Royal visits, Egyptian mummies and the Empire of misogyny – Mary McAleese’s book records her path through a rapidly changing Ireland.
While Mary McAleese was in Belfast studying for her law finals in 1973-1974, her future husband Martin moved to Dublin where he ended up sharing a “madhouse” on Garville Avenue, Rathgar, with future rugby legend Moss Keane and others.
“Of the four who shared that unique Petri dish, Martin and the three Kerrymen (Moss, Denis Coffey and Jim Coughlan) only Martin survived to collect the free bus pass,” she writes.
“But if the lives of the others were tragically short, they were overloaded with entertainment, for never did a trio have such a gargantuan and exuberant appetite for life. I was the hapless butt of many of their jokes, apparently, but since I could not understand a word they said, no damage was done.
“Their zest for life and the relaxed normality of Dublin planted the idea in my own mind of moving there.”
‘Your man won’
When she was appointed Reporter/Presenter in Current Affairs (TV) at RTÉ, McAleese was eventually assigned to ‘Today Tonight’, which was edited by Joe Mulholland. Recalling the election of hunger striker Bobby Sands as an MP for Fermanagh South Tyrone, she writes: “Joe came thundering out of his office, past other colleagues working at their desks and straight to mine, to announce to me ‘your man won’.
“I was outraged... I left him (and anyone else listening) in no doubt that Sands was not my man. I was not then, and never have been, a supporter of paramilitary violence.”
Mary McAleese only decided to seek presidential nomination after a crucial meeting with Mary O’Rourke, the deputy leader of Fianna Fáil. Ms O’Rourke “set out the obstacles to getting the nomination” but encouraged her to go for it.
“There were two rounds of ballots, at the end of which I was selected. Albert (Reynolds) was visibly upset, but very gracious in defeat. I was heart-sorry for him, for his contribution to the peace process was massive.”
But there was no such graciousness in the bitterly fought election campaign. “Serious allegations” were made in a leaked memo, in comments attributed to the SDLP’s Brid Rodgers, an opponent of the Hume-Adams dialogue.
“That Sunday, with the affair now entering its second week, I made up my mind that I would withdraw my candidacy the following morning rather than reveal the existence of the talks and my role in the process.”
But she awoke to Fr Brendan Callaghan on the radio disclosing “my honest-broker role” in the peace ministry. In the hours that followed, others piled in with public support.
At her inauguration, she wore an outfit by Mary Gregory. It was a full-length silk dress. “It was beautiful, but not suited to travelling in the broad, deep seat of the elderly Rolls-Royce, which had no seatbelt. I rolled, slipped and slithered all the way into town, so that by the time we pulled up at the castle door, the outfit was wrapped around me like an Egyptian mummy’s bandages.”
When Queen Elizabeth rose at a dinner in Dublin Castle and began, “A Uachtaráin, agus a chairde”, she was repeating five words that Ms McAleese had written out phonetically on the back of a used envelope and given to a friend, a high-ranking Foreign Office official.
Ms McAleese had first approached beleaguered Brian Cowen to ask about an invitation for the royal visit, before he left office after his disastrous election of 2011. “This was an unlikely idea,” she says, “tossed like a grenade into what was for him an awful time in his life, but he very graciously did not dismiss it... he said he would issue the invitation provided the incoming Taoiseach agreed.” Enda Kenny, a friend of her husband Martin, “did not hesitate”.
Sinn Féin boycott
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were asked to engage with the royal visit.
“We gave them the opportunity we had afforded to others to let us know what they would like Her Majesty to say and do. They later offered some ideas in writing about what she might say and these we relayed back to her team, for they too were hoping that the visit would embrace every possible constituency and leave none on the outside looking in. In the end, however, Sinn Féin could not and did not make the leap of faith.”
In 2003 Ms McAleese had her second official audience with Pope John Paul II, congratulating him on his silver anniversary as Pope, telling him An Post had issued a commemorative stamp and that the Papal Cross was still standing in the Phoenix Park. “The Pope’s ill-health made any deeper discussion impossible.”
It was then her turn to meet Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Pope’s Secretary of State who wanted to negotiate a ‘Concordat’ with Ireland, explaining that the Church had provided many substantial assets to the country in areas of schools and hospitals and now wanted something in return.
“I asked Sodano if he was referring to getting legal protection from the Irish state for diocesan records and archives. He seemed pleased that I had hit the nail on the head.” McAleese writes that she told him it was outside her jurisdiction to discuss, but her advice was not to pursue the matter.
“The Church in Ireland was on the back foot as a result of abuse scandals now in the public domain. It was set to get worse. If he pursued the idea of hiding relevant records from perfectly justifiable public scrutiny, he would leave the Church flat on its back with a self-administered knock-out punch.”
Empire of Misogyny
Cardinal Kevin Farrell vetoed three of the ‘guest list’ in a conference on the role of women in the Church. “I was one of the three, and each of us had campaigned for gay rights. The cardinal gave no explanation, so I can only surmise that was the reason,” writes Ms McAleese.
“In the end, the conference organisers decided not to agree to Cardinal Farrell’s conditions.” The location was changed to outside the Vatican walls and “Cardinal Farrell’s intervention ensured that a routinely overlooked conference became the subject of huge international press interest” at which she described the Church as “an empire of misogyny”.
“I had used precisely those words at a conference on women in the Church at Milltown Institute in Dublin thirty years earlier... no-one seemed to notice.”
We Are Family
Later, Pope Francis came to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, which she describes as the brainchild of Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo, who tried to use it for his “venomously expressed hostility to homosexuals”.
As it was “problematic for many families”, she suggested that the annual Pride festival in Dublin should be turned into a celebration of the family.
McAleese’s son Justin and journalist Ursula Hallican were deputised to help cement the theme ‘We are Family’.
She and Martin marched with Justin and his husband Fionan.
Here’s the story: A Memoir by Mary McAleese is published by Penguin/Sandycove