Robinson, Mary

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Robinson, Mary

First female president of Ireland, long-time human-rights campaigner, and United Nations (UN) Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson (née Bourke) was born in Ballina, Co. Mayo, in 1944. Mary attended a private primary school, and her secondary education was gained at the Sacred Heart Convent at Mount Anville in Dublin. She also attended a finishing school in Paris. At Trinity College, Dublin, she studied law and won a postgraduate fellowship to Harvard in 1967. After practicing for a year as a barrister, she was appointed Reid Professor of Law at Trinity College in 1969. In the same year she was elected a senator on the Trinity College panel, and in the following year introduced a bill to repeal the laws banning the importation and sale of contraceptives. This was to be the first of three unsuccessful private member's bills that she introduced on this subject. In 1975 she acted for Mairin de Burca and Mary Anderson when they successfully took the state to the Supreme Court for its exclusion of women from jury duty. She campaigned on a broad spectrum of human-rights and feminist issues—against internment in Northern Ireland, against the Emergency Powers Act in the Republic, and for greater support for unmarried mothers who wanted to keep their children. In 1979 she took a successful case against the Irish government to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for its failure to provide free legal aid in a family-law matter. She also worked to abolish the status of illegitimacy and campaigned against the 1983 antiabortion amendment to the constitution. In 1986 she defended freedom of information about abortion. She was involved in the campaign to preserve Viking Dublin, served on the Dublin Vocational Education Committee, and participated in the Divorce Action Group, founded in 1980.

In 1976 she joined the Labour Party and stood unsuccessfully for election to the Dáil in 1977 and 1981, but she regained her senate seat on both occasions. In 1985 she resigned from the Labour Party in protest over its support for the Hillsborough Anglo-Irish Agreement, yet in 1990 the party adopted her as its candidate for the presidency. In November 1990 she was elected the first female president of Ireland. She made the first working visit of an Irish president to Belfast in 1992 and traveled to other trouble spots all over the globe. In 1997 she announced that she would not be seeking a second term as president, and was appointed UN Commissioner for Human Rights, a position that she held until 2002.

She married Nicholas Robinson in 1970, and they have three children—Tessa (born in 1972), William (1974), and Aubrey (1981).

SEE ALSO Equal Economic Rights for Women in Independent Ireland; Politics: Independent Ireland since 1922; Presidency; Women's Parliamentary Representation since 1922; Primary Documents: On the Family Planning Bill (20 February 1974)


Bourke, Helen, and Olivia O'Leary. Mary Robinson: The Authorised Biography. 1998.

Horgan, John. Mary Robinson. 1997.

Caitriona Clear

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Robinson, Mary

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