Walking with Mary McAleese

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Mary McAleese on family, faith and the good fight

Ahead of her new RTÉ show, All Walks of Life, former President Mary McAleese tells Maggie Armstrong about her paternal grandparents, the hurt of being banned from the Vatican and why she's sticking with a 'misogynistic' Church

It takes a moment to recognise the figure approaching up the path as Professor Mary McAleese. Hidden behind a purple shell raincoat and rain hat, she could be any other shivering soul in Carrick-on-Shannon, where the rain falls in torrents and the wind shakes the branches of the trees, while boats huddle along the churning icy river. It's a godforsaken day to meet a former President.

When she walks over to the table, her formidability kicks in - a steady glide, head held back.

We are meeting in the hotel near her home, "three miles out" on the Co Roscommon lake opposite the farm where her grandfather grew up. I quickly learn that she likes to talk about her grandparents; they root her.

"My grandfather came here into Carrick one afternoon and bought my father his first pair of shoes. My father described him coming back to the house with a pair of shoes wrapped up in brown paper - they might have been second-hand shoes - they were subsistence farmers, there was no real hard cash. My father said it took him five years to grow into the shoes. He put them on and the next day he left home to make his own way in the world, at the age of 14. Can you imagine? The very idea of letting a child loose at 14."

Patrick Leneghan got on a train and headed for Belfast. He worked for years as a barman and eventually opened a small pub, The Long Bar, off the Falls Road. He and his wife Claire had nine children, raised Catholic in a Loyalist neighbourhood, and their home, and pub, were both viciously attacked.

In 1973, Mary, their eldest, got a Degree in Law from Queen's University Belfast. She was called to the Bar and worked briefly as a barrister. In 1975, she took up the post in Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College, where she stayed 12 years. She also worked as a current affairs journalist on RTÉ. In 1994, she became Pro-Vice Chancellor of Queen's University, one of innumerable honours, appointments, posts and 'ships to come. And now the woman Forbes named as the 64th most powerful in the world in 2011 has just been made Chancellor of Trinity College Dublin.

Were her parents surprised in 1997 when she announced her intention to run for President?

"I think everybody was surprised at that for sure, yes they were, absolutely. I was glad that they have both lived long enough to see that day. [Her father died in 2013 and her mother is alive]. But when I was made a Freeman of Roscommon, that, to my father, was more important than becoming president."

She continued to surprise when she went to live in Rome for three years and obtain a doctorate in Canon Law. Now she's returning to broadcasting with a new programme for RTÉ, All Walks of Life. This follows Modern Family, her programme made to mark the Pope's 2018 visit - a visit she wasn't happy with, she has no qualms in stating.

In All Walks of Life we meet a different Mary McAleese to the stateswoman many of us grew up with. A kind of mother-to-all, she encloses each guest (there are six, one in each episode) in a tight hug before hot-footing across rocky terrain, talking to her fellow pilgrims about difficult, touchy-feely things. Faith in God, and overcoming adversity. Now that she's had her chance, I'm glad I get to turn the tables and see will McAleese open up about such a private thing as religious belief. A popular president at the keen edge of an unpopular subject.

I'm also holding out for one of her matriarchal hugs.

"Where are you from yourself?" she asks warmly and wonders how I got here. She wears a stylish pair of maroon eyeglasses. Her fingernails are painted deep pink and she wears silver hoop earrings under her coiffed hair. Her husband, Martin, who is now Chancellor of DCU, is a discreet presence at a nearby table as the former President settles into her cappuccino and croissant.

What was the goal of her programme? Does she hope to give the people of secular Ireland a chance to reflect on faith? "I couldn't care less. Honestly, it's not my business," she says. "Telling people to reflect on faith. I've enough problems with my own!"

Put differently, is it a delicate thing to talk to sceptical people about faith, almost a taboo subject? "I understand scepticism very well. I'm waking up to it most mornings," she laughs - and then bites, proverbially, when I ask her to say more about that scepticism: "No."

"The programme really was about exploring the inner thoughts of the participants. I didn't know whether they had faith or whether they didn't… We were walking routes that had been associated over time with both Christianity and pre-Christianity. Extraordinarily ancient routes, you're talking two millennia.

"We were setting out down the road to see what does be going through people's heads when they follow a pilgrim route. Some people will take to that route with no sense of God. It's not for me to tell them to have it either. I'm not very keen on proselytising, evangelising."

The former President is a nature person and she loves to walk - note the Gortex, the jeans and hard-wearing burgundy ankle boots.

"Walking is my thing. Hail, blow or snow, I'll go out no matter what the weather is. Holidays are spent walking. I don't do beaches. We've done the Camino quite a few times now. We've done parts of it in France, Italy, Spain. Ireland has the most extravagant number of pilgrim routes. We have such a luxuriant abundance of magnificent walks in Ireland and in many cases they are also linked to a very strong local narrative.

"Long before we had churches, dogma and doctrines, long before Palladian or Patrick came to Ireland, they struggled with the big metaphysical questions, with what are we doing here?"

Talking at length, she is eloquent, sharp, a little florid, and constantly needs to be interrupted. These interruptions feel crude considering her insistent recall of so many subjects. She moves quickly between topics and favours an objective answer over a personal.

She always finds the right word, plucking superlatives as if she is making a speech rather than having a chat. Famously, she's also well capable of a salty phrase, perhaps knowing the power of rhetoric to make a difference. In March 2018 at the 'Why Women Matter' Voices of Faith conference, held in the shadow of the Vatican on International Women's Day, she described the Catholic Church as the "primary global carrier of the toxic virus of misogyny"; "a male bastion of patronising platitudes"; and a "hermetically sealed cosy male clerical elite".

I relay the first quote back to her and she nods. "It is".

As a female Head of State, did she encounter misogyny often? The question is side-stepped. "Funny, I've been very lucky. To have always managed to find a space to get through somehow."

And the other global carriers of misogyny?

"Oh there are many of carriers of that virus, and a lot of them are faith-based systems." She gives a curt "hmm," indicating perhaps she doesn't need any more controversy - perhaps.

McAleese has been highlighting the second-class view of women in the church for some time; in 1995, she had articulated similar sentiments at a conference in Dublin. But this time her words got her into trouble. The Voices of Faith conference had been scheduled to take place in the Vatican. Some days before, three of the speakers, including McAleese, were not given approval from a high-ranking Cardinal to speak in the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. The Voices of Faith looked elsewhere to hold their conference and the Jesuits opened their doors.

Did it hurt to be excluded from the Vatican?

"Oh it hurt desperately, of course it did. This was my church after all. I would have been a visitor to the Vatican. Over the time I was in office I would have been welcomed by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. It seemed odd to me. And remains unexplained."

She made a canonical complaint to Pope Francis at the time and has not received a response. "Not an acknowledgement. Nothing. Just complete silence. So, rather odd.

"I don't think it was a good idea to have banned me from a meeting about women in the Vatican. It wasn't a good signal, was it? It wasn't wise.

"The decision was taken by the man Cardinal [Kevin] Farrell. If I was to put two and two together and look at the other people who were also 'barred' if you like, we were all people who'd been associated with campaigning for gay rights. That seems to have been the trigger. But we don't know." She adds that Cardinal Farrell was "new in the job. So, pulling his weight around a bit".

McAleese met the Irish Cardinal once in Rome. "He did say to me rather dismissively on that occasion that he knew nothing about Ireland, that he'd been out of it for 50 years. That became very evident of course, when he became the mastermind of the Pope's really not great visit to Ireland. Poorly constructed visit to Ireland. I felt terribly sorry for Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the visit was thrown upon him."

The failure of the papal visit to reach the North of Ireland bothers her. "The North has always been kind of hanging there, waiting for a Pope to come. Francis comes in peace, and we have the Good Friday Agreement. Every single leader of a Protestant church invited him, what a wonderful thing, and he didn't go. This was the advice he got from Cardinal Farrell. Cardinal Farrell is one of his closest friends. He celebrated his birthday in a restaurant in Rome this week with five friends, one of them was Cardinal Farrell."

What is interesting is how McAleese put aside the imbroglio and stayed committed to the church. In 1975, with David Norris, she founded the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform and has spoken out against homophobia since. But her son, Justin, could not marry his husband in the church he was brought up in. I tell her it's hard to understand how she has continued to support an institution she could wage such a polemic against. She takes a bite of croissant and pauses for a thoughtful moment.

"1.2 billion people'" she says. "The church is a hugely, hugely influential institution. It's also the biggest NGO in the world.

"I'll stay with it. It's a deliberate choice. I could leave, I'm free to leave. I choose to stay because I don't see church as the hierarchy and the curia and the institutional governance structure - which in my view is in serious need of reform. It comes out of an old imperial structure, and like all old empires they're out of touch with life now. Pope John XXIII started the process, it's somewhat glacial."

She makes the point she owes her education to the church and the Passionates that brought her through school. Her mother left school at 14 and her father at 15 and both would have loved to have gone to university. "I feel very grateful to all the priests, nuns, Christian brothers who devoted their lives to educating young people.

"I'm very conscious that there was a dark side to it. That was repressed, suppressed, had very little controls, accountability, children were made doubly vulnerable, a huge amount of victims came out of that system. The raw wounds of that are going to be a long, long time in the healing." She says that the people she interviews for All Walks of Life have "the most remarkable uplifting stories to tell, which might give hope to other people. You take Amy Huberman… You could say isn't she blessed, she's had the silver spoon. No. You walk for her for a bit and you realise she's had manys an up and down… Her life is not a gilded cage.

"You think of Deborah Somorin [the Nigerian Chartered Accountant who lost her mother to suicide and was homeless at 13 and pregnant at 14]. This little one, who is a mammy at 14, she raises her own child, she does her Junior Cert, she does her Leaving Cert, she gets into university, she gets her degree, she gets into one of the big four accounting firms, she passes her Chartered Accountancy exams.

"That is no joke. My son did those exams, but he came home every evening to a meal put in front of him. I was looking after him"

A lot of younger people who grew up with a tarnished view of the church wouldn't think of having faith in God, I tell her. "I think you're right about that," she says. "One of my children said to me, 'Mum, for most of our lives the church has been under investigation. Like the Mafia.' There's been commission after commission, report after report, investigation after investigation, and that has clawed away at credibility.

"Also, we have an overdose of churches, don't we. Sunday services, or Mass - it's all about buildings. Many of those buildings, though, can be a little bit depressing now. The draining away of people can also drain away at your spirit."

Is part of having faith accepting you will also have major doubts? "For absolute sure. Faith is when you've jumped over the doubt. It's trust. Trust is vulnerable. Isn't that what happened, for a lot of people, that the trust and the faith they had was robbed by bad actions? Whether it was clerical child sex abuse, episcopal mismanagement. Those things damage trust."

She became an adult when it was illegal for a married woman to work in state jobs. Studying Law at Queen's, she was one of about 10 girls in a class of about 60 boys. Asked where she got her drive and the urge to excel at everything, she offers only "I've no idea," but does quote some poetry. "Very little would have been expected of us, but we were also the generation Seamus Heaney describes as having 'intelligence as bright and unmannerly as crowbars'. We were the generation that was not going to 'dose its life away against the flanks of milking cows'."

Her father, part of a group called the Knights of Columbanus, "who pushed hard for the acceleration and the massification of schools", seems to have given her bookishness and curiosity. "He never had any opportunity for education, but boy, he was some avid reader. Our house was coming down with books, books, books, books. I could be found in any corner of the house reading a book."

I wonder how an intellectual can believe in something for which there is no evidence. She answers by way of a strange tangential description. One of her favourite places is Valentia Island. "Everywhere you turn it's like an army of flower arrangers just got there before you and arranged these totally magnificent displays of montbretia and fuchsia. To see the splendour of that. It takes your breath away. You think to yourself, 'I couldn't make that'. So it opens up those questions about creation itself, doesn't it?"

Can she think of a time her religious faith has steadied her?

"Always, every day. I gave up a long time ago trying to plumb the depths of it. I'm just glad it's there, I'm glad I have it."

Her grandparents were "ferocious prayers".

"My paternal grandmother who lived up the road, she loved quiet silent prayer in the dark. She would go to the chapel first thing in the morning. She'd walk three miles to Drumline chapel, the priest left the key under the stone for her, she'd open the chapel, it was freezing cold. She would light candles and sit in the gloom. From her I learnt the value of quiet silent prayer.

"The conversation with God's been going on inside my head since I was a youngster."

After Dublin, McAleese feels most at home in Rome, where she lived in a monastery and a layperson's community. "I go to mass regularly in St Clement. If you listen carefully you can hear the water system that was put in 3,000 years ago. How does that make you feel about life and death? That's what I love about Rome. The consciousness that allows you to accept the shortness of life and the possibility of death without any sense of fear."

Time is quickly swallowed up in the company of the Eighth President of Ireland. What books does she like to read? Without warning, she lets flow her most passionate speech. "The best book I've read in recent years bar none is Anna Burns' Milkman. I'm probably on my third reading of it now. I can't get enough of it. I think it's magic.

"She's writing about my life, about my parish, about the maelstrom of living in a sectarian mire, and living inside a place where, day in and day out, week in and week out, people are being murdered, killed in the most grievous ways. At the end of every page I almost cried, I didn't want to turn the page, I kept going back afterward. I think it's the best thing written on this island in a very long time."

She asks me how I'm getting home - "The train is brilliant. I use it a lot, of course I'm very fortunate I have the free travel," she chuckles - then leaves with a handshake. I watch as, walking past the other tables she stops to greet a man while her husband nods politely, staying behind her.

"How are you?" the man at the table exclaims.

"All the better for seeing you," she says and hugs him dearly and they talk about Christmas. "And you're doing great work," the man tells her before she's outside again fighting the wind and rain.

The first episode of 'All Walks of Life' airs on RTÉ One on January 17 at 8.30pm