Mary McAleese, in a new TV series, walks and talks with some of our finest sportspeople and campaigners, writes Ailin Quinlan
Former president Mary McAleese begins the new year in a reflective way, embarking on a series of spiritual journeys along a selection of Ireland’s ancient and most beautiful pilgrim trails with some of the country’s most interesting people.
And the nice thing is we all get to enjoy it with her.
McAleese’s companions on her hikes during the thought-provoking new RTÉ One series All Walks of Life include Galway hurler Joe Canning, author and actor Amy Huberman, and accountant Deborah Somorin, who lost her mother to suicide, became homeless at 13, and was a single mother by 15. Now Somorin works for PricewaterhouseCoopers and campaigns for housing and educational opportunities for lone parents.
It’s a simple idea for a TV series, but one, which, as McAleese points out with no small amount of satisfaction, truly works. “When you bring individual narratives and our beautiful landscape together, you get the pilgrim routes stretching back to when we were a pre-Christian, pagan people with Celtic goddesses and druids; a people of wonder and curiosity about nature and being.
Everywhere McAleese and her companions walked, she says, from the stunning Pás Mám Éan in Connemara to St Kevin’s Way in the Wicklow Mountains or Gleann Cholm Cille, Co Donegal, were walked before, “by tens of thousands of people over the millennia, and the local people refuse to let the stories of these pilgrim routes die away”.
All Walks of Life was a wonderful experience, she recalls. One of the attractions of these routes are the stories woven around them; why each area is associated with an ancient pilgrim route and the person that route is associated with. “Each trail is associated with a folk saint such as Brigid or Colmcille and we pull out each of the narratives as we go along.”
Along each journey, McAleese recalls, she and her companions met with local experts. “These are people who have invested their effort and their time and their life into making that route more accessible; they are people who have been custodians of the route and its story.
“In almost all of the instances, the pilgrim route goes back into the mists of pagan times.
There is a connectedness over time, and over generations. “What I find fascinating is that the story stays in the folk memory. It is handed down from generation to generation by the local people who have been the keepers of it all.”
The many thousands of Irish people who have walk the Camino del Santiago trail have resurrected a pride in Ireland’s own pilgrim ways and “a realisation that Ireland can beat any other country hands down when it comes to ancient pilgrimage routes and their narratives”, says McAleese.
“We’re not great at blowing our own trumpets — we value humility — but this series about our pilgrim walks gives us the chance to really relish what we have in our own country: Magnificent landscapes and the narratives attached to those landscapes, and the many people who have been involved in the handing down of those stories.
“As I walked along, I was thinking that ‘thank God I have the health and the energy to do this and to be able to share it with people who don’t’.
“And what I took away from it is that we are a people with the most remarkable narratives.
“There is such courage, colour, and drama in so many lives around us, and a long walk helps us to realise that.”
In the first episode of the series, on January 17, the former president climbs the spectacular Pás Mám Éan with Galway hurler Joe Canning.
As they walk, Canning tells McAleese about the lessons he’s learned from both winning and losing All-Ireland finals, describes the impact of nearly losing both his parents to cancer, and reveals how his role as a Unicef ambassador allowed him to witness the appalling devastation in Syria, during a trip to war-torn Aleppo.
“My sense of Joe was that he is a very deep young man with a sense of purpose,” says McAleese.
“He is a man of great resilience, courage, discipline skill, and talent, and the opportunity to chat to him as we walked through those magnificent mountains was very special.”
McAleese says she was struck by Canning’s “remarkable value system”, by his work for the charity sector, by the gratitude he has for his own life, and by the way he coped with the serious illnesses of his mum and dad.
“We know him from the days when he walked out on the pitch and performed like a magician, but now we see the young man who also had to deal with bad news and the young man who went to Syria in our name.
The following week McAleese rambles along the stunning Cosán na Naomh in Kerry with Dr Sindy Joyce who grew up on a halting site in Wales and is the first Traveller — or minceir, to use the term preferred by Joyce — to be awarded a PhD and appointed to the Council of State, battling and challenging discrimination all the way.
The ramble with Joyce, declares McAleese, was “pure magic”. “She is an absolutely magical young woman. She is the first Traveller in Ireland to be awarded a PhD, and with all her great gifts she decided that her studies for her PhD would be about her own people.
“One of the things I have learned from her is the word minceir which is her people’s word for the Travelling People. I never heard of this word; it’s not an Irish word, it’s from their own language, and wouldn’t we do well to use that word?”
On the January 31 episode, McAleese hikes part St Kevin’s Way with Huberman, who talks about the importance of her mixed Catholic-Jewish roots and her juggling act as she balances multiple careers with her more private roles as the wife of Irish sporting legend Brian O’Driscoll and the mother of two small children.
“She is definitely one of the easiest people on the planet to walk anywhere with,” says McAleese. “You could assume that her life has been glorious all the way from day one, until you ramble with her as I did.
“She talks about disappointments, about the days when things did not go so well. She talks about life’s disappointments with great depth, understanding, and humility. She takes nothing for granted and has great gratitude for what she has.”
McAleese travelled to Donegal to embark on a turas through Gleann Cholm Cille with Paul Alford, who was born with a mild intellectual disability and grew up in institutional care away from his family. In this episode, to be broadcast on February 7, Alford tells McAleese about his fight to work in the community, travel independently, and get a place he could finally call home.
He is “a total pet of a man, who would teach you about stereotyping, about a past when people made decisions about the lives of children with intellectual disability which enslaved them and made their lives small,” says McAleese.
“He challenges all of it — he has his own home, his own job, his own community and travels all over the world. He is one mighty warrior in life.
“Every conceivable spanner was thrown into the works of his life and he comes out of it so fantastic — he’s a laugh a minute.
Paul’s story, says McAleese, contains a message for everyone: “No matter what life throws at you, no matter what people tell you, you, as a human being, can make your own big decisions.”
Of Helen McEntee, with whom McAleese walks St Féchín’s Way in Westmeath, the former president has one word: “Distinguished.”
“To become a TD in the wake of her beloved father’s suicide — you have to stop and think where did she find the energy, the courage, and the sheer grit to face into an election for the first time, and walk in her father’s footsteps and then take on a ministry which pitched her right into the Brexit arena?”
In the final episode of the series, which airs on February 21, McAleese pairs up with accountant Deborah Somorin, the determined, inspirational single mother who became homeless as a child, to follow in the footsteps of another famously strong and single-minded woman, St Brigid, across a beautiful stretch of rural Louth, near Faughart.
Somorin spent several of her teenage years in care, became pregnant at 15, and was supported by her carers to continue her education through school and then college before applying to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Now a successful accountant at PwC, she is determined to use her position and voice to advocate for educational and housing opportunities for other single parents.
The astonishing thing about Somorin, says McAleese, is that despite all that’s happened to her, she’s not yet even 30 years of age. “Deborah’s story is inspirational,” she says, because after clawing her way back from that abyss of deprivation, hopelessness and despair, she then set up her own charity to try to help people like her who want to go to university and have a career.”
All Walks of Life begins on RTÉ One on Friday, January 17, at 8.30pm