Mary McAleese

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Mary McAleese.

Mary Patricia McAleese (June 27, 1951 - ) is the eighth, and current President of Ireland. She is Ireland's second female president and the world's first woman to succeed another woman as an elected head of state. She is the first person born in Northern Ireland to become President of the Irish Republic. She was first elected president in 1997 and won a second term, without a contest, in 2004. Born in Belfast, prior to becoming president, she was a barrister, journalist, and academic and the first women to become a Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen's University. She had not occupied political office before her election, although she had represented Ireland at important overseas conferences. She was known to the public as a broadcaster and social activist.

Throughout her presidency, McAleese has set herself the task of building bridges between communities, including between the North and South of Ireland, of improving living standards for the less well off and of promoting dialogue and consensus internationally to resolve conflict and disputes instead of violence. She had made social inclusion, equality, and reconciliation, sharing and caring the themes of her incumbency. As President of an increasingly prosperous and harmonious Ireland, she wants to extend the experience of transformation beyond Ireland's island shores as a story of hope for all people. By succeeding a popular President who was also a woman, McAleese has helped to prove that women are not only as competent and capable of leadership at the highest level as men but that they can also bring qualities of caring and compassion to their role, which men possess but are often more reluctant to express. She has not hesitated to allow her own Values and faith to guide her public policies.



McAleese was born Mary Patricia Leneghan in Ardoyne, Belfast where she grew up. She is the oldest of nine children.[1] Her family was forced to leave the area by loyalists when the Troubles broke out. Her father owned a public house. On one occasion, their home was "machine-gunned" while they were attending Mass; on another, her deaf brother was "badly beaten."[2] She was educated at St. Dominic's High School, the Queen's University of Belfast (from which she graduated in 1973), and Trinity College Dublin. She graduated with her LL.B in 1973. Later, she gained the MA, MIL and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.[1] She was called to the Northern Ireland Bar in 1974 and is today also a member of the Bar in the Republic of Ireland. In 1975, at the age of 24, she was appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology in Trinity College, succeeding Mary Robinson (a succession that would repeat itself twenty years later, when McAleese assumed the presidency).

During the same decade she acted as legal adviser to, and a founding member of, the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, but she left this position in 1979 to join RTÉ as a journalist and presenter as a reporter and presenter for their Today Tonight program. In 1976, she married Martin McAleese. Also during the 1970s she acted as legal counsel for the "anti-divorce campaign."[3] In 1981 she returned to the Reid Professorship, but continued to work part-time for RTÉ for a further four years. In 1987, she became Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen's, Belfast. In the same year she stood, unsuccessfully, as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the general election.

McAleese was a member of the Catholic Church Episcopal Delegation to the New Ireland Forum in 1984 and a member of the Catholic Church delegation to the North Commission on Contentious Parades in 1996. She was also a delegate to the 1995 White House Conference on Trade and Investment in Ireland and to the subsequent Pittsburgh Conference in 1996. In 1994, she became the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Queen's University of Belfast, the first woman and second Catholic to hold the position. Prior to becoming president in 1997 McAleese had also held the following positions:

  • Director of Channel 4 Television
  • Director, Northern Ireland Electricity
  • Director, Royal Group of Hospitals Trust
  • Founder member of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas

Unusually, however, unlike former Presidents, she had "never held an important government or legislative office,"[3] which is why biographer Justine McCarthy describes her as an "outsider."


2007 Photography by Joshua Sherurcij.

In 1997, McAleese defeated former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in an internal, party election held to determine the Fianna Fáil nomination for the Irish presidency.

Her opponents in the 1997 presidential election were Mary Banotti of Fine Gael, Adi Roche (the Labour candidate), and two independents: Dana Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally.

She won the seat for presidency with 45.2 percent of first preference votes. In the second and final count against Banotti, she won 58.7 percent of preferences. On November 11, 1997, she was inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland, the first time in history that a woman had succeeded another woman as an elected head of state anywhere in the world.

McAleese's initial seven year term of office ended in November 2004, but she announced on 14 September of that year that she would be standing for a second term in the 2004 presidential election. Following the failure of any other candidate to secure the necessary support for a nomination, the incumbent president stood unopposed, with no political party affiliation, and was declared elected on October 1. She was officially re-inaugurated at the commencement of her second seven year term on November 11. McAleese's very high job approval ratings were widely seen as the reason for her re-election, with no opposition party willing to bear the cost (financial or political) of competing in an election that would prove very difficult to win.

McAleese has said that the theme of her presidency is "building bridges" which was her 1997 campaign slogan.[4] Her themes have been "social inclusion, equality, and reconciliation."[5] The first individual born in Northern Ireland to become President of Ireland, President McAleese is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland, where she has been on the whole warmly welcomed by both communities, confounding the critics who had believed she would be a divisive figure due to her nationalist sympathies. Jackson-Laufer refers to a "smear campaign" during the 1997 election "suggesting pro-Sinn Fein leanings."[1] She is also an admirer of Queen Elizabeth II, whom she came to know when she was Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen's. It is said to be one of her major personal ambitions to host the first ever visit to the Republic of Ireland by a British head of state. In March 1998, McAleese announced that she would officially celebrate the Twelfth of July commemorating the Battle of the Boyne as well as Saint Patrick's Day, recognizing the day's importance among Ulster Protestants. She also incurred some criticism from the Irish Roman Catholic hierarchy by taking communion in an Anglican (Church of Ireland) Cathedral in Dublin. In May 2008 she became the first Head of State to address the Church of Ireland General Synod.[6]

Commitment to dialogue and consensus

McAleese has consistently urged the Irish people North and South to put historical animosity and violence behind them and to "solve problems through dialogue and consensus."[7] Instead of "holding on to old wounds, real or perceived" she advocates "breaking with the past."Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; invalid names, e.g. too many She welcomes the "softer language and more respectful relations" between former enemies that has taken place in the North following the St Andrews Agreement. She describes an "almost miraculous release of positive energies" and says that Ireland can become "a light to the world where so many live in darkness and defeat conflict, poverty and disease."[6] She praises the role that Christian churches have played throughout the world and in Northern Ireland. On the one hand, churches had often "failed to curb the sectarian violence" but on the other hand "in some of the most inhospitable circumstances" they have cared for "the bereaved and wounded, the constant persuaders for peace and the unobtrusive but determined builders of healthy cross-community and cross-border relationships.”[6] She wants to be a President who "holds out her hands to victims."[7] She has also taken part in interreligious dialogue and of how relations in the family can serve as a paradigm of relationships in the contemporary world. Blackwell comments that "one reason why Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese have been so popular is that they have been able to balance high-profile careers with the demands of their families."[8]

has spoken of an Ireland that is "more comfortable with the diversity flowering within its borders"[9] The "ethic of caring and sharing" lies at the center of her vision, "she is firmly committed to bridging the gap between the comfortably well-off and those mired in poverty."[9] She says that hospitality and sharing are Irish strengths, pointing out that the Irish have "sent missionaries, development workers and peace makers to the aid of distressed peoples around the world" and that Ireland is "itself a country of refuge for the hurt and dispossessed."[10] She sees an increasingly prosperous Ireland as having duties towards the world beyond Ireland's shores. In her book, Love in Chaos of Northern Ireland: Spiritual Growth and the Search for Peace in Northern Ireland, she draws openly on her own faith and convictions. For her, people's common humanity and recognition that there is only one creator provide the foundation for solidarity; "If we are not friends to each other," she asks, "can we still be friends with God?" "For Christians" she says, and "for anyone who believes in One God, a Creator of all humankind" the "bond to God as our Father/Mother" also binds us to each other as "sisters and brothers." Recognition of "these bonds" lies at the heart of the Gospel.[11] The foreword is by Desmond Tutu who describes McAleese as having "placed" herself at God's disposal.[12]

Controversial remarks

However, on January 27 2005, before attending a ceremony commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, she caused controversy by making reference during an interview to the way in which some Protestant children in Northern Ireland had been brought up to hate Catholics just as European children "for generations, for centuries" were encouraged to hate Jews.[13][14][15] These remarks caused outrage among unionist politicians. McAleese later apologized,[16] conceding that, because she had criticized only the sectarianism found on one side of the community, her words had been unbalanced. The comment was made during an interview and was prefixed with "for example." She was thinking on her feet and unfortunately failed to add a second example of Catholic hostility towards Protestants. She has frequently deplored the "cruelty and capriciousness" of the conflicts that have too often characterized Irish history.[9]

On May 22, 2005, she was the Commencement Speaker at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. The visit prompted protests by conservatives due to the President's professing heterodox Roman Catholic views on homosexuality and women in priesthood. She was the commencement speaker at the University of Notre Dame on May 21, 2006. In her commencement address, among other topics, she spoke of her pride at Notre Dame's Irish heritage, including the nickname the "Fighting Irish." She regards herself as a "devout Roman Catholic."[1]


Since November 19, 2005, she is the longest-serving current [female elected Head of State following the retirement of Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka. President Mary McAleese is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders, an International network of current and former women presidents and prime ministers whose mission is to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development. Marquardt and Berger describe McAleese as possessing "obvious intellectual status and legal experience" combined with "generous helpings of charisma, warmth, and down-to-earth humanity."[9] She has secured herself a place in history by her uncontested election to a second term as well as by the public esteem she enjoys. Her concern not only for the people of Ireland but also for the citizens of the world is a model of how leaders of one nation can serve the world community; as the people of Ireland, she says, transcend their past limitations, this story of hope belongs not only to Ireland but "to the world."[6] By succeeding a popular President who was also a woman, McAleese has helped to prove that women are not only as competent and capable of leadership at the highest level as men but that they can also bring qualities of caring and compassion to their role, which men also possess but are often more reluctant to express. Forbes lists her as the 74th most powerful women in the world.[17]


On May 3, 2007, she was awarded the The American Ireland Fund Humanitarian Award. On October 312007 she was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Otago, New Zealand.


Mary and Martin McAleese have three children; Emma (born 1982) and twins, Tara Mei and Justin (1985). Martin McAleese practices as a dentist.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Jackson-Laufer (1999), 285.
  2. Marquardt and Berger (2000), 124.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Spreng (2004), 204.
  4. Spreng (2004), 205.
  5. Blackwell and Hackney (2004), 281.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Greg Ryan, Church can nurture seeds of peace, says McAleese, Church Times, Issue 7575. Retrieved January 24, 2009.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Marquardt and Berger (2000), 131.
  8. Blackwell and Hackney (2004), 282.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Marquardt and Berger (2000), 128.
  10. Marquardt and Berger (2000), 130.
  11. McAleese (1999), 21.
  12. Tutu, Descond in McAleese (1999), 9.
  13. Aine Lawlor and Mary McAleese, 2005, Interview with President McAleese, Morning Ireland Thursday 27th January 2005, Áras an Uachtaráin. Retrieved January 24, 2009.
  14. BBC, McAleese row over Nazi comments. Retrieved January 24, 2009.
  15. Breaking News, McAleese: Protestant children taught to hate Catholics. Retrieved January 24, 2009.
  16. BBC, McAleese 'sorry' over Nazi remark. Retrieved January 24, 2009.
  17. Forbes, Mary McAleese. Retrieved January 24, 2009.


  • Blackwell, Amy, and Ryan Hackney. 2004. The everything Irish History & Heritage Book: from Brian Boru and St. Patrick to Sean Féin and the Troubles, All You Need to Know About the Emerald Isle. Avon, MA: Adams Media. ISBN 9781580629805.
  • Bourke, Angela. 2002. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. Vols. 4-5, Irish women's writing and traditions. Washington Square, NY: New York University Press. ISBN 9780814799062.
  • Jackson-Laufer, Guida M. 1999. Women Rulers Throughout the Ages: An Illustrated Guide. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781576070918.
  • Mac Mánais, Ray. 2004. The Road from Ardoyne: The Making of a President. Dingle, IE: Brandon. ISBN 9780863223334.
  • Marquardt, Michael J., and Nancy O. Berger. 2000. Global Leaders for the Twenty First Century. SUNY series in management-communication. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 9780791446614.
  • McAleese, Mary. 1999. Love in Chaos of Northern Ireland: Spiritual Growth and the Search for Peace in Northern Ireland. New York, NY: Continuum. ISBN 9780826411372.
  • McCarthy, Justine. 1999. Mary McAleese: The Outsider: An Unauthorized Biography. Dublin, IE: Blackwater Press. ISBN 9781841314419.
  • McGarry, Patsy. 2008. First Citizen: Mary McAleese and the Irish Presidency. Dublin, IE: O'Brien. ISBN 9781847170873.
  • Spreng, Jennifer E. 2004. Abortion and Divorce Law in Ireland. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 9780786416752.

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