President McAleese has described Pope John Paul II as happy and intellectually strong, though clearly showing the effects of age. She made the comments after a half hour audience with the 78-year-old pontiff in Rome and following a night of frantic speculation that he had died.

Mrs McAleese greeted the pope by asking him "Are you well, I heard you had the flu last week, I hope you are feeling a little better." He nodded but his answer was inaudible. News networks in Italy had gone on standby last night, following a rumour that the pope had died.

The discussions between President McAleese and the Pope concentrated on the problems of peace in Ireland. The President outlined the achievements so far, while the Pope expressed his satisfaction at what he called this pathway of reconciliation.

Yesterday in Rome the President said that she was looking forward to hearing the views of the Pope, and those of the Archbishop of Canterbury whom she is to meet in Rome tomorrow, on progress in the ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and Anglicans.

For her audience with the Pope, Mrs McAleese wore a full-length black velvet chenille coat with a fine lace shawl collar worn resting on her head. This was in contrast to Mary Robinson, the last Irish president to visit the Pope, who came bareheaded. A spokesperson said Mrs McAleese's choice of head covering was out of respect for the papal office.

Marine Minister Michael Woods and his wife Margo accompanied the president and her husband Martin during part of the audience. The Irish ambassador to the Holy See, Eamonn O'Toole, and a number of officials were also present.