Former president of Ireland Mary Robinson says she was on the verge of a breakdown when she took on a top role at the United Nations (UN).

On the BBC Radio 4 show “Desert Island Discs” she spoke about the stress of her professional position and her problems with the Catholic Church over its authoritarian stance on family planning.

Robinson quit her presidency three months before the end of her term in 1997 to take on the position of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

She told the BBC, “I decided to get up earlier in the morning, come in, work harder, work later.

"I started taking sleeping pills and by the first Christmas in 1997 I was a wreck. I was exhausted.

"My eldest brother who was a doctor took a look at me and he told me, 'Mary, you've got to watch it, you're going into breakdown territory'."

She decided to throw away the sleeping pills and take a break.

She said, “I took an extra week and spent a lot of time walking by the lake and pulled myself together.

"I decided I've got to get on top of this. I've got to do this job."

Robinson got emotional opening up about her past and broke into tears speaking about her trip to Delhi. She chose the song “We Shall Overcome” as one of her favorite tunes and spoke about when a crowd of children in Delhi gave a rousing performance of the song.

Robinson, who was the first female president of Ireland, spoke about her faith. She said, “I'm not somebody who goes to mass every Sunday because I feel I have to.”

"I'm deeply spiritual and I'm seeking to understand the way in which so much of the Catholic Church is so authoritarian not supporting family planning. So there's a great deal that I'm very, very troubled by."

She told the BBC show she still believes in the "gospel of Jesus as being the highest standard that we can attain."

Robinson campaigned throughout her career for the legalisation of contraception. In the late 1970s she received a lot of hate mail when she introduced a private members' bill on family planning when she was first elected to the Senate.

She admitted, “That affected me.

"I was 25 going on 26 and I remember walking down the main street in Dublin, Grafton Street, and feeling that people were going to jump out and say 'I hate you, you're the devil incarnate'."

Robinson chose “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” by Edith Piaf and Pavarotti's “Nessun Dorma” as two other desert island discs. She chose a solar cooker as the luxury item she would hypothetically take to a desert island, and as a book, “The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing”.