Mary McAleese: My daughter triggered the Paul McGrath chant at Mandela's visit

The origin of the famous ‘ooh aah’ salute to former Ireland soccer captain Paul McGrath being chanted for Nelson Mandela in Dublin in 1990 has been revealed by former president Mary McAleese.

It began with her youngest daughter, Sarah, who was then five years old.

The team’s triumphant return from Italia ’90 coincided with Mandela’s presence in Dublin, and while the McAleese children wanted to greet the team, their mother persuaded them instead to see Mandela, who was there to receive the Freedom of the City.

“It happened on the same day that the team came back from Italy,” Mrs McAleese recalled yesterday.

“My three small children were anxious to see the Ireland team come home but I persuaded them that the most historic thing they could do that day was to go and see Nelson Mandela.”

As Mrs McAleese explained to Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ radio, the children were not too happy with the decision, but she got her way. “When he came out onto the Mansion House podium Sarah started chanting: ‘Ooh, aah, Paul McGrath...’”

The crowd immediately began to take up the call — but adding a rider to the original — and, within seconds the whole area resounded with a chant of “Ooh aah, Paul McGrath’s Da”.

When as president years later she greeted Mandela in the formal surroundings of Áras an Uachtaráin, she told him the story.

“I told him that I took full responsibility and he laughed heartily.”

Looking back on Mandela’s life, Mrs McAleese said his legacy was that he showed that dialogue could trump violence even in the most extreme circumstances.

“He had been labelled a terrorist and spent too many years in prison but he came through that with a distilled serenity, believing that the way forward was through forgiveness and dialogue.”

Mr Mandela visited Ireland on three occasions, most recently for the Special Olympics which he officially opened in 2003.

The essence of the man who became known as the Father of South Africa was also recalled by Melanie Verwoerd, the country’s former ambassador to Ireland.

She was married to the grandson of Hendrik Verwoerd, the man regarded as the architect of apartheid, but joined the African National Congress shortly after Mandela’s release from jail.

“It was in 1990 and we were invited to a cocktail function and Madiba [Mandela] was going to be there,” she told Ray d’Arcy on Today fm.

“We wanted to apologise to him but Madiba said ‘don’t apologise’ and ‘just think that because of your background, what you can do — you can use it for the good or for the bad’. Then he sent regards to the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd and said he was happy she had reached a ripe old age. This blew me away.”

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