When Mary McAleese was first proposed as a possible president of Ireland back in the 1990s, some commentators feared that she would be “too tribally Catholic”. Mary came from a Belfast Catholic family – she is the eldest of nine children – who had been burned out of their home by sectarian attacks, and she had identified herself as a committed Catholic. A well-known public intellectual in Dublin, Eoghan Harris, predicted that she would be a “tribal time bomb” – she was too identified with Northern Irish Catholics (who are often more “tribally” Catholic than southern Irish ones).
But the predictions didn’t turn out as foretold. President McAleese, elected in November 1997, made her mission “bridge-building” and went out of her way to invite Ulster Unionists to the presidential residence. She was markedly ecumenical, and defied the Catholic hierarchy during her presidency by taking communion at an Anglican service.
Overall, she proved to be a graceful and dutiful president, and welcomed the Queen on an historic state visit in May 2011. She served a second term, unopposed, and when she stepped down she dedicated herself to the study of canon law in Rome. She was already a law professor, so she had the right academic background.
The McAleeses have three children, and their son Justin, who is gay, confided to his parents that he had suffered exclusion and unhappiness as a consequence of the Church’s attitude to homosexuality. From 2014 onwards, Mary began to talk more openly about gay rights as human rights.
In the 2016 same-sex marriage referendum, she went full throttle to support marriage for gay partners. It was evident that she was being driven by a fierce maternal protectiveness in this – and she admitted as much.
Now she has taken on the Vatican over the question of women priests, denouncing it as “an empire of misogyny” which preaches “theology as codology”. Previously unswervingly pro-life, she has also hit out at the Church for being “anti-abortion”, and has disparaged the cardinals at the Vatican as a bunch of celibates disassociated from the real world.
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