Rob O'Sullivan

As you walk through UCC one could say that you only need look at the signs on buildings to learn about its history. One name dominates the place, of course, and that name is Boole. Never mind last year, the so-called ‘year of Boole’ when his name adorned every bollard and pole, there are still plenty of buildings that carry his name; there’s the Boole Basement and the Boole Library, and in the shadow of the latter lies a fresh bust dedicated to the first Professor of Mathematics in UCC. As you walk through more of UCC, you walk past the ORB, named for former UCC President Alfred O’Rahilly, and maybe you’ll pass the shell of the Windle Building, named for Sir Bertram Windle, President of the College as it transitioned from being Queen’s College Cork to UCC. Truly, UCC has a tradition of naming its buildings after its famous sons, and in the case of Dr James Watson, people who have relatively little to do with the College. There is one name, however, you really wouldn’t know from looking at the signs & building names, and that name is Mary Ryan.

Fellow St.Angela’s graduates, 1895
Fellow St.Angela’s graduates, 1895

Born in Cork in 1873 to Edward and Matilda Ryan, Mary was the first student of St.Angela’s College, which was initially founded as an all-girls Secondary school; St.Angela’s also operated as what was known as a ‘University top’. At the time, while women were allowed to attend Universities in Ireland, they were not allowed to attend lectures, so schools like St.Angela’s were required for women who wanted to get a University degree outside of Dublin & Belfast. Even though these schools existed, religious & societal pressures of the time meant it was still hard for women to get their education. Though Mary received her Bachelor of Arts degree from in 1895, she had not set foot inside of a Queen’s College Cork lecture hall, only attending the university to complete examinations. ‘University tops’ like St.Angela’s ceased to provide the function as a third-level school with the passing of the Irish Universities Act 1908.

In 1909, Ms. Ryan, fluent in French & German, was named the Professor of Romance Languages of the now-

Ceremony at UCC to mark the Centenary of the appointment of Mary Ryan as the first female professor in Ireland.
Ceremony at UCC to mark the Centenary of the appointment of Mary Ryan as the first female professor in Ireland.

University College Cork, and in doing so she became the first female Professor of a University in both Ireland and Great Britain. She served as a Professor of the institution for around 30 years, often sending students to the Sorbonne to complete their Postgraduate education; for this and her published writings she was awarded a Doctor of Letters by the University of Paris, and the ‘Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur’ by the French government, the highest merit a civilian can attain in France.

Mary Robinson, the first female President of Ireland, was involved in a 2010 project to commemorate Professor Ryan, spoke highly of the academic:

“I actually didn’t know, at that time, about Mary Ryan. I don’t think enough of us – especially women, in Ireland – know enough about her… I was interested to read that, although women weren’t prohibited from going to University, that the Church and the community, and Universities themselves, were not keen that women students would turn up; and that Mary Ryan actually went to St.Angela’s College – the Ursuline Nuns, who wanted to support bright women students, and provided them with this access to University lectures that enabled her to take her degree, and 15 years later she was appointed Professor of Romance

Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland
Mary Robinson, first female President of Ireland

Languages, and my understanding is that she taught in a wonderful way for more than thirty years, and was beloved of her students and her colleagues. That in itself is a remarkable achievement.”

Seán Ó Faoláin, a famous Irish short-story writer, and former student of Professor Ryan, described her in a 1949 to fellow UCC alum & academic Aloys Fleischmann: “Mary Ryan- a monster as a professor: a sweet old lady no doubt. Do you know what she used to do? She used to TEACH us! Sacred Heart-teaching in a University!!!! You know grammar and syntax and this and that and… Oh! And Ah! and groans. And everybody said she was marvellous because she did teach the little ducks, spoonfed them, breastfed them, predigested their pap for them.” While Ó Faoláin would later somewhat recant his slating of his University days, this 1949 letter shows the context in which Professor Ryan operated.

Professor Ryan taught many students in her years in University College Cork, retiring in 1938, aged 65. She passed away in 1961, aged 88. When she died, according to the former Uachtarán na hÉireann, her obituaries mainly contained stories about her brothers, and their accomplishments. This claim was supported by a press release from the college in 2010, which stated; “Obituaries published at the time of her death in 1961 barely touch her remarkable accomplishments, but make extensive references to the success of her brothers all of whom achieved distinction in their professional careers.” In a way, her death was perfectly representative of her life: no matter what she did, no matter what she could accomplish, no matter what records she broke, Professor Ryan was always put in the context of and overshadowed by her male colleagues.

A lot of people reading this may have only heard of Professor Ryan from a wall in the ORB that details some of her history, but most may not know of her at all. I won’t deny that the aforementioned academics, Boole, O’Rahilly & Windle, deserve the honour of having a building named after them, but it seems ridiculous to this writer that anything in UCC be named after someone who had relatively little to do with the University, like Watson, especially considering his questionable personal beliefs.

While Professor Ryan’s life was one of triumph – triumph over the time & society in which she lived – yet the time after her death has rather been one of sadness, as this trailblazer, this hero for women, has been effectively forgotten by her successors.