Thursday, April 13, 2023

Presidents Robinson, Biden and the Ballina connection

The visit of President Joe Biden to Ireland has understandably brought great excitement, nowhere more so than Ballina, County Mayo, his ancestral home in the West. The town has not one, but two presidential claims to fame – it is also where Mary Robinson, President of Ireland from 1990-1997, was born and raised. The University of Galway, also on the West coast, is proud to house the Mary Robinson archive, and to have a strong link with Ballina through its partnership with the Mary Robinson Centre. Her recently restored and extended childhood home, beautifully situated on the River Moy, the Centre is due to open within a year and through this partnership plans to use her archive as a catalyst to inspire others to address the causes she has championed in her career.

This immensely rich archive consists of material relating to Mary Robinson’s work from 1967 to the present and includes material covering her time as a barrister, legislator, senator, professor, President of Ireland, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner of Human Rights, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and El Niño, Chair of the Elders, founder of Realizing Rights - The Ethical Globalization Initiative, and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation - Climate Justice.  

While that task of cataloguing the archive continues, it seems an opportune time to share a selection of items from the archive, some of which have a strong US connection.

Student to Senator

1981 Seanad election flyer

Mary Robinson is perhaps best known in Ireland for her role as its first female President (1990-97), but she was breaking records and making waves well before that. In 1967 she became the first female auditor of the Dublin University Law Society at Trinity College (TCD). During her maiden address she advocated removing the prohibition of divorce from the Irish Constitution, eliminating the ban on the use of contraceptives, and decriminalizing homosexuality and suicide. She was awarded a fellowship to attend Harvard Law School, receiving an LL.M [Master of Laws] in 1968. It was an incredible year which influenced her thinking and her character immensely - Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and American students were trying to avoid being drafted, were criticising the Vietnam war and many were becoming more radical. She left Dublin, in her own words “a shy girl”, and returned an "impatient one" – impatient to start changing the law.

At the age of 25, in 1969, she became Ireland’s youngest professor of law, when she was appointed Reid Professor of Constitutional and Criminal Law, at TCD. In the same year she was elected to Seanad Éireann [Ireland’s Senate] as an independent candidate and served as Senator for twenty years, during which time many of the issues she raised and campaigned to reform saw some success - contraception had been legalized, women could now serve on juries and the marriage bar on women in the civil service had been lifted.



In 1990, Mary became the first female President of Ireland, and the youngest president at that time. She is widely seen as having revolutionised the role of the Presidency, broadening its scope through her knowledge of constitutional law, developing new political, cultural, and economic links with other countries, reaching out to local communities at home and abroad, and using her platform to bring attention to the suffering of others such as her visit to Somalia in 1992.

Great Britain and Northern Ireland 

Her visit to Great Britain in 1993 where she met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace was historic and paved the way for a reciprocal visit hosted by Mary’s successor President McAleese. Equally her numerous visits to Northern Ireland where she reached out to communities on the ground, and politicians of all hues were hailed by people on all sides as vital in the search for Peace.

letter from US President Bill Clinton, in relation to Northern Ireland, 1995

U.S. Visit and the Irish Diaspora

Traditionally seen as the “Taoiseach’s turf” [Taoiseach, meaning "Chieftain" is the term used for the Irish Prime Minister], Robinson became the first Irish President to make an official State* visit to the United States of America while in office, following a public invite from President Bill Clinton, during one of his own visits to these shores. It followed on from her address to the Houses of the Oireachtas [Irish houses of parliament] in 1995 in which she spoke of “Cherishing the Irish Diaspora”. The address, which was positively received by Irish diaspora around the world, was entered into the official Congressional Report of the United States, by Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of Robert and a proud member of the Irish diaspora.

President Robinson's Address "Cherishing the Diaspora" is entered into U.S. Congressional Report by US Senator Edward Kennedy, February 1995

On the death of Rose Kennedy (née Fitzgerald), matriarch of the Kennedy clan and mother to Robert, Edward and another President, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, President Mary Robinson was one of many who sent condolences.

Senator Kennedy's response to condolences from President Robinson on the death of his mother, Kennedy matriarch Rose FitzGerald Kennedy, 10 February 1995

Ireland and the Choctaw Nation

Mary Robinson received many awards throughout her presidency but perhaps none more poignant than that of “Honorary Chief of the Choctaw Nation”. The relationship between Ireland and the Choctaw Nation began in 1847, when the Choctaws collected $170 to support the Irish during the Famine. The gift was significant, considering the Choctaw people had recently been forced to walk the Trail of Tears between 1831 and 1833. Irish President Mary Robinson visited the Choctaw Nation in 1995 to rekindle and re-establish the friendship and thank Choctaws for their aid. In 2020, the Irish people once again honoured that gift, giving back to Native American tribes hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, in memory of the Choctaw Nation’s act of generosity.

Robinson was an exceptionally popular president, and halfway through her term of office her popularity rating had reached an unprecedented 93%. She resigned from the presidency a few weeks shy of the end of one term to take up the role of UN High Commissioner of Human Rights and served until 2002. A tireless advocate for justice, she was president of Realizing Rights – the Ethical Globalization Initiative from 2002 to 2010.

The Elders

"The Elders with founder and Honorary Elder Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, May 2010. L-R: Graça Machel, Fernando H Cardoso,  Desmond Tutu (Chair), Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson, Kofi Annan, Gro Brundtland, Martty Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Nelson Mandela (seated)"

Along with Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and another former US President Jimmy Carter, Robinson was a founding member of "The Elders", a group of world leaders with a goal of contributing their wisdom to tackle some of the world's toughest problems. In 2010 she founded and was chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice from 2010 until 2019 and continues to push to ensure the most vulnerable communities in the world do not disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change.

Planet Pals

letter from 10 year old Alicia Premkumar, 2013

Some of the nicest items in the archive are letters and drawings from children which, it might surprise some, are carefully kept. In 2013 Mary received a letter from ten-year-old Alicia Premkumar, a pupil of Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál in Carlow, detailing how she had inspired Alicia to set up “Planet Pals” for which she subsequently won “Young Environmentalist of the Year” in the Super Junior Category. Many thanks to Alicia, now a student of Physiotherapy at the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, for allowing her letter and photograph to be reproduced. Her fellow planet pals were Meadhbh Broderick, Caragh O’Toole (not pictured) and Daniela Besleaga.


Ticket stub, 1968

Apart from the Ballina link, another Irish love connects both President Biden, and President Robinson – a love of Irish Arts, in particular poetry. The archive contains personal correspondence between Mary and several poets she considered friends including Séamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Brendan Kennelly, and her friend from TCD, Eavan Boland. A lovely image springs to mind when looking at the ticket stub from 1968 of Mary listening to her friend Eavan, talking about fellow Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, while in the beautiful surroundings of another Western county, County Sligo.

Medal of Freedom

Medal of Freedom awarded to President Robinson by President Barack Obama in 2009

In July 2009, Mary was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States. Coincidentally, it was also awarded to fellow Elder Archbishop Tutu the same year, and to President Biden in 2017, while he was serving as Vice-President. On presenting her with the award, U.S. President Barack Obama said, 

"As a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland, Mary Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland…Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering but illuminated a better future for our world."

* President Seán T. O'Kelly was invited to the United States of America by President Eisenhower in 1959 and addressed the Joint Meeting of Congress, 18/03/1959. President de Valera attended President John F. Kennedy's funeral in 1963, and made an official visit in 1964 during which he also addressed Congress. President Robinson herself met President Clinton on a private visit in 1993, as did her successor President McAleese in 1998.

President Robinson's 1996 visit was the only official State visit, however. State visits to the United States are formal visits by the head of state from one country to the United States, during which the president of the United States acts as official host of the visitor. State visits are considered to be the highest expression of friendly bilateral relations between the United States and a foreign state and are, in general, characterised by an emphasis on official public ceremonies. State visits can only occur on the invitation of the president of the United States, acting in his capacity as head of the United States. (Official visits, in contrast, can also only occur on the invitation of the president of the United States, though are offered in the president's capacity as chief of the federal government of the United States.)

For further information on the work being carried out to process, preserve and catalogue the Mary Robinson Archive, check out this blog.

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