For the first time in 230 years, there are Women on Walls of the RIA

8 Dec 2016

Artist Vera Klute smiles in front of her portraits of Irish women scientists at the Royal Irish Academy. Image: Luke Maxwell

A campaign driven by Accenture Ireland led to the unveiling of the first portaits of women to adorn the walls of the Royal Irish Academy.

If you didn’t happen to be at the Women on Walls unveiling in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) last night (7 December), one simple tweet from contributor Claire O’Connell captured the essence of the event and why it had to happen.

O’Connell recalled a time, years ago, when she visited the RIA with her daughter Niamh Scanlon – who today ends her reign as EU Digital Girl of the Year. Observing the many portraits on the walls honouring notable scientists, Scanlon wondered: why were they all men?

Inspirefest 2017

This is an observation that has become increasingly difficult to ignore amid growing demand – and need – for prominent women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

In 2013, Accenture Ireland teamed up with Silicon Republic to find out why young women weren’t engaging with STEM subjects at the same level as their male peers. Accenture’s research, published in 2014, identified a lack of female role models as a key issue. Essentially, these young women couldn’t be what they could not see.

The need to address this drove the creation of Women on Walls, a campaign led by Accenture’s Michelle Cullen and Eithne Harley aiming to increase the number of women appearing on the walls of institutions such as the Royal Irish Academy.

Past, present and future

Which brings us to the unveiling of the first portraits of women at the RIA in its 230-year history.

“We’re really, really proud. It’s a fantastic day for us,” said RIA CEO Laura Mahoney. “It’s just going to totally change the feel of the space as you come into the academy.”

The paintings were commissioned with the help of Business to Arts, which issued an open call to artists in Ireland that attracted 55 applications.

Four individual portraits of the first women admitted to the Royal Irish Academy were painted by artist Vera Klute. An additional painting by Blaise Smith features eight more present-day Irish scientists.

By celebrating the pioneers of the past and the present leaders, Women on Walls can ensure a bright future for young women who will no longer have to wonder if there is a place for them in institutions wallpapered with male faces.

“It’s the simplicity of the idea: putting a picture on the wall,” said Alastair Blair, Accenture Ireland MD.

“It makes people look. It makes people see. It brings the story of the individual alive. So please goodness, we will see far more women on walls.”

The Women on Walls

So, who are the women now gracing the walls of the Royal Irish Academy?

Mathematical physicist Sheila Tinney (1918–2010) was described by Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger as “among the best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of physicists” in Ireland.

Award-winning botanist Phyllis Clinch (1901–1984), considered to be one of Ireland’s greatest women in science, paved the way for new disease-resistant crop varieties and effective procedures for controlling plant diseases through her research on viruses.

David Clinch, her nephew, was there to witness the unveiling. “We always knew that she was a bit special academically, even at a young age. But we didn’t quite understand that she was a foreruner for many women professors, and she seemed to open a door.”

Françoise Henry (1934–1982) was one of the most important 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.

Eleanor Knott (1886–1975), who researched classical Irish literature, taught herself to read modern Irish before going on to study old Irish at the School of Irish Learning in Dublin, winning a scholarship to continue her studies in 1907.

The group portrait depicts recipients of European Research Council starter grants between 2012 and 2015.

Prof Aoife McLysaght, Prof Emma Teeling, Prof Lydia Lynch and Dr Maria McNamara from’s Science 50 list of incredible Irish women in science have all been immortalised, along with Prof Sarah McCormack, Dr Aoife Gowen, Prof Debra Laefer and Prof Caitríona Lally.

The Science 50 is itself a result of the Women Invent campaign, which led to Accenture’s research on women in STEM. Since 2013, Silicon Republic has made female representation part of its agenda, ensuring women in STEM are profiled regularly on the site and highlighting the varied and inspirational women in STEM around the world through the Women Invent 100 and its companion list, the Science 50.

Speaking of the portraits, McLysaght said: “I think it is just one of the many ways in which you do need visible role models. It is important to see people doing what you’d like to do, to help you imagine doing it.”

Accenture Women on Walls

Some of Ireland’s top women scientists admire the Women on Walls group portrait by artist Blaise Smith. Image: Luke Maxwell

The Women on Walls portraits are now available to view by the public at Academy House, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2. They can also be viewed online, along with the full story of the campaign and background information on the academics, scientists and artists.

Editor’s Note, 2.03pm, 13 December 2016: Since the publication of this article, we have noted that there is a portrait of a woman hanging outside the Gold Room of the Royal Irish Academy. This portrait – of a novelist – does not feature a member of the academy, and is part of the RIA’s broader art collection. The Woman on Walls initiative is responsible for commissioning the first paintings of female academics ever to be put on display in the public areas of Academy House, and remains a significant step in changing how the academy itself is perceived. We have decided to leave the article as it was originally published, along with this note for clarity.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.