PERHAPS it helps to understand Mary McAleese by looking at where she chose to go on honeymoon. At the time – March 1976 – her new husband Martin was working as an accountant for Aer Lingus. The couple could easily have taken a flight abroad after their wedding.

“But oh no,” McAleese says. “We went to Kerry and the first day of our honeymoon we spent at Derrynane, Daniel O’Connell’s old home. And that was a statement as much as anything.”

O’Connell, the 19th-century Irish lawyer and nationalist who led the charge for Catholic emancipation, campaigned for an Irish parliament and, after seeing the violence of the French Revolution as a young man, remained a firm believer in peaceful protest, was McAleese’s hero.

“I grew up in a house where Daniel O’Connell was revered,” she says. And O’Connell’s example was one of the main reasons she wanted to become a lawyer.

Well, him and Perry Mason. “We had the first TV set in our street and in the 1960s Perry Mason was big and I think that I also fancied myself as a bit of a Perry Mason, which I never became.”

Perhaps not, but the girl from Ardoyne in Belfast did grow up to become a practicing lawyer, an academic, a journalist and, oh yes, President of Ireland.

During her two terms in that post she witnessed the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and oversaw the first state visit to Ireland by a British monarch in a century, one that provided the most memorable visual image of McAleese’s time as President – her shocked “wow” when the Queen rose in Dublin Castle and began to say a few words in Irish.

These days McAleese is an academic again. It is early September when we speak and she should be getting ready to return to teaching at the University of Glasgow where she is Professor of Children, Law and Religion in Theology and Religious Studies. But the pandemic means teaching will be online.

“I’m missing Glasgow terribly, may I tell you,” McAleese admits. “It’s shocking. My morning coffee in Little Italy, I can’t tell you how much I’ve been missing that.”

In conversation McAleese is full of life, full of conviction and isn’t afraid of plain speaking. That is also one of the pleasures of her new memoir, Here’s the Story. In its pages, priests, popes, paramilitaries and Ian Paisley are all held to account.

Today, though, it’s Boris Johnson’s turn. When I raise his government’s proposed breaking of the EU Withdrawal Agreement (“in a specific and limited way”), she says she hopes it is simply a negotiating tactic.

“Because if it wasn’t I’d be forced to say that toying as they are with the Northern Ireland peace process after all that has gone into creating it and sustaining it would be a vile and immoral act.”

To read Here’s the Story is also to be aware of how much Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have changed over the last six decades – “Not as much as I would like, certainly in the case of Northern Ireland,” she admits – and her own part in that process.

These days McAleese lives in County Roscommon in the Republic, some miles and a lifetime away from her childhood in Belfast. The eldest of nine children, McAleese was 18 when the Troubles began. She graduated in law in 1969 just as Northern Ireland lurched towards lawlessness. Indeed, the day of her graduation ended with loyalists burning Catholic homes in her neighbourhood.

“To be honest at that time, Teddy, I was innocent enough to think that this would all be over by the end of the summer, that it would end, not realising that there was not the political wisdom or heft to make it end,” McAleese recalls.

“I thought maybe it will last for a month, and then I thought maybe it will last for a year. And, of course, it lasted over 30 years.”

Ardoyne in early 1970s was at the heart of the firestorm. It had the highest per capita incidence of sectarian murders. McAleese and her family were all too aware of how dangerous it could be. Her father was attacked. Her brother John was almost killed when he had a bottle smashed over his head and was then stabbed in the face and neck by the broken remnants.

The family home was machine-gunned (thankfully, they were all out) and her father’s bar was blown up by loyalist terrorists. (Another of his businesses was destroyed by the IRA).

What, you have to wonder, was it like to live through all that? Because, I tell her, it reads like a horror story.

“It was a horror story and it was an appalling place to live in, knowing that literally every time you go outside your door you are exposed to life-threatening danger.” Nor were you safe indoors either, she adds.

Rioting was an almost daily occurrence on her street. And the McAleese family were trapped there for years.

“Our parents had nine children. We owned the house with a huge mortgage. Who wants a house in a combat zone? There were those realities.”

And that reality had a cost. “That stress and strain didn’t wash over us and go away. It was lodged deep in people, whether it was their emotional well-being or their health.

“I don’t think it’s any accident, for example, that shortly after my parents and family moved to live in the lovely village of Rostrevor in 1974 my father had a massive coronary.

“Sooner or later somebody will do the sums from that and discover that people lived with huge levels of trauma and loss and stress and intolerable pain, not to mention the grief of bereavement. And then there were those who lost limbs in bombs.”

What horrifies her now, she says, is “how we suddenly almost normalised that abnormal way of living because it was and it remains completely abnormal.

“The low point for me was the attempted murder of my brother who is profoundly deaf. The anger I felt over that, the absolute overwhelming anger. We knew it was young teenage boys and we knew who they were and they were never prosecuted, and I remember writing to the newspapers and having a letter published calling to bring back the birch.

“Now, I’m the least likely person to say that. I’m completely opposed to corporal punishment. But that anger overwhelmed at the time. It was a lesson to me. I was mortified after I wrote that letter, because it wasn’t an expression of rational thinking.

“People did come and say, ‘What do you want us to do?’ And my father said, ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing. It’s not for us to take the law into our own hands.’”

The horrors kept coming. On the morning of her wedding day in 1976 McAleese opened the kitchen door to walk the 100 yards to the car that was taking her to the church. The family dog jumped up on her, leaving paw prints all over her dress. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh for God’s sake, could anything worse happen on your wedding day?’

“And then it did.”

That morning her good friends Tony and Myles O’Reilly were shot and killed by loyalists, and then set on fire. In the book McAleese describes shrinking “into a foetal ball” and sobbing when she heard the news.

“I was in some other emotional space, so deep, so over the edge that I could not feel anger,” she says. “I could just feel convulsive pain. That’s all. Still do. I revisit it every year on the anniversary.”

Despite all that pain she never wavered from her position as a constitutional nationalist, nor her belief, shared with her hero Daniel O’Connell, that the law was a vehicle for change.

“When O’Connell died he regarded himself as a failure and that always stayed with me because it taught me from a very early age that if there is something you really want to achieve, not for yourself but for the community, for your country, for the people that you live among, then you have to be prepared to be one of the people who will do the right thing in the now, but know that the actual goal may not be scored for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years, by which time you will be long forgotten.

“But your part in taking those initial steps will have been important element in the creation of the dynamic that helped bring about justice and freedom and equality.”

In 1975 McAleese was appointed as Reid Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology, taking over from Mary Robinson (not the last time she would do that, of course) at Trinity College in Dublin.

There was just a little over 100 miles between Belfast and Dublin but the distance between them was very marked, McAleese found. “They were almost two different planets,” she recalls.

“It felt almost surreal. It was just so calm and even though over the following years there were a number of loyalist attacks on Dublin you did not have the same anxiety. You did not have the IRA, the UVF, the UDA, you didn’t have the tit-for-tat, you didn’t have the military presence. It was a normal city and I have to say I revelled in that.”

Still, when she started working as a journalist at RTE her perceived northern-ness marked her out. “I began to realise the fact that I was a northern Catholic woman had characterised me politically.”

She was working on a current affairs programme Today Tonight as the hunger strikes began. “I worked with some very good people, but the atmosphere was toxic,” she says. All of which came to a head when hunger striker Bobby Sands was elected to parliament. When she suggested he might win, she was severely criticised by her colleagues.

“It turned out that I was right. And then the boss, in front of all the other staff, says to me, ‘Your man won.’

“I had no time for the IRA, I had no time for Bobby Sands, I had no time for the hunger strike. I had lived through the consequences of sectarian violence. And to come out and say, ‘Your man won …’ ”

McAleese soon returned to academia and, as well as raising a family of three, she immersed herself in cross-community and anti-sectarian initiatives, the groundwork that would eventually lead to her election on October 30, 1997 as the eighth President of Ireland.

McAleese was the second woman (following in Mary Robinson’s footsteps once again) to be elected, and the first President from the north.

Why, Mary, did you want to be President? “That was very simple. I could see there was a formidable job to be done to introduce north and south to each other.

“I could see that in this space that a president could occupy, essentially a pastoral space, there was a tremendous role to be played. To show kindness and decency and good neighbourliness to the hard-to-reach northern Unionist community.”

Building bridges was her theme. Six months after her election the Good Friday Agreement was signed. She had a first-hand view of the protracted, often costly efforts of politicians such as John Hume, Mo Mowlem and Ulster Unionist leader (and Northern Ireland’s first First Minister) David Trimble.

In the years that followed McAleese worked tirelessly to being loyalists into the fold too. By the time old enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness could share a joke and an Ikea sofa in 2007, things had changed hugely in Northern Irish politics (though not enough, of course).

The Republic had changed too. The fact that the Queen could make a state visit was clear evidence. McAleese talks in the book and to me about a letter she received from a woman, “an old Republican lady,” who informed her she was very against the visit initially but as it played out, came to believe the visit had “been choreographed by angels.”

“I thought that was a very beautiful way of putting the feeling that many people had,” McAleese adds. “This was an outpouring of reconciliation and healing that we needed, given the parlous nature of the relationship between Ireland and Britain over many, many generations.”

The Republic has changed markedly in the last 20 years. In recent times it has seen the legalisation of abortion and introduced same-sex marriage. McAleese’s son Justin is gay and married.

Meanwhile, the position of the Catholic Church has been greatly called into question in the wake of its cover-ups of the sexual abuse scandals. Again, this is something McAleese knows about all too well. Her brother Clement was abused by a priest. (Unthinkably, her brother John was also the victim of sexual abuse by a minister while he attended a secular school.)

McAleese has never held back in her criticisms of the Catholic Church. She once described it as an “empire of misogyny”. In the pages of Here’s the Story, she suggests that it was quickly apparent that Pope Francis was “all talk and little action, just like his predecessors.”

What I want to ask her about, though, is faith itself. Having lived through everything that she has, what has kept her faith intact? Does she never question it?

“Probably on a daily basis. I don’t think I remember a day when I didn’t. I’ve always been a questioner but somewhere along the line I have managed to gather up somewhere between a hope and a faith in a loving God.

“I tell you what I do love. I love the goodwill towards human beings, I love the nativity story, I love the idea of a God looking at the mess we were making and thinking, ‘For crying out loud, I better send somebody down to tell them that if they actually loved one another and were decent to each other a lot of good stuff could happen.’”

Mary McAleese still has faith. Faith in the law, faith in people, faith in the idea that we can change who we are. That seems like a faith worth having, doesn’t it?

Here’s the Story, by Mary McAleese, is published by Penguin, £20