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The Big Interview: Sinn Fein, the IRA and me - Mary Lou McDonald

Mary Lou McDonald: From middle-class upbringing and Fianna Fail membership to ambitious leader of Ireland's fastest growing but most divisive political party

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Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: David Conachy

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: David Conachy

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald. Photo: David Conachy

There are two conflicting narratives around how Mary Louise McDonald of Orwell Road, Rathgar, south Dublin, ended up being leader of this island's most controversial political party.

The first, proffered by her critics, is that having come from a Fianna Fail family, she unsurprisingly joined that party in the mid-1990s. As a bright, articulate and well-educated young woman, her stock was high and Bertie Ahern's party was on the brink of three successive general election victories. But, recall some in Fianna Fail, she found her path to elected office blocked by the party's old guard in Dublin West. So she upped and joined Sinn Fein.

The other version, recounted by McDonald, is different, perhaps darker, but far more compelling. She vividly recalls the sadness in her house in the spring of 1981 as the hunger strikes in the Maze Prison unfolded, how tense her mother was, the national grief, the protests. Four days before she turned 12, on May 1, 1981, Bobby Sands died after 66 days on hunger strike. "It was the moment at which I realised there was something radically, radically wrong in the politics and the life of the Ireland in which I was growing up," McDonald reflected last week.