A harp played lightly as canapés were served gracefully. The welcome mat was out on the other side of the world for Mary McAleese.
Our eight president was closing up her tour of Sydney with a talk at an Irish studies centre she played a pivotal role in forming. A content mood of anticipation washed across the crowd of 500, which was peppered strongly with Ireland’s most recent emigration generation. Mary became our figurehead when the good times were raising their head. Joy washed across Northern Ireland. Cars tooting horns and tricolours swallowing the sky filled our screens.
A new political dawn paved forth a new economic path, north and south of the border. The 1997 election of the northern Mary McAleese echoed this new spirit, a modern nation burying its past. Mary made it palatable to hear a Nordie nasal in the Aras. She combined the purposeful action of the North with our love of a meandering story. She played to our inner ear, becoming twice elected and one of the most popular presidents in our history.
Time had not etched at this popularity, evident in the crowd gathered on a mild Sydney evening. It was an evening long on reflection but short on insight. A childhood spent balancing her Catholicism in dominantly Protestant estates. A brother beaten by loyalists, a neighbour dying in her father’s arms, formative years transforming her understanding.
Knitting a personal weave to Northern Ireland’s political point scoring has been the greatest contribution Dr McAleese has made to the Island of Ireland. She disarmed the raw rhetoric. By making the political personal she arrived on cue in the history of our nation.
She sought out cultural sore points and pressed hard. Hosting the first ever celebration of the Battle of the Boyne, taking communion in an Anglican Church, Presidential actions reinforcing the building bridges slogan of her first election campaign. Most of the evening was spent discussing Northern Ireland. Her proclamation that Ireland would not show its truest nature until she was unified got the loudest cheer of night.
Yet it would have offered more to move away from the back streets of Belfast. Earlier in the week a Catholic newspaper refused to run an advertisement for another talk by the former President because of her views on homosexuality and the ordination of women. In that talk she called time on the ‘old boys club’ of the Catholic Church.
Yet this debate and emigration hulked on the sidelines this evening. She has spent a lifetime battering stale square jawed tradition in Catholicism while her genuine interest in the plight and united strength of Ireland’s emigrants is obvious. A missed opportunity to gain further insight from a former President patently passionate about both issues.