MARY Bourke wanted to be a nun. As the former President of Ireland reveals in her new memoir Everybody Matters, she made her decision at the age of 17, but was told by the Reverend Mother Provincial at Mount Anville to go away and think about it for a year.
That order was to change the course of Irish history -- because 12 months later, the future Mrs Robinson horrified her parents by announcing that she would no longer even go to Mass.
Mary Robinson has always been a shy person, so it is hardly surprising that her autobiography contains as much about human rights issues as it does about her personal life.
Even so, this book is the closest we will ever come to seeing the woman behind the mask. Written with the aid of her daughter Tessa, Everybody Matters is sensitive, idealistic and unashamedly feminist -- very much like the former president herself.
Although Robinson writes lovingly about her native Mayo, she admits that she did not exactly have a typical west of Ireland upbringing. The daughter of two wealthy doctors in Ballina, she grew up in a large house and was educated at private schools. She was acutely aware of her privileged status, writing: "People were all equal and should be treated equally, but from early on I could see that this was not the case."
Mary describes herself as a plump, freckled bookworm who had to fight her corner as the only girl in a family with four boys. She spent her youth seeing the world, attending a finishing school in Paris where she was "utterly uplifted" by an Edith Piaf concert and arguing over the Vietnam War at Harvard Law School. In between, she studied at Trinity College Dublin and recalls parties featuring eminent professors swimming in a bath full of alcohol.
Mary faced a personal crisis when she told her devoutly Catholic parents that she wanted to marry Nick Robinson, a fellow Trinity student, budding cartoonist -- and Protestant. They were furious and refused to attend the wedding, but happily the family was later reconciled.
Looking back at her youthful idealism, which motivated her to join the Labour Party and get elected to the Seanad in 1969, she writes simply: "God, I was so naive."
Robinson first made a name for herself by campaigning on issues such as the availability of contraception, which prompted some people to send her hate mail with fingers of garden gloves cut off to look like condoms.
She was often denounced from the pulpit and described by one priest as "a Marxist, lesbian bitch".
However, her political career seemed over in the mid 1980s when she quit the Labour Party in protest over the Anglo-Irish Agreement -- a decision that she now admits might have been a mistake.
Robinson claims that when she agreed to be Labour's presidential candidate in 1990, she assumed there was no hope of actually winning. She still threw herself into the campaign with great energy, buying a whole new wardrobe after the famously scruffy TD Jim Kemmy told her she needed a change of image.
Everything changed when the frontrunner Brian Lenihan self-destructed and Padraig Flynn accused her of having "a new hairdo and newfound interest in the family".
Robinson writes that her first instinct was to accept Pee Flynn's apology. But her fiercely protective adviser Bride Rosney convinced her after "a blazing row" to wait until the voting was over.
On the day of the count, Rosney sent Flynn 40 red roses with a note reading: "Thank you, from the women of Ireland."
President Robinson also had her run-ins with Taoiseach Charlie Haughey, who appeared to be jealous of her popularity. When he was finally brought down by scandal, she ordered a bottle of champagne from the Aras kitchen.
She went on to transform the office, with groundbreaking moves such as highlighting the plight of famine victims in Somalia and visiting Queen Elizabeth in Buckingham Palace -- a day that "sent shivers down my spine".
Robinson left the presidency a few months before the end of her term in 1997 to become the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
She now feels this was a bad mistake as it made her look disrespectful to a role that she describes as "the greatest honour of my life".
She first realised that life had changed when she got into an elevator at the UN's headquarters and was reminded by Bride Rosney: "You have to press the button."
Robinson's new job was extremely stressful, forcing her to rely on sleeping pills and bringing her to the verge of a nervous breakdown. At one point, Nick had to tell her: "Let me remind you, there are such things as weekends."
Her staunch defence of civil liberties during George Bush's 'War on Terror' made her many enemies -- and she complains that she did not always get the support she needed from UN secretary general Kofi Annan.
Today, she still travels around the world but is happy running her Climate Justice foundation from Dublin. She also spends more time in Co Mayo, where she and Nick have bought a plot in the local cemetery.
Her memoir ends with the quiet satisfaction of a woman who knows she has made a difference, captured by what a garda driver said to her shortly after she was elected President. "One of my friends told me that when he went home to the missus last night, [he said], 'Make me a cup of tea there, love.' She said back to him, 'Make your own tea, things have changed around here!'"
Everybody Matters by Mary Robinson is published tomorrow by Hodder & Stoughton