Former Irish President Addresses BC
Published: Thursday, September 12, 2013
Updated: Thursday, September 12, 2013 03:09
The Boston College community welcomed Mary McAleese yesterday as the former president of Ireland and BC’s newest Burns Library Visiting Scholar launched her semester in Boston with an address in the Corcoran Commons Heights Room.
Co-sponsored by the BC Women’s Collaborative, the Council for Women of BC, the Women’s Resource Center, the Office of Institutional Diversity, and the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, the event, titled “A Conversation with Dr. Mary McAleese,” provided McAleese with an opportunity to introduce herself to the university and the community.
McAleese served as Ireland’s president from 1997 to 2011, only the second female and the first native of Northern Ireland to do so. Drawing on her experience as a child during the often-violent paramilitary struggles in Belfast, she is credited with helping to unite both sides of the country during her presidency. Internationally, McAleese is also remembered as the first female to succeed another as president.
According to the Center for Irish Programs Director Thomas Hachey, “Only two presidents in the Irish Republic have served two seven-year terms, and none of them were as eventful as that of Mary McAleese.
“The notable feature of her presidency was the attention she gave to peace and reconciliation in the north,” he said. “‘Building bridges’ was the slogan of her presidency.”
As a Burns Scholar, McAleese will use the Burns Library Irish Book and Manuscript Collection to further her own research, as well as lecture on a variety of topics throughout the semester. Although most Burns Visiting Scholars teach a seminar class on top of their research, she will lecture on a variety of topics instead, as necessitated by the constraints of of her own schedule as a doctoral student at the Gregorian University in Rome.
Asked about her trajectory from a child in a poor Northern Irish family, “I think luck played a very big role,” McAleese said. “Percentage-wise I couldn’t offer a comment but it pays to be born in the right generation.”
An education bill, based on Great Britain’s Butler Act, proved a valuable opportunity for McAleese. “My father grew up on a small farm in the west of Ireland. At 14 years of age he left home with his first pair of shoes—literally his first pair of shoes—when he got on the train,” she said. “He would have loved to go to school. My mother, very similarly, left school at 15. So I was born a lucky child with two very ambitious parents.”
She also credits the church for her education. “The church, the priests and the nuns–they were the people who took it upon themselves to make sure that we were educated. The law was just words. They gave it life,” McAleese said. “I went through never doubting, really, that I would go to college. There was self doubt, but the assumption was that this opportunity was there, and you were going to take it, and they were going to help you.”
Even so, being a Northern Ireland native often proved difficult. Her second, successful campaign shocked even her family, as the Northern Irish, including McAleese herself, were not even eligible to vote in the election. “It was due to the greatness of people’s hearts that I won that election,” she said.
She also faced the difficulties of being a woman, especially being a working mother, during her terms as president. “At the end of the day, even though I’m married to a dentist, when my kids would get a toothache, they’d want mommy.”
At the same time, she believes that being a female helped her to perform her job better. “I honestly think it helped, being a woman,” she said. “I saw the role as intrinsically pastoral, occupying a moral space above politics. I had a sense of vocation: I had a job to do. I needed to break that cycle of ignorance and mistrust if I were to build bridges.”
Addressing young people, particularly young women, considering a leadership career, McAleese offered emphatic advice. “Be mindful that it requires sacrifice, that sometimes it won’t be possible to get the perfect balance,” she said. “It’s a very lonely stage. But I think if you have the courage of a very important conviction, if the conviction is good, is of good moral integrity and it’s not selfish, if it conduces to the benefit of humanity and human decency, if its about investing in human decency, then frankly it has to be done and someone has to do it, and if you feel that you have the talent and if you’re drawn to it, I think it’s important to say yes to it.”
She added, “I think the important thing, that no matter what is written about you, or what is said about you, no matter what criticism you get, no matter what doubts you have, is to have a faith in the integrity of purpose of what you are about.”