Irish president to speak at graduation

Melissa Weigel

Dr. Mary McAleese, Uachtarán na hÉireann (president of Ireland), will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Commencement Exercises on May 22. The president will also receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws at that time.

In a letter addressed to University parents, president of the University Rev. Edmund Dobbin, O.S.A., said, “She has demonstrated a long-standing interest in issues concerning justice, equality, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism and reconciliation – all things eminently consistent with the Villanova Augustinian mission.”

“She’s a highly regarded world leader,” Joe Breslin, SGA president and member of the commencement speaker committee, said. “We look for someone who matches the prestige of the University, but also someone who can connect to the students, parents and faculty, and she fits both of these.”

McAleese’s theme for her election campaign was “Building Bridges,” an idea she has taken seriously, traveling extensively throughout Ireland and the world working to build connections, including with the nearly 34.3 million people in the United States of Irish heritage.

“This relates to the universalism of the University, reaching out around the world,” Dobbin said.

The University has numerous connections to Ireland, including the founding of the University in 1842 by Irish Augustinians.

The University’s Irish studies program is also highly regarded. The Heimhold Chair of the Irish studies program is one of the most prestigious positions in the United States; it invites prominent Irish writers to teach at the University for a semester.

Poet Michael Coady holds the title now; previous chairs include Eamon Grennan, Marina Carr and Seamus Heany.

Falvey Library also has a collection of Irish-related texts, including several rare pieces.

Each year, many University students participate in the study abroad program in affiliation with NUI Galway as well as the annual Habitat for Humanity trip to Belfast.

Villanova is also a well-known name in Ireland; several University alumni have had famous careers there. Ron Delany won a gold medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and Sonia O’Sullivan won a silver medal in Sydney in 2000.

McAleese was elected Ireland’s eighth president on Nov. 11, 1997. She won a second seven-year term in 2004 after facing no opposition.

The president of Ireland is mostly a ceremonial title; she approves the prime minister and other appointments on the advice and endorsement of the Parliament. She is also the supreme commander of Ireland’s defense forces.

A committee made up of the University vice-presidents, faculty representatives from each college and the student government president considers and approves candidates for speakers.

This year, about 20 candidates were considered, after receiving recommendations from students, staff and faculty members.

“We look for someone who in some important way is consistent with the ideals of the University,” Dobbin said. “Someone who can give an inspiring message to the students and be a role model.”

Dr. Jim Murphy, director of the Irish studies program, originally nominated McAleese as a possible candidate.

A native of Belfast, she is the first president to be elected from Northern Ireland, where she grew up during the violent times of the 1960s when aggression between Protestants and Catholics was fierce.

She was born in 1951 and is the oldest of nine children.

McAleese graduated with a degree in law from Queen’s University of Belfast in 1973 and was later appointed Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College in Dublin, where she received her master’s degree.

She returned to Queen’s University as the Director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies in 1987. She also worked as a current affairs journalist for RTÉ, Irish National Television.

She is the first foreign head of state to speak at the University’s commencement exercises. Previously, two U.S. presidents have addressed the graduating students: Grover Cleveland in 1902 and William Howard Taft in 1910, who spoke while in office.

Other recent speakers include Elizabeth Dole, James Earl Jones and Tom Clancy. Last year, Carroll Spinney, most famous for his role as puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, spoke.

Four other honorary degrees will be awarded at the commencement ceremony. James A. Drobile, Esq. (class of ’49), Dr. Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., Sister Angela Murdaugh and Gen. Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Ret.) will be honored for their accomplishments in their respective fields.