Mary McAleese: flying on two wings

Elena Mc Crory takes a response from Mary McAleese on gender equality and examines the past president’s role in activism

During a meeting in 1999 Dr Mary (Patricia) McAleese, recalls the sexist comment made by the Pope, John Paul II. Upon shaking hands, the pope turned to McAleese’s husband Martin and said, “Would you not prefer to be the president of Ireland instead of your wife?” McAleese recalled this during her speech at an event hosted by the American Partnership in Boston, in 2019. Disparagement aside, how lucky are we to have such an inspiring woman to call our past president. An aspect that makes McAleese so inspiring is her ability to speak out, she replied, “you would never have done that to a male president, I’m the elected president of Ireland whether you like it or not.”

“She stated, in light of women’s week, ‘we are so used to flying on one wing that we cannot imagine flying on two. But that has to be the future…where full equality between men and women demolishes the embedded structures, laws and attitudes which hold back the full flourishing of women and of humanity.’” 

McAleese’s work embodied this year’s International Women’s Day mantra, ‘Choose to Challenge’, notably through the many first time titles she has achieved for women in this country. She was the first president from northern Ireland, the first Roman Catholic pro-vice-chancellor of the Institute of Professional legal studies at Queen’s University, and is one of Ireland’s most popular and respected past presidents to date. I was lucky enough to get a response from McAleese. She stated, in light of women’s week just past, “we are so used to flying on one wing that we cannot imagine flying on two. But that has to be the future…where full equality between men and women demolishes the embedded structures, laws and attitudes which hold back the full flourishing of women and of humanity.” Like the many principles in her politics, the response is based upon equality, inclusion, and peace.

McAleese campaigns for many issues, including problems she encountered in her own life growing up as a Catholic, and her present views on the church’s underlying structures of misogyny, clerical abuse, and dominance. While these disputes have gone unaccountable by the church in the past, as long as they live, the baton handed to future generations of fear, contempt, hatred, self-righteousness and entitlement are fed, a concept she explained in her memoir, Here’s The Story. Thus, in a divided society, much like many nations today, the recruitment and application of tolerance of others is crucial for understanding, mutual respect, and most importantly, gender equality. “The evidence is in that where full equality reigns so does progress and prosperity”, and indeed prosperous McAleese has been throughout her career, in examining her contributions to Ireland, we must look at the many hats she has worn, and still wears today. She is an author, gender and LGBT activist, barrister, professor, broadcaster, journalist, woman, mother, director, our current Chancellor of Trinity College, and our eighth past president.

McAleese was the eldest of nine children, and has roots in Roscommon which she described as, “one of the undiscovered gems of Ireland” on the Joe Finnegan show. McAleese grew up in Ardoyne Belfast, and departed at the height of the troubles during the 1970’s peak in violence. She then studied law in Queen’s university belfast and Trinity College, being called to the Northern Ireland bar in 1974. McAleese served as president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011. In fact, both Irish female presidents, Mary McAleese and Mary Robinson, spent significant periods in their presidency, bridging political and religious divides, taking on active roles in the emergence of the Northern Ireland peace process throughout the 1990’s.

“this has to be the century of action, of sustained momentum to lift us up on two wings.”

Growing up Catholic in a dominated Protestant neighbourhood, imaginably was not easy, and although McAleese repels the Christian Catholic Church’s many methods, she has great faith herself, focusing on reform within the system. On the Joe Finnegan show in January 2021, McAleese alluded to the ideology of informing a consciousness once a baby is baptised, and speaks in relation to the Mother and baby home reports published firstly in 2015. One of the most appalling reports on human right abuses ever published in Ireland. “Why then, do so many settle for flapping about directionless on one wing? The enemy is what Seamus Heaney called ‘the guardian angel of passivity’. It is past time for passivity”, McAleese states, calling for action from the Catholic church. It is beyond admirable to see our past female leader, standing up against the oldest institution in the western world, and hopefully she has inspired girls and women to do the same in their own lives. She ends with; “this has to be the century of action, of sustained momentum to lift us up on two wings.”

“One of my favourite lines from her memoir, applies to so much that we have to answer for in Ireland today; sexism, homophobia, LGBT rights, women’s rights, racism; she writes that ‘by failing to build bridges to our estranged neighbours, we lived with a dangerously restricted view of life.’”

Her activism does not shirk at gender inequality, she advocates for LGBT rights and its treatment in Ireland. She expressed to the Irish times, how amply discriminalisation of homosexuality feeds homophobia. McAleese labels it “intrinsically evil”, especially the Catholic church’s teachings on the subject to the younger LGBT community. One of my favourite lines from her memoir, applies to so much that we have to answer for in Ireland today; sexism, homophobia, LGBT rights, women’s rights, racism; she writes, that “by failing to build bridges to our estranged neighbours, we lived with a dangerously restricted view of life.” Inclusion and equality no doubt the foundations to build the bridge.

Dr Mary McAleese unlike so many, is an inspiration that has led, and continues to lead by example, through her advocacy of human rights, through her contributions to the legal system, and from her fourteen years in office. We are blessed to have her as our Chancellor. It is women like Mary McAleese who still after her two terms of service, through the potato mould, keeps digging.