A high-achieving Northern Catholic

Mary McAleese is a 46-year-old mother of three children married to a dentist

Mary McAleese is a 46-year-old mother of three children married to a dentist. She is also a professor of law, qualified barrister, pro-vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, and director of a number of public bodies. She was born Mary Leneghan in Belfast in 1951. She is the eldest of nine children, with three sisters and five brothers. Her father, Paddy Leneghan, from Croghan, Co Roscommon, moved to Belfast at the age of 14 to find work. Her mother, Claire, is from Maghera, Co Derry. Mr Leneghan had a pub called the Long Bar on Leeson Street in the Falls Road area of Belfast.

Prof McAleese attended St Dominic's High School on the Falls Road between 1962-69. She was head girl in her final year and chairwoman of the school debating team. Her interests at school included badminton and camogie, and she was on the national youth executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

After her A-levels she studied law at Queen's University, graduating in 1973, at the age of 22, with an honours degree. While she was at Queen's her family moved to Rostrevor, Co Down, because of sectarian attacks on the family home and pub. Prof McAleese spent a further year studying and was called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1974. She was apprenticed to Mr Peter Smith, chairman of the South Belfast Ulster Unionist Party, now a QC. She dealt mainly with criminal and family law cases.

She spent only a year practising as a barrister, before become Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College, Dublin, aged 24. Over the next four years her research included child custody issues, prisons and computerisation of prison records, constitutional law and attitudes to crime.


Her research brought her to the attention of the media when she trenchantly criticised the criminal justice system, especially the largest prison in the State, Mountjoy, and the juvenile prison, St Patrick's.

A year after her academic appointment she married Martin McAleese, a schoolfriend from Belfast. He had moved to Dublin four years earlier to train as an accountant with Stokes Kennedy Crowley.

The couple lived briefly in Scholarstown, Co Dublin, before moving to Ratoath, Co Meath, where their children were born. Their eldest daughter, Emma, was born six years after they were married. She is now 15. Twins Justin and Sara-Mai were born three years later. In 1979, Mary McAleese joined RTE as a journalist and presenter. She co-presented Frontline with Brian Farrell and also worked on Today Tonight. She remained as a fulltime journalist for two years and returned to Trinity in 1981. She continued to present programmes part-time.

In 1984 she acted as an adviser to the Catholic bishops' delegation to the New Ireland Forum. She was suspended from the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) for double-jobbing with her roles as presenter and university professor. However, she claimed the NUJ action was a direct result of her links with the hierarchy.

In 1987, the family moved to Rostrevor, Co Down, where her parents live. Her husband had given up accountancy and trained as a dentist. He set up a practice in Co Armagh.

In 1994, she became the first woman provice-chancellor of Queen's University. Last year she was a member of the Catholic Church's five-person delegation to the North Commission on Contentious Parades. The delegation was led by Cardinal Cahal Daly and Archbishop Sean Brady.

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests