Here’s the Story, by Mary McAleese, Penguin/Sandycove, 402 pp, £20, ISBN 978-1844889704
Mary McAleese is greatly to be admired. She has risen to tremendous heights in her chosen professions, exercised a level-headed judgement in matters of public concern and shown considerable initiative in all her undertakings. She has served two terms as president of Ireland with confidence and aplomb. She has worked hard and incessantly on behalf of an anti-sectarian ideal. She would like to take both parts of Ireland, “in all its diversity”, by the ears and shake them into accord. Her role as president gave her a platform from which to promote the building of bridges, and breaking down of barriers, between all denominations (and none) in Ireland, and she goes on upholding that laudable objective. She never falters in her unimpeachable attitude towards absolutely everything.
So what is wrong with Here’s the Story? Well, it is awash in Catholicism, to an extent rarely encountered since the time when The Irish Messenger of the Sacred Heart was required reading in every holy home. Priests, cardinals, monsignors, bishops, archbishops, even a pope or two, throng its pages. (Representatives of other denominations get a look-in too, to be sure, but it’s the Catholic contingent that overwhelms.) Not all are of the highest moral character, but many are. The author makes no bones about differentiating between the truly devout and the damnable, indeed, and she never hesitates to criticise priestly behaviour when it falls short of the loftiest Catholic standards. She frequently enters into disputes with hidebound churchmen, and gets the better of them. But the sheer abundance of clerics and their doings does not make for compelling reading. At times you feel you are sitting out an endless and excruciating ecclesiastical committee meeting.
There are more inspiriting elements to the story, it’s true, and among them is the author’s liberal, feminist and inclusive stance. Mary McAleese has campaigned for church reform, most notably in the areas of same-sex marriage, women priests, reproductive rights and so on. She takes a thoroughly ecumenical approach to the church’s position in the modern world. Indeed, at times she seems so much in favour of giving the faith a good shake-up that you’d have to wonder why she remains so ardent an advocate of Catholic doctrine and ritual. Especially in the wake of the sex and child abuse scandals, and with everyone now aware of the cruelty, cupidity and hypocrisy underpinning the whole system, the church’s credibility as a moral force has gone the way of the Great Auk or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
But not, it’s plain, as far as the author of this memoir is concerned. For Mary McAleese, the Catholic church with all its defects remains a vital component of her “bridge-building” enterprise. I suppose it’s a matter of faith and uplift, combined with inheritance. Or to put it simply, a religious disposition. She was born into an exceptionally devout family (her father was a Knight of Columbanus) and grew up in a household in which priests were never out of the place. Most were welcome visitors, though one or two were not. This was Ardoyne in north Belfast, in the 1950s and ’60s. Mary Leneghan – as she then was – was the oldest of nine children, and behaved towards her siblings in a manner entirely to her credit. She understood her role was to give a good example. She had many Protestant friends in the neighbourhood, whose religion, in her view, was no more to be despised than her own. She was unaware at the time of any dire or divisive undercurrent. This was a “mixed” community in which tolerance seemed to be in the ascendant – until it wasn’t. The Troubles came, and the Leneghans lost their Crumlin Road home as a consequence of UDA intimidation. The house was attacked first with bricks, and them with machine guns. Some of the attackers had been childhood friends of the family.
An instance of gross clerical interference in secular life takes place while the Leneghans still live in Ardoyne ‑ and if this doesn’t put Mary off religion it’s clear that nothing will. Her mother, having just given birth to her ninth and last child, is haemorraghing so badly that her life seems in danger. There is an obvious remedy – a hysterectomy – and this is duly carried out, on the doctor’s recommendation. The next minute an angry cleric, a Father Honorius, comes storming into the house, demanding to know why he hadn’t been consulted. “In front of us children,” McAleese says, Honorius berates her parents for cutting short an unfinished child-bearing career and flying in the face of church teaching. Even the future president of Ireland and lifelong Catholic baulks at this.
But of course her faith is secure enough to withstand an individual breach of priestly protocol, such as this one. (Honorius should have minded his own business.) It is reinforced by daily Mass, confession, prayer meetings, novenas, the whole caboodle. It irradiates the author’s life. Only once does the McAleese credo seem in danger of slipping, when, as a teenager, she comes under the influence of a socialist agitator who works in her father’s pub, the Long Bar on the Falls Road. She is easily restored to the path of righteousness by her then headmistress, a Mother Helena, whose method of reconversion is to posit the presence of God in every object in the room, down to the inkwells set into the schoolgirls’ desktops. “God is in the inkwell! God is in the table!” It does the trick.
Mother Helena is the headmistress of St Dominic’s Girls’ Grammar School on the Falls Road in Belfast. At this point I should probably declare an interest. I was a pupil at this school some years before Mary McAleese. The same Mother Helena did not look tolerantly on a misdemeanour committed by me in the Donegal Gaeltacht. It involved a minor episode of sexual hanky-panky during the summer holidays, and when it came to light I was expelled from the school at the hands of Helena. Around the same time, I learn from Mary McAleese, the egregious Father Brendan Smyth was going about his vile molestations “in the parlour of my old Belfast school, St Dominic’s”. You can imagine the extent of my personal glee while I ponder this arresting titbit.
Mary McAleese goes on from St Dominic’s to the Faculty of Law at Queen’s University in 1969, just as tensions in the North go into overdrive. The most interesting parts of the McAleese story ‑ aside from the author’s pre-Troubles childhood in Ardoyne with its old-fashioned Catholic ethos – concern the effects of the upheaval on the Leneghan family, the trauma and disruption all around, the savagery and anger and rising death toll. McAleese, resolutely non-partisan, volunteers her services to the Central Citizens’ Defence Committee, whose members sometimes meet in her father’s Falls Road pub. “I was a constitutional nationalist raised in the Daniel O’Connell tradition,” she avers. What provokes her to outrage and horror at the time is the newly formed Provisional IRA and its murderous agenda (no less than the actions of Paisley and his acolytes). Years later, during her presidential campaign, when someone tries to discredit McAleese by implying she was all along “a closet Sinn Féin supporter”, she can point with pride to her record of impartiality and lifelong promotion of peace. The peacemakers of all persuasions are her heroes, and among them a particular veneration is accorded to the SDLP’s John Hume, who nearly achieves an apotheosis in these pages. “He was head and shoulders above every other politician of the era.” It’s true, of course, that McAleese had a personal insight into the frustration and disaffection building up within nationalist/republican circles.
While the Troubles had made the North a byword for carnage, bigotry and incorrigibility, the glittering career of Mary McAleese was getting under way. Called to the Northern Irish Bar, appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College, Dublin, presenting current affairs programmes for RTÉ … this is only the start of it. (But it’s one in the eye for the dreadful Father Honorius, who scoffed at Mary Leneghan’s teenage ambition to study law at Queen’s.) RTÉ doesn’t last; McAleese encounters some friction here and is dismayed by the low level of Southern interest in what is happening in the North. So it’s back to Trinity College (along with continuing part-time television work). The next stage in the upwards trajectory sees the author return to Queen’s, initially as director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies, and then as that university’s first female pro-vice chancellor. In 1984, we find McAleese among the Catholic church’s delegates to the New Ireland Forum, where her Catholic orientation is seen to be balanced by her emphasis on inter-church relations. Then, following her unsuccessful bid to be elected to the Dáil as a Fianna Fáil candidate in 1987, she rather surprisingly secures the presidential nomination for that party, and goes on to her greatest glory. In the midst of it all, she somehow manages to fit in marriage and three children, whose upbringing she takes in her stride along with everything else. Her energy, expertise and ambition are outstanding.
Never one to mince her words, she rebukes Pope John Paul II during an official presidential visit to the Holy See in 1999. The pope has committed a solecism, turning to her husband instead of herself when they meet in the papal chamber, and asking Martin McAleese if he wouldn’t like to be president himself, rather than being married to the president. As a joke, it does not go down well. “I told him … that I regarded the joke as sexist and improper.” The pope is suitably abashed and promises not to do it again. Mary McAleese is right, of course, to uphold the dignity of her position as president of a secular state, and to come down sternly on anti-feminism wherever she encounters it. But it’s the only occasion when I find myself experiencing a spark of sympathy for a doddery old pope with bad advisers and an imperfect grasp of English.
A pope deluded about what is funny and what is not is easier to contend with than a pair of right-wing American Catholics, a Cardinal Law – whose very name makes him sound like the ultimate church decree – and a Harvard family law professor called Mary Ann Glendon, both of whom resent McAleese for failing to style herself a Catholic president for a Catholic people. Their sectarian attitude gets up the Irish president’s ecumenical nose – and you feel she is pleased to be able to report the subsequent downfall of one and the duplicity of the other. There are dark and unpalatable sides to the church, as she acknowledges, not all of them to do with the droves of priests who go about abusing children with one hand, while, with the other, holding up the consecrated host before the altar.
The papal failure of tact is matched, or exceeded, by another which occurs during a secular event. This time, Mary McAleese herself is not the object of the faux pas. That was Seamus Heaney. The occasion is a reception in honour of the recent Nobel laureate at Hillsborough Castle in 1995. The then secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, presides. After quoting a few lines from the poem “Digging” (an uninspired choice), he presents the poet with what he takes to be a suitable memento of the occasion. It is a spade. A spade? An audible gasp goes up from the audience. Heaney’s friend the singer and film-maker David Hammond, standing next to Mary McAleese, nearly explodes with indignation.
Is it a deliberate insult? Of course it isn’t, but someone has committed a blunder, focusing on the title of the poem and not its substance. Anyone who has read “Digging” will know that the poet is announcing his intention to eschew the farming life of his forebears and strike out on his own. And, aside from the fact that “Digging” is the only poem Heaney ever wrote that falls a little flat, presenting him with a spade might be interpreted as instructing him to get back to where he’d come from.
How did Heaney himself react? We aren’t told, but of course he’d have saved the day with his customary charm and diplomacy. Other details are missing: was it a real spade? A small gold spade? A spade the size of a tiepin? What did he do with it? Never mind, the atmosphere of contained shock and relish in the literary gathering is striking. “It was the best sideshow at any formal reception I have ever been at,” McAleese writes.
Here’s the Story, with its title’s undertone of take it or leave it, is written with forthrightness, but also with circumspection. The story has nothing fancy or wayward about it, and the style is in keeping. Once she has become a public figure, of course, Mary McAleese is bound by the rules of the office and cannot allow too many personal touches into her narrative. But one or two sneak in nevertheless, possibly to show the office of state hasn’t made a remote or unbending figurehead of her. Here, for example, is the president of Ireland in the ladies’ room at Áras an Uachtaráin, succumbing to a fit of giggles when the skirt of her elaborate evening dress refuses to sit properly. Here she is in a state car discussing shinty and hurling with Queen Elizabeth (who proves surprisingly knowledgeable about both games). Actually, on top of all the ecclesiastical interactions which dominate these pages, there is rather too much about the queen and her “historic” visit to Ireland. Yes, it was a triumph for the president, with everything going to plan and even exceeding diplomatic expectations. It boosted the cause of amity between nations and factions, dear to the president’s heart. But for those of us indifferent to royalty, the passages concerning the queen’s engagements and her dexterous handling of all of them come close to inducing tedium.
The central plank of Mary McAleese’s presidency was her “bridge-building” strategy, aimed at eroding atavistic prejudices affecting unionists and nationalists, sects and the single-minded alike. To this end, she brought busloads of loyalists, ex-UDA men, members of the Shankill Women’s Association and so forth, to Áras an Uachtaráin to broaden their outlook and instil in them a consciousness of traits, objectives and standpoints common to everyone in the country. A lot of very jolly occasions ensued, but I am not sure to what extent minds were altered for the better, once the novelty of the visits had worn off. At least it was a start, with ancient adversaries mingling merrily and admitting – for the moment – the stupidity of holding fixed ideas.
Fixed ideas. As an endorsement of integration, Mary McAleese rather surprisingly, and on two occasions, quotes Louis MacNeice’s lines from Section 16 of Autumn Journal, about “a single purpose” being “founded on a jumble of opposites”. What she understands by the “jumble of opposites” – all the warring allegiances and biases in Ireland – is far from MacNeice’s meaning. He is referring specifically to Maud Gonne, and taking a slightly sardonic tone about the way in which the distinct and incongruous components of the Irish separatist’s background and temperament have coalesced into a single purpose: republicanism. Peace and reconciliation do not come into it. For Mary McAleese, however, they represent a core philosophy and provide a purpose which she has pursued throughout her life, with verve and integrity.
Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.