The stories that she told: Mary Mulvihill (1959-2015)

13 Feb 2018

Science communication pioneer Mary Mulvihill, who passed away in 2015 after a short illness. Image: Brian Dolan

In an extract from ‘Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland’, Cormac Sheridan looks back on the legacy of one of Ireland’s greatest science communicators.

Mary Mulvihill’s career was shot through with a highly individual, distinctive quality, which had at its core an intellectual engagement with science with an almost moral force. The unifying principle that underpinned all of her work was a vocational commitment to science. It imbued her output in science journalism and science communication with a conviction and a sense of purpose that went beyond the immediate concerns of a given assignment or project.

Science pervaded Mulvihill’s world view. It was bound up in her sense of herself and in her relationship with the world around her. So, finding a place for science in Ireland’s sense of itself was the thread that linked all of her efforts in print and broadcast journalism, in the books that she wrote or edited and in the radio programmes and documentaries she made, in her advocacy and in her later cultural work in scientific and industrial heritage. Allied to this was a rich talent for storytelling, in the spoken and written word, which made her the country’s outstanding science communicator of her time.

Her legacy extends beyond that professional accomplishment, however. Mulvihill’s personal commitment to Ireland’s scientific heritage and to the many Irish women in science who had been written out of history transformed her from being a commentator to a custodian.

Mulvihill’s work evinced no particular intellectual allegiance to, or reliance on, genetics, the discipline she studied (with considerable academic success) at Trinity College Dublin. She roamed freely over – and delved deeply into – the earth sciences, astronomy, chemistry, physics, mathematics, biology, ecology, archaeology, medicine and engineering.

Her real strengths lay in covering areas of her own choosing rather than working in domains that others defined. She largely abandoned the routines of beat reporting centred on the publication of scientific papers in high-impact (or ‘prestigious’) journals, the championing of successful Irish scientists or companies and debates on research funding, and the convolutions of science policy development. Instead, she immersed herself in an extraordinary six-year research effort that led to her greatest achievement, Ingenious Ireland, the standard reference for any reader interested in the history of Irish science and technology.

Ingenious Ireland became the springboard for the final stage of her career, during which she mixed journalism and writing with other forms of communication, including her themed walking tours, apps and audio guides. These covered a broad range of topics, among them Dublin’s history of innovation; the geology of Dublin; the geography, history and ecology of the River Barrow; the Hill of Tara; and the Botanic Gardens. Much of this work drew on the research effort she expended on the book. She applied new formats and new modes of communication to the wealth of material she had amassed, and moved further away from conventional journalism. By this point, Mulvihill embodied the old cliché of being ‘a walking encyclopaedia’.

Mulvihill’s career in journalism followed four years as a research officer at the State agricultural research institute An Foras Talúntais, now Teagasc. She very soon found a voice, an inimitable way of writing and of speaking that lent her work in print and in broadcast media a very particular style. It was assured and authoritative without being didactic or dogmatic. She had a learned curiosity about – and an enthusiasm for – science that readers and listeners found inviting and engaging.

Fittingly, her final column in The Irish Times (9 April 2015) touched on one of her great concerns, which was to restore women scientists to their rightful place in the history of their discipline. It commemorated the work of Annie Russell, the Irish solar astronomer who came to prominence early in the 20th century.

Russell had studied mathematics at Cambridge University and came top of her class in her final exams but she left without a degree, as women were not permitted to graduate in those days. When she married her husband (and boss) Walter Maunder in 1895, she had to relinquish her job at the Greenwich Observatory in London. But she continued to collaborate with her husband over several decades, even though their joint achievements in the study of sunspots and solar storms were solely credited to Walter initially.

“Such were the restrictions facing women scientists then, but today there’s a crater on the moon named after her,” Mulvihill wrote.

Achieving true gender equality in science remains very much a work in progress, an effort to which Mulvihill’s contribution – particularly through her founding of WITS (Women in Technology and Science) in 1990 – has been seminal and substantial.

Her penultimate column in The Irish Times (12 March 2015) touched on another key concern: the neglect of science in Ireland in the decades after independence. Here, she finds a fresh angle on the ‘two cultures’ debate, which was another of her ongoing preoccupations (she steered clear of the science wars that followed).

She deploys a quotation from William Butler Yeats (1889) to suggest the literary revival of the late 19th century may have contributed to the marginalisation of science in post-independent Ireland: “There are two boats going to sea. In which shall we sail? There is the little boat of science. Every century a new little boat of science starts and is shipwrecked; and yet again another puts forth, gaily laughing at its predecessors. Then there is the great galleon of tradition, and on board it travel the great poets and dreamers of the past.”

“With partition,” Mulvihill noted, “Ireland’s two-culture divide was hardwired into the island. When VS Pritchett visited Belfast in 1923, he discovered that Dublin was a town of poets, but that in industrial Belfast, ‘poetry don’t drive many rivets’.” That neglect, Mulvihill argued, has had implications for “our history and heritage, our sense of identity, and the options we might envisage for the future of the country at the start of our second century, including relations with Belfast and the Northern riveters”.

Finding the stories in stones

Mulvihill had a particular facility for geology. She was adept at compressing millions of years of geological time – and unwieldy mouthfuls of geological jargon – into gems of insight.

The radio documentary Pedals and Pebbles, first broadcast in March 1995, conveys Mulvihill’s enthusiasm for the subject. It was awakened by her love of hill-walking and a realisation that, despite the proximity to rock that hill-walking brings, she knew nothing about geology.

“You walk over all this rock, and you never notice it, and you never learn from it, yet it has so much to say – it has history written in it, it is time captured in a kind of a capsule,” she stated, by way of introduction.

Produced by Dick Warner, the piece follows Mulvihill as she cycles (a favoured mode of transport) in and around Dublin, to sites and to buildings of geological interest, and describes what she sees in a fluid, conversational style. We begin at Dalkey Hill, where, about 200 years earlier, granite was quarried to build Dún Laoghaire pier and harbour and later the seawall that protects the railway line to Dublin. She later inspects that seawall at Booterstown Marsh – the last remains of a large lagoon formed by the wall’s construction – and finds incorporated into the wall’s structure what may be a discarded granite sleeper used during the early life of the railway line. Here, too, the limestone from which much of Dublin is built is visible. The sedimentary rock, she noted, is “built up over the years as the sediment is laid down, almost like growth rings in a tree”.

In Dublin, she visits Christ Church Cathedral, which was originally built from wood in the 11th century, but which the Normans started to rebuild in stone from the 12th century. We are taken to the corner of Dame Street and Foster Place to learn about a very particular type of Welsh green slate, made from what was once volcanic ash, in the building once occupied by Riada Stockbrokers, and now housing a branch of Starbucks.

The road surface of Foster Place is also noteworthy. It is paved with setts – not cobblestones – that are rectangular pieces of stone from a quarry in Co Wicklow once owned by Charles Stewart Parnell. These are made from diorite, an igneous rock, formed from cooling lava or magma.

“Most of Dublin is actually paved with these sett stones – you don’t see them now, because they are lying under the tarmac,” Mulvihill noted. Actual cobblestones are irregular, naturally rounded, stones, which were often taken from beaches. Front Square in nearby Trinity College Dublin offers a good example.

Mulvihill also considered the old library building in Trinity, which is made from calp, a widely used type of local limestone that has a muddy appearance. “So much of Dublin was built over the years with this dirty, muddy limestone that it earned the title ‘dear old dirty Dublin’.”

The programme ends at Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, where many notable figures from Ireland’s scientific and cultural history are buried. “A veritable forest of stone,” Mulvihill calls it, as she wanders among the headstones, observing their geological and biographical details. She finally alights on the grave of Thomas Drummond, a Scots-born engineer and surveyor who developed a powerful form of pre-electrical lighting based on limelight, which is generated by exposing quicklime (calcium oxide) to an oxyhydrogen flame. It was first used in 1825 on Slieve Snaght in Co Donegal, during the first ordnance survey of Ireland.

“It’s curious, the things that endure. Thomas Drummond’s name is all but forgotten; his limelight is gone. We remember just the phrase, ‘in the limelight’. And so many of the stones around me, their inscriptions are illegible. They no longer tell the story of the person they commemorate, the person they remember. But stones themselves endure; and they remain, and they tell their own story.”

Walking in the footsteps of others

It was in her magnum opus, Ingenious Ireland, that Mulvihill really found her voice. It’s a book with an extraordinary scope and sweep, a sui generis publication. It combines the range and authority of an encyclopaedia with the intimacy that comes with a single authorial voice. County by county, Mulvihill mined the rich seam of Ireland’s scientific, industrial, geological, ecological and archaeological heritage. From it, she extracted a rich repository of historical understanding and insight. Each entry is written as a brief standalone article, but the whole is richly indexed and cross-referenced to capture the connections between the people, places and ideas the book covers.

Mulvihill was not the first to attempt to reclaim Ireland’s discarded scientific legacy, but no one had previously done so on such a scale or with such panache. The book appeared just as the country had begun to re-embrace science, albeit with what was often quite a narrow, largely enterprise-led agenda. Ingenious Ireland is, by its nature, a capacious, baggy undertaking with no single message or argument to be distilled. In its totality, however, it can be taken as a reminder that the influence of good science may endure over timescales that extend far beyond those contemplated by immediate policy objectives or the perceived needs of industry or the economy.

On Dublin's Merrion Square, where cat-loving Erwin Schrodinger, Nobel physicist, and temporary Irishman, worked for 17 years, are the geeky guides Ronan Lyne, Ingenious Ireland founder Mary Mulvihill, and Patrick Roycroft

On Dublin’s Merrion Square, where cat-loving Erwin Schrödinger, Nobel physicist and temporary Irish man, worked for 17 years, are the geeky guides Ronan Lyne, ‘Ingenious Ireland’ founder Mary Mulvihill and Patrick Roycroft. Image: Barry Cronin

In Ingenious Ireland can be found accounts of the oldest footprints in the northern hemisphere (the fossilised trace of an early amphibian that lived on Valentia Island, Co Kerry, 385m years ago), icehouses built to preserve food on the great estates of the 18th century, and the intrepid career of the engineering genius from Co Down, Harry Ferguson, Ireland’s first aviator and an innovator in the design of ploughing systems and of the iconic tractor that bears his name.

Here, too, is a colourful account of the career of Sir Peter Freyer, the flamboyant urological surgeon from Co Galway who worked in India and Britain, and who, Mulvihill noted, “first came to prominence in 1888 when he successfully removed a bladder stone from the Rajah of Rampar, who gratefully paid him £10,000”. He later developed a prostatectomy procedure that remained the standard for the next 50 years, and was known to provide a running commentary in both French and Hindustani when demonstrating the technique in front of an audience of his professional peers.

She wrote about the self-taught marine biologist Maude Delap, who made significant contributions to the study of jellyfish from her home-built laboratory on Valentia. She detailed the achievements of Kildare-born chemist and crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale, who showed that benzene, an important petrochemical, had a flat, hexagonal ring structure and, in 1945, became the first woman to be elected a fellow of Britain’s Royal Society since its foundation in 1660. She covered the career of Kathleen Lynn, one of Ireland’s first women doctors, who was chief medical officer of the Irish Citizen Army during the 1916 Rising and who later led the all-female staff at Teach Ultan, or St Ultan’s Clinic, in Dublin, Ireland’s first hospital dedicated to children.

In its depiction of Dublin, in particular, as a full participant in the emergence of a professional scientific and technological elite in the United Kingdom during the 19th century, Ingenious Ireland offers an intriguing counter-narrative to the more familiar nationalist narratives of that time. Ireland was, obviously, the location for Daniel O’Connell’s campaigns for Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Act of Union; the Great Famine; and the post-famine push for land reform and Home Rule. At the same time, Mulvihill reminds us, it was also the place where William Rowan Hamilton carved his famous equation for multiplying four-dimensional complex numbers he called quaternions, on Broom Bridge on the Royal Canal; where George Francis FitzGerald proposed that nothing could travel faster than the speed of light and whose work on the Lorentz-FitzGerald contraction was a cornerstone of Einstein’s theory of relativity; and where the Offaly-born, Galway-based scientist George Johnstone Stoney proposed the concept of the ‘electrine’ (which he later revised as ‘electron’) to describe the fundamental unit of electricity.

Ideas and personnel flowed between Ireland and Britain prior to and after independence. Prominent scientific ‘imports’ included George Boole and the chemist Edmund Davy, who discovered acetylene, a scientifically and industrially important hydrocarbon; while notable exports included John Tyndall and JD Bernal, major figures in British science in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively.

Mulvihill did not seek to privilege one narrative over the other. At the time of her death, she had been planning a book on the Great Famine – but she demanded that we take ownership of the full complexity of Ireland’s history and include in it the great Anglo-Irish scientific tradition. In scale and impact, it was arguably just as significant as the Irish language and literary revivals, with which it partially overlapped. Her argument is implicit rather than explicit – she makes no grand rhetorical claims in the book. She simply sets out, entry after entry, to show that this island has a rich history in science and engineering, as well as precious ecological and archaeological riches, and, in so doing, she deepens and enriches our understanding of Ireland.

Mary Mulvihill

Mary Mulvihill. Image: Brian Dolan

The great astronomical telescope at Birr Castle, Co Offaly, further demonstrates that 19th-century Ireland was, in current parlance, internationally competitive in terms of its capabilities in science and technology, even while much of its population suffered from grinding poverty and lack of opportunity. Helped by the great wealth of his wife, Mary Field, William Parsons, the third Earl of Rosse, spent more than two decades perfecting the creation of large-scale mirrors before building the world’s largest telescope in 1845.

The Leviathan, a reflecting telescope, superseded an instrument installed at Greenwich Observatory in London in the 1780s. It was based on a highly polished mirror, measuring 6ft in diameter and cast from four tonnes of molten alloy. The metal took four months to cool in an oven specially built to prevent it from cracking. The mirror was encased in a wooden tube, 54ft long, and the entire apparatus weighed 12 tonnes.

Within a month of its completion, in March 1845, Parsons made his first – and, Ingenious Ireland notes, only – significant discovery of a spiral-shaped cluster of stars he called the Whirlpool Nebula.

The vast bulk of the instrument made it difficult to manoeuvre and its location in the damp, boggy midlands was not ideal. Clear skies were not very frequent and the mirror was prone to tarnishing. But, here, the trajectory of mid-19th-century scientific and technological innovation in Ireland collides directly with the immense upheavals of the Famine. Astronomical research was abandoned at Birr just a few months after it started, and the Parsons family concentrated on famine relief works for a number of years. Research was resumed in 1848 and Birr became an important training ground for Irish astronomers over several decades and a magnet for overseas visitors.

Although the Leviathan remained the world’s largest telescope until 1917, it had become derelict by then. Its renovation in the 1990s as the centrepiece of a science heritage centre at Birr Castle enables visitors to train their perspectives anew on some of Ireland’s forgotten achievements in science, technology and engineering.

On a larger scale, that too is Mulvihill’s enduring legacy. By her close application of a scientific lens to Ireland’s history and its natural history, she uncovered or recovered many layers of knowledge that had been forgotten or discarded. In restoring that knowledge to the present era, her work invites us to consider or reconsider the stories Ireland tells about itself and to itself, what it values, what it neglects, and, most of all, what other stories it might include.

By Cormac Sheridan

Cormac Sheridan is a Dublin-based science journalist who has covered the global biotechnology industry for more than 20 years, primarily for US-based publications.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Little Country, Big Talk: Science Communication in Ireland, edited by Brian Trench, Dr Pádraig Murphy and Dr Declan Fahy. The book was published in April 2017 by Pantaneto Press and the Celsius research group at Dublin City University and is available at Hodges Figgis, Books Upstairs and online.

The Mary Mulvihill Award was established by the family and friends of the late Mary Mulvihill to honour her memory and her work in science journalism, science communication and heritage. Submissions on this year’s topic – Science: Whose truth? Whose facts? – are invited until 30 March 2018.