”

I ask what she makes of Pope Francis. “I'm not a big fan of any particular pope, to be honest,” she says. “I think that Pope Francis is overhyped. I think he's a big disappointment for those who hoped, those who believe the church needed reform and hoped that he would be the reformer, but he hasn't been. He doesn't get the women thing. He really doesn't. He doesn't understand. He doesn't really get the clerical abuse thing. So he does what he's told, he does what his advisor tell him. So I think he's probably a decent enough man. But the job that he has is way beyond his capabilities.

"And so the church under his leadership has not progressed in any way ... he still does what every other pope does. He gets up on the platform, and he talks to the world. He talks about climate change. That's so easy. He talks about migrants. And that's easy. And he talks about the poor. And that's also easy. What else would a Christian do in those circumstances? But ask him to turn his gaze internally to the church, to its structures, to its teachings, to its assumptions and presumptions to the consequences of those teachings. And that doesn't happen.

“Something has to interrupt us from the gravitational pull of stupidity and selfishness and dopiness. Love has a way and by which I don't mean gushy, mushy stuff. I mean, the discipline, the discipline of decency. And the discipline of understanding that every other human being has the same human dignity and entitlement as you do.”

McAleese can talk for Ireland about most things and especially Canon Law or her book, Children’s Rights & Obligations in Canon Law: The Christening Contracts. It’s a lot more interesting than it sounds. If she has her way, the Catholic Church as we’ve known it will change fundamentally for, she believes, the better.

“The media are generally really bored by religion and I don't blame them because it can be can be really, really boring. But unfortunately, it is also hugely present in the world and hugely real. And because it is so influential, it seems to me that there is a lot of work to be done because a lot of the world's problems have resulted from clashes of so called religions and feared systems.

“If I walk away from the church, who cares? But if I stay, and particularly with the relative profile that I have, if I stay and if I continue to educate myself about my church, and don't just talk out of frustration or anger … then I hope to be in the back kicking the ball, that somebody, and I don't know when, in generations to come will score the goal that will allow the central command and control of the church to understand how flawed it is”.

What’s next for her? “I have no idea how long I’ve left to live,” says the chancellor of Trinity College Dublin, who will celebrate her 70th birthday next summer. “And so I ask what am I going to do with the rest of my life now? I know what I’m passionate about, the church, which is a very major contributor to the world we live in. And which people are you know, quite rightly walking away from in flocks, but nonetheless, is still a major influencer.

“We seem to think here in Ireland because the church is literally dying in front of us that’s the way it is with the rest of the world but it is not. The numbers in the church are growing exponentially all across Africa, all across Asia. So its influence is growing. And it’s growing among the poor and the developing countries.

“And I don’t want those poor and developing countries to grow and develop in the way that we did, you know, with the attitude to women, the attitude to gay people, particularly, the attitude to family planning. And it will, unless we interrupt it, unless somebody stays around to keep interrupting it.”

Is that what she is now, an interrupter?

“Yeah,” she agrees. “I’m a bit of an ‘oul interrupter. That’s what I hope to be”. As I leave her home and cycle across the Liffey, I think about how long Mary McAleese has been busy interrupting things. All those decades of pushing back and standing her ground for the greater good. I walked into her home feeling slightly intimidated but walked out feeling something else entirely: grateful.

Here’s The Story by Mary McAleese is published by Penguin Sandycove