Mary McAleese (1951- )
Born Mary Patricia Lenaghan, the eldest of nine children. Her family home was in Ardoyne but the family was forced to leave the area after threats by loyalists. McAleese was educated at St Dominic’s High School on the Falls Road and Queen’s University.
She became a barrister in 1974 and also qualified to practice at the Irish Bar. In 1975, she was appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College Dublin. For a time she also worked as a journalist with RTE. In 1987, she returned to Queen’s, to take up the post of Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies and in 1994, she became the first female Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University.
In 1997 she was elected as the 8th President of Ireland, succeeding Mary Robinson. She was the second woman and the first person from the north to hold the post. She served two terms as President, concentrating much of the presidency around the theme of ‘building bridges’. She welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to Ireland, the first British monarch to visit Ireland since independence, and she and her husband Martin devoted much time to engage with the unionist community in the north.
Although a practising Catholic, McAleese took communion in a Church of Ireland cathedral in Dublin and she has been highly critical of the church’s views on a number of issues, including women priests, the ban on contraception, lack of action on child sexual abuse and homosexuality, although she supports the church on its opposition to divorce and abortion. After her presidency ended in 2011, she went to Rome to study Canon Law and has remained outspoken in her criticism of the hierarchical nature of the Roman Catholic Church. During the 2015 referendum on marriage equality, she spoke out strongly for reform, supporting her son who had come out as gay.