Leading Article: President Robinson and Mna na hEireann

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The Independent Online
IRELAND through the ages has been portrayed as a woman. This metaphor can be found as early as the 14th century, in the inaugural speech of Niall Mor O Neill, king of Tir Eoghain, which declared: 'Ireland is a woman risen again from the horrors of reproach. . . . She was owned for a while by foreigners; she belongs to Irishmen after that.'

Through subsequent centuries, poets represented the country as an unliberated woman, disappointed at the failure of men to free her. In his thoughtful essay Irish Literature and Irish History, the academic Declan Kiberd recalls the pessimism of Patrick Pearse's poetry before his execution in 1916 as he describes the feelings of Ireland the mother: 'Great my glory; I who bore the brave Cuchulain/ Great my shame; my own children who sold their mother.'

Using similar metaphor, W B Yeats's revolutionary play, Cathleen ni Houlihan, first performed in 1902, dramatised the transformation of a withered hag into a radiant young queen once young men showed their willingness to rebel and die for her.

So the fact that a woman yesterday became Ireland's first head of state to meet the Queen is potent with symbolism. However, President Mary Robinson is far from the unliberated woman of myth awaiting male salvation. She made her reputation as a feminist who fought fiercely for women's rights in Ireland. Not for her the disgruntled imagery of Cathleen ni Houlihan: Mrs Robinson falls more easily into the tradition of the Irish queen Maeve, whose mountain grave still dominates the landscape of Co Sligo; or the pirate Grace O'Malley, who sailed to England to petition Elizabeth I.

This more assertive, liberated representative of Ireland symbolises the great strides the republic is making towards a post-independence identity. For the republic is reinventing itself, becoming less confined by the long history of its unequal relationship with Britain and the belief that republicanism is the cure for all problems. Membership of the European Community has given it new economic options and trading relationships. A twilight period when its social policies were products of a cultural siege mentality seems to be ending. The five- month-old Fianna Fail-Labour coalition government is embarked on a programme that would have been impossibly radical a few years ago: decriminalisation of homosexual acts, lifting of restrictions on contraception, a referendum on divorce and limited legalisation of abortion.

Mrs Robinson, in particular, has laid great emphasis on tackling the problem of Irish emigration, a haemorrhaging of youth from a country that has failed to provide economically, politically or socially for the aspirations of young Irish people. Most important, politicians in the republic are re-examining articles of faith, including sovereignty claims over Northern Ireland. Mrs Robinson, a Roman Catholic married to the son of a Protestant banker, has, in her visits to Northern Ireland, made conspicuous overtures to Unionists.

There are in the republic signs of a dynamism, represented by Mrs Robinson and marked by a liberated body politic. Declan Kiberd argues in his essay that the female symbolism of Gaelic culture long underpinned Anglo-Saxon notions that Ireland was too ill-disciplined to govern itself well. Mrs Robinson has done a service to Mna na hEireann - the women of Ireland - and to the republic itself in proving them wrong.