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Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
Niamh Ní Charra
Archivist , University of Galway
Image: Mary Robinson
Global Impact Edition

Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive

20 May 24
 | 13 MINS

The 21st of May 2024 marks the 80th birthday of one of Ireland’s most influential, celebrated, and hard-working citizens, former President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

The University of Galway is proud to house her archive, and while work to catalogue it continues, we mark this significant milestone with an overview of the archive’s contents and an update on progress.

University of Galway is also a partner of The Mary Robinson Centre in the former President’s home town of Ballina, Co. Mayo, and together we are honouring her life and legacy by engaging scholars of all ages in the major themes of her archive.  

Mary Robinson’s archive is a treasure trove of documents and materials that reflect her significant contributions to Ireland and the world.

This immensely rich archive consists of material relating to Mary Robinson’s work from 1967 to the present and includes material covering her time as a barrister, legislator, senator, professor, President of Ireland, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner of Human Rights, UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and for El Niño, Chair of the Elders, founder of Realizing Rights – The Ethical Globalization Initiative, and founder of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice.

Her archive offers a unique insight into decades of dedicated public service. Key components of the archive include:

Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
Booklet on family planning, 1970s

Legal Work

Mary Robinson is perhaps best known in Ireland for her role as its first female President (1990-97), but she was breaking records and making waves well before that. In 1967 she became the first female auditor of the Dublin University Law Society (TCD). During her maiden address, “Law and Morality”, she advocated removing the prohibition of divorce from the Irish Constitution, eliminating the ban on the use of contraceptives, and decriminalising homosexuality and suicide.



This address became a roadmap of her work for the following decades. The cases she was involved in is a list of one precedent-setting case after another and includes her work on behalf of recently retired Senator, David Norris, who took Ireland to the European Court of Human Rights and was successful.

Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
Official Presidential election campaign poster


In 1990, Mary Robinson became the first female President of Ireland, and the youngest president at that time. The archive contains material relating to her election campaign and is a reminder of how unusual her candidacy was considered.

She is widely seen as having revolutionised the role of the Presidency, broadening its scope through her knowledge of constitutional law, developing new political, cultural, and economic links with other countries, reaching out to local communities at home and abroad, and using her platform to bring attention to the suffering of others such as her visit to Somalia in 1992.

Presidential visits

President Robinson’s visit to Britain in 1993, where she met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, was historic and paved the way for a reciprocal visit hosted by Mary’s successor President McAleese. Equally, her numerous visits to Northern Ireland where she reached out to communities on the ground, and politicians of all hues were hailed by people on all sides as vital in the search for peace and laid valuable groundwork for the Good Friday Agreement. She became the first Irish President to make an official state visit to the United States of America while in office and used visits all over the world to promote a modern, progressive Ireland, its culture and its people.

Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
Booklet on United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

The United Nations

Mary Robinson resigned from the presidency a few weeks shy of the end of one term to take up the role of UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, and served until 2002, again reforming and developing the office.

She continues to work with the United Nations through her various roles with other organisations (e.g. The Elders), and from 2013 to 2016 spent time as UN Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and UN Special Envoy for El Niño.

Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
Poster for Summit to End Global Poverty, 2008

Realizing Rights – The Ethical Globalization Initiative

In 2002, as she ended her term as High Commissioner for Human Rights, she decided to craft an organisation with similar aims as this UN agency, but with an entirely different institutional framework. A tireless advocate for justice, she was president of this new organisation Realizing Rights – the Ethical Globalization Initiative from 2002 to 2010.  

The Elders

Along with Nelson Mandela, Graça Machel, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and former US President Jimmy Carter, Robinson was a founding member of “The Elders”, a group of world leaders with a goal of contributing their wisdom to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems. She is currently Chair.

Talk given by Mary Robinson, as founder of Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice, at Princeton University, USA, 2014


Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice

In 2010 she founded and was chair of the Mary Robinson Foundation-Climate Justice until 2019 and continues to push to ensure the most vulnerable communities in the world do not disproportionately suffer from the effects of climate change.

Drawing by 12-year-old David Horan, a pupil at Ballyguiltenane National School, County Limerick, 1997, appears by kind permission of David Horan.


Children’s Art

Some of the nicest items in the archive are letters, poems and drawings from children which, it might surprise some, are carefully kept. One lovely drawing by David Horan, features Mary Robinson addressing the United Nations on the crisis in Somalia, as President of Ireland. David was a pupil of Ballyguiltenane National School, Co. Limerick, when a scrapbook of drawings and poems from the pupils was presented to the then President, during a visit to the school in 1997.


Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
Poem by Kerry poet Brendan Kennelly, appears by kind permission of the Brendan Kennelly Literary Trust.

The Arts

Continuing the Arts theme, our former president is a huge admirer and supporter of the Arts, and the archive contains personal correspondence with several poets she considered friends including Séamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Brendan Kennelly, and Eavan Boland. This poem from Kennelly was most likely written as Robinson’s term as President of Ireland was drawing to a close.

Overview of Mary Robinson’s Archive
President Barrack Obama presenting Mary Robinson with the Medal of Freedom, 2009

Medal of Freedom

In July 2009, Mary was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour awarded by the United States. Coincidentally fellow Elder Archbishop Tutu was awarded this honour the same year, along with other noteworthy recipients such as Stephen Hawking, Billie Jean King and Harvey Milk. In presenting the award, Former U.S. President Barack Obama said,


"As a crusader for women and those without a voice in Ireland, Mary Robinson was the first woman elected President of Ireland…Today, as an advocate for the hungry and the hunted, the forgotten and the ignored, Mary Robinson has not only shone a light on human suffering but illuminated a better future for our world."

Former U.S. President Barack Obama

The University of Galway continues to celebrate Mary Robinson’s legacy, ensuring that her work and its impact are preserved and accessible for future generations. As we mark her 80th birthday, the ongoing efforts to catalogue and share her archive stand as a testament to her enduring influence and commitment to justice and equality. The archive is currently at cataloguing stage and, due to its sheer size at over 670 archive boxes, will be released in tranches. The first tranche of material relating to Mary Robinson’s legal work and her time as President of Ireland will be released later this summer.


Future events

The Mary Robinson Climate Conference 2024 is taking place 5-7 June in Ballina, Co Mayo. It will be delivered by The Mary Robinson Centre in partnership with the University of Galway and national and local stakeholders and will bring together voices from all sectors, including experts, policymakers, activists, communities and innovators to share climate experiences and discuss pathways for a sustainable future.


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