Former President Mary Robinson is one of the main architects of modern Ireland. But as a woman in a man’s world, as a courageous voice of modernity in a time of slavish conformity, her achievements are really twice themselves.
Cahir O'Doherty talks to the Irish political figurehead about her new memoir, Everybody Matters, a fascinating meditation on her life and career, and hears about her vision for Ireland’s role in world affairs in the 21st century.
For an Irish person, meeting Mary Robison in person is a remarkable experience. No matter what your personal politics, there is no denying the fact that she is one of the main architects of modern Ireland.
This week Robison, 68, originally from Ballina in County Mayo is in New York to give an author’s talk at the famed Cooper Union in Manhattan about her riveting new memoir, Everybody Matters, My Life Giving Voice. The book charts each decade of her life as an Irish public figure fighting for a fairer nation and world.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been 16 years since Robinson’s groundbreaking Irish presidency ended. What is more remarkable still is that it’s been 46 years since she laid her progressive vision for the nation to a packed (and stunned) audience during her inaugural address as auditor of the Law Society at Trinity College in 1967.
The Ireland of 1967, with its casually fundamentalist attitudes and cultural insularity, can seem further away in time than it actually is. This was the era, for example, when priests publicly scolded young women for their fashion choices, where mothers who had children outside of marriage were treated like shameful pariahs (often their children were too), where domestic violence was considered a private family affair, and where contraceptives and their use were illegal. Repression was so common it went mostly unnoticed.
This was the social background to Robinson’s courageous and groundbreaking 1967 speech about how the “special position” of the Catholic Church in the Irish Constitution enforced Catholic morality under the law, which in her opinion mistakenly turned “sin” into “crime.”
Instead Robinson, who was 23 at the time, gamely suggested removing from the Irish Constitution the prohibition on divorce, alongside lifting the ban on contraceptives and decriminalizing homosexuality, on the basis that these were all personal moral issues that should not be subject to the law of the state, but instead should be up to the individual to choose based on his or her own moral or religious code. At the time she also advocated in favor of children’s rights, an idea that would take a further 25 years before it was even taken seriously.
That Robinson’s speech was given in Ireland, two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, is remarkable enough in itself, but she then went on to dedicate her legal and political life to attaining these very rights one by one. Her public career can be seen as an attempt to hand the individual the power to determine his or her own fate, rather than have them determined by the state.
In a very real sense, the Irish had to learn to become her contemporaries. You cannot sufficiently underline her achievements in each of these spheres. She was the symbol of the future and she led us toward it.
“At Trinity I was very focused on law as an instrument of social change,” Robinson tells the Irish Voice. “When I went to Harvard law was taught very differently from Ireland. We were encouraged to think.
“My contemporaries were getting involved with the civil rights movement. I was there the year Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.”
More than anything else, she saw young people were making a difference. In the Ireland of that time young people knew their place, she recalls. “It was assumed you’d wait your turn,” she said.
But Robinson had come back from Harvard with what her husband Nick called her “Harvard humility,” with the sense of the possibility of making change.
“I was interested in questioning the status quo of the time,” she says. “The Irish laws reflected Catholic teaching but didn’t give space to those who either didn’t subscribe to the Catholic faith or didn’t believe these issues should be criminal, even if they weren’t condoned by society.”
Given her activism, her speech at Trinity became such a hot ticket that demand outstripped supply and they had to move it to a bigger hall. To most of the audience that arrived it must have been like listening to a time traveler describe what would happen 30 years later.
But Robinson wasn’t prepared to wait. She’d fashion that future through her own efforts.
“It was a bit scary at end of the speech when there was total silence,” she reveals. “My adrenaline was running wondering what had happened. Then there was applause.