President McAleese opening the Muriel Boothman Centre.

The office of President of Ireland is a largely ceremonial one and not directly involved in day to day government decisions. Nevertheless, as the only directly elected national office, it carries with it considerable influence and prestige. The President is an embodiment of how Irish people see themselves and want to be seen abroad. The last three Presidents – Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese, and the current incumbent, Michael D. Higgins have performed their duties with considerable aplomb and have also been ardent feminists.

When my late wife, Muriel Boothman, was having considerable difficulties with her then employers, Wicklow County Council, because the information centre in the Community Education Centre she managed included leaflets from agencies which did not specifically rule out the possibility of abortion referrals abroad for women in crisis pregnancy, she heard that President Robinson was to visit our then small rural town to open a new Credit Union building. Muriel was at that time also the chair of the local women’s group, which with 600 members was nearly as large as the town itself and perhaps the largest local women’s community group in Ireland.

The women’s network drumbeats started to roll and President Robinson was prevailed upon to also officially “open” the Community Education Centre information centre after she had been at the Credit Union. I still remember marching down the main street of our town with President Robinson and our children and several hundred supporters from the Credit Union to The Community Education Centre where Mary Robinson gave an inspirational address. Wicklow County Council was not best pleased. Some members wrote to the Attorney General asking him to prosecute my wife and information centre volunteers.

Some years later President McAleese presided at the opening of the Muriel Boothman Centre (Pictured above), named in honour of my late wife by the Clondalkin Addiction Support Programme where she had become manager following her constructive dismissal by Wicklow County Council. Her comments then were apt and well informed. I mention these occasions to illustrate how influential recent Presidents have been in the ongoing development of Irish society. Ireland is about to vote on the removal of the constitutional ban on abortion, a development which would have been unthinkable even a few years ago.
Mary Robinson went on to become the UN Commissioner for Human Rights where she earned the ire of the US for her forthright condemnation of human rights violations under the “global war on terror” and was eventually forced to resign that post. Mary McAleese completed a doctorate in theology after her Presidency and has been making waves by her forthright condemnation of Catholic Church misogyny in recent times. She has just delivered the opening address at the “Why Women Matter” conference in Rome which was forced to relocate from the Vatican after the Vatican refused her permission to speak there.

Delivering the opening address at a Why Women Matter conference in Rome, organised by Voices of Faith, Ms McAleese said she suspected that many women would say “they experience the church as a male bastion of patronising platitudes to which Pope Francis has added his quota. John Paul II has written of the `mystery of women’. Talk to us as equals and we will not be a mystery”.

Pope Francis had said “a `deeper theology of women’ is needed. God knows it would be hard to find a more shallow theology of women than the misogyny dressed up as theology which the magisterium (the church teaching authority) currently hides behind,” she said.

The conference to mark International Women’s Day was scheduled to take place at the Vatican, as it has over the past four years, but was moved to a location near St Peter’s Square when Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, refused to allow Ms McAleese as a panellist.

In earlier remarks, she had been even more caustic:

Former president Mary McAleese has said she fears the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has “reduced Christ to this rather unattractive politician who is just misogynistic and homophobic and anti-abortion”.

She described Vatican opposition to women priests as “misogynist codology dressed up as theology” and criticised “the patronising platitudes that women have heard from a succession of popes and cardinals”.

Speaking at a press conference in Rome on Wednesday, Ms McAleese also said Pope Francis should visit Newry, Co Down, if he comes to Ireland next August, in the wake of clerical child sex abuse revelations there which led to the recent resignation of the Bishop of Dromore.

Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey resigned last week amid controversy over his decision to concelebrate a Mass with abuser Fr Malachy Finnegan in 2000 and to say the priest’s funeral Mass in 2002. Bishop McAreavey first became aware that Fr Finnegan, the former president of St Colman’s College Newry, was an abuser in 1994.

Mary Robinson had been a campaigning radical all her life:

However she first hit national headlines as one of University of Dublin’s three members of Seanad Éireann to which she was first elected, as an Independent Senator, in 1969.[17] From this body she campaigned on a wide range of liberal issues, including the right of women to sit on juries, the then requirement that all women, upon marriage, resign from the civil service, and the right to the legal availability of contraception.

This latter campaign won her many enemies. She was denounced from the pulpit of Ballina Cathedral for her campaigning for family planning rights for women in Ireland, causing distress to her parents.[18] Condoms and other items were regularly sent in the post to the Senator, by conservative critics and a false rumour was spread that the chain of pharmacies Hayes, Conyngham & Robinson was owned by her family (and so therefore that her promotion of contraception was an attempt to benefit members of her family).

So unpopular, was her campaign among fellow politicians that when she introduced the first bill proposing to liberalise the law on contraception into the Seanad, although two other members ‘seconded’ the initiative, political leaders did not put it on the agenda for discussion.


For many years Robinson also worked as legal advisor for the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform, with future Trinity College Senator [and later Presidential candidate] David Norris. Coincidentally, just as Mary McAleese replaced Mary Robinson as Reid Professor of Law in Trinity, and would succeed her to the Irish presidency, so Robinson replaced McAleese in the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.

Mary McAleese was initially seen as a much more conservative figure, having been a candidate for the centre right (and socially conservative) Fianna Fail party and nominated by Roman Catholic Bishops to serve on various Church bodies. She 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. The only President to have come from Northern Ireland, her family were forced to relocate from the Ardoyne catholic enclave in Belfast by loyalists when the Troubles broke out.

But she caused consternation in the Irish Catholic hierarchy when, after being elected President, she took communion in an Anglican (Church of Ireland) Cathedral. Cardinal Desmond Connell called her action a “sham” and a “deception” – at a time when condemnation by the Catholic hierarchy still meant something, although it was by then no longer powerful enough to cause the fall of governments.

The careers of both women, and the opposition they came up against at the time, give some indication of how far Ireland has come socially in the past few decades. Whether Mary McAleese will have a similar influence on the Roman Catholic Church worldwide remains to be seen. However as a practising Catholic, a former President of a largely Catholic country, and the holder of a doctorate in Theology, her voice will be difficult for the Vatican to ignore.

Her reminders of the Church’s history of involvement and cover up of child sex abuse in Ireland will be particularly unwelcome in Vatican circles, with a visit by Pope Francis to Ireland planned for this summer. He is unlikely to receive the rapturous welcome afforded to Pope John Paul II in 1979. Nevertheless the government is scrambling to hold the abortion referendum before then, in case his visit were to become a rallying point for conservative catholic forces in Irish society.

I will leave the last words to her:

The Catholic Church was “at a very important crossroads”, she said. “Either it will become a large and largely irrelevant cult or sect, or it will do what Christ intended, flood the world with the capacity for healing and for love,” she said.

It was a choice which would “be made, ironically, by our hierarchy” because of “an old imperial system of clerical elitist governance” conferred on them.

As regards Pope Francis, she said, “The hopes that I had for him and about him and about the church that he might help us to create, dwindled into disappointment. So, five years on, I’m disappointed in Francis. I keep living in hope.”

On women priests, she said, “I’ve read everything written on the subject, all the stuff that was recommended to me by Cardinal Desmond Connell when I wrote and said to him `tell me all the arguments in favour of excluding women’ and when I read them they were so stupid I realised very quickly that it was codology dressed up as theology.”

She said she decided then, “I cannot be bothered arguing. Sooner or later the dead weight of its own stupidity will disintegrate this argument.”


On the Dromore controversy, Ms McAleese said there was a “very, very strong onus” on Pope Francis to visit Newry, as “he would be the first pope to come after the Ryan report, the Murphy report and in particular the more recent events in the diocese of Dromore where, 20 years after the clerical guidelines were introduced that told us how wonderful church protection was going to be, we faced the resignation of a bishop. Why? Because he presides at the funeral of one of the worst serial physical and sexual sadists in the history of the church.”

Fr Finnegan had been “president of one of the most prestigious Catholic boys schools in Northern Ireland and . . . seems to have been able to continue his appalling abuse of children untrammelled”, she said.

There was “all sorts of talk about places where he [the pope]” should go when he visits Ireland. “But, in terms of the pastoral needs in Ireland, he needs to go to Newry,” she said.

It will be interesting to see whether the Pope does go to Newry this summer. She has made it very difficult for him to refuse, and much media coverage will be about his refusal, if he does so. Damn those influential women!!!