From the first female computer programmer to the Kelvin unit of temperature: the contribution of Ulster researchers

By Irish Research Council

Posted: 1 July, 2016

Advances in modern technology, findings in Irish history and the Kelvin unit of temperature were just a few of the advances made by our heroes of the past in Ulster. These discoveries and studies have inspired our heroes of the present to continue the brilliant research they are doing, and to become an inspiration for the next generation to come.

This month, our #LoveIrishResearch theme has been profiling researchers – both past and present – who have made significant contributions to Irish research. This week, Ulster researchers were under the spotlight.

Heroes of the Past

  • Maxwell Simpson from Beach Hill, Armagh was a celebrated Irish chemist born in 1815. He devised a superior method of determining nitrogen in organic compounds. In 1872 he was appointed Professor of Chemistry at Queens College, Cork, and held that position until his retirement in 1892.
  • Next to Antrim –  the home of Matilda Knowles from Galgorm near Ballymena. Knowles curated the herbarium at the National Museum of Science and Art and her 1929 publication The Lichens of Ireland was widely hailed as one of the finest pieces of work in the field of Irish botany.
  • Also from Antrim, and both born in Belfast were Lord Klevin (William Thompson) and John Stewart Bell – renowned physicists. In 1848 Lord Klevin introduced the Kelvin unit of temperature, while Bell made a significant contribution to quantum theory with his “Bell’s Theorem”, deviating from Einstein’s theory of relativity and showing that it is possible to detect instantaneous communication between distant sub-atomic particles.
  • Poet and dramatist, Charlotte Brooke, was born at Rantavan House in Mullagh, Cavan circa 1730 and was a pioneer in the introduction of Irish culture to readers in English. She is recognised as a forerunner of the 19th century literary movement for the revival of Irish and the formation of the Gaelic League.
  • Research heroes from Derry include Helena Concannon, of Magherafelt, who was born in 1878. She became one of the first historians to focus on the role of women in Ireland’s past and broke new ground in her research in the archives of convents and religious orders. Notably, she was elected to Dáil Éireann as a Fianna Fáil Teachta Dála (TD) in the 1933 general election for the National University of Ireland constituency.
  • Co Donegal is home to two female researchers: Kay McNulty and Maude Jane Delap. Kay, from Cresslough, was part of the six woman ENIAC team who programmed the first digital computer for the US military during World War II.  Maude, who was born in 1866 in Templecrone, made the complex lifecycle of the jellyfish her life’s work. She researched these creatures on Valentia Island and gave her name to the Edwardsia deaplae species.
  • Robert Lloyd Praeger, born just one year earlier than Delap in 1865 made a significant contribution to the study of Ireland’s natural history. Particularly speaking, post glacial geology, which helps us understand the country’s climate in Neolitic times. The Holywood native’s work laid the ground for the establishment of paleoecology, which uses data from fossils to reconstruct past ecosystems, as a distinct field of study in Ireland.
  • Next to Fermannagh, which was home to Kesh native William MooreGorman. Born in 1923, he was one of the formulators of modern consumer theory and his ideas are evident in mainstream economics and marketing.
  • Finally, Tyrone researchers from the past include Patrick Aloysius Murray and Annie Scott Dill Maunder.  Clones native Patrick was born in 1811. He was a theologian who wrote for the Dublin Review before penning his most well-known work ‘De Ecclesia Christi’. Annie, an astronomer and observer of solar eclipses, was born in Strabane in 1868. She was internationally renowned and her name is now mainly linked with the “butterfly diagram” in astronomy. She became an expert in sunspots and discovered the Little Ice Age.

Heroes of the Present

  • Jonathan Johnston is continuing the legacy of Matilda Knowles, Lord Kelvin and John Stewart Bell in contemporary Antrim research. Johnston comes from Belfast and explores personal and national identity in German/Swiss writing. He is conducting his research at Trinity College in Dublin.
  • Eoin O’Brien and Oisín Callery are both flying the Cavan flag. O’Brien from Cootehill is researching at University of Limerick into the BVD virus, a pestivirus infection of cattle, with the aim of controlling the disease and contributing to vaccination strategies; while Callery from Blacklion is investigating ways to protect the environment from nutrient losses arising from forestry operations.
  • Next to Donegal where Catherine Faherty, Martin McConigley and Jason Harold are all currently involved in research. Faherty is researching family businesses in Europe at Dublin City University; McConigley is researching the ways in which the political boundary between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has shaped fiction by writers on both sides of the border; while Harold is identifying and investigating the factors that impact on household energy consumption patterns in Ireland.
  • James O’Neill, from Belfast is continuing the legacy of Robert Lloyd Praeger at University College Cork. He is researching the Nine Years War, which holds an important place in Irish history as it was the closest the native Irish came to overcoming English power in Ireland.
  • Gregory Tierney, contemporary Fermanagh researcher and engineer, continues the legacy of William Moore Gorman at University College Cork. Gregory is using video evidence and biomechanical assessment tools to establish the scenarios that increase a rugby player’s risk of concussion. With his results, a concussion prevention training strategy will be able to be developed and can be implemented by coaches into both elite rugby player training programmes and youth level rugby.
  • Finally we have Claire Hamilton and Barry Sheils who represent contemporary researchers from Tyrone. Claire Hamilton is researching counterterrorism and EU justice policy at NUI Maynooth, while Shiels is undertaking a literary study into care environments during the First World War.

These researchers, to name but a few are just a sample of native Ulster, researchers from the past and present, who have made an impact in Irish research. Keep an eye out for our Leinster researchers, coming next!

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