Mary McAleese Q&A: “No one comes close to John Hume’s unerring leadership”

The former president of Ireland discusses the legacy of John Hume, Catholic canon law and New Tricks

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Mary McAleese was born in Belfast in 1951. When she became president of Ireland in 1997, following Mary Robinson, she was the first woman in the world to succeed another woman as president.

What’s your earliest memory?

I am not yet three years old and there has been a huge snowfall. Our street is a white wonderland. I stay out so long my limbs are impossible to straighten without pain.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Daniel O’Connell, the lawyer and parliamentarian, who introduced the Westminster imperial elite to fundamental human rights. My adult hero is his true successor, John Hume.

What book last changed your thinking?

David Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara introduced me to the history and legacy of Christian anti-Semitism, including the Roman Catholic Church into which I was baptised.

Which political figure do you look up to?

John Hume. No other of his generation in the UK or Ireland comes even vaguely close to his unerring, principled political judgement and leadership.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Children’s rights and obligations in Catholic canon law. I am the author of the only academic book on the subject.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would like to live in Ireland 50 years from now and see its people reconciled, prosperous and far beyond the baleful politics of the past.

What TV show could you not live without?

For relaxation it has to be New Tricks, with its great storylines and acting. And what a theme tune!

Who would paint your portrait?

My four-year-old grandson, who is a dab hand at drawing tractors and who I am hoping might graduate to people soon.

What’s your theme tune?

“An Droichead (The Bridge)”, a haunting tune composed by the genius piper Liam O’Flynn for my inauguration in 1997. He played it for the arrival of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II when she made her historic first visit to the Republic of Ireland in 2011. The title honours the theme of my presidency, which was “building bridges”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My mother told me when I was 14 to ignore our parish priest’s advice to abandon my ambition to be a lawyer because I was a woman and had no relatives in the law. I followed it religiously.

What’s currently bugging you?

Brexit and its thoughtless neglect of the impact on the Good Friday Agreement.

What single thing would make your life better?

The UK doing a deal with the EU that would involve staying close to the single market.

When were you happiest?

As a 60-year-old-plus student in Rome living in a monastery behind the Colosseum. The city was exhilarating.

[See also: Ocean Vuong Q&A: “Batman is just a billionaire with a cool butler”]

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would love to have had Zahi Hawass’s job as director of the Egyptian pyramids.

Are we all doomed?

Pretty much, until we find a cure for death. Meanwhile, cures for hatred, racism, sectarianism, homophobia, sexism, greed and elitism would make the space between birth and death much more tolerable. 

“Here’s the Story: A Memoir” by Mary McAleese is published by Penguin

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning

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