First woman appointed as ambassador when posted to Sweden


Mary Tinney:Mary Tinney who has died aged 82 was the first woman to be appointed a full Irish ambassador when posted to Sweden in 1973. She had a long and distinguished career in the diplomatic service and made many friends at home and abroad. Those who attended the many receptions she hosted found her charming and gracious and a worthy representative of her country.

She was unlucky towards the end of her career to find her embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, to be one of those targeted for closure as part of an economy drive in 1987. It has not been re-opened since.

Mary Catherine Tinney was born in Scotland on February 15th, 1924. Her father, Éamon Tinney, had emigrated there from Letterkenny, Co Donegal, where he had worked as a revenue official.

Her mother, Winifred Reid, came from Co Derry and was a teacher. The family returned to Ireland but Mary's father was killed in an accident in 1930 leaving his widow to rear four young children. After a period in Carlingford, Co Louth, the family moved to Dublin where Mary's mother taught in a convent school and trained choirs.

Mary graduated from University College, Dublin with an honours BA. She entered the Department of External Affairs, as it then was called, in 1948 as a third secretary.

Her first overseas posting was to London in 1950 followed by Stockholm where she learned Swedish. This was to prove very useful when she returned as the ambassador 22 years later.

During her first spell in Stockholm, she danced an Irish jig before the King of Sweden, an exploit which raised eyebrows back at headquarters but did her career no harm.

She was counsellor in Paris in 1963-1970. During this time she was the official Irish delegate to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). There is a view that professionally her work with the OECD was a high point of her career as that organisation began to play an important role in the development of Irish education and to do detailed analyses of the economy.

The latter part of her term in Paris coincided with the upheavals of May 1968, followed a year later by the sudden resignation of president Charles de Gaulle, leading to the revival of Ireland's application for membership of the European Economic Community.

Back at headquarters, she was in charge of cultural affairs. She is remembered as being kind and helpful to the junior members of her staff. She was also the non-resident permanent representative to the Council of Europe in 1970-73.

After a brief stint as minister-counsellor at the London embassy she was appointed full ambassador to Sweden and accredited to Finland and Poland in November 1973. This was the first time a woman was appointed as a full ambassador.

Josephine McNeill had earlier served as head of the Irish legation in Berne, Switzerland, in the 1950s with the title of minister but was not of ambassadorial rank.

Mary moved to Brussels in November 1978 as ambassador to Belgium. Her grand piano accompanied her and she liked to hold musical evenings where visiting musicians like her nephew, Hugh Tinney, and John O'Conor would entertain the guests.

Music was in the family genes and Mary's niece, Eithne Tinney, is another well-known musical member. Mary was an excellent pianist herself and also sang. In the 1950s she was a guest artist with the RTÉ Singers.

She was also a keen golfer and played until her last illness. She took part in the annual Garrett Memorial Cup competition between the Department of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic corps in Dublin.

Bridge was another game in which she excelled and she set up a bridge circle in Nairobi which lasted longer than the embassy.

She is survived by her brother Michael, her sisters-in-law, Chris and Sheila, and nieces and nephews.

Mary Tinney: born February 15th, 1924; died November 22nd, 2006