Mary McAleese, by herself

Book review by Rob Butler


Penguin Books. 2020. 368pp

ISBN: 978-1-844-88471-1

RRP: $16.99 (Kindle)

Published in September this year, this is a fascinating account of the achievements of a remarkable woman who deserves recognition, even just for her behind the scenes involvement in the peace process which brought resolution to the violent sectarianism in the North of Ireland. Her narrative is enhanced by her tales of her family, growing up in one of the most sectarian and violent areas of Belfast and with flashes of her wicked sense of humour, as exemplified in an hilarious episode following her teenage confrontation with a rather severe religious teacher, described by her as belonging to the Mercy(less) Order.

Born and raised, in a large Catholic family in the much-troubled Ardoyne district, violence surrounded her life from the beginning, with close friends and neighbours being murdered. However, it also enabled her to have friends and contacts on both sides of the sectarian divide and developed her consistent stance for peaceful, rather than violent, action in addressing these problems. 

Known widely for her profile as a two term President of Ireland (1997-2011), her earlier career in the law saw her being appointed, while still in her twenties, as Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College. Still in her twenties, she left this prestigious post to take a position as a Reporter/Presenter in Current Affairs with RTE. It was clear that this young woman had considerable talent! She later resumed her legal academic career at Queen’s University, Belfast,

Notwithstanding her academic talents, it was her involvement in efforts to achieve peace in her homeland that no doubt ranks as her greatest achievement. During her Presidency, she worked tirelessly to break down barriers, inviting some of the most sectarian figures on the Unionist side for social gatherings at Áras an Uachtaráin. Many visitors from the six UK counties of Ulster were regular guests. Her account of these times reveals her important involvement in the peace process, working with John Hume and representatives of the UK Government. Unfortunately, she elects not to reveal some elements of this process, perhaps for good reason.

Always a committed Catholic but an outspoken reformist, her religious faith was ever present but did not inhibit her assertive nature. Following a formal diplomatic meeting, as respective Heads of State, with Pope John Paul II, she had no hesitation in registering her displeasure with his use of a sexist joke in his greeting. She was a prominent supporter for same sex marriage and the participation of women in the Church. Following her Presidency, she spent three years in Rome studying canon law before returning to live in Roscommon, in the district where her father was born.

Memoirs can be, of their very nature, egotistically biased but this account is written with humility and respect for others, some of whom held views in opposition to her own. History will judge her well.

Rob Butler

Rob Butler gets his daily exercise by turning the pages of books.