Mary McAleese and her family were forced to leave their home in Ardoyne, north Belfast in the face of “The Troubles,” the sectarian violence of the 1970’s that plagued Northern Ireland.
She saw, first-hand, the pain of a divided nation; the tragedy and paralysis of progress that comes with a lack of understanding and tolerance and an unwillingness to compromise.
In 1997, she was elected the second female president of Ireland, the first to hail from Northern Ireland, in an election where, because of her British citizenship, she and 1.8 million of her countrymen were not allowed to vote. She served as President of the Irish Republic until 2011.
“When I got here (the U.S.), I was quite gratified to find out Ireland isn’t the only place people are sniping at each other,” McAleese told an audience Friday afternoon at St. Patrick’s Church, in a program presented by the Lowell Irish Cultural Committee and UMass Lowell. “Where there are people there are problems; and good people work to fix the problems.”
The theme of her Presidency was “Building Bridges,” and that she did.
“We simply need to learn to accept each other’s point of view,” she said, telling the story of St. Patrick, a slave in Ireland who did the unthinkable — loved his aggressor.
As President, McAleese celebrated both the Protestant Twelfth of July and the Catholic St. Patrick’s Day at her official residence. She brokered the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which made institutional changes within the government of Northern Ireland, as well as changes to the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the Republic and Great Britain in an effort to heal old wounds and work towards peace. In 2011, Dr. McAleese hosted Queen Elizabeth II, the first official state visit of a British monarch to the Republic of Ireland.
Mayor Patrick Murphy proclaimed Friday November 8 “Building Bridges Day” in the City of Lowell in honor of Dr. McAleese and presented her with the Key to the City.
Prior to the speaking program, McAleese, who is spending the semester at Boston College as the Burns Chair of Irish Studies and pursuing a doctorate in canon law at the Gregorian University of Rome, was taken on a tour of the Acre by St. Patrick’s Church historian Dave McKean.
In the spring of 1822, industrialist Kirk Boott realized he needed a work force to dig what would become the five miles of canals that would power the mills that built this city.
He contacted Charlestown labor leader Hugh Cummisky, an Irish immigrant from County Tyrone. The two men met in Lowell, and over a pint of ale, decided they could work together. Cummisky led hundreds of Irish laborers from Charlestown to Lowell on foot. They dug the canals using simple hand tools and gunpowder.
The Irish formed scattered settlements, some behind what is now City Hall, others just beyond the North Common and along the Western Canal. As the Irish population rose, so did the mayhem.
Boott was frustrated by the weekly territorial fights breaking out among the Irish immigrants. It is rumored that he asked his Irish maid, Mrs. Winters, how to calm the masses.
“Get a priest,” she is said to have responded.
Boott met with Boston Bishop Benedict Fenwick and in 1827 the Rev. John Mahoney arrived, saying the city’s first Catholic Mass, in Irish Gaelic, at the site of what is now the Lowell Adult Education Center on Merrimack Street.
Cummisky brought the Irish to the city. They formed a community around their church.
The first Mass was said at St. Patrick’s Church on July 3, 1831. At that time the church was a small wooden structure, too small for the population even before its doors opened.
The existing 13th century gothic-style stone structure was built around the wooden church, with the wooden building removed in pieces as the stone church was erected in 1854.
McAleese said after having spent two minutes in Lowell she felt a “great familiarity with the place.” It reminded her of Adoyne, the mill village where she grew up.
She recalled the sacrifices her parents made to guarantee she would not spend her life working in the mills.
“It was good work for many people, but also a trap for many people,” McAleese recalled. “To get their children out of the mills they would sacrifice anything and everything and they did.”
That experience mirrors that of Lowell’s Irish, who through hard work and education moved beyond factory work and into law, medicine, education and politics. They left the Acre, but not St. Patrick’s.
The church has embraced and been embraced by the immigrant groups that have called the Acre their first American home: the Cambodians, Burmese, Vietnamese, and those from Central America.
“People who have come here to the same place the Irish came are stronger and her have become family,” said McAleese.
“St. Patrick’s doesn’t leave you,” said Lowell Irish Cultural Committee Co-Chair Erin Caples. “It’s more than a neighborhood, it’s more than a building — it’s a family.”
“Today the bells toll for you,” Caples told McAleese. “Welcome to the family.”
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