Irish Ambassador who witnessed a world in turmoil for 40 years

Isolde Moylan, who retires this year, recalls the more challenging postings of her career


Since 2010, Isolde Moylan, who has served as a diplomat for 40 years, has been accredited to five countries: Egypt, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. While others also provide representation in multiple capitals, Moylan’s brief is unusual in that she encounters warfare in four countries and the risk of spillover into the fifth, Jordan.

Her job is to witness events, examine their significance, brief the Department of Foreign Affairs, promote political relations and trade, ensure the welfare of Irish citizens and represent Ireland at national, EU and diplomatic gatherings.

She took up her posts at a time when tensions were rising in Sudan and in Lebanon.

“As far as the world and we were concerned, Egypt, Syria and Jordan seemed likely to continue much as before,” she tells The Irish Times in the livingroom of the Irish residence in Cairo. No one she met “predicted what was going to happen either in Egypt or Syria”.

When Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the cradle of the 2011 uprising, erupted with tens of thousands of demonstrators calling for the fall of the regime of Hosni Mubarak, Moylan went there. She was the second western ambassador to do so, both women.

The atmosphere was festive, Egyptians of all ages and classes mixed joyfully, celebrating the revolution. Protesters crowded round Moylan, welcoming the representative of Ireland, a country considered friendly to the Arabs.

In the four years since Mubarak fell, the Ambassador has toured voting stations, reporting on parliamentary elections, a constitutional referendum and two presidential polls.

She has been involved in the repeatedly postponed case of Ibrahim Halawa, an Irish national of Egyptian origin, arrested along with 493 supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in August 2013 while taking part in a banned protest.

People power

Last spring Egyptians chose former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as their president, hoping he would restore security.

The Ambassador is convinced “people power is here to stay”. There is hope that Sisi can steer Egypt through the transition from Mubarak’s authoritarianism to a more democratic system while tackling terrorism and reviving the economy, she says.

From Beirut she takes the road to Damascus every three months to report on Syria’s conflict. She is one of the few EU ambassadors to do so. “I don’t have a sense of personal danger or a nervous disposition. I am concerned about my staff but it does not occur to me that something will happen to me.”

She thinks it is “unlikely”Syrian president Bashar al-Assad will re-establish his rule over the entire country, but she says a number of opponents have switched sides as they see him as “the only alternative” to the more brutal jihadis.

She speaks sadly of the crisis of 13 million homeless Syrians, including four million refugees. She is troubled by reports that 27 Irish citizens of Arab origin have fought in Syria, an unknown number having been killed.

In 2012, the embassy was able to help Irish mother Louise Monaghan recover her six-year-old daughter, May, who had been taken from Cyprus by her divorced Syrian father and brought to Syria.

Thanks to Ireland’s “tradition of peacekeeping service in Lebanon, our links to that country are very strong”, says Moylan. “We are still trying to seek justice for the vicious killing of two Irish peacekeepers and the wounding of a third in 1980.”

Two or three times a year, she goes to Jordan – stable but trying to cope with the influx of Syrian refugees – and once to Sudan.Asked how she juggles five postings, she replies there are “two excellent Irish diplomats who serve with me at the embassy” – Cormac Gallagher and Seán Norton – as well as “great local honorary consuls”. She personally focuses on key issues, prioritises, draws up “to do lists” and works before and after office hours.

Moylan was born in London to Irish parents who relocated to Pakistan when she was one. When she was 10, the family moved to Bray, Co Wicklow, which she considers home. Her father, from Tipperary, was a journalist and documentary film maker, her mother, a Dubliner, a designer.


Trinity College

Her first of eight postings was to the US. In 1974 in Washington, she met her husband Tom McNally, a man of partly Irish heritage from Massachusetts. They married in 1978 and he assumed the task of “home parent” when their four children were young. They are now aged between 25 and 34, and she has three grandchildren.

After Washington, Moylan served in New York on the UN General Assembly’s Decolonisation Committee which was winding down the colonial era in southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Namibia and monitoring the apartheid system in South Africa. Her third foreign posting was Rome where she was press and cultural attache.

After Rome, she worked for 12 years in the Irish Aid programme at home and on Ireland’s mission in Brussels and as ambassador to Tanzania.

In January 2000, they moved to a house on the Mount of Olives in east Jerusalem where she became Ireland’s first resident representative to the Palestinian Authority.

They arrived eight months before the outbreak of the second intifada while US president Bill Clinton was making his last attempt to achieve an agreement on the emergence of a Palestinian state. Her job was “to represent Irish policy and to feed into its formulation”.

She travelled around the West Bank and Gaza, meeting Palestinian president Yasser Arafat “dozens of times” and talking to other Palestinian political figures, supporting development through Irish Aid and encouraging Palestinian and Israeli peace organisations.

“The most memorable day in many memorable days” was September 11th, 2001. She and then tánaiste Brian Cowen were in a car about to enter Gaza when they received news of the attacks and learned a Palestinian group had claimed the operation. After phoning then taoiseach Bertie Ahern to check if they should proceed, they drove into Gaza where Palestinians feared retribution.

“Pale and deeply shocked,” Arafat said “over and over what had happened was a ‘crime against humanity’.” When Cowen and Moylan returned to Jerusalem, they found Palestinians “gathering in growing numbers with candles and messages of sympathy outside the American consulate”.

During Israel’s 2002 re-occupation of West Bank Palestinian enclaves, the ambassador aided two Irish activists besieged by Israel’s army: Caoihme Butterly with Arafat in his compound in Ramallah and Mary Kelly, a nurse tending wounded Palestinians in Bethlehem.

Dangerous environment

The Israelis tried to stop her visiting Arafat, imprisoned in his wrecked compound, on the day before she left in 2003. “He was living in his boardroom, sleeping on a mattress on the floor. He was his usual self, totally charming.” In parting, instead of kissing her hand as was his usual, “he kissed the top of my head”.

After Jerusalem, she was posted as consul general in Boston, where a key issue was dealing with undocumented Irish migrants.

Moylan winds up her diplomatic career in Cairo in April. She has no idea what she will do in retirement but looks forward to having more time for family and friends, refurbishing her old home in Bray, travelling, and writing – perhaps “resurrecting the project of a local history of Bray”.

“I’m not going to look back and spend my life telling tales . . . I’d like to be useful.”

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.