MOUNT ANVILLE ALUMNI

Samantha Power, interviewed by me for RTÉ News March 2008

Samantha Power, interviewed by me for RTÉ News March 2008

The appointment by President Obama of human rights adviser Samantha Power to the post of US ambassador at the United Nations was greeted with particular interest at Mount Anville girls’ school in Goatstown in South Dublin. It means that three past pupils educated there by the Sacred Heart nuns now hold some of the most important positions in the world. It is also the Alma Mater of the former Irish President Mary Robinson, now UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes in central Africa,  and of the Secretary General of the European Commission, Catherine Day, who was a near neighbour of ours in Mount Merrion when I moved back to Dublin in 1967.

I was already familiar with Mount Anville from the 1960s as my aunt is a member of the Sacred Heart congregation (RSCJ) and entered the religious life there. She taught for a while in the Montessori school, where she ran soccer games for the children, as my former secondary school class colleague Peter Mathews TD once recalled! Over the years we have been privileged to celebrate a number of important family occasions with the community there. Now as in many towns and cities in Ireland, the nuns no longer occupy the convent, but tomorrow (June 7th) on the feast of the Sacred Heart, they will be gathering for Mass at the original convent building, once the home of engineer William Dargan. The school has a classical-style chapel, designed by EW Pugin and GC Ashlin in 1866. I understand they are hoping to open a heritage centre later this year, in which the history of the convent and the associated schools will be displayed.

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

One of the highlights of the calendar last year was the visit by President Robinson to deliver the Barat lecture, named after the founder (1826) of the Society of the Sacred Heart, St Madeleine Sophie.  In her speech Mary Robinson spoke warmly and movingly about the main points of her career as a lawyer, Senator, President of Ireland (her greatest honour she said), UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and lately, her work for climate justice.  She also participated in a questions and answers session with the secondary school students.  She spoke about her time spent as a boarder in Mount Anville in the late 1950s (Mary Bourke from Ballina in County Mayo). She recalled reading in the school library about Eleanor Roosevelt, someone she said who had inspired her in her formative years. In March, she was in Belfast for a memorial service to celebrate the life of the former trade unionist and human rights activist, the late Inez McCormack.

Catherine Day

Catherine Day

Catherine Day was profiled recently in the Village magazine. She was appointed Secretary General of the European Commission in Brussels in 2005.  Born in Dublin in 1954, she was brought up in Mount Merrion and educated at Mount Anville. She has a BA in economics and an MA in International Trade and Economic Integration from University College Dublin. I remember her interest in the “Yes to Europe” campaign which we ran as students (Young European Federalists) in the 1972 referendum on Ireland’s entry to the EEC, as it was then known.  She joined the European Commission in 1979 and the cabinet of Ireland’s Richard Burke in 1982 at the age of 28, staying for a term with his Irish successor, Peter Sutherland, competition commissioner. She then transferred to the cabinet of the UK’s Leon Brittan for two terms. She returned to work for him in 1996 as director for relations with third-world countries. She became deputy director in Chris Patten’s external relations where she was deeply involved with the enlargement of the Union from 15 countries to today’s 27. Before her appointment as head civil servant she was in charge of the Environment Directorate-General.

Samantha Power (Photo: broadsheet.ie)

Samantha Power (Photo: broadsheet.ie)

Samantha Power was interviewed by Donal Lynch for the Irish Independent during a visit to Galway in April 2008 shortly after she had made a “blooper” about Hillary Clinton (I was able to get Samantha’s response during an earlier visit to Belfast). She explained how her parents had lived in Ballsbridge in Dublin. Her father, from Athlone, was a dentist and her Cork-born mother was training to be a doctor. She attended the Montessoro school at Mount Anville.  Her parents’ marriage was floundering and her mother went for further study to America, taking Samantha then aged nine and her five-year-old brother with her.

“I can clearly remember my first day of American public school in Pittsburgh. I had to wear my Mount Anville school uniform in front of all those kids because my mom didn’t have any money for new clothes. It was totally humiliating for life. The shirt, black leather shoes and pleated skirt. Years of therapy later I’m still not over it”, she laughs. “If you really want to know how I got interested in war zones you’d have to go back to that first day of school in the Mount Anville uniform.”

Those remarks were picked up by a blogger “Irish Media” in an article on “Samantha Power and Sacred Heart nuns – Magan’s World, Sept 2008”. She recalled that:-

my very best friend between the ages of four to eight in Mount Anville, Montessori School, at the Sacred Heart convent in Dublin had been called Samantha Power. We had spent every free moment together, gossiping and playing make-believe in our special den under a bush beside the tennis courts“.

So confirmation of her association with the nuns.

In 2007 the nuns handed over control to the laity and the schools now come under the aegis of the Sacred Heart Education Trust. The boarding school which my sister attended for a while on our return from London closed in 1981. Other famous past pupils include former Fine Gael Education Minister and TD Gemma Hussey, consultant geriatrician and former IMO President Dr Christine O’Malley, Sheila Humphreys of Cumann na mBan, an activist during the war of independence, the late television documentary maker Mary Raftery, the actress and model Alison Doody and the social entrepreneur Caroline Casey of Kanchi (formerly the Aisling Foundation), to name but a few!

THE LIFE OF INEZ

Inez McCormack celebration

Inez McCormack celebration

This was a special afternoon in South Belfast. The President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins along with one of his predecessors Mary Robinson joined trade unionists, community and human rights activists to say thanks for the life of a good friend. Few people could have imagined such a gathering anywhere in Northern Ireland 25 years ago or more during the troubles.

Mary Robinson

Mary Robinson

Some of Mary Robinson’s visits to Belfast in the past were very controversial, especially the one in 1993 when she shook hands with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. The person who worked behind the scenes to organise the meeting was Inez McCormack, who died in January aged 69. It was a mark of the woman and her achievements over 69 years of life that such a group assembled at the Elmwood Hall.

In 2006 Inez had founded “Participation and the Practice of Rights”, a group to put human rights at the service of the most disadvantaged members of society. So it was PPR who organised this celebration of the life and work of Inez, reflecting the various stages of her work from the days of her involvement in the civil rights campaign, her trade union activity in particular her concern for the low-paid and in latter years, her dedicated work as a human rights activist.

The theme of the two and a half hour event was “Out of the Ballrooms: peace, participation and equality”. Compered skilfully by the writer Susan McKay, it opened with the launch of the Inez McCormack Fund, set up to support the continuation of her work and to build on her unique legacy.

Vinny McCormack

Vinny McCormack

Her husband Vinny McCormack from Derry said the number and variety of causes Inez gave herself to were remarkable. Irrespective of whether the issue involved an individual, a family or prorecting an institution like the NHS, she gave herself to it body and soul. She reached across all barriers in search of common ground, based upon equality and justice. Vinny’s note in the programme for the event singled out a number of characteristics of Inez:-

Friendship was her forte; laughter her default; generosity and loyalty were her nature; belief in the best of human nature the ground she stood on“.

President Higgins said he had thought about Inez when he and his wife Sabina had hosted a reception earlier this month at Áras an Uachtaráin to mark International Women’s Day. He told the guests on that occasion that Inez was a passionate and committed human rights activist who fought relentlessly for the creation of a fairer society for workers, for minorities and for women. In her pursuit of a better and more equal world she was never afraid to push against the boundaries of injustice and intolerance, he said.

At the Belfast commemoration he again paid tribute to her dedication and courage. He said: “Her ability to constantly question the status quo demonstrated not only the strength of mind which was such an integral part of Inez’ personality but also the emancipatory thinking that marks out the true progressive; the person prepared to challenge false inevitabilities and question the taken for granted assumptions of the world we inhabit and the future we wish to craft together.” He added: “It takes great courage and moral strength to stand up to the perceived norms within society and to question the bureaucratic controls that can so often stifle progress. It takes enormous determination and persistence to constantly challenge the rigid mindsets that obstruct creative thinking and to refuse to give in to the easier alternative of remaining silent.”

Vinny McCormack, President Higgins & Sabina Higgins

Vinny McCormack, President Higgins & Sabina Higgins

 Mary Robinson who said she wore a red jacket in memory of Inez described her as a remarkable and an extraordinary organiser. “Inez was many things to many people, and to me her defining characteristic was her innate sense and belief in the dignity and value of every human being,” she said. “She always challenged what was wrong and worked to secure the rights of people; on many occasions this was without any public recognition as Inez was a very private person.”

The guests were shown a short video by the group “Right to work: right to welfare” which has been holding workshops on the jobs and benefits issues in association with PPR and the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, where it will launch a report and an art exhibition based on the experiences of unemployed people at the DHSS office in Great Patrick Street on Monday (25th) at 12 noon.

Barra McGrory QC, DPP, reads a Yeats poem

Barra McGrory QC, DPP, reads a Yeats poem