After 14 years in the job, President Mary McAleese yesterday bid farewell and the thought occurred that the normally punctual Uachtaráin wanted to slow time down to enjoy the moments and memories.
The President was due at the Depaul Back Lane Hostel for Homeless Men in Dublin’s Christchurch for her last official engagement at 10.45am, but the bells had peeled 11 times when her car pulled up outside.
On this sunny November morning, they were all out to greet her: children from sixth class at nearby St Audoen’s School on Cook St, faithfully gurning for the cameras; staff at the Depaul Centre, many of whom had met President McAleese during her earlier visits; a lone dissenting voice, in the shape of a man with a homemade placard which read ‘Farewell President of the Republic of Rent’, and the reporters, waiting to hear her words, wondering if she would shed a tear.
It seemed everyone was on best behaviour and in their best gear. Among them was Dubliner Frank Brady, a resident at the Depaul Centre, which now has 18 long-term supported accommodation places along with the centre’s short-term service for people down on their luck.
Having waved and joshed with the schoolkids outside on the way in, and then spoken in private to staff on the top floor, President McAleese entered the pink-hued chapel for the main event, the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the opening of the units.
Larry Twomey of the St Vincent De Paul announced her as the President of Ireland, people cheered and Frank looked nervous. The poem he was due to read fluttered in his hands, but when he delivered the words he was rock steady.
He read: “To boldly go where no one has gone before is the introduction to Star Trek. It took them light years to try and achieve their goal. It took only a mere 14 years for Mary and Martin McAleese to achieve their goals, with dignity and courage.”
Then a verse of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, and a homespun verse: “The thin line between genius and madness is the same between happiness and sadness. Opposites attract, at a stage there is no way back but time will heal all. Problems both great and small will disappear into the mist, come out of the fog and shout out loud, I’m not a member of the crowd, I am an individual.”
It was not the only tribute paid to the outgoing President, resplendent in vibrant box red, flanked by husband Martin. Larry Twomey paid tribute to the “outstanding service” the President had given in the 14 years in office, quoting TS Eliot’s line about going where there is no path and leaving a trail, while Kerry Anthony, head of Depaul Ireland, said President McAleese had been “an inspiration” during her years in office.
Another service user, a suited and booted man named Noel, presented the President with flowers, before she herself spoke, off-script and with the empathy which has been a hallmark of her terms in the Áras.
She said those at the shelter were “doing the work of love,” providing a place of refuge and hope that represented more than just bricks and mortar.
She recalled her own experience volunteering at an SVP centre in Belfast, when her family lost their home through sectarian violence in 1972 and when it was revealed that the man who is now her son-in-law was also an SVP volunteer.
Outside, reporters tried to press her buttons, see if tears could be drawn. They could not, but she said it was a close-run thing. “I’m just very proud of an Ireland where people care,” she said, “where people do such good work as we’ve seen here in the Back Lane Hostel.”
She said she would leave it to others to decide on her greatest achievement and that the past 14 years was “one of the greatest joys of my life.”
“I woke up every morning full of joy, I loved every day of the job, I literally loved every day of it, I was energised by it, by the people I met,” she said.
It was a sad day, she said, but one on which she had a sense of gratitude, gratitude and sadness, “pretty much in equal measure today”. “An bhfuil brón ort inniu?” she was asked. “Tá,” she replied. We found ourselves involuntarily mouthing the words ‘goodbye’, slán agus beannacht.
One of the sixth-class pupils from St Audoen’s shouted “we love you!” as the President got into her car, and she replied: “We love you too.” and with that she was away.
That plaque in the chapel will stay there for God knows how long. Memories of a President may well outlast it.