The appointment by President Obama of human rights adviser Samantha Power to the post of US ambassador at the United Nations was greeted with particular interest at Mount Anville girls’ school in Goatstown in South Dublin. It means that three past pupils educated there by the Sacred Heart nuns now hold some of the most important positions in the world. It is also the Alma Mater of the former Irish President Mary Robinson, now UN Special Envoy to the Great Lakes in central Africa, and of the Secretary General of the European Commission, Catherine Day, who was a near neighbour of ours in Mount Merrion when I moved back to Dublin in 1967.
I was already familiar with Mount Anville from the 1960s as my aunt is a member of the Sacred Heart congregation (RSCJ) and entered the religious life there. She taught for a while in the Montessori school, where she ran soccer games for the children, as my former secondary school class colleague Peter Mathews TD once recalled! Over the years we have been privileged to celebrate a number of important family occasions with the community there. Now as in many towns and cities in Ireland, the nuns no longer occupy the convent, but tomorrow (June 7th) on the feast of the Sacred Heart, they will be gathering for Mass at the original convent building, once the home of engineer William Dargan. The school has a classical-style chapel, designed by EW Pugin and GC Ashlin in 1866. I understand they are hoping to open a heritage centre later this year, in which the history of the convent and the associated schools will be displayed.
One of the highlights of the calendar last year was the visit by President Robinson to deliver the Barat lecture, named after the founder (1826) of the Society of the Sacred Heart, St Madeleine Sophie. In her speech Mary Robinson spoke warmly and movingly about the main points of her career as a lawyer, Senator, President of Ireland (her greatest honour she said), UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and lately, her work for climate justice. She also participated in a questions and answers session with the secondary school students. She spoke about her time spent as a boarder in Mount Anville in the late 1950s (Mary Bourke from Ballina in County Mayo). She recalled reading in the school library about Eleanor Roosevelt, someone she said who had inspired her in her formative years. In March, she was in Belfast for a memorial service to celebrate the life of the former trade unionist and human rights activist, the late Inez McCormack.
Catherine Day was profiled recently in the Village magazine. She was appointed Secretary General of the European Commission in Brussels in 2005. Born in Dublin in 1954, she was brought up in Mount Merrion and educated at Mount Anville. She has a BA in economics and an MA in International Trade and Economic Integration from University College Dublin. I remember her interest in the “Yes to Europe” campaign which we ran as students (Young European Federalists) in the 1972 referendum on Ireland’s entry to the EEC, as it was then known. She joined the European Commission in 1979 and the cabinet of Ireland’s Richard Burke in 1982 at the age of 28, staying for a term with his Irish successor, Peter Sutherland, competition commissioner. She then transferred to the cabinet of the UK’s Leon Brittan for two terms. She returned to work for him in 1996 as director for relations with third-world countries. She became deputy director in Chris Patten’s external relations where she was deeply involved with the enlargement of the Union from 15 countries to today’s 27. Before her appointment as head civil servant she was in charge of the Environment Directorate-General.
Samantha Power was interviewed by Donal Lynch for the Irish Independent during a visit to Galway in April 2008 shortly after she had made a “blooper” about Hillary Clinton (I was able to get Samantha’s response during an earlier visit to Belfast). She explained how her parents had lived in Ballsbridge in Dublin. Her father, from Athlone, was a dentist and her Cork-born mother was training to be a doctor. She attended the Montessoro school at Mount Anville. Her parents’ marriage was floundering and her mother went for further study to America, taking Samantha then aged nine and her five-year-old brother with her.
“I can clearly remember my first day of American public school in Pittsburgh. I had to wear my Mount Anville school uniform in front of all those kids because my mom didn’t have any money for new clothes. It was totally humiliating for life. The shirt, black leather shoes and pleated skirt. Years of therapy later I’m still not over it”, she laughs. “If you really want to know how I got interested in war zones you’d have to go back to that first day of school in the Mount Anville uniform.”
Those remarks were picked up by a blogger “Irish Media” in an article on “Samantha Power and Sacred Heart nuns – Magan’s World, Sept 2008”. She recalled that:-
“my very best friend between the ages of four to eight in Mount Anville, Montessori School, at the Sacred Heart convent in Dublin had been called Samantha Power. We had spent every free moment together, gossiping and playing make-believe in our special den under a bush beside the tennis courts“.
So confirmation of her association with the nuns.
In 2007 the nuns handed over control to the laity and the schools now come under the aegis of the Sacred Heart Education Trust. The boarding school which my sister attended for a while on our return from London closed in 1981. Other famous past pupils include former Fine Gael Education Minister and TD Gemma Hussey, consultant geriatrician and former IMO President Dr Christine O’Malley, Sheila Humphreys of Cumann na mBan, an activist during the war of independence, the late television documentary maker Mary Raftery, the actress and model Alison Doody and the social entrepreneur Caroline Casey of Kanchi (formerly the Aisling Foundation), to name but a few!