Mary Robinson


1944- [née Bourke]; b. Ballina, Co. Mayo, both parents being G.Ps. in Ballina; brs. Henry and Adrian; ed. Mount Anville & TCD, occupying a house purchased by the family in Westland Row; sec. of Student Union; winner of debating medals; proceeded to Paris and Geneva; Reid Professor of constitutional and Criminal Law, 1969-75; elected to Senate for TCD, 1969-89; fellowship at Harvard, c.1972; m. Nick Robinson, formerly a solicitor and afterwards the Irish Times political cartoonist, in Dublin Airport Church, 1970, her own family absenting themselves from the Protestant service - with whom children William, Tessa, and Aubrey (b. May 1981); lect. in European Community Law, 1975-90; elected to Senate for TCD, 1969; re-elected 1983, and served until 1989;
called for removal of anti-Divorce legislation from Irish Constitution, 1971; introduced bill to remove anti-contraception legislation; shared anti-internment platform with Northern Republicans, 1974, and was accused by Conor Cruise O’Brien of condoning the murder of judges; joined actively with others in Wood Quay protest to save Viking archaeological remains, 1978, addressing crowds outside Dáil Eireann; Snr. Counsel, 1980-90; warned govt. that it could be prosecuted for stalling on the introduction of equal pay for women; resigned from the Labour Party over the Anglo-Irish Agreement, holding that it failed to make itself attractive to those whom it should persuade - the Northern Unionists, Nov. 1985; appt. to International Committee of Jurists, Geneva, 1987-90;

Snr. Counsel, 1989; accepted Labour Party invitation to stand for presidency, supported by Dick Spring and others, April 1990; advised by Brenda O’Hanlon, PA expert; served by Brid Rosney on campaign and in office ,who had prev. worked with David Norris on the campaign to decriminalise homosexuality; won the Presidential election against Brian Lenihan (FF) - Austin Curry being discounted - by 86,000 votes, following disclosures about Lenehan's involvement in an improper attempt to influence President Hillery to call a general election in 1982, now revealed in a taped interview made by student journalist Jim Duffy; also aided by an inflammatory outburst on the part of Padraig Flynn (FF Environment Min.) at an RTÉ studio in Castlebar, regarding her conduct as a wife and mother, which alienated women voters; declared elected at the RDS [Ballsbridge, Co. Dublin], 9 Nov. 1990, and inaugurated at Dublin Castle, 3 Dec. 1990, inviting her audience to ‘come dance with me in Ireland’, and promising to place a candle in the window of Áras an Uachtarain for Irish emigrants; denied permission to give Dimbleby Lecture on BBC by Taoiseach Charles Haughey, 1991;

visited N. Ireland on a diplomatically unacknowledged trip, 1993 [var. 1992], counter to Haughey's wishes; shook hand of Gerry Adams, Sinn Féin President, MP and reputed member of IRA Army Council, 1993; made an official visit to Queen Elizabeth in London, 1993; began commemorate of the 150th anniversary of the Irish Famine with her attendance and speech at the Paupers&146; Graveyard, Enniskillan; 28 Aug. 1995 (“why commemorate the Great irish Famine”?) - also delivered at Chicago and Sydney; left Irish presidency (then won by Mary McAleese, 1977); appointed UN Human Rights Commissioner, 1997, and later made Kevin Boyle her chief human rights adviser, 2001; broadcast Address on Human Rights, BBC3 (23 Oct. 1999); contrib. to Global Corruption Report (2004); received hon. degree at Emory (Atlanta, Georgia), where she made the commencement speech in spite of charges of anti-Semitism regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict; awarded Medal of Freedom by US President Obama, Aug. 2009; member of The Elders, a group of former senior statesmen conferring on the best interests of world peace and development; gave opening speech in the BBC “Free Thinking” series (BBC3 Radio), speaking on the theme of women's role in world leadership, Nov. 2012; appointed to Chair of Council of Elders of United Nations, 2018.

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incl. ‘Women and the Law in Ireland’, in Ailbhe Smyth, ed., Irish Women’s Studies Reader (Dublin: Attic Press 1993), pp.100-07.

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Fergus Finlay, Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1990), pp.160 [extract]; Deirdre Quinlan, Mary Robinson: A President in Progress (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1994), 128pp.; Lorna Siggins, The Woman Who Took Power in the Park (London: Mainstream 1997); John Horgan, The Woman, the Politics, The Presidency (O’Brien Books 1997); Olivia O’Leary & Helen Burke, Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1998), 304pp.

See also Mary Kenny, Goodbye to Catholic Ireland: a social, personal and cultural history from the fall of Parnell to the realm of Mary Robinson (London: Sinclair-Stevenson 1997); Fergus Finlay, ‘Beating the Big Guys’, in Snakes and Ladders (Dublin: New Island Press 1998) [q.p.]; David Quin, ‘An Icon for the New Ireland: an assessment of President Robinson’, in Studies: An Irish Quarterly (Autumn 1997), q.p. [feature article], and Valerie Bresnihan, “‘Here’s To You Mrs. Robinson”: A Response to David Quinn’, in Studies (Spring 1988), [q.p.].; Conor Brady, Up with the Times (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2005) [incls. account of his dealings with her].

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Betty Purcell
, ‘Interview with Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese’, in Images of the Irish Woman, The Crane Bag, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1980); rep. in The Crane Bag Studies Book, 1982, pp.573-78. Note that this debate shows both lawyers very much in agreement about divorce and contraception and related issues in relation to the legal status of women in the family and under the Irish constitution.

Valerie Brennan, ‘Here’s to You, Mrs. Robinson!’, in Studies, Vol. 8, No. 345 (Spring 1988), pp.7-14, answers David Quinn’s polemical article criticising the presidency of Mary Robinson; ‘Quinn has condemned Robinson’s serios contriution to the development of Irish democracy simply because he misunderstands - or simply cannot cope with - the philosophical basis of Robinson’s liberal thought’ - which he associates crucially with the demand that abortion be considered a universal right, causing him to reflect that she is ‘part of the liberal system of thought that has severed its roots from /”natural law” and from a “transcendent reality”. [7]

Fergus Finlay, Mary Robinson: A President with a Purpose (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1990): ‘The last opinion poll of the campaign, prepared for the Irish Times on the two days after that Late Late Show, indicated that many women were wavering, torn between their commitment to Mary and the compassion that Ann Lenihan’s loyalty and suffering undoubtedly inspired. Lenihan and Robinson were neck-and-neck amongst women voters in that poll, and had it not been for the famous attack on Mary by one of Lenihan’s closest colleagues, Padraig Flynn, on the Saturday before polling, Lenihan might have been able to capi talise on that high level of compassion. As it was, Flynn’s catastrophic blunder (dealt with in more detail later) restored the conviction many women already shared that a vote for Mary Robinson was vital, and drove indoors many thousands of other votes that might have made a difference to the Lenihan effort. / None of this stopped Fianna Fail canvassers in particular from attacking Mary Robinson in the strongest possible way, and fron, trying to use the tactics of fear that had been so effective in the two referendum campaigns. / On the Monday night before polling, Fergus Finlay got a phone, call from a journalist, who was outraged by a phone call she had herself just received from a close friend living in north county Dublin, who had within the previous five minutes been visited by two Fianna Fail canvassers. These individuals had regaled the woman concerned [102] with a whole series of absolutely untrue stories about Mary, and her secret plan to use the presidency to undermine the Constitution. These lies were compounded by the stories they told about Mary’s personal life - also a tissue of lies. / Finlay was both astonished and angered. Finding it difficult to believe that Fianna Fail would condone suggestions like this, he rang Fianna Fail headquarters and asked to speak to Frank Wall, the General Secretary of that party. He explained what had happened, told him the exact location of the canvassers, and asked him to invest igate. Wall’s response was even more astonishing. He accused Robinson campaign member of setting up the entire incident, and sugg ested that the call now being made was being taped!’ (pp.102-03.)

Chrystel Hug, Politics of Sexual Morality in Ireland (1998), deals with Mary Robinson’s intervention in the  “X” case when a 14-year old rape victim was refused the right to travel to England for an abortion; while acknowledging that she had no role to play in the issue, Robinson exhorted the Irish people to ‘face up to and look squarely and to say this is a problem we have got to resolve’; Robinson closely associated with David Norris in decriminalisation of homosexuality campaign.

Jimmy Carter (former US President): ‘We have been heartened by her leadership and courage in speaking out for the voiceless in our world. The Emory community is privileged to have as commencement speaker such an eminent scholar, activist, and diplomat as Mrs Robinson.’ (Defending Robinson against charges of anti-semitism made by over 1,000 students and some staff prior to her receiving an honorary degree from Emory after Kenneth Stein, Dir. of the Middle East Institute there questioned criticised her view that the root cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict is the occupation. (See The Irish Times, 16 April 2004.)

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Seamus Heaney (on receipt of Nobel Prize): ‘The digging he has done with his “squat pen” as he described it from the beginning has brought great honour to him and to Ireland’. (Alison Connor, front page report, Irish Times at date.)

Cherishing the Diaspora’ [address to Oireachtas, 2 Feb. 1995], Quoted in Brian Walker, ‘The Lost Tribes of Ireland: Diversity and Loss among the Irish Diaspora’, in Irish Studies Review, 15, 3 (August 2007): ‘If we expect that the mirrow held up to us by Irish communities abroad will show a single familiar identity, or a pure strain of Irishness, we will be disappointed. We will overlook the fascinating diversity of culture and choice which looks back at us.’ (p.267.) Walker comments: ‘it is possible that the broader, more tolerant understanding of the Irish Diaspora and Irish identity, as promoted by Mary Robinson and others in Ireland and now seen among members of the diaspora [i.e., Irish Americans and Irish Australians, &c.] will allow unionists to value an Irish identity again, alongside their Britishness.’ (p.278.)

See also ..
"Why Commemorate the Great Irish Famine? - Address by Mary Robinson .. to the Irish Fellowship Club of Chicago (1995)
- infra

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Quitting? Mary Robinson announced her intention of leaving the UN Human Rights Commissioner post:‘I believe that I can, at this stage, achieve more outside of the constraints that a multinational organisation inevitably imposes’. Reports that her outspoken criticism of human rights abuses has alienated several countries and that some hold her to be a poor manager. (Guardian Weekly, 22 March 2001, front-page story.)

Medal of Freedom: US President Obama presented Mary Robinson with the Medal of Freedom , Aug. 2009. Obama said: ‘Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering, but illuminated a better future for our world.’ (See The Irish Times, 15 Aug. 2009, Editorial.)

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It can take a long time for a people to recognise the impact on them of a particular event or defining moment. For many decades afterwards the great potato famine of 1845 to 1850 was simply a dark and even humiliating experience which the survivors, and the survivors of the survivors, had little wish to recall.

I grew up in the County Mayo of the 1950s and '60s. It was an environment where just as certain illnesses - cancer or TB - were rarely referred to openly and sympathetically, but were somehow embarrassing crosses to bear within a family, so a person's background was obliquely shameful if the family had been forced into the workhouse or had had to emigrate during the famine. In the way that you disguised illness, so you disguised abject poverty in your family's past. As the playwright, Tom Murphy, noted in the Introduction to his play `Famine': "A hungry and demoralised people becomes silent." What we should not underestimate is the lasting nature of that demoralisation, that undermining of a collective self-worth.

Now, however, at a distance of 150 years from the suffering and misery of the famine, we feel free to look back and commemorate. Indeed, it is more than a feeling of freedom: there is a shared sense that the process of retrieval of the precise details of the effect and impact of the famine on us as a people is an important component of our modern sense of Irishness.

Why is this so and why did it take so long? These are deep questions for psychologists and social historians. Suffice it to say that the urge to look back and retrieve the small detail of what happened, and why, has touched a deep nerve in Irish people. And significantly that nerve has been touched, that inner chord struck, not just in those living on the island of Ireland, but in those of Irish heritage throughout the world. There were spontaneous announcements of intentions to carry out local research; restore a workhouse; mount a famine exhibition; hold a conference on how famine affected a particular region or how the Irish came to a particular country as a consequence; plan commemorative plaques and famine projects. This early spontaneity was matched by official recognition. The Irish Government established a Famine Commemorative Committee and provided significant funds for authoritative research into the period.

As President of Ireland I have witnessed first-hand a number of commemorative events both in Ireland and internationally. In some cases I have retraced the poignant link between the place of famine and the place of emigration. I recall in May 1994 the official opening of the Famine Museum at Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. As Patron of that project I had observed its development over a number of years, and recognised that a permanent museum based in the property of a landlord whose house and grounds told their own story of that famine, offered a chance not just to retrieve the parts of our history which are the subjects of ballads and stories, the battles won and lost, the bravery and persistence that gave us our independence as a nation, but also the dark and silent time. We could claim the ordinary suffering, the anguish of a past in which men and women who were our ancestors barely survived. They had no strength to join in brave actions. All they could do was move from day to day, overwhelmed by random misfortune, for many the only option being the workhouse or emigration. And what we owe them is to give to their survival and to their suffering and loss, just as much love and respect and honour as we give to any brave action or any other defining moment of our history.

A few months after the opening of the Famine Museum at Strokestown I visited the very place at which so many who had emigrated from that area during the famine landed: Grosse Ile in Quebec, Canada. I saw the small white crosses marking the mass graves where more than 5,000 men, women and children who had died on the voyage or on arrival are buried. I heard the story of the French Canadian families who took in orphan Irish children, keeping their Irish surnames which are still discernable today in modern Quebec.

And a few months after that, in October 1994, I shared in a famine commemorative meal in New York. It was organised by the New York Irish History Roundtable in the undercroft of St. Paul the Apostle Church. There I heard another chapter of the story: a very detailed account by the historian, John Ridge, of the Irish who came to New York at that time. It was a new chapter of a story I never get tired of. It is, for all of us in Ireland, not just history, but family history.

Another relevant link to the famine was made on my next visit to New York, the following May. I participated in an international conference on hunger, which used the 150th commemoration of the Irish famine as a starting point in a major examination of the problem of hunger worldwide. It is this dimension which transforms the process of commemoration into a moral act.

The terrible realities of our past hunger present themselves to us as nightmare images. The bailiff. The famine wall. The eviction. The workhouse. The coffin ship. And yet how willing are we to negotiate those past images into the facts of present-day hunger? How ready are we to realise that what happened to us may have shaped our Irish identity, but is not an experience confined to us as a people? How ready are we to see that the bailiff and the workhouse and the coffin ship have equally terrible equivalents in other countries for other peoples at this very moment?

For every lesson children of Irish heritage learn about the Famine Relief of 1847, they should learn an equal one about the debt burden of the 1990s. For every piece of economic knowledge they gain about the crops exported from Ireland during the famine years, let them come to understand the cruelty of today's markets, which reinforce the poverty and helplessness of those who already experience hunger. As they learn with pride how the Irish as a people clung to education - the folklore of the hedge schools - let them become acquainted with the declining literacy rates of the most vulnerable countries in our modern world. Let them learn, too, from the influence the famine has had on contemporary Irish poets. When Eavan Boland reflects sadly on the limitation of the science of cartography because the famine road does not show up, or the Nobel prizewinner, Seamus Heaney, writes:

"and where potato diggers are / you still smell the running sore"

they are drawing inspiration from that dark moment of our past. They remind us that famine in our contemporary world also silences the culture of peoples who are portrayed to us all too often as mere statistics.

Here in Chicago your commemorative programme has been reflecting these themes: you have retrieved the detail of the Irish in Illinois, including the vibrant cultural contribution; you have honoured those who suffered in the past, and you have made the connection with hunger and want in our modern world. I think it marks our maturity as a people that remembrance has become an act of self-awareness. Listening to your story here in Chicago has confirmed for me the greatest value of the Irish diaspora: it reminds us that Irishness is not simply territorial, and not necessarily exclusive. It is broad enough to encompass the huge diversity of people who are proud of their Irish heritage. It is like a mirror reflecting back to us on the island of Ireland the values of openness and pluralism as we build a society based on peace and reconciliation.

—Available at Media Library - online; accessed 26.04.2021.