Eyewitness accounts challenge McAleese papal handshake story

Eyewitness accounts challenge McAleese papal handshake story Former President Mary McAleese meeting Pope John Paul II in 2003

Claims by former President Mary McAleese that St John Paul II refused to shake hands with her when they first met are contradicted by eyewitness reports, The Irish Catholic can reveal.

Speaking last week at an event hosted by the Irish American Partnership in Boston, Mrs McAleese said the then Pope John shook her husband Martin’s hand instead, asking: “Would you not prefer to be the president of Ireland instead of your wife?”

“You would never have done that to a male president,” Mrs McAleese claims to have cut in, continuing: “I’m the elected president of Ireland whether you like it or not.”


The erstwhile President’s anecdote builds on a version reported by Martina Fitzgerald in her book Madam Politician: The Women at the Table of Irish Political Power, in which Mrs McAleese recalled how she was initially ignored in the meeting.

Describing the Polish Pope as reaching across to her husband, asking whether he would prefer to be president himself, and laughing loudly, Mrs McAleese said nobody else laughed and that she then reached over, introduced herself by name, and said she was Ireland’s elected president, with the Pontiff subsequently apologising.

Newspaper reports from February 1999, however, paint a very different picture.


“The Pope looked frail and walked with the aid of a stick but was clearly in very good form as he held out his hand to greet the President,” Stephen O’Brien wrote in the Irish Independent. “Mrs McAleese, her head covered by a fine lace shawl but not her face, shook the outstretched hand firmly and asked the Pontiff if he was feeling better after his flu.”

Writing in the Irish Times, meanwhile, Paddy Agnew related how “a day which the President described as ‘remarkable’ began with her cheerful but poised greeting to the Pope on the doorstep of the Pontifical Library in the Vatican. ‘It’s lovely to see you… I heard that you had the flu last week, are you feeling a little better?’ The Pope merely nodded and said ‘Yes, yes.’”

Mr Agnew reported that the two then had a private 24-minute conversation in English, after which they exchanged gifts and Mrs McAleese introduced the Pope to members of her delegation and to her husband.