Rising through Troubles


Biography: What a piece of work is Mary McAleese. This book is an authorised biography, written in Irish. The President's unauthorised life story has already appeared in English, so one doubts if there would be sufficient demand for an English translation of the present volume. That would be a pity, because the story told here deserves a wider audience, says Deaglán de Bréadún.

The focus is considerably softer than in Justine McCarthy's Mary McAleese: The Outsider, published in 1999, but there is an accumulation of detail in these pages that at times achieves a powerful effect.

The President was born into a Catholic family named Leneghan which lived in North Belfast. The sectarian intimidation of the family in the early years of the Northern Ireland Troubles, culminating in a machine-gun attack on their home, is chronicled here in terrifying detail. Many other families, mainly but by no means exclusively on the nationalist side, were also terrorised, but that does not make the sufferings of the Leneghans any less frightening or shameful.

Happily, the house was empty at the time of the attack. But this was only one among a litany of episodes that would make you despair of human nature. Like other threatened populations, the Catholics of North Belfast found consolation and refuge in their faith. While many of her more comfortable contemporaries south of the Border were growing up to become "à la carte Catholics", the young Mary Leneghan and her community were steeped in religious devotion, and she was developing a close, if occasionally fractious, relationship with Mother Church.

Her father Paddy owned the Long Bar at Leeson Street on the Falls Road, a dangerous location at the start of the Troubles. As pogroms threatened in August 1969, the Long Bar became an unofficial headquarters for the citizens' defence committees set up to protect the nationalist community. The present occupant of Áras an Uachtaráin knows from her days growing up in Ardoyne what it is like to have a mob outside your house, throwing paving stones through the windows and shouting, "Fenian bastards! We'll burn you out!" They probably would have burnt them out at that, if a white car had not arrived and parked ostentatiously on the other side of the road. The mob suddenly scattered, but the car returned at regular intervals that night.

It was said later that the IRA had heard about the incident while eavesdropping on the police radio frequency and sent some of its members to the scene. The author writes: "Mary says she has no other option but to admit, reluctantly and unwillingly, that this IRA unit was the only protection they had that night." This was the background in which the future head of the Irish State came to maturity. She could have taken the path of violence, as some of her contemporaries did, but chose instead the route of educational advancement and a career as a lawyer.

It was a hard slog. As the eldest in a family of nine, she carried a heavy burden of household and other domestic chores as well as her academic workload. The author describes how, in 1973, Mary became the first member of the Leneghan family ever to acquire a university degree when she graduated with honours from the law school of Queen's University, Belfast. The author makes the apposite comment that "This was no ordinary degree, but a degree that was historic and important not only for herself and her family but for the Catholic community and the women of the North". She went on to take a professional course as a barrister. By this stage, the summer of 1974, she was engaged to another Belfast Catholic, Martin McAleese, who had grown up under even more exposed circumstances in predominantly-loyalist East Belfast. At this point, the book ventures into the territory of Hello magazine: Mary breaks it off; gets involved with successful, extrovert lawyer and former civil rights leader Rory McShane; wedding plans are made and invitations sent out; Mary changes her mind at the last minute; Martin is back in the frame.

Like many Northern nationalists, the new Mrs McAleese looked on the Republic as a haven of freedom, a beacon of independence and a refuge for the afflicted from the other side of the Border. She was appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin, where she was very well treated, by all accounts. But she felt somewhat isolated from the mainstream of events and switched over to journalism after a few years, working with the RTÉ current affairs programme Today Tonight.

This section of the book should be on the curriculum of every journalism course in Ireland and even abroad. It provides an extremely useful insight into the difficulties journalists often face and the obstacles that confront them in their efforts to secure what they regard as proper professional coverage of an important story.

It was 1981 and the H-Block hunger-strikes were at their height. At the same time, the IRA campaign of violence continued unabated. The North was the touchiest subject around, and there were deep divisions within the Today Tonight team about how to cover it. As well as nervousness, there was incomprehension. As McAleese saw it, "I was a Catholic, a Northerner, a nationalist and a woman - a quadruple deviant in the eyes of many influential people in RTÉ".

Be that as it may, people who espoused a particular brand of anti-nationalist, left-wing ideology were undeniably powerful in the station at the time.

It is claimed in this book that ideological blinkers prevented such people from appreciating the true impact of the hunger strikes. McAleese wrote in her diary at the time, "Consistently, H-Block coverage is biased at worst, misguided at best. Discussion tends to be unsatisfactory for the decision and the editorial line have already been stipulated and decreed and it is difficult to make the other case without people getting shirty, pompous or downright nasty. It would be so refreshing to have a genuinely open, intellectual discussion, a search for objectivity."

In addition to the ideological factor, there was probably also some genuine concern about providing comfort, however indirect, to the IRA campaign of violence. Not for the last time, McAleese would be accused of "Provo" sympathies, although neither then nor since has anyone uncovered any expression of support for violence on her part. Worn out by an atmosphere she described as both "Kakfaesque" and "Machiavellian", she retreated to the calmer waters of TCD and the Reid Professorship.

Having taken a liberal stance on divorce and campaigned for homosexual law reform, McAleese now resurfaced as an articulate spokeswoman for the conservative Catholic viewpoint on different issues. Perhaps her experience of what she called "bigotry in the guise of liberalism" at RTÉ entrenched her conservative views. She became something of a demon-figure to the Dublin 4 liberal intelligentsia, particularly when she joined a delegation of the Catholic hierarchy at the New Ireland Forum in Dublin Castle in 1984. She had come a long way from her teenage years when she took out membership of the Communist Party.

She caught the eye of one Charles J. Haughey who secured a place for her on the Fianna Fáil ticket in the 1987 general election. But the electorate was not ready for her and when political differences emerged, Haughey's admiration also waned.

McAleese headed back North, where she got a job as director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's in the teeth of strong competition from a certain David Trimble. When she went back to Belfast she was showered with attention and honours by the more enlightened elements of the Belfast-London establishment, undeterred by the fact that she remained an unapologetic non-violent nationalist. What a contrast with her fate in previous years, south of the Border, where she experienced a fair amount of rejection.

Although she went from strength to strength in her new manifestation, the lure of the Republic was still strong. No sooner had Mary Robinson revealed that she was not standing for a second presidential term than McAleese's hat was wafting its way into the ring. The election campaign was dogged by some of the same issues that had beset her in RTÉ, but the atmosphere had changed following two IRA ceasefires, and even an extraordinary claim that McAleese was "a tribal time bomb" failed to halt her progress to the highest office in the land.

Six years later, none of the disasters predicted in that bizarre and sometimes farcical campaign have come to pass. Áras an Uachtaráin still stands, the country has not descended into civil strife and former critics are heard expressing their admiration. If anything, the McAleese presidency has been rather quiet, perhaps reflecting the limitations of the office or the fact that she is less headstrong and independent-minded than her predecessor.

She might have been more effective had she remained "on the ground" in Northern Ireland, where her drive and ambition could no doubt enliven the current fairly stagnant scene.

The author of this book has worked as the President's personal tutor in Irish. He would have benefited from stricter editing, as there is far too much detail on the President's family-tree and the minutiae of her personal life and spiritual beliefs. But despite heavy going in these respects, there is also some very strong material that one hopes will be widely read. One is left gasping at the subject's strength of will and determination to achieve her goals, regardless of difficulties or setbacks. Whether or not she serves a second term, we have not heard the last of Mary McAleese.

Deaglán de Bréadún is Foreign Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times and author of The Far Side of Revenge: Making Peace in Northern Ireland, published by the Collins Press, Cork

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