In a new podcast series called ‘Human Nature’, available to listen to on, journalist Rodney Edwards speaks to some of the best known people across Ireland north and south about life, love, emotion, grief and hears stories of struggle and accomplishment.

This week: Mary Lou McDonald, a wife, a mother, a daughter and President of Sinn Fein

RE: Your father Patrick was a builder, your mother Joan was a homemaker, and you grew up with your siblings Patrick, Bernard and Joanne. And you’ve said in the past that your childhood was very good, what made it so good?

MLMcD: It just, I suppose you know, at the time you just as children you just live your life, and you I suppose take a lot of things for granted. I mean, I know now that we had we had great stability in our lives, we got a great education and we weren’t privileged or wealthy or rich or any of that, but we were very privileged to the extent that my mother ensured that we were all very very well educated and I think that is that has stood to each of us in our own way. We spent every holiday down with my grandmother in Tipperary in South Tipp, and that was pure heaven like. We’d finish school and then we’d head down and we wouldn’t come back until September, and we used to cry coming back and we loved it so much just to be… for city children, to be out in the country air at the foot of the Galaxy Mountains. My mother’s people are dairy farmers, so to be you know, to all of that, going to the creamery, the craic with our cousins, and just the simple… it’s nothing spectacular, I think it was the very simplicity of it that was just brilliant. So, to this day I still bring my own kids down to Tipp, I still have lots of family there, and can’t get to bring them often enough.

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RE: What was your relationship like with your parents?

MLMcD: Pretty good, my parents actually separated when I was quite young, so that was different at the time. At the time it nearly a stigma thing you know, they’d regard families like that as like broken families, it’s just a horrible way to describe anybody’s family you know, but that happened. I mean, but pretty good, all round we’re still all of us pretty tight and fairly close-knit. I mean, you have your ups and downs like any family, but then and now I think our relationships are strong and very important, and I think in times like this you realise that at the end of the day, it’s those close bonds and relationships that really really matter. Like I haven’t seen my mam physically in nine weeks.

RE: Do you miss her?

MLMcD:  Aww, desperately yeah. I mean we talk a lot, but I just miss just the thing of, I cannot wait for just the day where we can sit down and just drink tea and talk about nothing in particular, or that I can take her out shopping or we can go for a drive or, do you know what I mean. And she’s in great health thank God like, we’re very very lucky, and she’s very independent and all of that, but still it’s hard for all of us sort of when that kind of distance is enforced and the only safe thing to do with your parents or your grandparents is actually to stay at a distance, I think it’s a big ask of people. 

RE: Your parents separated when you were nine years old, and a separation like that can be tough on a child. What effect, if any, did it have on you?

MLMcD:  It is undoubtedly a difficult thing for the family, for the couple concerned and also for children, but you know what children, well certainly I can’t generalise only speak for myself, I was pretty resilient. So, for me the main thing so long as you had a stable, a safe, a loving environment you know, you got on with it. I got on with it and I had my friends who I loved, and things that interested me, and I loved my books and I loved my school, and I just kind of got on with it. But what I now know raising my own family, is that you know, society has changed beyond recognition, because now when my own kids go to school and in their peer group amongst their pals there’s all sorts of family forms, and there’s no remark paid on it. But in my day like when I was a child, it was absolutely taboo, you didn’t advertise the fact that your parents had separated, it was considered some mark of failure in the minds of some, and do you know what, it’s a great credit to us as a society that we’ve moved beyond that. I think that’s a great thing, we should recognise ourselves, you know the progress that that is.

RE: Did your parents tell you that they loved you when you were growing up?

MLMcD:  Yes, all the time. Yep, all the time, and I replicate that with my own, my kids say “yes, we know, you love us, we know”, but I prefer it that way than them not hearing it, I think you’re better to overdo it. Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rules and regulations, I love you doesn’t mean you get to do whatever you want to do and behave badly. But yeah, I’m a great believer in that, I think it’s really really important that people affirm each other, and certainly raising kids, that’s been my approach.

RE: Well, let’s talk about love, family, and friends now, something we all have in common. Do you remember your first kiss? 

MLMcD:  Yes.

RE: Tell me more.

MLMcD:  [Laughter] That’s it, yes. Yes, I do vividly. 

RE: Where was it? 

MLMcD: I’m not telling you Rodney. You don’t ask the Oireachtas of Sinn Féin such an invasive question. Yeah, I was at a disco, we used to go to the disco’s when we were kids, in our local rugby clubs. They were absolutely great, everyone went there, like again very very innocent times. I hear sometimes you know, the kind of sensationalism about what kids get up to now, but I remember when I was a kid there used to be sensationalism about what kids were getting up to then, and I mean jeepers, there may have been a minority at that kind of fact but, certainly not me.

RE: What type of music were you were boogying to back then?

MLMcD: Well it was you know, into the 80’s, into the 90’s, a lot of disco, like Frankie Goes to Hollywood was a biggie you know. There was just so many, I have now you know, Greatest Hits from the 1980’s and I’d put it on and it’s like you know, Kylie, Free Nelson Mandela used to be the… you’d finish up the night on that and then maybe the national anthem, although that was you know, the take it or leave it, but we all… every child in South County Dublin had got to know who Nelson Mandela was because they attended the disco’s at their local clubs, whether it was the GA Club or in my case the rugby club.

RE: So, when you listen to Frankie Goes to Hollywood now, you think of your first kiss do you?

MLMcD: Well, I’m not [laughter] I haven’t heard Frankie Goes to Hollywood in ages, actually I must put it on, bring back all the old memories.

RE: So, you married Martin Lanigan, where did you meet him?

I met Martin in a pub in the centre of Dublin, called Peter’s Pub. It’s a tiny wee pub, and actually it was at the time of the Italia 90, and there was a match on. I can’t remember who we were playing, we were paying someone and I came across him in a state of high dudgeon shouting at the referee, you know this “referee”, you know what I mean. So, actually I said jeepers, that guy’s going to actually do himself physical damage screaming like that at the telly. So, we met through mutual friends and best friends of mine and of his, and we met, and we just clicked immediately, and actually at the end of this month we will be 24 years married. 

RE: Was it love at first sight?

MLMcD: I wouldn’t say it was that, but it certainly was great laughs at first meeting, good craic, real connection. But it wasn’t that, you know the way I have this note of love at first sight kind of like dazzling, stars and bells and it wasn’t that. But I met him, I liked him from the very very off, he was very different to lots of the lads I would’ve grown up with, he was from the North side, he was a bit older. So, it just worked, we just work together.

RE: What does it mean to allow another person to truly love you?

MLMcD: I suppose you have to let them, don’t you. You have to bring down all of your barriers. You have to value yourself as well, like if you’re uneasy in your own skin, or if you’re struggling a lot you can just make it very hard for people around you to kind of get access to you, in any kind of close way. So, that’s a very deep question. I think you have to be yourself; you have to be your authentic self. And it’s funny, you know this when you live with someone and then certainly when you have a family together, something about the arrival of children on the scene that all nicety or pretence is out the window, because you’ve got a job to do, and it just all becomes very familiar. And maybe, I mean, I know some people have told me that that can be a problem, I actually like that level of familiarity. I like routine and I like safe in my domestic life.

RE: What was your earliest memory of loss?

MLMcD: Well I suppose two, I think when my parents separated, we talked about that. I think that was a sense of loss, there wasn’t a bereavement, but it changes your family. And then my grandmother died just the year after I got married, Molly was her name. She and I were very close, she was a big influence on my life. That was a huge loss, and I remember actually on the day that she died, I had heard that she was, you know struggling, and I made my way down to Tipp, and I just missed her by probably about 40 minutes or so. I was devastated like, not that it would have made any difference, I mean she was going, she was dying, but I felt for a long time that I should have got there quicker.

RE: Did not having that moment with her have any impact on you?

MLMcD: Well, I mean, I was distraught. She was the typical kind of matriarchal figure, great craic, huge influence on me and my ideas even without me realising, she was a [?? 27:40] woman. She’s the kind of woman where you remember they barred smoking on trains, but she’d get the train up from Limerick Junction to Dublin, I’d go in and collect her and she’d tell me “I smoked my fag and I left the packet there, just to let them know”. So, I’d say, “well okay”, she was at a stage I wasn’t going to argue with her, but she thought it was a pure effrontery of some buck to tell her she couldn’t smoke her cigarettes. But anyway, she was a great woman. So yeah, I was upset, I mean, it didn’t scar me indefinitely, but it was just one of those moments. Loss is hard you know, as people know, but again I’ve been very very lucky, I didn’t have a big trauma of loss in the way that so many have, not least Rodney up your neck of the woods in the North of Ireland, in really traumatic ways right across the community. So, I count myself as beyond lucky on that score.

RE: How often do you think about your friend Martin McGuinness? 

MLMcD: Regularly, actually. When I came into position, when I became the leader of the party and when Michelle was insitu, I’d think from time to time and I’d say to her, but you know, you miss Martin’s view, just his view and his wisdom, and his perspective on things. So, yeah, we miss him a lot. But yeah, I mean he was a one-off, just an incredible person, and a big influence on all of us, because Martin was so ultimately not just personable and friendly and warm, he was all of those things, but he really really understood people. As a political leader, he was actually hugely driven not just by intellect, but by feeling and by emotions, he was a great man to make connections with people. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody better, you know at that piece of kind of dealing with people and dealing with people sometimes in really difficult or sometimes really controversial situations. So, yeah, I miss him, miss him a lot.

RE: Did you get a chance to say goodbye to him before he died?

I did, although I didn’t realise I was saying goodbye to him Rodney. I went to visit him it might have been 10 days before he died. He was there, and I got the chance to sit down and spend a bit of time with him and I knew he was weak, I knew he wasn’t well. I never dreamed for a second that he was going to die, I just assumed that he was going to bounce back, I mean he was Martin, as far as I was concerned Martin could really walk on water. I mean he just had incredible stamina and strength. So, I remember my last conversation with him, I said the thing that Irish people always say, “so is there anything I can do?”, even in circumstances where I’m clearly not a doctor or a medic, or a miracle worker, but he actually said to me, “there is actually”, and I said “what’s that Martin?”, and he said “you can go out and win”, and I said “okay”. 

And it was emotional, he was emotional, it was just he was very sick, and I only know now how sick he was, but that was my last conversation with Martin. So, I still thought he was going to get better, that’s the honest to God. And so, then when he did die, it was almost like a bolt out of the blue, even though he had been sick.

RE: Where did you get the news?

MLMcD: I was at home in my bed asleep, and Gerry rang me, and I knew when he came up on the phone, I said to myself this isn’t good. So, Gerry had been with him as you know, and so yeah, that’s how I heard. That was it, it was a sitting day of the Dáil, so we went in and obviously apart from him being a loss to his friends and to his family, he was obviously a huge public figure, so it was the news story for the day. So, we had to kind of manage all of that, but it gave me just a small glimpse for people who lose somebody who is a public figure, a very high-profile figure, or who lose their loved ones in very high-profile circumstances, just how difficult it has to be to deal with that. Like I was amazed at just the absolute calm and dignity of Bernie, and Martin’s family throughout that whole period, that was just incredibly tough.

RE: When you finished that call with Gerry Adams and you put the phone down, what did you do next?

MLMcD: I cried.

RE: What do you think stands between you and happiness? 

MLMcD: I’d regard myself as fairly happy. I’ve learned actually over the last couple of weeks the value of just slowing things down, like I go at a mile a minute because that’s the life that I’ve chosen. I love my work, I love what I do, but you can get very caught up, you have to in fact get very caught up in what you’re doing. So, I think sometimes I find myself distracted or running so fast that you can’t stop and enjoy the moment, you know just those small things, but they’re the small things that make up your life. So, enjoying my back garden, I’m an awful gardener, but my husband’s brilliant, so we have a nice back garden. Really taking time with the kids to actually sit and listen, listen properly. 

RE: What lessons have you learned in life the hard way?

MLMcD: God, so many. I think any of the big lessons that I’ve learnt I probably have learnt through adversity and the hard way, rather than the other way around. So, let me see, I’ve learnt humility through hard circumstances. I’ve learnt forbearance and resilience through tough times in my life, in my professional, my political life, as well as my personal life. And then the joyful things I think I’ve learned through the big joyful moments, which have been many, and which have far outweighed adversity. But yeah, it’s important to learn never to get ahead of yourself, not to be taking things for granted, not to take people for granted, and maybe the biggest lesson that I’ve learned consistently is that if you start something you finish it, and that you carry on even if things are difficult. Nobody said that this gig was going to be easy.

RE: Looking back, is there anything that you regret, anything that you wanted to say to somebody that you didn’t get to say?

MLMcD: Oh, yeah. I mean, where would you start. I mean every argument that I’ve ever had, which most of which have proved totally unnecessary and you know, absolutely… I mean there’s a million things that you’d wish you had 10 seconds to kind of unsay or say better. Yeah, I mean my interactions with people are full of that, but I like to think that I’m reasonable enough to say if I’m wrong or if I misspoke, or if I push things too far, that I would say that to a person, not just to apologise for it but to say what I really meant. I mean what life isn’t full of that, but you know what, you could spend forever, I could do an audit of my life and I could give you millions of things that I said that I wish I hadn’t, or I’d said differently. But you can’t live like that either, you can just say “right, well the next time I speak to that person, I’m going to try it a different way, or I’m going to say something different”. 

RE: How often do you let your fears hold you back?

MLMcD: Yeah, I suppose I’ve done that.

RE: And what do you fear?

MLMcD: I have to be honest with you Rodney, I’m not really a person who’s filled with fear. I’ll worry, you know I worry about my children and I worry about you know, but I’m not generally riddled with… I’m quite a decisive person. Sometimes actually the challenge for me isn’t to overcome fear or you know, overcome caution, sometimes it’s just for me to take a deep breath, take 10 steps back, you know. So, no, I mean the thing I would worry most about like any parent is I worry about my kids, I worry that their happy, I worry that you know, that they’ll have a good life, you know those things mainly I guess.

RE: Do you think humanity exists or are we born selfish?

No, not at all, we’re born with all of the range of compassion and grace and good nature, you know imaginable, and were selfish. Like that’s just, isn’t that the great paradox of it, the struggle for any person is to kind of let the light shine and keep the shadow to a minimum. Isn’t that the great… I’ve yet to meet a person who is all bad, and I’ve yet to meet a person who is all good, and that’s what makes us infinitely fascinating. I believe fundamentally in the goodness of human beings and of human nature, and I think the evidence of that is everywhere to be seen. Does that mean that we’re not selfish, no it doesn’t, but it means that we’re good.

RE: Tell me something you like about Arlene Foster.

MLMcD: I like the fact that she stands up for herself, I actually like that. I find Arlene a really really interesting character. I like her, I find her just a very interesting personality. She’s a leader in political life, and I know as a woman you know, you earn your place, let me put it to you that way. So, I respect that immensely. She’s a mother of children, so she faces all of the issues that… no more than myself, so I like all of those things about her actually. I like that she’s from Fermanagh, and that she’s very connected with her place and very proud of where she comes from. I like that, I always like that in a person, yeah.

Human Nature is a podcast written and presented by The Impartial Reporter’s Rodney Edwards and is available to listen to in full on Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud and