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Irish history: 10 often overlooked game changers


Their names may not travel the world the way Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney or even Colin Farrell did, but that doesn’t mean these ten Irish historical figures haven’t had a global impact.

* This article was originally published in Welcome Ireland. Subscribe here.

Dr. James Barry (aka Margaret Ann Baukley) (1789 – 1865)

James Barry, painted between 1813 and 1816. (Public domain)

Dr James Barry was born in Cork, joined the British Army and became a renowned surgeon, performing the first successful Caesarean section operation where mother and child survived. Dr. Barry also became Inspector General of Military Hospitals and was widely known for improving conditions for wounded soldiers.

However, Dr. Barry is often known as the doctor who deceived the British Empire. Although posing as a man, Dr. Barry’s true identity was Margaret Ann Baukley. Her identity was not revealed until her death, but it made her the first fully qualified female doctor in Britain. Quite a feat, in more ways than one.

Maud Gonne (1866 – 1953)

Maude Gonne McBride.  (Public domain)

Maude Gonne McBride. (Public domain)

Maud Gonne, married Maud MacBride, was an actress, famous Irish patriot, feminist and one of the founders of Sinn Féin. She also turned down several marriage proposals from writer WB Yeats over the years.

She was passionate about Irish politics and as a result became a lecturer for the Land League, founded the Daughters of Ireland (a nationalist organization), while playing the role of heroine in one of Yeats’ early plays in the Abbey Theater in Dublin. . She had a huge impact as a revolutionary and was the mother of three children, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Seán MacBride.

Lady Jane Wilde (1821 – 1896)

1896 – Lady Jane Wilde (Speranza), poet, nationalist and mother of Oscar, dies in London. pic.twitter.com/MefhAgrvVb

— National Library of Ireland (@NLIreland) February 3, 2016

The recognizable surname very clearly links her to her (somewhat famous) son Oscar, but Wexford’s wife, Jane, was also an important figure in the 19th century. She was a talented poet who published work under various names, including “Speranza”, and was also a women’s rights activist.

As well as documenting the famine and her work as an active nationalist calling for armed revolution in Ireland, her life took a dramatic and tragic turn, and within a few years she lost her daughter, her husband, his house and all his money. And then her son Oscar went to jail.

* This article was originally published in Welcome Ireland. Subscribe here.

Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753)

A 1736 portrait of Sir Hans Sloan by Stephen Slaughter.  (Public domain)

A 1736 portrait of Sir Hans Sloan by Stephen Slaughter. (Public domain)

Although he looks vaguely like a character from Die Hard, we have this Irishman to thank for the chocolate. Yes, you read that right. He was an Irish-born doctor who served in the British Navy in the Caribbean. He was introduced to cocoa as a drink while in Jamaica, but found it not very palatable, so he mixed it with milk. Do you see where he is coming from?

He brought his ‘exotic’ recipe back to the UK where eventually the Cadbury family started replicating the mix. What a man. Incidentally, he also founded the British Museum, took his name to many streets in London, and succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as President of the Royal Society. But chocolate does it for us.

Eva O’Flaherty (1874 – 1963)

‘Portrait of Miss Eva O’Flaherty at Achill’ ~ Derek Hill, (1947)

Head and shoulders of a seated woman with gray hair and glasses looking left at a book, background is cream and gray with brown. pic.twitter.com/ud6xsEQcHB

— Hugh Lane Gallery (@TheHughLane) October 21, 2021

From Hans Sloane to Sloane Street, milliner and fashion icon Eva O’Flaherty lived on Achill Island for much of her life, but spent time founding a textile business and making hats for the London toast. She was also the founder of Ireland’s oldest summer school, Scoil Acla.

His friends including WB Yeats, Constance Markievicz, Douglas Hyde and Padraig Pearse visited him on Achill. A place at one of his parties would certainly have resulted in encounters with Irish celebrities.

Rosie Hackett (1892-1976)

Rosie Hackett.

Rosie Hackett.

Admittedly, yes, Rosie Hackett has a bridge named after her (in 2014 a shortlist of names for the bridge connecting Marlborough Street and Hawkins Street was voted on, and Rosie came out on top) but she flew somewhat under the radar until then, despite his incredible accomplishments.

When she was just 18, she helped organize a strike of 3,000 workers at Jacobs Biscuits. Later she co-founded the Irish Women Workers’ Union (IWWU) with Delia Larkin, and she was active in the 1916 uprising, occupying Stephen’s Green alongside Constance Markievicz.

Dr. William Brooke-O’Shaughnessy (1809 -1889)

Dr. William Brooke-O'Shaughnessy.  (Public domain)

Dr. William Brooke-O’Shaughnessy. (Public domain)

Born in Limerick in 1809, O’Shaughnessy was incredibly intelligent so was sent to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1827. After graduation he moved to London and began working on blood analysis people with cholera.

His studies led him to cure cholera when he discovered that by replacing lost salt and water intravenously, the disease would cease.

He published several medical textbooks on chemistry and herbal medicine, and was also the first scientist to introduce cannabis into Western medicine. He was responsible for the invention of a type of telegraph cable, better suited to hot temperatures, and for this discovery he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1856.

Agnes Clerke (1842 – 1907)

1905 photograph by Agnes Clerke.  (Public domain)

1905 photograph by Agnes Clerke. (Public domain)

Born in Skibbereen, County Cork, Agnes Clerke used her father’s telescope to observe the stars in the sky as a child, taking an interest in astronomy from an early age. Years later, his book, “A People’s History of Astronomy” was published, and is even now considered one of the seminal texts on the subject.

She won plenty of accolades, the type of which was (unfortunately and unfairly) reserved for men at the time. And in 1981, NASA named a crater on the Moon after it, near where Apollo 12 landed.

John Tyndall (1820 – 1893)

John Tyndall.  (Public domain)

John Tyndall. (Public domain)

John Tyndall, originally from Co Carlow, was an Irish experimental physicist, who literally discovered (and explained) why the sky is blue. His scientific interests were in everything from heat to sound to light, as well as environmental phenomena. He discovered the scattering of light by small particles suspended in the atmosphere, and the resulting color is known as Tyndall Blue.

On top of that – and as if that weren’t enough – he was the first to realize the greenhouse effect of certain gases on global warming, and thus several modern climate change institutes bear his name.

Mary Edgeworth (1767-1849)

Maria Edgeworth.  (Public domain)

Maria Edgeworth. (Public domain)

Edgeworth’s name does not seem to make it onto lists of the great names in Irish literature, despite the fact that she was one of the most successful novelists of her generation. Jane Austen was among many fans of her writing, and she was one of the first writers to portray the Irish “peasant class” as real people.

Four of her best-known Irish novels include ‘Castle Rackrent’ which she wrote in 1800, ‘Ennui’ from 1809, ‘The Absentee’ (1812) and ‘Ormond’ (1817), all of which were political novels that tested the legitimacy of land ownership. His work has been compared to iconic works like “Don Quixote” and “Gil Blas”.

* This article was originally published in Welcome Ireland. Subscribe here.

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