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Mary McAleese The Outsider

Mary McAleese The Outsider

An Unauthorised Biography,
chapter 15, pp. 128 - 140.

by Justine McCarthy
Published by Blackwater Press 1999

She had been in the world a mere 11 days when her identity was sealed for life. As the priest scooped water from the stone baptismal font in Holy Cross Monastery on July 8 1951, letting the cold droplets dribble onto the infant’s head, he anointed her arrival into a world apart. The ceremonial rite of passage to a life of predestined culture, ethnicity, social status, political position and religious affiliation. Her christening conferred both her name and her place, branding, her forever in the inflexible caste system of Northern Ireland.

For most Roman Catholics of her generation in the North, the Church was their anchor; a refuge of comforting, familiar ritual supervised by quasipoliticians who squared up to the other tribe. Mother Church, consoler and protector. It percolated through their veins, infusing their lives. For Mary McAleese it was, at once, a rock and a marker, measuring the distance between it and a hard place.

Her faith was not blind and neither was her allegiance to the institution. She had questioned both as a young adult, scrabbling at the warts of dogma, struggling with the dichotomy of authoritarian rules and a well-informed conscience. Her voyage to acceptance had been biblical. The lifedefining call beckoning thrice: in August 1969 when she searched for missiles to throw at the B Specials; in November 1972 when she had wanted her brother’s attackers ‘lynched’; in May 1981 when she fled to a church from the verbal abuse in RTÉ. But it had only ever been a conditional acceptance. That was to be her Calvary.

The apparent inconsistency of her à la carte Catholicism is the most perplexing aspect of Mary McAleese. On the one hand, she has championed gay rights and the cause of women priests. On the other, she has opposed contraception, divorce and abortion under all circumstances. Where other, secularised Catholics choose the most palatable dishes from the menu, she has painstakingly contrived her own pottage. The key to understanding her is to remember the touchstone of her life denying anyone the luxury of labelling her. To critics of the Catholic Church, she is the acceptable face of a bunch of regressive, out-of-touch old bishops. To traditionalist adherents of the Vatican’s teachings, she is a dangerous, mutinous blasphemer.

Somewhere between the two impressions lies the real Mary McAleese, the one whose public willingness to parade her beliefs has made her an exile both outside and inside the Church. ‘The only infallibility she believes in is the infallibility of Mary McAleese,’ according to a lay commentator on Roman Catholic affairs.

One of the most remarkable characteristics of her life is the preponderance of priests, nuns and bishops in her social circle. In any list of her friends, at least half of them would bear a religious prefix to their names. It began with the priests of Holy Cross and the nuns of St Dominics. There was the late Cardinal Tomás O’Fiaich, then Cardinal Cahal Daly, followed by the Bishop of Down and Conor, Dr Patrick Walsh, who was the Roman Catholic chaplain when she was a student at Queens. Her personal friendships with those three doyens of the Irish Church lent her a powerful ear and an entrée to the hierarchy.

Against that background, she built up a reputation as one of the most active and influential lay Catholics in the country. Even before her dramatic appearance at the New Ireland Forum as part of the episcopal delegation in 1984, her credentials had been well established. She had been attending the Ballymascanlon interchurch conference since the late 1970s, she was a member of the bishops’ Commission on Social Welfare, she was a prolific contributor to religious magazines, and her freelance work for the Church-owned Veritas Video Productions cemented her image as a voice of the institution.

In one such video on human fertility, produced by the Catholic Communications Centre in Dublin, she interviewed an Australian Anglican priest, Fr John Fleming, a trenchant opponent of in vitro fertilisation. Visibly pregnant with the twins at the time, she provocatively stated that there was a big difference between the ‘mechanics’ of producing a child through IVF and ‘creating a baby as a result of a loving, happy relationship’. The video was deeply hurtful to infertile couples and offensive to women. In the course of the interview, Fr Fleeting claimed that 90 per cent of those women who used IVF because of damaged Fallopian tubes had caused their own problems, through abortion, sexually transmitted disease and use of the intrauterine contraceptive device. To her eternal discredit, Mary McAleese never challenged his assertion.

She told The Irish Times, on June 15, 1984, that she saw no need for abortion after rape, adding: ‘It seems to me to be a rather primitive act of revenge or retribution, vented on a foetus.’ In her Sunday Tribune column of December 7, 1986, she penned a robust defence of ‘the much maligned’ Opus Dei, the secretive right-wing Catholic organisation. A photograph of her and Martin on pilgrimage with the three children at Clonmacnoise graced the cover of Pilgrims, the first of three religious text-books written by her friend, Harry Casey, whose brother was Cardinal Daly’s private secretary. The third book, In The Beginning, featured a chapter entitled ‘Walking in the Garden that is the Catholic Church’, which she wrote.

Gradually, she became the flavour of the rank and file clergy, receiving a raft of invitations to preach in their churches. She delivered novenas at the Knock shrine in Mayo, Mount Argus church in Dublin, Holy Cross on the Crumlin Road and the Redemptorists’ Clonard Monastery on the Falls Road. In her book, Reconciled Being: Love in Chaos, she recollected her debut on the altar of Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. ‘I was to be the first woman to mount that forbidding pulpit who did not have a yellow duster and a tin of Mr Sheen furniture polish in her hand,’ she wrote.

God was central to her private life. She read St Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologica’ in the original, read the lessons at Sunday mass and the bible in her home, prayed daily, joined the parish committee, and observed her Lenten penance. ‘She used to give up coffee and tea for Lent because she enjoyed them,’ remembered her Queens colleague, Anne Fenton. ‘It was never chocolate, for instance, because that had a benefit - you lost weight -and therefore it wasn’t pure sacrifice.’

She became a convert to the form of meditation espoused by the Benedictine monk, John Main, a professor of international law at Trinity College in the 1950s. It required her to set an hour aside each day, to empty her mind and succumb wholly to her spirituality by silently repeating the mantra, ‘Maranatha’. At the international John Main seminar in Maynooth, which she addressed in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, she described an amusing session of meditation she shared with Emma, when her eldest daughter was five years old. ‘Sit up straight,’ her mother instructed the child, explaining about the mantra and the need for absolute silence. ‘Five minutes into my meditation,’ she recalled, ‘the little voice interrupted me: “Excuse me mammy, but is God talking to you?”. “Yes,” I replied rashly. “Right!” she said. “Will you please tell him that, when he’s finished with you, I’m still waiting”.’

In Dublin she reproached the ‘rampant’ anti-clericalism she witnessed in the capital. She once declared that the division between nationalists and unionists in the North was ‘no more bitter, no more real than the gulf between Catholic and anti-cleric in Dublin’. She developed a special devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, wrote a book about 17 Irish martyrs from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and came to admire obscure saints like Catherine of Sienna and Julian of Norwich.

And all the while, her star shone ever brighter in the firmament of Church politics. In the early 1990s, she accepted an unprecedented invitation from Cardinal Daly to speak to the bishops behind closed doors. The meeting took place at the college in Armagh and was also attended by another leading lay Catholic, Jim Fitzpatrick, proprietor of The Irish News and a former Redemptorist seminarian in Galway. The thrust of his thesis to the hierarchy was that they should more usefully exploit the parish unit. Mary McAleese’s submission, however, did not make easy listening. She criticised the Church for failing to listen to its people, she berated it for excluding women and rapped the bishops’ collective knuckles for acting as ‘an alternative political party’. She told the Cardinal and his fellow brothers in Christ that they should preach forgiveness to the IRA, not ostracise them as ‘scum’ and ‘maniacs’ in the language of political condemnation.

She expanded on this theme in her interview with Fionnuala O’Connor for the book, In Search of a State: Catholics in Northern Ireland. ‘I think the Church should have dialogue with the Provos,’ she argued. ‘They are the people who are literally keeping hell going in this community ...The very fact that almost all of them are ethnic Catholics means that somewhere along the line they were baptised in the faith ...it’s work of evangelisation, work for clergymen that Christ sent them on this earth to do. The people in the churches are irrelevant. They’re in the bag. They should concentrate on the ones who came like little shining beacons at Confirmation - what the hell happened?’

Others were beginning to ask the same question about Mary McAleese. What the hell had happened to ‘the bishops’ woman’? That was what Cardinal O’Fiaich had called her after the Forum when she went on to oppose abortion and militate against civil divorce in a referendum campaign that likened divorced women to second-hand cars. She had upbraided Dublin Four liberals for being anti-Catholic, claiming that her association with the Church had caused her to be ousted from the National Union of Journalists.

Now, suddenly it seemed, she had started lashing the bishops with the serrated whip of her tongue.

‘She’s culturally a Catholic, no doubt - but a “devout” or “fervent” one?’ questioned the reactionary Catholic magazine, The Brandsma Review, edited by her old ally, Nick Lowry.

She began to criticise the hierarchy in public for their ‘very old, rather seigniorial, magisterial ways of dealing with problems’. She electrified the clergy when she appeared on The Late Late Show in 1993 and lambasted some of the Pope’s views as ‘having a touch of woodworm about them’. The following year, at a conference in Cecil Kerr’s Christian Renewal Centre in Rostrevor she cavilled at the anachronism of the Church, where the colours of men’s socks ‘denominate their places in terms of where they are in the hierarchical system’.

After the Catholic priest, Fr Brendan Smyth, was jailed for repeated and depraved sexual attacks on children, she again rounded on the leaders of the Church. Her comments in no way softened by the fact that the notorious priest was legally represented by her good friend, Denis Moloney, a lay theologian and senior partner in the Belfast law practice of Donnelly & Wall. ‘I listened to the Cardinal say there would be no hiding place for people like Brendan Smyth, but the truth of the matter is that he’s still saying mass in prison,’ she said. ‘I find that deeply offensive - that on one level there ís a hiding place within the Church.’

But it was her stance on the ordination of women that most infuriated her clerical critics. They saw her as a feminist, a harpy and a loose cannon promulgating perfidy and sedition.

‘She has a Messiah complex,’ believed Monsignor Denis Faul, an arch critic of her feminist philosophy. ‘She wants to be a liberator of women.

It began with a private letter. The correspondent was Soline Vatinel, a gentle Frenchwoman living in Blackrock, County Dublin with her husband, her children - and a lifelong vocation to the Roman Catholic priesthood. In 1994, she wrote to Mary McAleese, informing her of a new organisation she had co-founded with her husband and a clergyman for the promotion of women priests. It was called BASIC, an acronym for Brothers and Sisters in Christ. Soline enclosed a ,membership form and mailed the letter to Queens University in Belfast.

She had a reply within days. The letter was encouraging, but what accompanied it was even more so: the creased membership form, now with the blank spaces neatly filled in.

‘I was very surprised because we were unknown,’ said the woman who arrived in Dublin to study history at Trinity College in 1973, and stayed. ‘None of our members was a prominent figure. She had a high profile and contacts in the Church. I remember thinking she was taking a big risk. We could have been just a bunch of crackpots for all she knew.’

Mary McAleese has told friends that she does not have a vocation, but she has long resented the exclusion of women from the priesthood. She has written in Reconciled Being: Love ín Chaos about the years when she choked back that resentment. ‘To challenge the awesome authority of the hierarchy seemed to open up an aptly named Pandora’s box of things which might be difficult to swallow,’ she explained. ‘If the Church was wrong on an issue on which it spoke with a chilling clarity and certainty, then how many other errors might lie buried in that theology. There was a comfort in burying myself inside the group consciousness and putting my hands over my ears so that I could not hear the doubts that were running about in my head. To pit myself against the group meant challenging mother, father, family, parish, community and to live with some form of exclusion which, whether mild rebuke or subtle shunning, would inevitably follow.’

On March 25, 1995, the Feast of the Annunciation, BASIC held an inaugural day-long seminar at the Jesuit Conference Centre in Milltown Park, Dublin, addressed by Mary McAleese and President Robinson’s chaplain, Fr Enda McDonagh, professor of moral theology at St Patrick’s College in Maynooth. Less than 300 people attended. Others who might have come were frightened off by the Pope’s stern rebuke of the campaign and a threat by the Vatican’s Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, that those who continued it would effectively excommunicate themselves from the Church. There was the further complication of a petition boasting more than 20,000 signatures, calling for ‘all ministries and offices in the church to be open equally to both women and men, and for all sexist structures and regulations to be abolished’. Cardinal Daly had refused to receive the petition on behalf of the Church. Soline Vatinel had repeatedly written to him in Armagh, seeking a meeting. When, after nine months and in desperation, she sent him a Valentine card, he consented to meet. They talked for two hours but the Cardinal never wavered. He said the Pope had spoken and, in conscience, he could not receive the petition, which bore, among the lists of names, the signature of his friend, Mary McAleese. As a woman, she believed she was at the bottom of the Church pyramid and that the ban on female ordinations was little more than an implement of gender bias.

‘It was a steel wall,’ Soline recalled. ‘I came out of that meeting and I was fit for nothing.’

Mary was ‘incensed’ when Soline told her what the Cardinal had said, and pointedly referred to it in her address to the seminar at Milltown. ‘There is no official forum that I know of that you or I can submit feedback for transmission upwards through the system’ she complained. ‘In fact, it is very interesting that, when Soline tried to send the petition in favour of the ordination of women to the Cardinal, his Eminence felt unable to receive it.

‘I love the Church. I love the bones of it; I love the stones of it,’ she told her audience. In a flippant aside, she emphasised her equality with the Pontiff in the eyes of God. ‘In fairness to his Holiness, the Pope,’ she said, ‘I have to say that he has always accepted and acknowledged my private correspondence on (this) subject. He does not agree with me, you will be interested to know, but he has, on a number of occasions, offered to pray for me. I reciprocate.’

Eight months after the seminar, the Vatican declared that its teaching on a male-only priesthood was infallible.

‘Mary immediately accepted the invitation to speak at the seminar,’ said Soline Vatinel. ‘We didn’t have to twist her arm or anything. And she wouldn’t take any payment. She returned it by post and said the group needed the money. She’s a very loyal Roman Catholic, a woman of prayer. First and foremost she would see herself as a Christian. There would be pain in coming to that realisation. To stay within is painful but she is a great believer in conscience. People in other countries have lost their jobs and have been blacklisted because of their involvement in the campaign. In Australia a woman was refused communion by her bishop.’

Mary McAleese has often echoed that sentiment. Speaking at the Clonard Novena in Belfast on June 25, 1996, she admitted that ‘being so far at odds with Church teaching is a very uncomfortable place for a believer who is also a mother and who wants her greatest gift to her children to be the gift of faith’. Two years later, when, as President, she addressed the Charismatic Renewal Leaders Conference, she said: ‘If you are too comfortable, there is something wrong.

When the papers delivered at the Milltown seminar were compiled in book form, the Dominican nun and historian, Sr Margaret McCurtain, officially launched it at a reception in Stauntons Hotel on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin. Later, in an event that presaged her own career, Mary McAleese joined a BASIC delegation to the Phoenix Park in November 1995 to present President Robinson with a copy of the book.

Mary McAleese is a natural maverick. It is a tendency she shared with Tomás O’Fiaich, the cardinal who believed there was no reason in dogmatic theology or in biblical studies why women could not be ordained. She bridled at the accepted sexism of St Paul and Thomas Aquinas but above all, at the contemporary Church of Rome. Privately, she disparaged Pope John Paul’s pamphlet on contraception, Love and Responsibility, as ‘a work of sheer intellectual pygmyism’. Her favourite popes had been John XXIII and Paul VI who both believed that the Church should confront its 2000 year history of women’s subordination.

‘I don’t know where this conservative view of her came from because she was always regarded as very radical in Church circles,’ said the Fianna Nil TD, Dick Roche, who first met her when he chaired the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace in the early 1980s. ‘She always was a person who prodded the princes of the Church.’

Despite her uppermost contacts and prodigious lay work, Mary McAleese’s View of the Church was never the roseiest one perceived in Dublin. She certainly bemoaned the growing secularism south of the border where the Catholic Church was suspiciously regarded as an institution of repression. Coming from a place where religion dictated life, and often death, it was unsurprising that she would feel tied to it by ‘a spiritual umbilical cord’. But it was never a passive relationship, her brash can-do self-confidence ringing early alarm bells in the more traditional cloisters.

Tom Kelly, the public relations executive who worked with her at Queens, saw her as ‘an ecumenist, politically and religiously, rather than some sort of orthodox Catholic nationalist’.

Her refusal to be silenced is reminiscent of the Irish martyrs whose lives and deaths she chronicled in a slim published volume. It comes from the same preparedness to suffer for religious beliefs. The seeds of rebellion sown when she was just 18 and occasionally received communion at the Anglican mass in Queens University. When she publicly flouted her own Church’s ban on inter-communion within a month of becoming President, one of her sharpest critics was the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Desmond Connell. Unknown to the public, however, the pair had parted ideological ways long before then.

Its genesis was the 1992 abortion referendum. In February that year, when Albert Reynolds succeeded Charles Haughey as Taoiseach, the celebrated X-Case erupted in a blaze of controversy. It concerned a 14-year-old rape victim who had been impregnated by her attacker. When the Attorney General, Harry Whelehan, discovered that the girl’s parents were planning to accompany her to England for an abortion, he referred the matter to the High Court under the eighth amendment to the constitution, the legacy of the 1983 abortion referendum.

The High Court held that the victim should see the pregnancy through but, on appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that she was at risk of suicide and, therefore, was entitled to have the pregnancy terminated. In delivering its verdict, the judges of the land’s highest court gave the Oireachtas a humiliating dressing down for failing to legislate on the substantive issue of abortion.

The country was gripped with hysteria. Anti-abortion activists condemned the State for sanctioning what it called ‘the murder of an innocent baby’. The pro-choice lobby lashed out at the moral police who were prepared to deny the fundamental right to travel in an Ayatollah-style regime. To quell the unrest, Albert Reynolds proposed another referendum on three concomitant issues freedom of travel, the dissemination of abortion information, and the limited circumstances in which abortion may be necessary. He warned that, if the amendment was not approved, his government would introduce legislation permitting abortion in the more liberal circumstances allowed by the Supreme Court judgment.

The referendum wording on the substantive issue read: ‘It shall be unlawful to terminate the life of an unborn unless such termination is necessary to save the life, as distinct from the health, of the mother’. It was a compromise that fell between two stools, satisfying neither side in the debate and sparking one of the most vituperative referendum campaigns in the history of the constitution.

Mary McAleese, who had virtually vanished off the Republic’s radar screen since her return to Belfast, believed it was the best compromise the anti-abortion lobby could secure from the government. As legal adviser to the Cardinal, she urged Dr Daly to accept it as a reversal of the Supreme Court judgment. But her advice flew in the face of the Pro-Life Campaign’s tactic of calling for a ‘no’ vote and resuming the battle for yet another referendum to comprehensively outlaw abortion once and for all.

Nearly two weeks before the plebiscite when the Archbishop of Dublin issued a pastoral letter at all masses on November 15 in which he announced he would be voting ‘no’ on all three questions in the referendum. In private, Mary McAleese fumed that Dr Connell had broken ranks from an agreed position by the hierarchy. But he was joined by the influential Bishop of Cloyne, Dr John Magee, the Pope’s former secretary at the Vatican, who also wrote a pastoral letter calling for a three-way ‘no’ vote. In all, five bishops stepped out of line, the clearly visible dissent in the episcopal conference only adding to the bewilderment of the electorate.

Behind the scenes, the divisions had so alarmed the Papal Nuncio, Dr Emanuele Gerada, that he attempted to reconcile the two sides. The diminutive and diplomatic Maltese ambassador from the Vatican invited Cardinal Daly to a meeting at his residence, number 183 on the Navan Road, to discuss the problem with the Pro-Life Campaign’s eminent legal advisor, Professor William Binchy. Meanwhile, Senator Des Hanafin decided not to wait for divine intervention. Instead, he boarded a plane bound for Rome with his wife, Mona, and told the Pope, face to face, that the indecisiveness of the bishops back home was threatening to pave the way for abortion. He pleaded for pontifical intervention. The Cardinal, the recipient of Mary McAleese’s legal advice, was duly summoned.

‘It was very nasty,’ Senator Hanfin remembered. ‘I got into a lot of trouble for going over their heads.’ Mary McAleese remained undeterred, however.

In a Late Late Show abortion special the weekend before the referendum, she appeared as one of three advocates for the proposal. The television studio assumed the trappings of a mock courtroom, presided over by the retired president of the Circuit Court, Mr Justice Peter O’Malley. Two future judges, Nial Fennelly and Fidelma Macken, represented the case for the referendum. Acting for the bizarre coalition of pro-lifers and pro-choicers opposing the referendum, were the criminal law barrister, Felix McEnroy, and Mary’s senior counsel in her Sunday Independent libel action, Garrett Cooney.

Wearing a demure black velvet dress and a string of pearls, a thick sheaf of hair falling to her shoulders, she appeared as a witness for the referendum. ‘I see the X-case as permitting liberal abortion,’ she argued.

Though the referendum on the substantive issue was ultimately rejected by a bruised and bamboozled electorate, that Late Late Show was a significant event in the life and times of Mary McAleese. That was the night she first met Professor Patricia Casey, her co-signatory to the newspaper letter and a woman who would help clear the way to Áras an Uachtaráin.

‘Ireland would have been the first country in the world to put abortion into its constitution,’ claimed Monsignor Denis Faul. She adopted a high-profile role in the effort to have the referendum passed. On October 25, 1992, a letter appeared in The Sunday Tribune, signed by Mary McAleese, Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queens University Belfast; Patricia Casey, professor of psychiatry at UCD and the Mater Hospital; and Cornelius O’Leary, Emeritus professor of political science at Queens.

‘We welcome and support the forthcoming referendum on the substantive law of abortion,’ it read. ‘We hope that all those who are pro-life will feel as we do and will vote “yes”... No wording is perfect, but we believe the wording offered by the Government is pro-woman and pro-unborn. It is an opportunity to reaffirm the State’s commitment to both the unborn and expectant mothers. This chance is not likely to be given again.’

The letter, also published by The Irish Press two days later, caused consternation in the offices of the Pro-Life Campaign where its founder, John O’Reilly, who had dedicated his life to rolling back the moral agenda, expressed grave concern about Mary McAleese’s influence on the Cardinal. The appearance of Cornelius O’Leary’s signature at the foot of the letter was the first public fissure in what, up to then, had been an impenetrable united front. O’Leary had earlier served as vice-chairman of the Pro-Life Amendment Campaign, which had steered through the 1983 amendment.

When the Catholic Bishops Conference issued a statement on November 5, advising the faithful to vote according to their own judgment, the Pro-Life Campaign was furious. In their eyes, Mary McAleese was the bête noire bending the Cardinal’s ear. ‘In my opinion she had little experience of the subject and, in the opinion of myself and the Pro-Life Campaign, her advice, as manifested in the letter, was misinformed,’ recalled the Fianna Fáil senator, Des Hanafin, a papal knight and chairman of the Pro-Life Campaign. ‘She got it hideously wrong and probably helped steer the hierarchy on the same course.’ The episcopacy’s statement was designed to walk the tightrope between its hard-line and pragmatic wings but it could not sustain the balance. The rift inside the hierarchy became glaringly obvious


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