Trinity recognised the much acclaimed Irish Times columnist, Fintan O’Toole along with four pre-eminent individuals for their contribution to society at today’s honorary degrees. The impressive line-up which included former Tánaiste, Mary Harney, mental health activist, Joan Freeman, marine scientist, Professor Terry Hughes and neuroscientist, Professor Michael Gazzaniga were awarded Trinity’s highest honour by the newly elected Chancellor of the University, Professor Mary McAleese. Professor McAleese was presiding at her first honorary degree ceremony following her inauguration earlier in the day.
The internationally respected political and cultural commentator, Fintan O’Toole was awarded a Doctor in Letters. The Irish Times columnist and former drama critic and literary adviser to the Abbey Theatre is also a visiting lecturer in Irish Letters at Princeton University. Whether responding to the death of Ireland’s great poet Seamus Heaney, or to the British vote to leave the European Union, O’Toole has succeeded in voicing an immediate reaction that is thoughtful, intelligent and penetratingly expressed. He has been fearless in exposing weaknesses and corruption in society and has proved a shrewd commentator on international affairs. A striking feature of his work is the range of his interests and informed contributions.
The Public Orator, Professor Anna Chahoud extolled his incisive writing in her oration in his honour:
“In his essay on Freedom of the Press, George Orwell memorably wrote: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ We cannot but recall these words as we welcome Fintan O’Toole, proud Dubliner, uncompromising observer of Irish political, social and cultural life, and worthy recipient of the Orwell prize for journalism in 2017.”
Another leader in her field former politician, Tánaiste and government minister, Mary Harney, has made several important contributions to Irish society through a political life committed to reform, innovation and enterprise. The longest serving female TD and Cabinet Minister, she held important ministerial positions including Trade and Employment, Health and Children and was the first female Tánaiste. Among her notable achievements was her role in establishing Science Foundation Ireland, changing the research landscape at that time with a culture of research funding based on excellence, judged by international peer review. A graduate of Trinity in Economics, she was the first woman Auditor of the Historical Society and has served formerly as Chair of the Board of the SFI Centre AMBER. She is currently Chancellor of the University of Limerick.
The former politician was awarded a Doctor in Laws and in her oration the Public Orator stressed her life of public service and her sense of reform:
“..this woman has been a strenuous reformer, capable of effecting long-lasting improvements to environmental policies, to employment and entrepreneurship, and, most notably, to the medical profession and the health service in Ireland.”
She was joined by the founder and former CEO of Pieta House, Joan Freeman who was also awarded a Doctor in Laws. The psychologist and mental health activist set up Ireland’s first pioneering service for people feeling suicidal or who may engage in self-harm. Pieta House offers a specialised free treatment programme for men, women and children who have suicidal ideation, or who have attempted suicide. She has since set up Solace House in New York which she founded in 2014 to serve the Irish Diaspora and others in the city. A member of the Irish Association of Suicidology and the Psychological Society of Ireland she has contributed significantly in changing the face of mental health in Ireland by contributing to reducing the stigma of suicide and self-harm.
The Public Orator praised her vision in transforming attitudes to mental health in Irish society:
“A walk and a home—nothing responds better to the essential needs in life, and both were provided by a woman of exceptional sensitivity and generosity, Dublin born and trained psychologist Joan Freeman. She did not remain indifferent when she witnessed tragedy strike around her. She established Pieta House in Lucan in 2006, opening its doors to those who had attempted to take their life.”
A champion of climate change, Professor of Marine Biology Terry Hughes is a Trinity graduate and an Irish scientist of global acclaim for his research and his public stance on the threat of climate change. He is founder and Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, which is widely recognised as the world’s foremost authority on coral reef science and a hub for world leading research. In addition to his research in marine ecology and evolution, he is passionately interested in social-ecological interactions, in particular, climate change. He is dubbed the “Reef Sentinel” by the journal Nature and is known globally for his work on coral bleaching caused by rising water temperatures.
He was awarded a Doctor in Science and in her oration the Public Orator stressed the societal impact of his work:
“His research of a lifetime speaks loud and clear: coral reefs were born after the last glacial period, and in the mere space of a century we have systematically destroyed Nature’s work of ten thousand years. His line of action is resolute. He is not afraid of challenging authorities on their ‘scientific illiteracy’ and irresponsible pursuit of economic interests, and he has braved difficulties and hostility.”
Finally, Director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Michael Gazzaniga, was also awarded a Doctor in Science. He is widely considered to be one of the fathers of the field of cognitive neuroscience, founding the Journal and Cognitive Neuroscience Society. He is credited with being the first researcher to examine split brain patients in order to understand whether some cognitive functions are predominantly performed in one brain hemisphere or the other and his contributions to the field have greatly enhanced our understanding of brain hemisphere communication. He has garnered numerous awards for his research and has published eleven books of interest also to the general public, in particular, contributing to how we understand free will, and how neuroscience can inform law and justice systems.
The Public Orators concluded in her oration:
“We have before us a scientist universally recognised for the depth of his inquiries, for the novelty of his method, and for his ethical commitment. In a word, we contemplate an exceptional individual who dared ask ‘What does it mean to be human?’ and has given us a wholly new appreciation of the human condition.”