Tuesday, 2 July 2019

12 outstanding women
scientists and academics
make their mark in Dublin

‘Eight Scientists’ by Blaise Smith (oil on gesso panel, 2016) … from left: Professor Emma Teeling, Professor Catríona Lally, Professor Debra Laefer, Professor Lydia Lynch, Professor Aoife Gowen, Dr Maria McNamara, Professor Sarah McCormack, Professor Aoife McLysaght (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on image for full-screen view)

Patrick Comerford

When I was at the launch of the new book Marriage and the Irish in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin two weeks ago [18 June 2019], I also took time to appreciate the five portraits in the ‘Women on Walls’ exhibition in the academy house in Dawson Street, Dublin.

This exhibition is part of a campaign by Accenture in partnership with the RIA to make women leaders visible through a series of commissioned portraits, creating a lasting cultural legacy for Ireland.

Four of these portraits, painted by artist Vera Klute, depict four academics and scientists who were the first female elected members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1949. They were pioneers in their fields which included mathematical physics, Irish art history, plant viruses and classical Irish literature.

The fifth painting is a group portrait by Blaise Smith of eight contemporary female scientists who are recipients of European Research Council Starter Grants (2012-2015). These eight scientists were chosen as representatives of outstanding female scientists working in Ireland today. Their areas of expertise include light and solar panels, genetics, human aging, immunology and bio medical engineering among others.

The artist Blaise Smith says: 'A group portrait is always interesting because you have to capture the individuals and their personalities but also make the painting of the group work … as the painter chosen to do it, I feel privileged to be given this responsibility.’

These eminent women academics and scientists mark the positive change that has happened in Irish society over the last 100 years.

Vera Klute, who painted the first women elected as members of the Royal Irish Academy in 1949, said: ‘Each of the women have strong personalities and also very distinct features, which makes this project artistically interesting … It is a challenge to create a good likeness from very limited photographic material.’

Laura Mahoney, Chief Executive of the Royal Irish Academy, says the RIA ‘wants to create role models to inspire our future generations. The people of Ireland should know of, and be proud of, the 12 extraordinary women whose portraits will hang on the walls of Academy House for years to come.’

The eight women in the group portrait by Blaise Smith are (from left in the portrait):

Professor Emma Teeling (UCD) is a world authority on bat genetics. She studies bats for insights into human diseases such as blindness and deafness as well as aging.

Professor Catríona Lally (TCD) is the principal investigator on a project focusing on developing a means of early diagnosis of degenerative cardiovascular diseases. These studies are highly relevant to stroke patients and patients with vascular disease.

Professor Debra Laefer (UCD) aims in her research to prevent damage to buildings above tunnel excavation, by developing a 3D modelling system that can predict what buildings are most likely to sustain damage during tunnelling.

Professor Lydia Lynch (TCD and Harvard Medical School) has found in her research that a type of anti-tumour immune cell protects against obesity and the metabolic syndrome that leads to diabetes. Results showing that immune cells known to be protective against malignancy called invariant natural killer T-cells (iNKT), that are lost when people become obese, can be restored through weight loss.

Her work has also shown that therapies that activate iNKT cells could help manage obesity, diabetes and metabolic disease.

Professor Aoife Gowen (UCD) is an expert in hyperspectral imagine. Her research is multidisciplinary, involving applications of hyperspectral imaging to biological systems, including foods, microbes and biomaterials.

Her ERC research project Biowater aims to uncover new knowledge on the interactions between water and biomaterials in order to understand processes involved in biocompatibility, biofouling and biodegradation.

Dr Maria McNamara (UCC) is a world expert on the fossilisation of colour in animals and has conducted ground-breaking work on the evolution of feathers in dinosaurs. She and her team have made a landmark discovery: the first example of a dinosaur that had both scales and feathers. The team found remains of a plant-eating dinosaur, known as Kulindadromeus zabaikalicus, the first example found of a herbivore dinosaur to have both feathers and scales, and adds credence to the theory that all dinosaurs may have been feathered.

Professor Sarah McCormack (TCD) in her research explores photovoltaic panels that convert solar energy into direct current electricity. Applying these panels to buildings is important in achieving 20% renewable energy targets by 2020. This disruptive photovoltaic technology would ensure dramatic reduced costs and increases in efficiency, helping to define and promote the EU and global solar agenda.

Professor Aoife McLysaght (TCD) is one of Ireland’s leading geneticists and was on the team that analysed the initial sequence of the human genome in 2001. She was also involved in a major discovery about how genes are formed.

The first four women elected members of the RIA in 1949 are:

The portrait of Sheila Tinney by Vera Klute in the Royal Irish Academy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Sheila Tinney (1918-2010) was born Sheila Christina Power in Galway, where her father, Michael Power or Mícheál de Paor was Professor of Mathematics at University College Galway, now NUI Galway. She was just one of eight girls to sit an honours mathematics paper in the Leaving Certificate in her year alongside 126 boys. It is believed she was the first Irish woman to receive a PhD in mathematics.

She was a pioneering academic in mathematical physics. She was described by the Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger as ‘among the best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of physicists in this country.’

Her published papers covered a range of topics from crystal lattices to wave mechanics, and she worked with great scientific figures such as Schrödinger, Yukawa and Heitler. She spent time at Princeton University in 1948, when Einstein was still teaching and Oppenheimer was director. She retuned to Ireland and became Associate Professor of mathematical physics at University College Dublin in 1966.There she gained a reputation as a strong role model for young female academics.

The portrait of Françoise Henry by Vera Klute in the Royal Irish Academy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Dr Françoise Henry (1902-1982) was one of the most important 20th-century historians of Irish art. She trained at the École du Louvre and the Sorbonne, establishing herself as an expert on very early forms of sculptural decoration, particularly in Early Christian Irish Art.

A visit to Ireland in 1926 inspired her doctoral thesis and her subsequent life’s work. Her noted works include Early Christian Irish Art (1954) and Irish High Crosses (1964), but her significant legacy to the history of Irish illumination is her final study of the Book of Kells (1974), which remains her most acclaimed work.

The portrait of Phyllis Clinch by Vera Klute in the Royal Irish Academy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Professor Phyllis Clinch (1901-1984) from Rathgar was an award-winning scientist and one of the greatest female inventors of her generation. She was world renowned for her innovative research into plant viruses. She graduated first in her class in University College Dublin in chemistry and botany in 1923, won a postgraduate scholarship and completed her PhD while working with Alexandre Guillermond at the Sorbonne.

She gained international fame in the 1930s for revealing complex viruses in the potato. In 1961, she became the first woman professor of botany at UCD and the first woman to receive the Boyle Medal of the Royal Dublin Society in recognition of her scientific achievements. She was known to generations of students by the respectful nickname ‘Auntie Phyll.’

The portrait of Eleanor Knott by Vera Klute in the Royal Irish Academy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Professor Eleanor Knott (1886-1975) from Ranelagh was a ‘pathbreaking’ researcher of classical Irish literature. Having taught herself to read modern Irish, she went on to study old Irish at the School of Irish Learning in Dublin and won a scholarship to continue her studies in 1907.

She joined the staff of the Royal Irish Academy in 1911. She published many scholarly articles and was the joint editor of Ériu, a leading academic journal of Irish language studies. She became a lecturer in Celtic language at Trinity College Dublin in 1928 and became Professor of Early Irish in 1939. She also received an honorary DLitt from the National University of Ireland.

All five portraits of these 12 outstanding women are now on permanent display at the Royal Irish Academy, and members of the public are welcome to visit the RIA to see them. Laura Mahoney hopes people will come into RIA house in Dawson Street, Dublin, ‘to see these portraits and find out about these women and their work.’

The portraits by Vera Klute of the first four women elected Members of the Royal Irish Academy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

A house on Rathgar Avenue
that played a key role in
the Irish Literary Revival

No 17 Rathgar Avenue, Dublin … the home of George Russell (Æ) from 1906 to 1932 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

During a recent stroll through Rathgar on my way to work on some research at the Representative Church Body Library, I passed the home at No 17 Rathgar Avenue of George Russell (Æ).

Although Russell is now often forgotten as a poet and writer, he one of the important figures in the Irish Literary Renaissance. He was a poet, writer, editor and critic, but was also an acclaimed painter, a founder with Sir Horace Plunkett of the Co-Operative movement, and in the 1930 advised Franklin D Roosevelt on his ‘New Deal.’

George William Russell, who wrote with the pseudonym Æ (sometimes written AE or A.E.), was born in Lurgan, Co Armagh, on 10 April 1867, the second son of Thomas Russell and Mary Armstrong. His father worked for Thomas Bell and Co, linen drapers, and the family moved to Dublin when George was an 11-year-old.

In Dublin, he went to school at Rathmines School, run by the Revd Dr Charles Benson. Later, he went to the Metropolitan School of Art, where he began his friendship with the poet William Butler Yeats. In the 1880s, Russell lived at the Theosophical Society lodge at 3 Upper Ely Place, sharing rooms with HM Magee.

Russell began working as a draper’s clerk, then worked for many years for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS), an agricultural co-operative society founded by Sir Horace Plunkett in 1894. Plunkett needed an able organiser in 1897, and Yeats suggested Russell.

Russell travelled throughout Ireland, speaking on behalf of the IAOS, helping set up credit societies and establishing Co-operative Banks.

He used the pseudonym ‘AE’ or ‘Æ,’ derived from an earlier Æon, signifying the lifelong human quest subsequently abbreviated. His first book of poems, Homeward: Songs by the Way (1894), established his place as a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival.

When Lord Curzon was the Viceroy of India (1899-1905), he said that whenever he was feeling ill from the tropical heat. he would cure himself by reading Russell’s poems.

Russell moved to 25 Coulson Avenue, Rathgar, in 1900. He met James Joyce in 1902 and introduced him to other Irish literary figures, including William Butler Yeats. He appears as a character in the ‘Scylla and Charybdis’ episode in Joyce’s Ulysses, where he dismisses Stephen Dedalus for his theories on Shakespeare. Dedalus borrows money from him and then remarks: ‘A.E.I.O.U.’

Russell moved around the corner to 17 Rathgar Avenue in early 1906. He was living there with his wife Violet and their sons, Bryan and Diarmuid, during the 1911 census. Under the heading ‘occupation,’ he wrote ‘artist and writer,’ with the words ‘oil paintings’ added underneath as if to affirm this statement.

During the 1913 Dublin Lock-out, he wrote an open letter to The Irish Times, criticising the attitude of the employers. He accused the employers of ‘refusing to consider any solution except that fixed by their pride’ and he accused them of seeking ‘in cold anger to starve one-third of this city, to break the manhood of the men by the sight of the suffering of their wives and the hunger of their children.’

His collected poems were published in 1913.

As a pacifist, Russell had no sympathy for the aims of the Easter Rising or the methods chosen the leaders of the rising. Yet he was deeply moved by the deaths of the leading rebels, and wrote of them in his poem ‘To the memory of some I knew who are dead and loved Ireland’ (1917):

And yet my spirit rose in pride
Refashioning in burnished gold
The images of those who died
Or were shut up in penal cell
Here’s to you Pearse, your dream, not mine
And yet the thought – for this you fell
Has turned life’s water into wine.


Russell was an independent delegate to the Irish Convention in 1917-1918, when he opposed John Redmond’s compromise on Home Rule. He became involved in the anti-partition Irish Dominion League, which was founded by Plunkett 100 years ago in 1919.

His house at 17 Rathgar Avenue became a meeting-place for people interested in the economic and artistic future of Ireland, and his Sunday evenings ‘at home’ became a fixture in Dublin literary life.

Frank O’Connor called him ‘the man who was the father to three generations of Irish writers.’ Patrick Kavanagh called him ‘a great and holy man.’ He also influenced PL Travers, the writer who created Mary Poppins.

Russell was the editor of the Irish Homestead, the journal of the IAOS, from 1905 to 1923. He then became editor of the Irish Statesman, the paper of the Irish Dominion League, which merged with the Irish Homestead, from 1923 to 1930.

Although a second edition of his poems was published in 1926, he had never earned much from his paintings or books, and when the Irish Statesman folded in 1930 he was without a job and faced poverty. But a fund-raising effort by friends and supporters allowed him to visit the US, where his books sold in large numbers.

Russell became increasingly disillusioned with the Irish Free State and the New Ireland. Soon after his wife Violet died, he sold his house at 17 Rathgar Avenue in 1932, gave away most of his possessions, and left Ireland. His move to London was arranged by Charles Weekes, and he settled at 41 Sussex Gardens.

Despite failing health, he went on a final lecture tour in the US, but returned physically and mentally exhausted. He moved to 14 Tavistock Place, London, on 16 March 1935. He signed his last will on 14 June 1935, leaving everything to his second son. He died of cancer at Havenhurst nursing home in Bournemouth on 17 July 1935. CP Curran, Charles Weekes, Oliver St John Gogarty and WK Magee (John Eglinton) were at his bedside.

James Stephens, Helen Waddell and others accompanied his coffin to Holyhead. His Anglican funeral in Dublin on 19 July was attended by Eamon de Valera, WT Cosgave, WB Yeats, and other leading figures in Irish public life.

The oration was delivered by Frank O’Connor, Yeats having declined because he would ‘have to speak the truth.’ He was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, following a mile-long procession.

The commemorative plaque was unveiled at his former home at 17 Rathgar Avenue in 1965.

The plaque unveiled at AE’s former home at 17 Rathgar Avenue in 1965 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)