Mary confirms the luck of the Irish

AT present in Ireland, the entire nation appears to be wild about Mary Robinson. She is the most admired person in the country. She is very bright, glamorous, and as befits her thoroughbred style, she is the nation's best clothes horse.

Only Irish designer clothes go on to her elegant frame, and they have done her proud. Last year, for the first time, an Irish politician made the world best-dressed list.

Meeting her during a three-day visit to Hong Kong, en route from New Zealand to a an eight-day state visit to India, it is easy to see what all the kerfuffle is about.

At the end of eight long days of ceremonies, interrupted sleep, and bouts of jet lag, her bearing was still regal. Her style as expected. A perfect pale aqua wool suit, pearls and her 100 per cent attention.

Her husband Nick Robinson, was travelling with her, and they had managed to fit in shopping - ''yes, it is expensive but there are some beautiful silks'' for the three teenage children back home, have dinner with Governor Chris Patten and attend a thronging reception for the local Irish community.

This is her first proper visit to Hong Kong - ''I was here once before for 24 hours'' - but she noticed that on one level people already seem to have adjusted to 1997.

''There seems to be an acceptance of what is coming and people have already taken it in. On the other hand, as a constitutional lawyer, and not as the president of Ireland, she is sympathetic to any legislation that would increase democracy, anywhere.

''As a lawyer, I am a firm believer in democracy in the system,'' she said because so far nothing better has been produced.

In a sense, she is going through a similar process of change in her own political life. Three years ago, she was a hugely successful international lawyer who had retired from active politics in 1985 after she had disagreed with the Irish government's lack of tolerance for the British view in Northern Ireland.

She was an unlikely choice as she had never managed to be included in the Irish cabinet after her early and brilliant start in 1969, and she did not mind. Her husband Nick and she co-founded a prestigious Centre for European Law at Trinity College, and she had a number of outside interests centring on helping single mothers and arguing the relevance of feminism and the role of women working in the home.

Then along came the offer to run, and after six months of campaigning she mowed down the unsuspecting opposition, and the family found themselves resident in the palatial presidential palace, Phoenix Park in Dublin.

She admitted yesterday that life, and she specifically, has changed since she began her seven-year term. ''When I was a lawyer, I was able to hide myself to a degree. I was very involved with my cases but it is not good to show your feelings,'' she said.

''But I realised when I took office that people needed to see a more rounded person. I have become more open in showing my responses in public, and people have responded to me.'' That appears to be so. Almost single-handedly, Mary Robinson has revitalised Ireland's national pride, at a time when its religious and political institutions have taken a battering.

She cannot speak out on issues such as abortion and divorce in Ireland but she does make her feelings known on controversy.

It is this compassion that is unexpected from a woman like Mary Robinson, who has led a privileged life and notched up an astonishing list of academic and personal achievements. ''It has been my good fortune to become president at this time in Ireland's history,'' Mrs Robinson said this week when asked how it was that suddenly Ireland had become exciting.

''Ireland always has had a great literary tradition but we lived in the shadow of Britain. The EC [European Community] has been very good for us. We have come out of that shadow and taken on our own identity,'' she said.

In that sense, Mary Robinson, is perfect for her time. The position of President of Ireland has no executive political power but it was ripe for change. Irish politics was tired and the people were defeated, dispossessed and burdened with wearing north-south divisions.

''By giving myself, I get a different response. I am able to get on to people's wavelength and I am enjoying the job much more than I thought.'' Without realising, she was probably bred for the job. The third child and only girl in a well-to-do family of five children, both her parents were doctors in the salmon fishing mecca of Ballina, in County Mayo.

Her mother, the late Tess O'Donnell Bourke, gave up medicine when the first of the four boys arrived but Mary's maternal aunt continued to practise.

The two elder boys, Aubrey (who died in 1986) and Oliver became doctors, the two younger ones Henry and Adrian, went into the law. But Mary, who would argue her point to the death around the dinner table, has always been regarded as the true intellect ina very bright family.

In an article in the July 1993 issue of Vanity Fair, Nick Robinson said that there was a tradition of professional women in the family. ''Most women here are brought up to have no sense of that - men become professionals and women don't. Mary was encouraged at every stage to strive for what she wanted,'' he said.

From a very early age Mary Terese Winifred Bourke did just that. She has said many times that she was brought up in an environment of total equality and was reared no differently from her brothers.

She also had the example of her father, Dr Bourke who practised medicine in Ballina for 50 years and the support of her far-sighted mother. The Bourkes were Roman Catholic gentry, who lived comfortably in a three-storey house.

Her grandfather was a lawyer, and from an early age, Mary was taken under his wing. He taught her that the law should be the instrument of social change and protection of the freedom of the individual.

Those ideals were fleshed out by the work ethic instilled in her by her father. Known as a ''physician to the upper crust'', he also saw patients who could only pay him in kind whether it be a catch of fish or a special favour of one kind or another.

He worked every day and took no holidays or weekends off. Nick Robinson believes that his wife acquired her compassion for the innate dignity of people and her capacity to communicate with them at the right level from the elder Bourke.

What is surprising, however, is that her privileged upbringing - the exclusive Mount Anville Convent, run by the Sacred Heart sisters in Dublin, Madamoiselle Anita's finishing school in Paris and Trinity College Law School - did not distance her from those early ideals.

At Trinity College, she was a star law student of her year, and much more serious about her studies than her brothers.

Tess Bourke had bought the house that Oscar Wilde was born in, as shelter for her brood while they were studying in Dublin but it was the boys who took the student high life rather than the cultivated Mary.

She always got the balance right, her brother Henry says. She would go to the parties but still make her lecture at 9 o'clock the next morning, he said. For Mary, America and the year she spent at Harvard University acquiring her master's with first class honours in 1967, were a galvanising experience.

''There was an intense questioning then. I had law degree but I hadn't been really encouraged to think,'' she said in a Time magazine interview last year. ''And Harvard was just facing up to the fact that there were inequalities of sex and race.'' Not long after she returned to Dublin, despite her family's objections, she married Nick, a lawyer and political cartoonist for the Irish Times, but most notably a Protestant.

HER family refused to attend the wedding in 1970 and she was given away by a barrister friend. Within weeks, the issue of the mixed marriage had dissolved and been accepted by the Bourkes and Mary plunged into cases that fought against sexual and employment disadvantages for women.

At 25, she was the youngest woman in the history of the Irish Senate and a legal academic at her alma mater Trinity College when she introduced legislation to legalise contraception. It took almost four years, until 1973, for it actually to be debated and she endured bitter criticism from the Catholic hierarchy for it.

By 1985, when she had not been offered the post of Attorney-General in a Labour government, she decided to call it quits with politics and concentrate on the law. During the next five years, she became president of Cherish, the Irish Association of single mothers, and held a number of posts with the EC legal and economic advisory bodies.

Now all is changed again. As she has empowered people in the past, the office of president has empowered Mary Robinson. She is the symbol of an Ireland being re-made, of a successful nation that has its own positive identity. She can stay forever as an activist president, as far as her people are concerned.