Mary McAleese

From the streets of west Belfast to the presidential corridors of power

The eldest of nine children, Mary Patricia Leneghan was born in Belfast on June 27, 1951. Her mother was from Maghera and her father a native of Croghan, County Roscommon. 

The Leneghan family lived in the mainly Nationalist Ardoyne area of Belfast and owned The Long Bar on Leeson Street. In the early 1970s they gave up the business and moved to Rostrevor, County Down. 

Despite being directly affected by the conflict in NI, McAleese was determined to pursue a career in Law. She graduated in Law from Queen's University, Belfast, in 1973 and was called to the Northern Ireland Bar a year later. 

In 1975 she was appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin, incidentally succeeding Mary Robinson, and eight years later became Director of the Institute of Legal Studies. McAleese became the first female Pro-Vice Chancellor of her Alma Mater, QUB, in 1994.

In 1976 she married Martin McAleese, a dentist and accountant. During this time she helped to found and council the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform and in 1979 she joined RTE as a journalist and presenter of Frontline and, later, the Today Tonight programme. 

Later in her career, the Irish press picked up on disparaging remarks towards the RTE in McAleese's official biography The Road from Ardoyne: The Making of a President.

It is no surprise, then, that this feisty Belfast lady attracted controversy when nominated by her political party Fianna Fail to run for Irish Presidency in 1997. 

Political commentators and the Irish media questioned McAleese’s ability to sustain and build on relations with Britain, and many condemned Fianna Fail’s decision to nominate a Belfast Catholic over the then Taioseach, Albert Reynolds.

However, on November 11, 1997 McAleese was not only inaugurated as the eighth President of Ireland (Uachtarán na hÉireann) but also made history, becoming the only person from NI to hold the Irish Presidency and the only woman to succeed another female head of state anywhere in the world. 

She went on to stand again, unopposed, for a second term of office and was re-inaugurated in November 2004.

It was arguably the sectarian backdrop of her youth in NI that led McAleese to adopt the theme of building bridges for her Presidency, a theme that, along with social inclusion and reconciliation, she continues to keep to the forefront of her public agenda. 

However, on attending a ceremony in Poland to mark the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, McAleese made the following unfortunate comment:

‘They [the Nazis] gave to their children an irrational hatred of Jews in the same way that people in Northern Ireland transmitted to their children an irrational hatred, for example, of Catholics.’ 

Ulster Unionists and Church leaders were outraged and questioned her ability to be unprejudiced; bad news for a President who upheld equality and tolerance as integral to her leadership. McAleese later apologised, admitting her remarks were ‘unbalanced’. 

Her work in both the north and south of Ireland has shown her to be dedicated to her principles of reconciliation and anti-sectarianism and she is widely considered a President of the people.

Over the years, McAleese has tried to build on the success story of the Celtic Tiger, an example of economic success unrivalled across Europe. And yet she has remained mindful of her country’s troubled history.

'We are a vibrant first-world country,' she has declared. 'But we have a humbling third-world memory.’