My story too

I’ve been reading the autobiography of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese -‘Here’s the Story’. She read it recently on BBC Radio4 Book of the Week.

The picture with President McAleese and her husband, Martin, dates from St Patrick’s Day 2008 when I preached in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and attended a reception in the President’s official residence, Aras an Uachtarain. Alison and I are with Dean Robert McCarthy.

Mary McAleese and I were born within days of one another and her experiences are of particular interest to me. I hadn’t realised that she spent her childhood in North Belfast. She gives a graphic description of the early years of the Troubles. It was the period when I was away at university in Dublin and Oxford. In 1976, Alison and I returned to live within about half a mile from her home. It was as she describes it – a dreadful time of random rioting, burnings and shootings. North Belfast was an area of intermingled communities. So doorstep assassinations were common.

Many people have tried to sum up the deep roots of the conflict. Mary McAleese described it like this: ‘In schools, homes, communities and churches, carefully bundled formulae saw to it that no one, not even the best of neighbours, could easily detach from the adversarial bunkers birth had allocated each of them to’

What she calls the game changer for her generation of Catholics n Northern Ireland was the introduction of free second-level education at the end of the 1940’s. She says, ‘The excellent education we received in Catholic schools gave us the intellectual tools and self-confidence with which to challenge the vast presumptuousness and pomposity of the Protestant elite who governed Northern Ireland’. My experience is that the tragic counterbalance to that is the ‘brain drain’ of highly educated young people from the Protestant community leaving an obvious leadership deficit in their community. Neither I nor any of my siblings – nor do any of our three children – live in Northern Ireland.

Mary McAleese writes movingly of the Peace Process – that pursuit of the studied ambiguities which enable deep divisions and old hurts to be overcome. Particularly significant is her account of the process which led to the Queen’s State Visit in 2011 – a highly successful visit which changed the face of modern Ireland.

There is much to learn from this book – not just of the slow and steady movement towards some kind of peace – but also of Mary McAleese’s attempt to challenge the deep conservatism of the Irish Catholic Church.