Mary Robinson, the first woman President of Ireland (1990-1997) and more former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002), has spent most of her life as a human rights advocate. Born Mary Bourke in Ballina, County Mayo (1944), the daughter of two physicians, she was educated at the University of Dublin (Trinity College), King's Inns Dublin and Harvard Law School to which she won a fellowship in 1967.
A committed European, she also served on the International Commission of Jurists, the Advisory Committee of Interights, and on expert European Community and Irish parliamentary committees. The recipient of numerous honours and awards throughout the world, Mary Robinson is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and the American Philosophical Society and, since 2002, has been Honorary President of Oxfam International. A founding member and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, she serves on many boards including the Vaccine Fund, and chairs the Irish Chamber Orchestra.
Currently based in New York, Mary Robinson is now leading Realizing Rights: the Ethical Globalization Initiative. Its mission is to put human rights standards at the heart of global governance and policy-making and to ensure that the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable are addressed on the global stage.
Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?
Mary Robinson: Well I grew up in the west of Ireland, which at the time was one of the poorest parts. My father and mother were both doctors, and I went out a lot with my father on his calls to very poor homes. I think that had a big influence on me. I saw poverty, and I saw how he as a doctor tried to really talk to people, listen to them, and be on their wavelength. I was wedged between four brothers, which is why I had this early interest in human rights. And I was influenced by my grandfather who was a lawyer who had to retire early because of ill health. And he didn’t know quite how to talk to a child of 10, 11, 12, so he treated me as an adult and talked about law and justice. And that had a big impact. I was aware of the different strands of history because some of my uncles had served on the British colonial service. And my father’s oldest brother was knighted by the Queen when I was quite young. My grandmother went over for that and there was quite a bit of excitement. But on the other side, I also knew about the rebel side that had fought for freedom. And in the school that I was in, it was a school which very much encouraged a sort of passionate sense of Irish history.
Recorded on: Jul 25 2007