Tuesday, November 9, 2010


In a society where the rights and potential of women are constrained, no man can be truly free.
--Mary Robinson, quoted in Rosemary Mahoney’s Whoredom In Kimmage: The Private Lives of Irish Women

Twenty years ago today, the Irish people elected Mary Robinson their first woman President. Robinson won against the odds, going on not only to reform that office, but then to rise to global prominence for her work with the United Nations and Oxfam International. For her injection of social justice into politics-as-usual, I would like to honor her with a recollection of the Irish virtue of Cubus (Conscience).

The word cubus comes from the Old Irish and is most often translated as “conscience.” The modern version of the word, coibhse, goes beyond this, meaning more along the lines of “examination of one’s conscience” or “confession”--which makes sense when we consider Old Irish uses of the original word, such as the expression of cubus braith, “awareness of one’s role in treachery.”

Cubus thus has the connotation of “one’s awareness of one’s duties to others.” It covers not just one’s knowledge of right and wrong, but also of one’s actions, and that is why it is sometimes translated as “Scrupulousness” or “Uprightness.” In that sense it reminds me quite a lot of a Theravadan Buddhist virtue we visited back in August, Sampajañña.

Ms. Robinson’s story certainly tells a story of Cubus. She was born in Ballina, County Mayo (the same village from which my family hails). She studied law at Trinity College and Harvard, and gained attention in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a member of the Seanad Éireann, the Irish Senate, where she campaigned for a number of unpopular causes. Among her stands included fighting for the right of women to sit on juries, to remain in the civil service even upon getting married (which normally required their resignation), and for the legal right to medical contraception, such as condoms. To a 21st century American, none of these positions seem at all remarkable, but in that day and place, Mary Robinson was electrifying.

Her election to the Presidency is a story of complex Irish political party intrigue. More surprising than her win to the Presidency, though, was what she did with it. A position that in Ireland normally meant quiet semi-retirement became, under Robinson, a platform for leadership.  She strengthened ties with Irishmen the world over and with the British royalty. Belying others’ expectations, she cultivated close ties with Irish priests and nuns, and even had an audience with the Catholic Pope. While defending the rights of women and gays and lesbians, she built bridges everywhere. This made her a natural choice for United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, a job she took over in 1997.

What I like about Mary Robinson is that she kept her values front and center, but treated those who might have disagreed with her with respect. That shows a true Magnanimity and Wisdom that I think all of us would do well to emulate. Consider Ms. Robinson’s words, quoted above: her fight for women’s rights was not merely to benefit women, but to achieve a vision of Justice that would elevate all citizens. People with Cubus keep their actions consistent with their values, even in the face of opposition.
Take a moment to think of the people who drive you crazy--whether in your work site, your family, or the world at large--and it’s easy to see why we so often fall into fisticuffs. But consider: Mary Robinson never lost an opportunity to make friends instead of enemies. So tap into Cubus. Stick to your guns, but don’t (necessarily) draw them. Hold your head high. Rise above.

May we see the gates of Cubus, and perhaps make a home there.

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