Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Memoir less interesting than Irish president herself

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MARY Robinson, first female president of Ireland, United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights and recipient of the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, has spent her life in pursuit of a fairer world.

However, this often circumspect book will interest primarily those already familiar with her remarkable career. The publishers describe it as a memoir so presumably it is more personal, more impressionistic and less detailed than an autobiography.

Robinson describes her younger self as an introvert hiding her inner shyness. However, the mature self reflected here appears to apply a similar guardedness to her recollections of the many public figures who helped or hindered her career.

Or perhaps, as she continues to work, she is careful not to burn any bridges.

She is at her most interesting describing how, during a privileged early life that included private schools, a finishing school in Paris, and further education at Trinity College, Dublin and Harvard, she evolved from conservative Catholic beliefs to become a champion of human rights.

Everyone is born into a cage of ready-made beliefs. Some never escape. Robinson did.

Shaped by the tormented history of Irish Catholics, the Irish Republic in which she came of age was just a shade short of a theocracy.

Divorce, contraception, abortion and homosexuality were banned. No other European democracy had a more stultifying literary censorship. Robinson herself, as a Catholic, could attend Trinity College only with the permission of the archbishop of Dublin.

The teenage Robinson was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt's belief that human rights would prevail only if given meaning by ordinary individuals and also by the non-violent campaign of Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights for African-Americans.

In Paris, in 1961, she was exposed to feminism, existentialism and secularism. Eventually, she rejected the values she had taken for granted, rebelling against the subordination of women by her Church and the world at large.

At Harvard, she was inspired by the unexpected (by her) idealism of her American classmates who were eager to apply their legal training to support the civil rights movement and oppose the Vietnam War.

From then on, the cause of her life was demonstrating that human rights are indivisible. Everybody matters.

In 1971, as a member of the Irish Senate, she introduced a bill to legalize contraceptives. In a ferocious backlash, led by the Church, she was labelled "a curse upon our country." The bill failed.

Although a head of state similar to our governor-general, the Irish president is elected by popular vote and Robinson took advantage of this to act and speak often independently of the parliamentary government.

She used her "bully pulpit" to support Irish women, advance peace in Northern Ireland and visit Somalia and Rwanda to draw world attention to famine and genocide.

In 1997, she became United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Only too aware that her office per se had nothing tangible to offer victims of the world's inhumanity, she determined that she would visit, listen, bear witness and badger the comfortable into attention.

Depression, personal danger and vilification could not deter her commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights' assertion that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."

Trapped between idealism and politics, she angered China over Tibet, Russia over Chechnya, and the United States over Guantanamo, the Patriot Act and the controversial Durban anti-racism conference.

Unhappily, in this book the impact of her achievements is often smothered by an anodyne writing style more suited to a corporate annual report.

This is the rare example of a memoir being less interesting than the memoirist herself.

Irish-born Winnipegger John K. Collins remembers when Irish presidents were unmemorable.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2013 J7

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