WHILE I was researching this story I was listening to Newstalk radio. It was conducting a poll as to which Irish woman was most influential in Irish history. Joint top were Countess Markievicz (whom we featured recently in this spot) and Mary Robinson with 37.17%. The rest were in single figures.
Mary Theresa Winifred Bourke, the woman who would become the first female president of Ireland, was born in Ballina, CountyMayo on 21 May 1944. She was the daughter of Dr Aubrey Bourke, a Ballina native, and Dr Tessa Bourke (née O’Donnell) of Carndonagh, Inishowen, Co Donegal. There were five in family, with Mary in the middle of two four brothers. The brothers were Henry, a barrister; Oliver, a doctor in New Zealand; Aubrey Jnr, also a doctor, who died in 1986 aged 43; and Adrian, a solicitor. Tessa Bourke died in 1973 aged 60, while Aubrey Snr passed away in July 2001 aged 87.
The extended Bourke family was quiet large. While some of her ancestors were involved in the Land League and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the family also boasted a Catholic nun. Others had strong Anglican Church ties, while her uncle, Sir Paget John Burke, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his role as chief justice in the colonial service. So you see a mix of those for and against the crown.
Mary was a first-class tomboy – being the only girl in the family, she had little choice. She was educated in a private school, Miss Ruddy’s, at the top of Ardnaree, which is separated from the main part of Ballina by HamBridge, which spans the River Moy. One memorable moment for the Bourke children occurred one Sunday afternoon when a horror movie was showing at the local cinema. But their mother got wind of the content. In the middle of the show, the movie was stopped, the lights switched on and the Bourke children were requested to leave the cinema. Mary admits they all got a little clip on the ear for lying to their parents.
Aged ten, Mary left Ballina for MountAnville boarding school in Goatstown, Dublin. Then it was TrinityCollege, where she studied law, before moving on a fellowship to HarvardUniversity to complete her education. In 1970, Mary Bourke became Mary Robinson when she married Nicholas (Nick), a solicitor, cartoonist, author and historian. He would become Mary’s rock through the many challenges in her career. This was an awkward period in Mary’s life. Her parents did not support the marriage and they refused to attend the wedding because Nick Robinson wasn’t a Catholic. However, the standoff was over within a couple of months and Nick became a welcomed member of the extended Bourke family. The Robinsons had three children – Theresa, William and Aubrey.
This was a forerunner to Mary’s determination to take on any problem which she faced. And any person, no matter how powerful, soon realised they faced a determined and knowledgeable foe when Mary Robinson stood in the opposite corner.
One of her most prolific campaigns has been for women’s rights. This topic is dear to her heart and she has unflinchingly taken on politicians, statesmen and the Church – a Church which even castigated her from the pulpit of her home town of Ballina. She states that at a meeting of elders, including Nelson Mandela, it was agreed that the religious bias which favours male as against female had to be tackled head-on. She described in a speech how religions of various creeds can frequently subjugate female aspirations by suppressing or questioning the rights of women because of distorted religious beliefs, cultures and traditions. She continues to maintain that religious leaders have to change and realise that being female does not mean women have no right to defend themselves, and those leaders must realise they have to change their attitude towards women’s rights. I for one certainly don’t believe Cardinal Brady has yet received that message and he would not be alone in this country with regard to his attitude on this subject.
Times have changed – not that they should have had to – but the woman is now in the workplace and raising her family as well; a hard task. Women have to be respected and admired, especially in our country, for their contribution to Irish society. However, as Mary Robinson has suggested, there are still some men, and dare I say women as well, who place religion before women’s rights, simply because that is how it was many years ago (and still is in many countries). Our women are as important as our men – possibly moreso. They are capable of making their own decisions and don’t require input from outside sources, particularly as they are often the sole provider to many families.
Aged 25, Mary was one of three candidates elected to the Seanad from TrinityCollege in 1969.
Here she took on many issues, some of which were not welcomed by her peers, such as an end to women having to retire from the civil service when they got married. She championed women’s rights to sit on a jury and, probably most controversially, a woman’s right to contraceptives, for which she somehow coerced two seconders, but the smart boys in leadership positions never got around to putting it on the agenda for discussion. When women’s rights campaigners travelled to Belfast to buy condoms in 1971, then, as now, the Church intervened. Bishop Ryan of Clonfert stated: “Never before and certainly not since Penal times was the Catholic heritage of Ireland subjected to such insidious onslaughts on the pretext of conscience, civil rights and women’s liberation.”
Here we have the same old story, which has been given so many new covers by those who preach when the wind blows – as it is blowing today – but were conspicuous by their inaction when children were being abused and needed their protection from a minority of its members.
During her time in the Seanad, Mary served on many committees, such as the EC secondary legislation, social affairs, legal affairs and the Joint Committee on Martial Breakdown.
Before leaving her representation of Trinity, in 1988, together with husband Nick, she founded the Irish Centre for European Law, and ten years later became chancellor of the university.
Mary Robinson served at the Irish bar from 1967 to 1990, becoming senior counsel in 1980. She was called to the English bar in 1973. She joined the Labour party in the mid-70s when Labour joined Fine Gael to form the December 1982 coalition government under Garret FitzGerald. Labour was given the attorney general portfolio, with Mary Robinson as the favoured candidate. However, for some obscure reason, party leader Dick Spring appointed John Rogers, who had only recently been appointed senior counsel.
At the conclusion of her Seanad term on 5 July 1989, Mary Robinson had achieved most of what she had set out to do: women could now stay in the civil service after marriage and they could sit on juries, while contraception had been legalised but with restrictions.
Many were surprised she did not seek re-election, and she resigned following the Anglo-Irish agreement, which she felt should have included Ulster unionists in the negotiations. A year later, she received a briefing from Labour regarding the upcoming presidential election, which she originally thought was for advice but then discovered it was aimed at her. After careful consideration and with the backing of family and friends, she accepted the Labour party’s request to be a candidate, and for the first time since 1945, there would be a contest to elect the president of Ireland.
Dr Noel Browne was another seeking the Labour mandate, but he did not have the approval of the party hierarchy, although he was supported by the left section, which included Michael D Higgins. However, Mary Robinson was the nominated candidate.
Fine Gael was in a state of confusion as to who would be its candidate. First it was Garret FitzGerald who refused to run. Peter Barry agreed but then withdrew. Eventually, it was Austin Currie, who had switched his political life from Northern Ireland to become a Fine Gael TD, who was selected. Fianna Fáil put forward what they felt was a strong candidate in Brian Lenihan, a former tánaiste and minister for defence who, with party backing, quickly became a strong favourite to win the election. But there was a problem. The FF party leader Charles Haughey was hugely unpopular, while Spring was the rising star in Irish politics.
Mary Robinson, with her usual dedication to the task in hand, was in the field early. She quickly started bridging the party divide, while collecting the backing of female voters in record numbers. It was now apparent to Fianna Fáil that it had a huge battle on its hands. Robinson crucially had the backing of the Irish Times and The Workers’ Party, which would carry a lot of the Dublin working class vote. Also in her favour was a transfer pact between Fine Gale and Labour. With Currie unhappy that his party favoured Robinson – whom he did not like, whereas Lenihan was his friend – the Ulster man was not appreciative of the party’s support for Mrs Robinson. The attempt by Lenihan to influence President Hillery’s decision on whether to dissolve the 1982 Dáil at Garret FitzGerald’s request did not help either. Lenihan denied the accusation until a tape was produced confirming it. In an attempt to discredit Mrs Robinson, Padraig Flynn accused her of having a new-found interest in her family and stating she would “turn the Áras into The Red Cow Inn.” This was a serious blow to Lenihan and there was no way back.
Lenihan won 44% of first preference votes, with Robinson just 5% behind. It was clear that with Currie’s transfers she would become the seventh president and so it was. She was inaugurated on 3 December 1990. So began a new type of presidency, where the door to the Áras was open and the light burned bright in the window.
Some time in the future, we will look at Mrs Robinson’s performance as president and beyond.