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. 

“That speech for me outlined the reasons why I was studying law. It was about what I decided to pursue in my career, addressing issues of discrimination and unfairness.”

The personal cost of all this trailblazing cannot be understated. Challenging the near theocracy that Ireland was in at the time deeply affected Robinson. After all, two devout Irish Catholic parents had raised her, and at one time she had contemplated becoming a nun herself. 

Robinson recalls that just to attend Trinity College in the 1960s she had to get the express permission of the then Catholic archbishop of Dublin, Dr. John Charles McQuaid -- or else it would have been considered a mortal sin. Against this repressive background, how do you press on with a program for reform when your society would prefer you not to?

When I ask specifically to comment on her own achievements, she consistently demurs to praise the people who inspired her instead. She will not allow herself the opportunity to showboat, even by inference. It’s the most modest performance by an Irish figurehead I have ever witnessed.

When pressed she offers this: “My motivation was a sense of fairness. I also admired people who started the process themselves by writing to the European Court of Human Rights.” 

Within two sentences she is turning a direct question about herself into an opportunity to admire others. I suppose this is what they mean when they talk about class. 

Although her own parents assured her she had as much potential as her four brothers, Irish society was telling her a different tale. Opportunities for women to forge their own destines, on their own terms, were slim to nonexistent in the 1960s. So for many of the indepenedntly minded women of the entering era, holy orders seemed like one potential route to meaningful social justice work. 

Robinson, known then as Mary Bourke, contemplated becoming a nun.  “At boarding school my contemporaries were all discussing what they should do in the year or two before they got married. I was very aware that my father’s sister, Aunt Ivy, had done spectacular things in India with girls education, and so being a nun seemed to offer one opportunity to make a difference. I was a devout Catholic at the time. My parents were very religious.”

But a year in Paris at the age of 17 and then a year at Harvard changed her perspective. 

“My eyes were being opened to culture, to philosophy, to feminism. My inner struggle was growing even more intense,” she recalls.

“All the questions that I couldn’t quite formulate in Ireland started bubbling up. Mostly they were questions about the authoritarian and patriarchal structure of the place.

“Why, I asked myself, could only boys be altar boys? Why could only men become priests?  Why did women have to wear scarves and look like penitents? 

“The more I questioned and read, the more I realized the core of the gospel conflicted with the magisterial buildings like Notre Dame. It occurred to me it wasn’t really necessary to go to Mass every Sunday because it wasn’t doing anything for me. I wanted to find my own path. 

“When I told my parents they were dismayed. They couldn’t even have a conversation with me they were so distressed.”

When she returned, changed, from her studies in Paris, Robinson spent a year in Co. Mayo with her parents, which she describes as “a lonely one.” But she used it to build an inner strength and resolve to follow her own path.

Although her strong speech at Trinity had worried her father enough to consult a friend who was also a bishop, he replied not to worry, “It’s what students do.” It was only later when she became a public figure that the crosiers really began to take swipes at her. 

“My first business as a new senator was to legalize family planning,” says Robinson. “It was an issue I felt very strongly about and still do. Reproductive health and family are at the core of women’s equality and girls feeling that they can reach their full potential.”

Her efforts were noticed. In 1970 Archbishop McQuaid proclaimed in a letter read aloud in every church in his archdiocese, that family planning – and by inference, Robinson – were “a curse upon our country.”

Robinson was startled by the ferocity of McQuaid’s criticism. To be referred to like that in the Ireland of the period was to be cast into the outer darkness, from which there was presumably no return. 

“It was tough. I was portrayed as the devil incarnate. I felt that people would jump out and say it to me,” Robinson recalls.

“And I learned that if you really believe in something deeply, be prepared to take criticism and hold your ground.”

But then Robinson did something that was the last straw for her parents. She married her Trinity contemporary Nick Robinson, a Protestant. Once again she needed permission from the church, this time from Monsignor Sheehy in the Archbishop’s Palace in Dublin. 

Sheehy interrogated her for an hour, enraging her to tears.  Discomfited by her reaction, he eventually gave his permission and the Robinsons married at the church at Dublin Airport, with only one family member of hers attending. 

That had to hurt, but in the book and in person Robinson skips over these old coals. She prefers at all times to let her readers make their minds up and doesn’t bare her soul at any point. So I ask her directly if anyone in her family ever apologized for refusing to attend her wedding?

“The problem wasn’t simple, that Nick was a Protestant,” she answers. “The problem was my parents had me on a pedestal, they had an imaginary idea of who I should marry and he would be a successful professional Catholic already doing well. 

“Nick didn’t fit the image. They suffered from over-love. He knew that and that’s why he didn’t hold a grudge. Anyway, 43 years later I think I made the right decision,” she laughs.

In Ireland, because it’s a small island, the politics are almost always personal. So it’s impossible to talk to Robinson about her political struggles without reflecting on their private costs. 

Knowing this, she steps away from conflict to focus instead on resolution. It’s a trick that has stood to her over all the decades, and it’s a skill she wants to pass on.

“One of the reasons I wrote the book was to be encouraging. I want to show that things can change. From the Ireland I was affected by and living in to a much more open Ireland. We’ve made mistakes but it’s a different Ireland. Everyone can make a difference. Everyone matters.”

Robinson didn’t mean to, but throughout her career her modernity kept holding the mirror up to the less evolved politicians she often locked horns with. Famously her tussle with Padraig Flynn, the onetime Fianna Fail minister for the environment, underlined how quickly the country’s social values were changing. 

In a shockingly sexist outburst Flynn snidely blasted her “new interest in family, being a mother and all that kind of thing. But none of us who knew Mary Robinson very well in previous incarnations ever heard her claiming to be a great wife and mother.” After his comments voters switched to Robinson in droves. 

As for the office of president itself, Robinson, a constitutional scholar, dramatically altered its effectiveness and its political reach. She even defied the then Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charlie Haughey’s attempts to muzzle her by making stronger arguments in her favor than the attorneys he’d hired to shut her up. 

“It was a very interesting meeting,” Robinson recalls dryly. “I was lucky I got advance notice he was going to bring an opinion of senior counsel with him. When he began to read the opinions to me my arguments to counter were far more persuasive to him. 

“He threw the document on the floor and said, ‘Ah, you get the legal advice you pay for.’  When it concluded it was evident we had been at the same meeting. He was no longer going to try to reign me in.”

Robinson transformed the office of the presidency and left in 1997 when her term ended. 

“Individuals come and go, but if you can strengthen an office within its parameters then you’ve done something more sustainable,” she says simply. 

“The much more difficult task was strengthening the office of High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations,” she reveals. Robinson had a trial by fire from the outset to the very end of her UN tenure after the presidency, inheriting a demoralized staff and then being targeted by the Bush administration for her criticisms of human rights abuses conducted as part of the U.S. war on terror.

It took a toll on her. She stayed up late working longer and taking sleeping pills in the first few months. 

“It almost destroyed my health,” she says. “It was a small office with a hugely important mandate in protecting human rights.”

One thing she could do, she realized, was to go and listen to those whose rights were being violated and help to get their voices heard.  That was her pattern right through the five years of stewardship at the UN.

In regard to the well-documented human rights abuses of the Bush era, she saw and lamented how they undermined international law. 

“I had a clear mandate to hold the United States to account under the covenant on civil and political rights and the convention against torture. It was not upholding what it was committed to,” she says.

It wasn’t just that a big country like the United States was falling below the standard it has set for itself, she says.  The United States had set itself out as a standard bearer for freedom and human rights and democracy, and once it dipped those stands it was very hard to uphold them elsewhere in the world. 

“Countries that were violating rights much more blatantly would say, Oh things have changed. I would say, ‘No they haven’t, I’m the high commissioner, we still have the covenant,’ and they would say, Look at the United States.” 

Robinson has described the Celtic Tiger era as one of “sheer selfish stupidity,” but she’s committed to the tradition of the non-executive president and forgoes the opportunity to comment. 

“By remaining outside the immediate political issues of the day it annoys journalists. Instead I prefer to focus on the goal of my foundation which is climate justice,” she says.

Speaking on this issue, which represents her present and her future, Robinson comes to life with a passion that draws a line over our discussion of her past. 

“Our main concern now is to draw attention to the injustice of the poorest countries who are not responsible for the fossil fuels but who are affected. We want to get an agreement on climate by 2015. There’s so much there to do,” she says. 

The struggle to gain agreement on the issue is personal, she says. “I think of my own grandchildren, who will be in their forties in 2050. They will share the world with nine billion others -- we have seven billion now. 

“It will be a world with far more climate shocks than we have now, no matter what we do. We have made things bad, we’re making them worse and we make them catastrophic. 

“That’s something I am conscious of as a grandmother. Climate justice is about justice now. There’s a paradoxical cruelty that its hurting the nations that are most vulnerable and least responsible first. 

“How will we account to those future generations? I can hear the voices of my grandchildren’s generation saying, How could they have been so stupid, so selfish?” 

We have to get real about a climate agreement, she says. It’s behavioral change time. 

“It’s as though everything I have learned has come together linking human rights development and climate change to say, now is the time to remember our shared values. There are the principals in the universal declaration of human rights that guide and inspire me that say all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, and everyone has duties to the community without which you don’t achieve your full personality.”

It’s been her life’s work and it still is.