Mary Patricia McAleese (June 27, 1951 - ) served as the eighth President of Ireland from 1997 to 2011. She was 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 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 made social inclusion, equality, and reconciliation, sharing and caring the themes of her incumbency. As President of an increasingly prosperous and harmonious Ireland, she worked 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 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 never hesitated to allow her own Values and faith to guide her public policies.
Mary McAleese was born Mary Patricia Leneghan in Ardoyne, Belfast in Northern Ireland where she grew up as the oldest of nine children. 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." 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. She was called to the Northern Ireland Bar in 1974 and also became 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. Also during the 1970s she acted as legal counsel for the "anti-divorce campaign."
In 1976, she married Martin McAleese, which whom she had three children: Emma (born 1982) and twins, Tara Mei and Justin (1985). Martin McAleese practices as a dentist.
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:
Unusually, however, unlike former Presidents, she had "never held an important government or legislative office," which is why biographer Justine McCarthy describes her as an "outsider."
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 said that the theme of her presidency was "building bridges" which was her 1997 campaign slogan. Her themes were "social inclusion, equality, and reconciliation." The first individual born in Northern Ireland to become President of Ireland, President McAleese was 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." She is also an admirer of Queen Elizabeth II, whom she came to know when she was Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen's. It was one of her major personal ambitions to host the first ever visit to the Republic of Ireland by a British head of state.
McAleese's initial seven year term of office ended in November 2004, but she announced on September 14 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.
She attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II on April 8, 2005 and the Papal Inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI on April 24.
McAleese attended the canonization by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome of Charles of Mount Argus on 3 June 2007. She was accompanied by her husband, Martin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, Mary Hanafin, the Minister for Education and Science, together with bishops and other pilgrims.
She paid a seven-day visit to Hollywood in December 2008 alongside Enterprise Ireland and the Irish Film Board on a mission to promote the Irish film and television industry. A reception held in her honor was attended by Ed Begley, Jr. and Fionnula Flanagan. She later met the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
On January 21, 2009, she signed into law the Anglo Irish Bank Corporation Act 2009 at a ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin, facilitating the nationalization of Anglo Irish Bank. Forbes named her among the hundred most powerful women in the world later that year. In November, she signed into law the National Asset Management Agency.
McAleese undertook an official two-day visit to London on February 28–29, 2010, where she visited the site of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games and was guest of honor at the Madejski Stadium for a rugby union match between London Irish and Harlequin F.C.
She began an official visit to New York City for several days, on May 16, 2010. She began by appearing at an Irish Voice event in honor of life science. She then addressed business leaders at the New York Stock Exchange to say Irish people were "as mad as hell" over the Irish banking crisis, and opened the An Gorta Mór (Great Famine) exhibition with a speech promising that Ireland's foreign policy focussed on global hunger. She was also present at St. Patrick's Cathedral for a Famine mass and went to the Battery Park's Irish Hunger Memorial to see the official New York commemoration of the 19th-century Irish Famine. On May 22, 2010, she delivered the keynote address at Fordham University's 165th Commencement.
She opened the Bloom Festival, Ireland's largest gardening show, on June 3, 2010, acknowledging an improved interest in gardening in Ireland, particularly among younger people. On June 13, 2010, McAleese began an official visit to China, where she met with Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping.
She made an official visit to Russia with Minister of State, Billy Kelleher, for four days in September 2010 and met with President Dmitry Medvedev. She spoke kindly of Mikhail Gorbachev, officially invited Medvedev to Ireland, and addressed students at a university in Saint Petersburg.
In March 2011, President McAleese invited Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom to make a state visit to the Republic of Ireland. The Queen accepted and the visit took place from 17–20 May 2011, the first state visit by a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland. McAleese had been eager to have the Queen visit Ireland, and the event was widely welcomed as a historic success.
Mary McAleese made her final overseas visit as head of state to Lebanon in October 2011, the location of her very first official overseas visit in 1997. Before her trip to Lebanon she visited Derry on one of her last official engagements to Northern Ireland, becoming the inaugural speaker at the first Conversations Across Walls and Borders event in First Derry Presbyterian Church.
McAleese left office on November 10, 2011 and was succeeded by Michael D. Higgins who was elected in the presidential election held on October 27, 2011.
McAleese consistently urged the Irish people North and South to put historical animosity and violence behind them and to "solve problems through dialogue and consensus." Instead of "holding on to old wounds, real or perceived" she advocates "breaking with the past." She welcomed the "softer language and more respectful relations" between former enemies that has taken place in the North following the St Andrews Agreement. She described an "almost miraculous release of positive energies" and said that Ireland can become "a light to the world where so many live in darkness and defeat conflict, poverty and disease." She praised 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.” She wanted to be a President who "holds out her hands to victims." She also took part in interreligious dialogue and discussion 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."
She spoke of an Ireland that is "more comfortable with the diversity flowering within its borders" 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." 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." 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. The foreword is by Desmond Tutu who describes McAleese as having "placed" herself at God's disposal.
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.
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. These remarks caused outrage among unionist politicians. McAleese later apologized, 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.
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."
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." 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." 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 listed her as the 74th most powerful women in the world.
McAleese has received awards and honorary doctorates throughout her career. On May 3, 2007, she was awarded the The American Ireland Fund Humanitarian Award. On October 31, 2007, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Otago, New Zealand. On May 19, 2009, she became the third living person to be awarded the freedom of Kilkenny, succeeding Brian Cody and Séamus Pattison. The ceremony, at which she was presented with two hurleys, took place at Kilkenny Castle. On May 24, 2009, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. On May 22, 2010, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of law from Fordham University, in the Bronx, New York, where she delivered the commencement speech to the class of 2010. On November 8 she was awarded an honorary doctorate at UMass Lowell in Lowell, Massachusetts.
On June 8, 2013, a ceremony was held to rename a bridge on the M1 motorway near Drogheda as the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge to honor McAleese's contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process.
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