Holland, Mary Philomena (1935–2004), journalist, was born 19 June 1935 in Dover, Kent, youngest of three children (two sons and one daughter) of Patrick Henry Holland, civil engineer and later civil servant, and his wife Margaret (née Callanan). Both sides of the family originated in Clonakilty, Co. Cork. Since her father's work involved residence in Malaya, she was sent at the age of three to live in a Co. Cork convent presided over by a maternal aunt; she was subsequently educated at Loreto Convent, Rathfarnham, Dublin, and at a convent school in Farnborough, Hampshire. Holland later believed that this early separation from her family and the restrictions of a convent environment had produced a certain emotional cauterisation, characteristic of the separated children of the servants of empire. Amongst the many features of Irish society which appalled her when she moved to Dublin in the 1970s was the willingness of many people to boast that they evaded taxes, which she contrasted with memories of her own father's rigorous insistence – inspired by his catholic faith – on paying Caesar his due on time and to the last penny, and his adherence to the Roman catholic church's rules however much conflict this entailed (with his children, amongst others). She regarded this as typical of the hypocritical and evasive Irish attitude to many social problems, and was told this was a very English attitude.
Holland briefly studied law at King's College, London, but at the age of 18 joined Vogue magazine as a journalist and writer on the arts after winning a young writers' competition. She also wrote for Queen magazine and Plays and Players, and was recruited to the Observer by David Astor, who became a mentor. She acted as a stand‑in for the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan as well as serving as the paper's fashion correspondent, and made many friends in London artistic circles. On 2 April 1966 Holland married Ronald Trevor Higgins , a diplomat; the wedding photographs were taken by Lord Snowdon. Holland gave up employment on marriage (as required by the Foreign Office) but found life as a diplomat's wife in Indonesia intolerably restrictive (she was forbidden to talk about politics, partly because of diplomatic sensitivities surrounding the Vietnam war) and after eight months returned to London and the Observer.
She had already begun to display an interest in her Irish roots. She began to contribute to the Irish Times, as part of the policy pursued by Douglas Gageby (qv) and Donal Foley (qv) of recruiting female journalistic talent. Her 1967 review of Patrick Campbell's (qv) memoir (which lambastes him for reducing R. M. Smyllie (qv) to a caricature and quotes contemporary praise of Smyllie for educating his readers and writing 'with real passion of the suffering of others…making a newspaper which was…unmistakably Irish and yet rose above the provincialism of the rest of the Irish press' (James,108–9)) shows her identification with the Irish Times self‑image as leaders of a crusade to cut through Irish doublespeak and wishful‑thinking abstractions, expose social problems which everybody knew and nobody discussed, and promote secular social democracy.
In the late 1960s Holland had a column in the Observer on injustices in British life, 'Them and us'. It was in this context that in 1968 she began to take an interest in the nascent Northern Ireland civil rights movement; Gerry Fitt (qv) brought her on a tour of Northern Ireland, which rapidly became her principal concern. She later recorded, amongst other things, her shock at the open expression of prejudice by protestants and the extent to which many catholics interiorised a sense of their own inferiority. She was present at the forcible dispersion of a civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968, and an article by her on the Derry situation appeared in the Observer on 6 October under the heading 'John Bull's other island'. She became the earliest British‑based journalist to provide detailed coverage of the developing crisis in Northern Ireland; she later paid tribute to the willingness of Astor and the Observer editorial staff to keep sending her back week after week despite political pressure, to cope with her fierce emotional involvement, and to help shape her journalistic skills.
Higgins, who resigned from the diplomatic service in the hope of winning Holland back, followed her to Northern Ireland but was unsuccessful. Her coverage of the civil rights movement led her into a passionate relationship with the Derry Trotskyite and journalist Eamonn McCann; they became lovers during the 'Battle of the Bogside' (12–14 August 1969), lived together intermittently (McCann moving between Holland's London residence and Derry), and had a son and a daughter (the latter, Kitty Holland, became an Irish Times reporter). Holland maintained a relatively structured and conventional household. (The daughter of another journalist‑friend who was also a single parent but of more bohemian tendencies recalled envying the Holland children because of this, recalling that Holland cooked them a traditional roast with Yorkshire pudding every Sunday evening.) Holland and McCann separated in the early 1980s.
Those who came into contact with Holland in Northern Ireland were struck by the confidence with which she wielded her press card in dangerous situations and the emotional empathy she showed as she became involved, but which could vanish when circumstances dictated. She was frequently outspoken when she believed she detected hypocrisy or injustice; the writer Mary Leland recalled her frightening ability 'to turn hot anger into cool action…[her] sense of knowing what is the right thing to do, or say, in any situation, [which] acts both like a steel in the soul and a glue in the heart' (Sunday Independent, 13 June 2004). This combination of the manners of a grande dame with political radicalism and emotional openness with confidantes persisted throughout her career. In an obituary Mary Kenny recalled seeing Harold Wilson 'shake hands deferentially' with Holland in Liverpool during the February 1974 Westminster general election: 'she was wearing an exquisite mink coat…It was as though she were the lady of the manor and he a forelock‑tugging supplicant' (ibid.). On the other hand, throughout her life her home parties were renowned for liveliness and frankness and she commanded intense affection. Her descriptions of the experiences of ordinary people and her insistence on explaining why someone's life experiences might lead them into supporting paramilitarism were widely praised as providing uncomfortable insights and counteracting facile dismissal of the conflict as mindless tribal warfare. Critics claimed that her empathy tended to favour republicans over unionists and that to explain the actions of extremists in this manner had the effect of palliating them; the fact that monstrous actions could derive from understandable motives did not, in this view, make them any less monstrous.
Holland was a reporter and presenter on London Weekend Television's 'Weekend world' programme (1972–88); when an interview with Dáithí Ó Conaill (qv) was broadcast almost simultaneously with the Birmingham bombings, she was widely criticised and her boss John Birt came under pressure to dismiss her. She regarded herself as a socialist and a believer in Irish unity; she praised the social policies of left‑wing London councils (including municipal childcare, from which she personally benefited) and was highly critical of the impact of the Conservative government's economic policies on ordinary workers in the 1980s.
In 1979 Holland resigned from the Observer after the new editor‑in‑chief, Conor Cruise O'Brien (1917–2008), whom she had criticised for implementing broadcasting restrictions when minister for posts and telegraphs in the Irish government (1973–7), objected to her profile of the Derry activist Mary Nelis who took part in 'blanket protests' in support of claims for political status by republican prisoners, including two of her sons. (Nelis was also central to Holland's and Michael Whyte's ITV documentary on life in the Creggan area of Derry, which won the 1980 Prix Italia.) According to Eamonn McCann (writing in the Derry Journal after Holland's death), O'Brien rewrote Holland's article (without her knowledge or approval) to cast doubt on Holland's view that Nelis had no ties to the IRA; this led to a public exchange in which O'Brien said he was 'ashamed' of her article, calling her personally honest but deceived by the 'expert conmen and women' of the Northern Ireland nationalist community. Holland then became Irish editor of the New Statesman and later returned to the Observer as a columnist after O'Brien's departure. In the early 1990s she threatened O'Brien with a libel suit when he stated that she favoured the Provisional IRA (a claim he retracted after her death).
Although Holland continued to straddle the Dublin–Belfast–London media, her activities thereafter became more Hibernocentric; she moved to Dublin in the mid 1970s. She regularly appeared on RTÉ discussion programmes. She co‑founded Magill magazine with Vincent Browne, and later worked as a columnist on the Sunday Tribune before finding a base at the Irish Times. Conor Brady of the Irish Times later recalled her as an 'invaluable resource' who 'could move from the Falls Road to the Shankill to the office of the secretary of state, writing with the same graceful fluidity and insight' (Up with the Times, 85), but stated that he recruited the former unionist activist Frank Millar to the paper in 1989 to compensate for her relative lack of rapport with unionist politicians. She was a regular attender at the Irish Times Tuesday 'features and ideas' editorial conferences. In 1990 she experienced tension with Brady over her advising Mary Robinson's presidential campaign on media strategy and over Brady's attempts to restrict what he saw as excessive pro‑Robinson partisanship among the paper's columnists.
Holland was active in single parents' groups and in highlighting such issues as domestic violence and conditions on Dublin's working‑class housing estates. She took a high‑profile role in the campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. She also campaigned for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland. While chairing the anti‑amendment campaign before the plebiscite on the 1983 eighth amendment (anti‑abortion) to the constitution, she publicly revealed that she had had an abortion in the early 1970s, and in so doing provoked violent criticism and some hate mail. She played a significant role in persuading protestant church leaders to oppose publicly the 1983 constitutional amendment; she denounced the (unsuccessful) 2002 proposal to amend the constitution, this time to restrict the scope of the 'X case' decision on abortion, as partitionist and sectarian: 'where are the protestant churches when Ireland needs them?' (James, 252.) She chaired the Dublin freelance branch of the National Union of Journalists. She was an active supporter of the British–Irish Association, serving on its executive committee for several years and attending its annual conferences in Oxford and Cambridge.
During the 1990s she was one of the most outspoken journalistic supporters of the peace process leading to the 1998 Belfast Agreement. She defended John Hume of the SDLP against criticism of his willingness to engage in negotiations with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin. At the same time, she responded to criticisms that she was insufficiently sensitive to unionist concerns. In 1994 she and Michael Whyte produced 'Shankill', a Channel 4 TV documentary on the economic and political plight of west Belfast loyalists, and she repeatedly praised David Trimble for his willingness to confront unionist hardliners, and called on Sinn Féin to be more responsive to his concerns.
In 1990 she was named Cork Woman of the Year, to her great satisfaction, and in 2003 she won a special ESB Media Award for her contribution to Irish journalism. In 1998 Holland began to develop the degenerative disease scleroderma, which caused her death in St Vincent's Hospital, Dublin, on 7 June 2004. At her request, her family revealed after her death that Irish health insurance did not cover long‑term hospice care and that this had forced her to leave the hospice where she had been staying a month before she died. She was buried in Mount Venus cemetery after a humanist service where speakers included John Hume and Seamus Heaney, who recalled her 'beautiful voice' and 'perfectly pitched intelligence'; the unionist MP Sylvia Hermon recalled her as a friend who always told the truth that needed to be told in the most gentle way.
A selection of her Irish Times columns was edited by her friend Mary Maher as How far we have travelled: the voice of Mary Holland (2004). Two Mary Holland journalism scholarships were inaugurated in her memory at the Dublin Institute of Technology in 2007.