Mary McAleese, who as president of Ireland helped bring about an end to The Troubles” she had known during her youth in Northern Ireland, will come to Boston College this fall as the Burns Library Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies, the university announced today.
As Burns Scholar, McAleese — now studying for a doctoral degree in canon law at the Gregorian University in Rome — will teach a course and present public lectures during the fall semester while pursuing research in the Burns Library Irish Book and Manuscript Collection.
“Coming to Boston, using that wonderful Burns Library, talking with students and faculty members from a variety of disciplines, including my beloved Irish Studies,” said McAleese, “will be for me a seminal opportunity to enrich and deepen the insights I can bring to my own research and also hopefully to add a little to the insights of others.”
A Catholic from Belfast, McAleese became the first Northern Irish native to be elected Irish president when she took office in 1997, bringing with her memories of sectarian violence that forced her family to move out of North Belfast. Believing the tides of history were changing, McAleese proclaimed “Building Bridges” as the theme of her presidency and advocated for peace and reconciliation through regular trips to Northern Ireland and by hosting visitors from the North at her official residence.
Following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that established new political structures for Northern Ireland and dealt with civil rights, policing and other controversial issues, McAleese continued to promote a new era of understanding and cooperation. She also broadened her “Building Bridges” vision to focus on economic inequality in an Ireland that, at the time, was experiencing tremendous growth through the so-called “Celtic Tiger.”
McAleese first visited Boston College in 1998 to formally open Connolly House — the headquarters for the University’s Irish programs — and meet with members and friends of the Irish Institute and the Irish Studies Program. She praised BC for its various initiatives to aid the peace process, including a program to assist members of the new Northern Ireland Assembly in preparing for their roles as leaders in government, and the economic development of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
"We know that you shared our joy when the historic agreement was made in Northern Ireland last Good Friday. You take pride, too, in our economic success and you foster strong business links between Ireland and Massachusetts," said McAleese at the event. "I want to offer our profound appreciation for that and our continued reliance on your support as we enter a new phase in Ireland, but one filled with hope."
McAleese was reelected to office in 2004, and in 2011 rang down the curtain on her presidency with a history-making event: She hosted Queen Elizabeth II, marking the first visit by a British monarch to the Irish Republic.
"The life of Mary McAleese represents an abundantly appropriate model for Boston College now celebrating its sesquicentennial year,” said Center for Irish Programs Executive Director and University Professor Thomas Hachey.
“Our institution's journey, from modest Irish immigrant roots to that of a globally distinguished university,” he said, “mirrors Mary's own life in which she persisted from early adversity to the pinnacle position of head of state in her native country. And in that career she has unfailingly projected the Jesuit focus on being ‘men and women for others.’"
McAleese’s achievements have not been confined to the political arena. She earned a law degree from the Queen’s University of Belfast and became a barrister, then was appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin. She later served as director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at Queen’s University, where she subsequently became the first female pro-vice chancellor.
McAleese also is an experienced broadcaster, having worked as a current affairs journalist and presenter in radio and television with Radio Telefís Éireann. She and her husband Martin have three adult children.
There will be a familial dimension to her tenure as Burns Scholar, McAleese noted recently: When McAleese was nine, her beloved cousin moved to Philadelphia, an event that “was like a death.” Her cousin’s daughter is now a doctoral student at BC.
“Now in the way that the saints have of showing us their care,” she said, “we will gather the generations again, this time in Boston, and marvel at the indissolubility of familial love over time and oceans and generations.
“Thank you, Boston College, for giving me such a gift."
Established in 1989 with a grant from the Burns Foundation of San Francisco, the Burns Chair is held by a person who has made significant contributions to Irish culture or intellectual life. Past holders, affiliated with some of Ireland's most prestigious cultural and educational institutions, have represented the fields of history, literature, bibliography, language and art.
Dedicated in honor of John J. Burns, a 1921 graduate of Boston College who rose from humble origins to become a Harvard Law School professor, Massachusetts Superior Court justice, and the first general counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Honorable John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections opened at Boston College in 1986. Considered among the best research libraries in the United States, the Burns Library contains archives, manuscripts, rare books and special collections of art, photographs, prints and artifacts, with special emphasis on the religious, cultural, intellectual and political history of Western Civilization.
The Irish Collection of Burns Library, the largest and most comprehensive in the United States, includes materials from Nobel laureates William Butler Yeats, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw and Seamus Heaney. Additional collections include the work of philosopher Thomas Merton; British Catholic authors Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and John Henry Cardinal Newman; Jesuitica including original letters from Jesuit Saints Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia and Robert Bellarmine; and the papers of the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr., and Congressman Edward P. Boland, both 1936 graduates of Boston College.