Mary McAleese: I wasn't trying to turn loyalists into nationalists; I wanted to create a culture of good neighbourliness

From a distinguished academic career to a doctorate in canon law, via a two-term presidency of Ireland, Mary McAleese has come a long way from her childhood in north Belfast at the height of the Troubles. And yet, as Maureen Coleman discovers, the impulse, born out of that experience, to foster neighbourliness remains central to her life

Mary McAleese celebrates with her family after winning the presidency: back row, from left, Nora, Claire, Damien; front, from left, John Catherine (Kate), father Paddy, Mary, mum Claire, Phelim, Clement and Patrick (Pat). Picture courtesy of Mary McAleese
Maureen Coleman

MARY McAleese has been thinking about her childhood a lot lately. Memories of growing up in the tight streets of north Belfast and familiar faces of people she once knew have been featuring in her dreams.

The former president of Ireland puts this partly down to the pandemic and lockdown, and partly her new memoir, Here's The Story. But the real truth, she says, is that certain friends are seldom far from her mind.

Her wedding day – March 9 1976 – should have been one of the happiest days of her life. Instead, it ended tragically when two childhood friends, Tony and Myles O'Reilly, neighbours from the Woodvale Road, were murdered in a loyalist sectarian attack. She and her husband Martin learned of the double killing later that night, as they embarked on their honeymoon. It's one of several painful stories she recounts in her book.

“It was difficult to bring back those memories but, if truth be told, I do think about them on a regular basis,” says McAleese.

“Telling their story was emotional and interestingly, during Covid days, gave rise to the strangest of dreams that evoked all of those memories and brought me back to some of the great people I loved in my life, like the O'Reillys.

“I also realised just how privileged I was to have been raised as a Catholic in a Protestant area and to have had great Catholic and Protestant friends and neighbours."

Former president Mary McAleese as a baby, in the arms of one of her dad's cousins, with her mother, left, and another relative. Picture courtesy of Mary McAleese

Mary McAleese was born in 1951 to Paddy Lenaghan, a Roscommon man, and Claire McManus, whose roots were in rural Co Down. The eldest of nine children, she grew up in and around Ardoyne, living in five different houses.

On December 8 1972, the family's home on Crumlin Road came under attack by loyalist gunmen. McAleese's sister Nora's bed was "riddled like a colander".

The attack took place on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, while the family was at early Mass. No-one was injured and no-one was ever prosecuted. The Lenaghans upped sticks and left the area, relocating to Andersonstown and later, to Rostrevor.

Undoubtedly, growing up against a backdrop of social injustice and inequality helped shaped McAleese's career choice. A keen debater at St Dominic's school, she was an admirer of law men from her history books, Sir Thomas More and Daniel O'Connell. As the first generation of television owners, she was also introduced to the courtroom antics of Perry Mason. The seed was sown.

“We lived in a complicated world of law,” says McAleese. “I felt it didn't belong to people like me. The law of the church didn't represent women; the law of the state didn't represent Catholics.

“If it could be used for ill, it could be used for good too.”

The then Mary Lenaghan with future husband Martin McAleese at the Aquinas Hall annual dinner dance, 1970. Picture courtesy of Mary McAleese

McAleese recounts discussing her ambition with a local priest, who dismissed the notion on the grounds that she was a woman and had no familial ties to the profession. It was the one and only time her mum, devout and deferential, got angry with a clergyman.

“I never rated mum as a rampant feminist,” laughs McALeese. “But she was incensed and threw him out of the house. She told me to ignore him. It's the only piece of careers advice I ever got from either parent.”

McAleese was called to the bar in 1974 and a year later was appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin. After a spell at RTÉ working as a journalist, she returned to Queen's University Belfast, where she'd studied law, as director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies.

Throughout her career, McAleese was a keen advocate for ecumenism, equality and peace. Having growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, she believed the way forward was to build bridges between the two communities. That was to later become the theme of her back-to-back presidencies.

Mary McAleese pictured in 1979 when she was working on RTÉ's Frontline programme. Picture courtesy of Mary McAleese

Through her peace advocacy, McAleese, along with Jim Fitzpatrick, chairman of The Irish News, was approached by Fr Alec Reid to assist the John Hume-Gerry Adams peace talks that were going on behind the scenes. Their task was to help the men "find favour" among nationalists and republicans to persuade the IRA to resume its ceasefire, broken by the Canary Wharf bomb.

As a child, McAleese had come across Hume setting up a Credit Union in Ardoyne. She was struck by his sincerity and compassion. Watching him at work again, as he set out his blueprint for a peaceful future, often facing strong opposition and hostility, she was in awe of his "genius". In the book she writes: “He was not just a prophet for our time, but THE prophet."

“Yes, I think John Hume was the greatest statesman of the 20th century that Ireland has produced and one of Europe's too,” she tells me. “No-one comes close.”

In November 1997, McAleese, a mother-of-three – Emma, Justin and Sara – was elected president of Ireland, succeeding Mary Robinson and becoming the first president from the north. It was a proud day for her family, particularly her father, who had left his beloved Roscommon as an impoverished lad to move to Belfast. It was he who had introduced her in her youth to the stories of O'Connell and Thomas More.

Then President Mary McAleese welcomes Queen Elizabeth II to Áras an Uachtaráin in 2011. Picture by Paul Faith/PA

McAleese's aim was to use her office to encourage dialogue, good neighbourliness and friendship. She recalled those families she had grown up with before the Troubles had taken hold and put her plans in motion, inviting loyalists to Áras an Uachtaráin for Twelfth of July celebrations, visiting Protestant primary schools in Belfast and, during her second term, hosting the historic visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth.

“I wasn't trying to turn loyalists into nationalists,” she says. “I wanted to create a culture of good neighbourliness so if the day dawned when there would be a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland, it could be conducted in a temperate, scholarly and sensible way.

“We need a level of trust, familiarity and respect for a culture which is deeply estranged from the mainstream culture. I spent 14 years trying to achieve that.”

McAleese says she doesn't know if she will see a united Ireland in her lifetime but that the Good Friday Agreement has allowed a generation to freely express that "perfectly legitimate ambition".

“Partition has not been kind to one portion of the population,” she says. “It's led to skewed outcomes and dysfunction in politics in the north. It seems to me the Good Friday Agreement created a level playing field and parity of esteem while acknowledging that Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK as long as that is the will of the people. That shows a huge political maturity on the part of the Protestant people.”

McAleese believes Brexit will play a role in changing attitudes towards a united Ireland and that a shift in the demographics on which Partition was based will impact the island's future too. Her father, a firm believer in democracy and peace and reconciliation, dreamed of the day that there would be a united Ireland.

Life has come full circle for the former president, who holds a PhD in canon law and uses her voice to speak out about misogyny within the Catholic Church. These days she lives with her husband at Ardcarne, Roscommon, close to her father's birthplace; the first of her long-dispersed clan to return.

“Ardcarne is our past and our present hinterland,” she muses in her memoir, “with Ardoyne and a few other places in between.”

In her role as president and peacemaker, she travelled the globe and met with prime ministers and popes but the streets of her childhood still hold a special place in her heart.

Mary McAleese – Here's the Story (A Memoir) is out now, published by Sandycove Penguin.

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