Mary McAleese

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Mary McAleese
8th President of Ireland
In office
11 November 1997 – 10 November 2011
Preceded byMary Robinson
Succeeded byMichael D. Higgins
Personal details
Mary Patricia Leneghan

(1951-06-27) 27 June 1951 (age 68)
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Political partyIndependent (since 1997)
Other political
Fianna Fáil (before 1997)
Martin McAleese (m. 1976)
  • Patrick Leneghan
  • Claire McManus
Alma mater
WebsiteOfficial website

Mary Patricia McAleese (/mækəˈls/; née Leneghan; Irish: Máire Pádraigín Mhic Ghiolla Íosa;[1] born 27 June 1951)[2] is an Irish politician who served as the eighth President of Ireland from November 1997 to November 2011. She was the second female president of Ireland. McAleese was first elected in 1997, succeeding Mary Robinson, making her the first woman in the world to succeed another woman as president.[3] She was reelected unopposed for a second term in office in 2004.[4] On both occasions she was elected as an independent, although she was previously a member of Fianna Fáil. McAleese is the first president of Ireland to have come from either Northern Ireland or Ulster.[5]

McAleese graduated in Law from Queen's University Belfast. In 1975, she was appointed Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin and in 1987, she returned to her alma mater, Queen's, to become director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. In 1994, she became the first female pro-vice-chancellor of Queen's University.[6] She worked as a barrister and as a journalist with RTÉ.[7] She is an Honorary Fellow of St Edmund's College, Cambridge.[8]

McAleese used her time in office to address issues concerning justice, social equality, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism and reconciliation. She described her presidency's theme as "Building Bridges".[9] This bridge-building materialised in her attempts to reach out to the unionist community in Northern Ireland. These steps included celebrating the Twelfth of July at Áras an Uachtaráin and taking communion in a Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin, for which she incurred some criticism from some of the Irish Catholic hierarchy.[10] Though a practising Roman Catholic, McAleese holds liberal views on homosexuality and women priests.[11] She is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders and was ranked the 64th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.[12] In spite of some minor controversies,[13] McAleese remained popular and her presidency is regarded as successful.[14][15][16]

Background and family life[edit]

Born Mary Patricia Leneghan (Irish: Máire Pádraigín Ní Lionnacháin), in Ardoyne, north Belfast, McAleese was the eldest of nine children.[17] She is a Roman Catholic.[18] Loyalists forced her family to leave the area when the Troubles broke out.[19] Educated at St Dominic's High School, she also spent some time when younger with the Poor Clares, Queen's University Belfast (from which she graduated in 1973), and Trinity College Dublin. She was called to the Northern Irish Bar in 1974, and remains a member of the Irish Bar.[18]

In 1976, she married Martin McAleese, an accountant and dentist.[17][20] He assisted his wife with some of her initiatives as President.[21][22][23] They have three children: Emma, born in 1982, who graduated as an engineer from University College Dublin and graduated as a dentist from Trinity College Dublin; and twins born in 1985, Justin, an accountant with a master's degree from University College Dublin, and SaraMai, who obtained a master's degree in biochemistry at the University of Oxford.[24] Ahead of the 2015 Marriage Equality referendum Justin McAleese spoke for the first time about growing up gay.[25]

Early career[edit]

In 1975, she was appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology in Trinity College Dublin,[26] succeeding Mary Robinson.[27] Also in 1975, McAleese chaired a meeting at Liberty Hall that advocated a woman's right to choose and was quoted as saying that "I would see the failure to provide abortion as a human rights issue". She later claimed that she misunderstood the nature of the meeting.[28]

During the same decade she was legal advisor to and a founding member of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform. She left this position in 1979, to join RTÉ as a journalist and presenter, during one period as a reporter and presenter for their Today Tonight programme. However, in RTÉ, she and Alex White (then a TV producer and later a Labour Party TD) were attacked and criticised by a group led by Eoghan Harris, associated with the Workers' Party, over what they perceived as her bias towards republican groups in the North. McAleese was critical of the Provisional IRA, but believed it was important to hear their side of the story; she opposed the Harris faction's support for Section 31, which she believed was an attack on free speech.[29] In 1981, she returned to the Reid Professorship, but continued to work part-time for RTÉ for a further four years.[citation needed] In 1987, she returned to Queen's University, to become Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies. She stood, unsuccessfully, as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the Dublin South-East constituency at the 1987 general election, receiving 2,243 votes (5.9%).

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 Northern Ireland 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. She became the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University Belfast.[18] Prior to becoming president in 1997, McAleese had also held the following positions: Channel 4 Television, Director, Northern Ireland Electricity, Director, Royal Group of Hospitals Trust and Founding member of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas.[17]


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 mobilise the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women and equitable development.[30]

First term (1997–2004)[edit]

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 Party candidate) and two Independents: Dana Rosemary Scallon and Derek Nally.

McAleese won the presidency with 45.2% of first preference votes. In the second and final count against Banotti, McAleese won 55.6% of preferences. On 11 November 1997, she was inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland. Within weeks of this she made her first official overseas trip to Lebanon.[31]

McAleese described the theme of her presidency as "building bridges". The first individual born in Northern Ireland to become President of Ireland, President McAleese was a regular visitor to Northern Ireland throughout her presidency, where she was on the whole warmly welcomed by both communities, confounding critics who had believed she would be a divisive figure. People from Northern Ireland, indeed people from right across the nine-county Province of Ulster, were regular and recurring visitors to Áras an Uachtaráin while she was president.[20] She is also an admirer of Queen Elizabeth II, whom she came to know when she was Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University of Belfast. In March 1998, President McAleese stated that she would officially celebrate the Twelfth of July as well as Saint Patrick's Day, recognising the day's importance among Ulster Protestants.

She also incurred some criticism from some of the Irish Catholic hierarchy by taking communion in an Anglican (Church of Ireland) Cathedral, in Dublin, on 7 December 1997, although 78 percent of Irish people approved of her action in a following opinion poll. While Cardinal Desmond Connell called her action a "sham" and a "deception", Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said it was ironic that "the Church was condemning an act of reconciliation and bridge-building between the denominations."[32]

In 1998, she met the Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, on an official visit to the United States. In an interview in 2012, she said that Law told her he was "sorry for Catholic Ireland to have you as President" and went on to insult a Minister of State, who was accompanying President McAleese. "His remarks were utterly inappropriate and unwelcome," she said. McAleese told the cardinal that she was the "President of Ireland and not just of Catholic Ireland". At this point, a heated argument ensued between the two, according to McAleese.[33]

Second term (2004–2011)[edit]

McAleese's initial seven-year term of office ended in November 2004, but she stood for a second term in the 2004 presidential election. Following the failure of any other candidate to secure the necessary support for nomination, the incumbent President stood unopposed, with no political party affiliation,[citation needed] and was declared elected on 1 October 2004. She was re-inaugurated at the commencement of her second seven-year term on 11 November 2004. McAleese's very high 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 difficult to win.[34]

On 27 January 2005, following her attendance at the ceremony commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp, she created friction by referring to the way some Protestant children in Northern Ireland had been raised to hate Catholics, just as European children "for generations, for centuries" were encouraged to hate Jews.[35][36][37] These remarks provoked outrage among unionist politicians. McAleese later apologised,[38] conceding that her comments had been unbalanced because she had criticised only the sectarianism found on one side of the community.

McAleese meets with President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev in 2010

She was the Commencement Speaker at Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania, on 22 May 2005. The visit prompted protests by conservatives because of 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 21 May 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".[39]

She attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II on 8 April 2005, and the Papal Inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI on 24 April 2005.

McAleese attended the canonisation by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome of Charles of Mount Argus on 3 June 2007.[40] She was accompanied by her husband, Martin, Cardinal Desmond Connell, Mary Hanafin, the Minister for Education and Science, together with bishops and other pilgrims.[41] She later met the Pope and embarked on other official duties, including a trip to St. Isidore's College, a talk at the Pontifical Irish College and a Mass said especially for the Irish Embassy at Villa Spada chapel.[42]

In August 2007, she spoke out against homophobia at the International Association of Suicide Prevention 24th Biennial Conference.

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.[43] A reception held in her honour was attended by Ed Begley, Jr. and Fionnula Flanagan.[43] She later met the Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.[43]

On 21 January 2009, she signed into law the Anglo Irish Bank Corporation Act 2009, at a ceremony in Áras an Uachtaráin, facilitating the nationalisation of Anglo Irish Bank.[44] Forbes named her among the hundred most powerful women in the world later that year.[45] In November, she signed into law the National Asset Management Agency.[46]

McAleese undertook an official two-day visit to London on 28–29 February 2010, where she visited the site of the 2012 Summer Olympics, and was guest of honour at the Madejski Stadium for a rugby union match between London Irish and Harlequin F.C..[47] On 13 May 2010, she attended the Balmoral Show at the Balmoral Showgrounds, which includes the King's Hall, in south Belfast. Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness and Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew gave her breakfast and walked around with her during the day.[48]

She began an official visit to New York City for several days, on 16 May 2010. She began by appearing at an Irish Voice event in honour of life science.[49] 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,[50] and opened the An Gorta Mór (Great Famine) exhibition with a speech promising that Ireland's foreign policy focussed on global hunger.[49] She was also present at St. Patrick's Cathedral for a Famine mass and went to the Battery Park City's Irish Hunger Memorial to see the official New York commemoration of the 19th-century Irish Famine.[49] On 22 May 2010, she delivered the keynote address at Fordham University's 165th Commencement.

She opened the Bloom Festival, Ireland's largest gardening show, on 3 June 2010, acknowledging an improved interest in gardening in Ireland, particularly among younger people.[51] On 13 June 2010, McAleese began an official visit to China. She met with Vice President of China Xi Jinping and the pair spoke for 35 minutes over lunch.[52]

McAleese in discussion with US President Barack Obama at Áras an Uachtaráin on 23 May 2011

She made an official visit to Russia, with Minister of State, Billy Kelleher, for four days in September 2010, and met with President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev.[53][54] She spoke kindly of Mikhail Gorbachev, officially invited Medvedev to Ireland, and addressed students at a university in Saint Petersburg. She called for warmer relations between the European Union and Russia.[55][56][57] On her state tour to Russia, highlighting the importance of competence, she launched an unprecedented attack on the Central Bank of Ireland, for their role in the financial crisis which resulted in tens of thousands of people in mortgage arrears.[58][59]

The President turned down an invitation to be Grand Marshal at the 250th St. Patrick's Day Parade in New York City planned for 2011. The parade organisers refused to allow gay people to march under their banner, and there was media speculation that this was the reason for the refusal. A spokesperson for the President's office stated that, while honoured by the invitation, she could not attend because of "scheduling constraints".[60]

In March 2011, President McAleese invited Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom to make a state visit to Ireland. The Queen accepted, and the visit took place from 17–20 May 2011, the first state visit by a British monarch since Ireland had gained independence.[61] McAleese had been eager to have the Queen visit Ireland, and the event was widely welcomed as a historic success.[62][63][64]

In past media interviews, prior to the Queen's visit, President McAleese had stated on several occasions that the highlight of her presidency to date was the opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics World Games, which she describes as "a time when Ireland was at its superb best".[65] While opening the National Ploughing Championships in County Kildare in September 2011, she spoke of her sadness that she would soon no longer be President, saying: "I'm going to miss it terribly...I'll miss the people and the engagement with them."[66][67]

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.[68][69] While there she met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman.[70] 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.[71] She voluntarily donated more than 60 gifts given to her over the 14 years, and worth about €100,000, to the Irish state.[72]

McAleese left office on 10 November 2011, she was succeeded by Michael D. Higgins, who was elected in the presidential election held on 27 October 2011.[73]

On 10 November 2011, her last day in office, she thanked Ireland for her two terms in an article in The Irish Times.[74] She performed her last official public engagement at a hostel for homeless men in Dublin in the morning and spent the afternoon moving out of Áras an Uachtaráin.[75]

Council of State[edit]


No. Article Reserve power Subject Outcome
1. 1999 meeting Address to the Oireachtas The new millennium Address given
2. 2000 meeting Referral of bill to the Supreme Court Planning and Development Bill, 1999
Illegal Immigrants (Trafficking) Bill, 1999
Sections of both bills referred
(Both upheld)
3. 2002 meeting Referral of bill to the Supreme Court Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) (No. 2) Bill, 2001 Bill not referred
4. 2004 meeting Referral of bill to the Supreme Court Health (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2004 Bill referred
(Struck down)
5. 2009 meeting Referral of bill to the Supreme Court Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill 2009
Defamation Bill 2009
Bills not referred
6. 2010 meeting Referral of bill to the Supreme Court Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Bill 2010 Signed without referral[76]

Presidential appointees[edit]

First term

Second term


Mary McAleese along with her husband Martin were awarded the Tipperary Peace Prize in January 2012.[77] In May 2012, the Irish Times reported that she had voluntarily returned more than €500,000 in unused Presidential Allowance funds, accrued over the 14 years of her term of office.[78] She is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Canon Law (JCD)[78] at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University.[79] In 2013, she said that she obtained a master's degree and licentiate in canon law and her interest grew because of her concern about what has been happening in the Church — the sexual abuse scandal, among other things. When McAleese looked at the scandal, she said "I was struck by what investigators said about canon law and canon lawyers. It was a scathing indictment: In not one single incidence of sexual abuse had canon law been able to do anything on the victim’s side, nothing useful or helpful".[80]

Advocacy around LGBT suicide rates[edit]

In a radio interview discussing her book Quo Vadis? Collegiality in the Code of Canon Law on 28 September 2012, said she was concerned at the growing number of young men, and in particular young gay men, who take their own lives in Ireland. She said that when the research is broken down, it shows that young gay men are one of the most risk-prone groups in Ireland. McAleese said many of these young men will have gone to Catholic schools and they will have heard there their church's attitude to homosexuality. "They will have heard words like 'disorder', they may even have heard the word 'evil' used in relation to homosexual practice," she said. She went on to say "And when they make the discovery, and it is a discovery and not a decision, when they make the discovery, that they are gay, when they are 14, 15 or 16, an internal conflict of absolutely appalling proportions opens up". She said many young gay men are driven into a place that is "dark and bleak". McAleese said she met the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Charles John Brown, shortly after Easter to raise with him her concern about the growing number of suicides among young men in Ireland.[81]

In September 2014, she was appointed as Distinguished Professor in Irish Studies at St Mary's University, Twickenham.[82][83]

In March 2015, she gave an interview to Newstalk Radio from University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where she was teaching a course on children's rights.[84]

Advocacy of gay rights issues[edit]

In May 2015, in light of the marriage equality referendum, McAleese described same-sex marriage as a "human rights issue" as she and her husband Martin called for a Yes vote in the upcoming referendum. In her first public comments on the issue, McAleese said the vote next month is "about Ireland's children, gay children" and said passing the referendum would help dismantle the "architecture of homophobia". She also highlighted the problems in Ireland of suicide among young males. "We now know from the evidence that one of the risk groups within that age cohort of 15–25 is the young male homosexual. We owe those children a huge debt as adults who have opportunities to make choices that impact their lives, to make the right choices, choices that will allow their lives grow organically and to give them the joy of being full citizens in their own country."[85]

She has described her only son Justin as a devout young Catholic who was bullied and made to feel lonely because he was gay. Growing up, Justin was a "willing and happy" altar boy and enthusiastic member of his local Catholic youth club, but he went through "torture" when he discovered what his church taught about homosexuality. "When our son came out to us at the age of 21, we at that stage were just broken for him that he, in a gay-friendly household, had not felt able to confide in us his loneliness, the bullying that he was exposed to", she said.[86]

Challenging the Catholic Church[edit]

Speaking before the opening of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2015, McAleese ridiculed the concept of 300 elderly celibates coming together to discuss family questions. Addressing a meeting of the Global Network of Rainbow (LGBT) Catholics on the eve of the Vatican's Synod on the Family, former president McAleese said: “In the days when I was president, we had workshops on various issues and if I wanted to look at an issue, I would consult the experts... But look at the Synod, I have to ask the question: If I wanted expertise on the family, I honestly cannot say that the first thing that would come into my mind would be to call together 300 celibate males who, as far we know, have never raised a child...Let me repeat a question I asked last year when I saw the Vatican’s lengthy pre-Synod questionnaire, namely how many of these men have ever changed a child’s nappy? For me that is a very important question because it is one thing to say that we all grew up in families, we had mothers, we had fathers but it is a very different thing to raise a gay child, a very different thing to live daily in a relationship and to police the relationships between children and the world.” Acknowledging that the Synod will doubtless be considering the Catholic Church's pastoral approach to homosexuals, McAleese described herself as “cynical” about the outcome of the forthcoming three-week consultation.[87]

In 2018, McAleese was refused entry to a Vatican conference to mark International Women's Day. She wrote to Pope Francis after the Vatican declined to approve her and two other speakers who were taking part in a conference to mark International Women's Day on 8 March. The Voices of Faith conference has taken place inside the Vatican for the past four years. Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin said that neither he nor his office were consulted by the Vatican in relation to the list of speakers for the International Women's Day event.[88] At the conference's opening news conference, McAleese commented that the ongoing ban or the ordination of women made the Catholic Church "one of the last great bastions of misogyny".[89]

2018 Professorship[edit]

On 1 October 2018, McAleese was appointed the newly created Professor of Children, Law and Religion at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, a joint appointment between the university's College of Arts and College of Social Sciences.[90]

Honours and awards[edit]


Freedom of the Burgh[edit]

Dynastic orders[edit]

Honorary doctorates and fellowships[edit]


Other honours and awards[edit]

On 8 June 2013, a ceremony was held to rename a bridge on the M1 motorway near Drogheda as the Mary McAleese Boyne Valley Bridge to honour McAleese's contribution to the Northern Ireland peace process.[98]


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  • Love in Chaos: Spiritual Growth and the Search for Peace in Northern Ireland by Mary McAleese. Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. New York : Continuum, 1999. ISBN 0-8264-1137-1.
  • President Mary McAleese: Building Bridges – Selected Speeches and Statements. Foreword by Seamus Heaney. Dublin : The History Press, 2011. ISBN 1-84588-724-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • Mary McAleese-The Outsider: An Unauthorised Biography, Justine McCarthy, Dublin, Blackwater Press, 1999
  • Máire Mhic Ghiolla Íosa: Beathaisnéis, Ray Mac Mánais. Irish Language Biography. Later translated as The Road From Ardoyne: The Making Of A President, Ray Mac Mánais, Dingle, Brandon, 2004
  • First citizen: Mary McAleese and the Irish Presidency, Patsy McGarry, Dublin, O'Brien Press, 2008
  • "Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese" in Women of Power - Half a century of female presidents and prime ministers worldwide, Torild Skard, Bristol: Policy Press, 2014, ISBN 978-1-44731-578-0

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Mary Robinson
President of Ireland
Succeeded by
Michael D. Higgins