MARY HARNEY: Academic and Activist

MARY HARNEY

House Painter, Academic and Activist

Mary, in her own words: "Some may think my life has been hard, but I like to think of it as being full of wonder, beauty and passion. I think a great deal about the times when someone had faith in me: in my abilities, my intelligence and in the promise of my future."

Mary Harney was born in a Mother and Baby Institution in Bessboro, Cork. Born out of wedlock, considered to be an ‘illegitimate’ child by the State, Mary was removed from her mother at age two and a half years. Mary was illegally “fostered” and at age five she was taken under Ward of Court and incarcerated in the Good Shepherd Industrial School. Like many children, Mary suffered beatings and daily labour at this school. Education consisted of religion, reading, writing, and arithmetic. One day, a teacher, Miss O’Donnell – ‘Miss’— noticing bruises on Mary’s arms, advised her to use stories and her imagination during the beatings to lessen the feelings of pain. Miss also told her to keep reading as you can teach yourself anything if you can read.

At 16 ½, Mary was released from the Good Shepherd. She discovered libraries and delved into History, Literature, and Geography. At 17, Mary went to London, to look for her Mother. She wandered for a period, homeless. She eventually traced her Mother and they were reunited in Cardiff Wales, where Mary discovered she had two sisters. Craving adventure, she signed-up to be a soldier, and without formal education, passed the entrance exam. When Mary finished her Army service, she joined the London Fire Brigade as an emergency dispatcher for twenty years.


In her 40s, Mary applied to third-level education only to find she was not eligible. She decided to travel. On her travels in America, she came upon College of the Atlantic in Maine, USA. She applied to study there and despite her lack of education she was accepted. Mary was an activist at college. She helped form peer education groups that went into high schools and taught HIV/AIDS prevention through the medium of art and theatre. The team was also part of the first state-wide ‘Growing up Gay’ conference in Maine. In 1996, Mary graduated with a BA in Human Ecology. The proudest moment was seeing her Mother there cheering for her. 

In 2012, Mary returned to Ireland - the place that had denied both her mother and a formal education - to pursue a Master’s Degree in Irish Studies. Mary graduated in 2013 from the National University of Ireland Galway with first class honours. In 2014, the student body of College Of Atlantic unanimously voted for Mary Harney to be guest speaker at Commencement. At this ceremony, she was surprised with a honourary Masters of Philosophy. Since then Mary has lectured College undergraduates and other groups in Irish history, She is currently taking part in the Collaborative Forum for transitional justice for mothers and children that were institutionalized in Irelands’ notorious mother and baby units. And she “ain’t done yet”— at age 70, Mary is applying to study for an LLM in Human Rights in autumn 2019.