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Sweetness and light

15 September 2012

9:00 AM

15 September 2012

9:00 AM

Everybody Matters: A Memoir Mary Robinson Hodder & Stoughton

pp.344, £20

Yes, shamefully, I did immediately look myself up in the index, since I had known Mary Robinson (née Bourke) when we were both young feminists in Dublin in 1970. Indeed, she sat in my Dublin flat sharing ‘conscious-raising’ sessions, and I published one of the first political interviews with her — which has been cited in all previous biographies of the lady.

Our paths, to say the least, have diverged. She became President of Ireland (and annoyingly, a very good one), and has graduated to being one of the world’s great panjandrums, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with 49 honorary doctorates from universities all over the globe and honours from half a dozen countries, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom bestowed by President Obama. While I am just an ageing journo still trying to turn a dollar for a living. The only point of comparison I could make in my own favour is that I am possibly more fun to have a drink with, even sober.

As it happens, I do not appear in the index of Mrs Robinson’s memoir, which may be for the best, since of late I have not always written kindly about her: she has never disclosed how much she has earned from the taxpayer, Irish and global, throughout her distinguished career; and money goes noticeably unmentioned in this recollection. She must qualify for at least two Irish pensions, as former President and former Senator, which should be worth at least €150,000 annually, for starters.

But then Mary has always lived in a milieu above us all: when it was arranged that she should appear in Hello!, as the presidential candidate in 1990, she admits that she had never heard of the magazine, let alone devoured it for news of Princess Diana like the rest of us. Even as a law student at Trinity College Dublin, she had her own house in Westland Row, with her own maid, and she was known to open the hall door wearing ballgown gloves.

Mary was always ‘Catholic gentry’. Her parents were doctors in Ballina, Co Mayo, but there was a long line of successful public servants in her family, and the Bourkes were Anglo-Normans who could claim descent from Charlemagne.

Her sense of being privileged was established early, and like many an anguished Guardianista, it is the guilt about that privilege which drives her to embrace progressive causes, and care for the excluded — the ‘travelling people’ (we formerly called them tinkers) and the gays that she invited to the presidential mansion, though not, of course, at the same time.

Two of her aunts were nuns, and at 17 she thought of entering the convent herself. In some respects Mary is remarkably like a nun: serious-minded, ordered, conscientious, determined to do good, concerned about the world’s poor, especially in Africa and other missionary places, and confident in her own values. Although married (to Nick Robinson) with three children, and now four grand-children, she is as decorous as a nun about sex, and it is implied that she retained her virginity until she met her husband. Mary did everything right, just around the same time as I did everything wrong. She never did anything to excess: even living in Paris as a young woman, to enjoy the odd glass of wine counted as a daring experience.

Yet moral courage she has in abundance: she disdained to join our feminist stunt involving the ‘condom train’ travelling from Belfast to Dublin (though she gets the detail askew: it wasn’t ‘in defiance of the customs officers’, who were either pink with embarressment or winking in jovial compliance — it was in defiance of an antiquated 1935 law). But she fought through the courts to dismantle these archaic statutes, and took up the cause, too, of decriminalising homosexuality. She upset her parents — who were orthodox Catholics of their time — with her actions, and learned thereby that you must sometimes pay a price for a principle.

Her memoir is a straightforward recital of the events of her life, and towards the latter half seems a little preening about her unbroken record of successes spreading her Ethical Globalisation Initiative. But maybe that’s just me being bitter and twisted.

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