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Ex-Irish president Mary McAleese still keeping the faith despite her tortuous studying of canon law

By Nicola Anderson

Published 24/11/2016

Mary McAleese with host Claire Byrne at the Tiffany Awards in Dublin yesterday
Mary McAleese with host Claire Byrne at the Tiffany Awards in Dublin yesterday

Former Irish President Mary McAleese has described her doctorate study in canon law as "sleeping in the same bed as a python".

"You never finish it, you just get to the point where you have to abandon it," Mrs McAleese said.

She spent the last three years living the quiet life in convents and seminaries in the Vatican with a quip that her social life was "very active" given the 11pm curfew.

Her studies have "filled her head up with crap", the former President said.

But the plus side is that it has cleared her mind of "a whole lot of things".

The eighth President of Ireland, Mrs McAleese recently joined over 100 academics in challenging the Church's ban on artificial contraception.

Mrs McAleese was honoured yesterday at the annual Tiffany Ireland funds lunch for women in business and philanthropy at Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud in Dublin.

Guests included the President's wife Sabina Higgins; Fionnuala Kelly, wife of the Taoiseach; director general of RTE Dee Forbes, and Dr Rhona Mahony of the National Maternity Hospital.

Also among the guests was Ann Buckley, helped from homelessness by charity Daisyhouse and who is now studying journalism.

Mrs McAleese was interviewed on stage by Claire Byrne, who asked what outcome she wants from her religious studies.

Most practitioners of canon law end up annulling marriages, Mrs McAleese said, explaining that she didn't want to do that.

As the only married person in her class, nobody ever asked her a question, she said, claiming they had an "unhealthy interest in bad marriages".

Instead, she wants to look at the hierarchical structure of the Church, which she says is "not serving its purpose".

She slated the Vatican's recent threat to withdraw from the UN Convention on Children's Rights over its discomfort in being cross-examined on issues like child sexual abuse.

The former President said she was "enormously proud" of Ireland, adding that "perplexing events" in the United States and the UK prompt her to say "Thanks be to God I live in Ireland".

She spoke of the "radical" European Union, which had healed the divisions of two World Wars, and she warmly praised Ireland's embrace of new emigrants.

"We are not saying what they are saying in the United States," she said, adding that all Irish political parties were pro-inclusion because of the history of the Irish people who experienced discrimination yet stuck it out and went on to become "Corporate Britain and corporate America".

There is some racism in Ireland, but "that's not how most of us feel", she said.

Realising that older Irish communities in the UK were going to vote for Brexit over fears "immigrants were taking their jobs" was "so depressing", Mrs McAleese said.

During her time as President she told how she visited a new building in Wales and was told by the then First Minister that the chief architect and other key players in the construction were all Irish.

He told her if she had walked onto the site 40 years ago, everybody carrying a hod would have been an Irishman.

"The Irish don't carry the hod anymore," he had told her.

"That's a measure of how we've moved on and moved up," Mrs McAleese said.

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