Mary McAleese: Who is she, and why is she coming here?

Most Americans would be sadly hard-pressed to name the prime minister of Canada, so when the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities announced that the president of Ireland was coming, well, the shameful response was, who's that?

Her name is Mary McAleese. She's the first Irish president from Northern Ireland, and the second consecutive woman in that role, which is not to be confused with the prime minister, who heads the executive branch like the U.S. president.

While the Irish presidency is a largely symbolic and ceremonial role with no direct political power, McAleese tells the Harvard Bulletin that it was just that symbolism that attracted her to the job.

And to be elected to be titular head of state in an election where she, as a Northern Irish, couldn't even vote and elected by the widest margin ever– is indeed rife with symbolism.

Looming is another crucial election in the Northern Ireland peace process that depends upon the disarmament of the Irish Republican Army.

As keynote speaker, McAleese will open "Re-Imagining Ireland" May 7, and organizer Andrew Wyndham calls her presence "a real coup."

He says, "We chose her not because she's the president, but because she does represent the sense of unity of the culture."