Rediscovering the voice of poet Ethna MacCarthy

Portrait of MacCarthy by Séan O’Sullivan RHA used as the cover of her published poetry.

Ethna MacCarthy’s name is well-known in Irish literary circles but mostly in that way which infuriates those of us energised by the #WTF revolution – as a ‘friend’ and muse of a Great Man.

MacCarthy (1903-1959) was an undergraduate in Trinity in the  twenties; one of her circle was future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett who promptly fell in love with her. He was to immortalise her as Alba in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it was MacCarthy’s association with Beckett, along with her beauty and the recorded comments of men such as playwright Denis Johnston, which seemed destined to be all that survived of her biography.

MacCarthy was among the brightest of her undergraduate cohort; she won Scholarship, was a First Class Moderator, and went on to lecture in modern languages. She was a feminist before the word was invented, ‘prodigiously’ witty in French as well as English, outspoken, intellectually fearless and independent. Not content with her academic career she retrained as a medical doctor, as had her father, and became a pediatrician. And all the while she wrote poetry; a small number of her works appeared in literary journals and newspapers.

Ireland professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin at the launch.

After the death in 1979 of her husband, theatre critic Con Leventhal, his private papers came into the hands of his friend Eoin O’Brien. Among them was discovered the single notebook which represents all that remains of MacCarthy’s poetry. Professor O’Brien began the work of preparing them for publication and, when he showed them to poet Gerald Dawe, this plan grew wings.

The result is a beautiful production by Lilliput Press of MacCarthy’s first and only collection which was launched in the Long Room by Ireland Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin. The event, which was attended by members of Con Leventhal’s family, was enhanced by readings from the poetry by actress Cathy Belton.

‘Barcelona’ by Ethna MacCarthy (From MS 11602)

Gerald Dawe, who with Eoin O’Brien is an editor of the new collection, outlines in his introduction the many influences on MacCarthy which are revealed in her poetry; her literary and scientific professional experiences, the city of Dublin itself (which inspired some of her best work) and, as Dawe perceptively points out, the tension between the ‘performative’ and conventional elements of her life.

He goes on: ‘It was in the mid- to late 1940s that MacCarthy hit her stride as a poet with several very moving and self-confident poems. The decade sees the writing of ‘Lullaby’, a truly remarkable poem, which foreshadows the exposed lunar and death-haunted landscapes of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by well over a decade:

Each night the dragnets of the tide

take the shattered moon

beyond the harbour bar

but she reluctant suicide

nibbles her freedom and returns

to climb beside the nearest star.

One clear night endures her pain

to plunge to baptism again.’

Given what is known of MacCarthy’s personality, it cannot be doubted that, had she lived she herself would have ensured that her poetic voice was heard. Her death in her mid-fifties threatened this voice with being silenced. The editors of this wonderful collection are greatly to be thanked for the act of genuine friendship which secures MacCarthy’s place in the history of modernism in Ireland.

 

Dr Jane Maxwell

 

 

The Moon Landing and Sir William Rowan Hamilton

Space exploration would be unthinkable without the contribution of the Trinity College graduate, mathematician, poet and Professor of Astronomy William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), best known as the inventor of quaternions. Quaternions provide a mathematical notation for representing orientations and rotations of objects in three dimensions – essential for space flight. They are routinely employed by NASA, and were crucial in plotting the orbit of Apollo 11 around the moon. These equations are also used in many other established and emerging technologies, from the computer games industry to molecular dynamics.

Among the Library’s manuscript collections is the tiny notebook which contains Hamilton’s earliest surviving workings-out of the quaternion equation. As he recounted to Peter Guthrie Tait in a letter of 15 October 1858, ‘[I] felt the galvanic circuit of thought close; and the sparks which fell from it were the fundamental equations between i, j, k; exactly such as I have used them ever since. I pulled out on the spot a pocket-book, which still exists, and made an entry’.

The first ‘written’ recording of the quaternion equation was a piece of graffiti scratched by Hamilton on Broome Bridge in Dublin. In a letter to his son, Hamilton recalled the circumstances around his ‘discovery’ on 16 October 1843, ‘which happened to be a Monday, and a council day of the Royal Irish Academy – I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me, along the Royal Canal…yet an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance … nor could I resist – unphilosophical as it may have been – to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula … but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away’.

Although the inscription degraded within Hamilton’s lifetime the site is now commemorated with a plaque. 

Mathematicians and scientists from around the world (some with NASA connections) have made pilgrimages to see the little notebook in the Manuscripts & Archives Reading Room. The manuscript was also filmed for tomorrow’s RTE broadcast ‘The day we landed on the Moon’, where Professor Peter Gallagher, Adjunct Professor of Astrophysics at Trinity and Head of Astronomy and Astrophysics at DIAS, will explain the direct relationship with the Apollo missions.

Hamilton’s significance for the moon landing itself was very eloquently expressed by Buzz Aldrin when he visited the Library of Trinity College Dublin a few years ago. Whilst being shown around the Old Library he stopped at the marble bust of Sir William Rowan Hamilton and spoke of how this was the man that got them all back from the moon.

Estelle Gittins

 

 

The Dublin Apocalypse

The Library is digitising apocalypse manuscripts like there’s no tomorrow. The Dublin Apocalypse (TCD MS 64) contains the Latin text of the Book of Revelation, heavily decorated with 73 vibrant miniatures, and you can now see the Final Judgement in gold and vivid colour on our Digital Collections.

IE TCD MS 64, folio 31r

The imaging of this volume was completed to coincide with a one-day symposium based on the Dublin Apocalypse, taking place in the Neill Lecture Theatre of the Trinity Long Room Hub on Friday, 1 February 2019 from 9.45am. The event will draw together experts in their fields to discuss multiple aspects of the Dublin Apocalypse and its broader context. Attendance at what is sure to be an fascinating event is free but registration is essential at https://dublinapocalypse.eventbrite.ie.

IE TCD MS 64, folio 6r

Nigel Morgan, Professor Emeritus of the University of Cambridge, will discuss the iconography of the manuscript through an art historical lens. Michael Michael’s and Frederica Law-Turner’s papers will cast light on the Ormesby Psalter and delve into the East Anglian school of manuscripts. James T. Palmer, of the University of St Andrews, will study the circulation, interpretation, and use of the Book of Revelation in the Middle Ages.  

Bernard Meehan, former Head of Research Collections and Keeper of Manuscripts at the Library of Trinity College Dublin will recount the curious story of how the manuscript arrived at the College through an unusual deal between the Board and a former Provost. Finally, Laura Cleaver, Ussher Lecturer in Medieval Art in Trinity, will address early-twentieth century facsimiles of the text and their impact. 

So, if you’re seeking a friend for the end of the world or simply interested in one of the Library’s medieval treasures, please join us for insightful discussion and some free coffee.

Leanne Harrington

IE TCD MS 64, folio 14v

‘Gwynnity College’

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Photo of the Gwynn family taken in the Provost’s Garden, Trinity College, June 1934.  Included are the following more well-known members.  Back row: Aubrey Gwynn SJ ( 5th from L), Rev. RM Gwynn (6th from L), Maj. Gen. Sir Charles William Gwynn (4th from R); middle row: Stephen Gwynn (4th from L), Edward Gwynn (Provost) (3rd from R).

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John Gwynn, (1827-1917). Regius Professor of Divinity, Trinity College (1888-1907). He was also a mathematician, a scholar of old Irish, and a Syriacist. He edited the seminal edition of the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52).

An exhibition showcasing highlights from the Gwynn family papers will be on display in the Long Room of Trinity College Dublin from 11 January to 1 March.  The Gwynns are an extraordinary family who have had a long and distinguished association with the university since the early 19th century.  They counted among their number a Provost, Vice-Provost, the first Lady Registrar, several Scholars, professors and Fellows, as well as numerous alumni.  They excelled academically in the areas of Old Irish, Syriac, classics, theology, mathematics and engineering.  On the sports field they showed themselves to be gifted rugby and cricket players, playing at both university and national level.  Such was their success in various areas of College life that the university was at one point dubbed ‘Gwynnity College’.  Their achievements outside College, in Ireland and abroad, were no less impressive, in politics, in military engagements and in exploration.  

Highlights of the exhibition include: a letter written by the Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien to his daughter Lucy (wife of John Gwynn) from Van Diemen’s Land in 1850; a watercolour sketch of the Donegal countryside from Lucy Gwynn’s album; a letter from Maude Gonne McBride to Edward Gwynn congratulating him on his appointment to the Provostship of Trinity College in 1927; a letter from Charles Gwynn to his nephew John David Gwynn describing the Battle of Gallipoli; and photographs of various members of the family on and off campus.

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John Gwynn’s son Lucius (1873 – 1902), playing cricket in College Park. He was a Fellow of Trinity College and talented cricketer.  The buildings of Nassau Street can be seen in the background.

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Edward J Gwynn (left) and others enjoying a cricket match in College Park.

The papers were generously donated to the Library of Trinity College in 2016/17 by several of John Gwynn’s great-grandchildren.  Many of the present generation of the family retain strong links with the College, as academics and alumni.  The Library is very grateful to them for making the decision to transfer the collection to the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.  Its contents, including correspondence, diaries, photographs and legal documents, would be of enormous research interest to academics and students alike.  The documents cover a vast range of subjects: Irish nationalism, Irish education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the history of Trinity College, Protestantism in Ireland, the First World War, the 1916 Rising, the geo-politics of West Africa in the late nineteenth century, and much more besides.  Once catalogued, the collection will be available for general consultation.

The exhibition is curated by M&ARL, in conjunction with colleagues in Digital Collections and the Preservation and Conservation Department.

Ellen O’Flaherty