McConnell, Albert Joseph (1903–93), mathematician and university provost, was born 19 November 1903 in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, third child of Joseph McConnell, boot merchant, and Annie McConnell (née Orr). A presbyterian, he was educated at Ballymena Academy and entered TCD in 1922 on a scholarship, studying mathematics under J. L. Synge (qv), with Ernest Walton (qv) a classmate. He graduated in philosophy and with a gold medal in mathematics in 1926. That same year he was appointed university student in mathematics and obtained the Bishop Law prize. In 1926 his interest in mathematics took him to Rome, where he worked with Tullio Levi Civita, the Italian geometer whose work on geometry and calculus had formed an essential part of the mathematical framework within which Einstein had developed his general theory of relativity. In 1928, after receiving his doctorate in mathematics in Rome, he returned to TCD as a lecturer in mathematics and was awarded a D.Sc. (1929). The college considered him their most brilliant mathematics graduate at that time and in 1930 he was elected FTCD and appointed professor of natural philosophy (applied mathematics) at the age of 27, on the resignation of Synge. It is said that the TCD board favoured creating a position for its ‘favourite son’ and thus had tailored the requirements for his successful appointment. He continued the work he began in Rome and published his book Applications of the absolute differential calculus (1931). His mathematical lecturing was said to be excellent. During the 1930s he collaborated with A. W. Conway (qv) and continued the work of his predecessor in preparing for publication the RIA's second volume (1940) of the collected mathematical work of William Rowan Hamilton (qv), which covered his important but largely inaccessible work on dynamics. He published many papers on geometry, relativity, and dynamics in various mathematical journals. His international reputation grew and over his lifetime he was invited to lecture abroad at the universities of Alexandria (1946/7), London (1950), and Kuwait (1970).
His administrative career was initiated when he was appointed registrar of TCD in 1950. He became an advocate of reform in the college and was respected for his broad knowledge and interest in many topics. In a bid by the junior fellows to promote much needed change, he was elected provost of TCD on the death of E. H. Alton (qv) in 1952, at the age of 48. He held the position for twenty-two years and became the second longest serving and the first non-anglican provost. His reforms were wide-ranging and rapid and included the introduction of a compulsory retiring age of 70 for all staff. His provostship was one of the most significant, and during his time Trinity changed from an essentially private college, with an ambiguous and limited relationship with the Irish state, to a publicly funded university with a recognised national role. Although proud of his Ulster presbyterian heritage, he was seen as an ecumenist free from prejudice. He successfully endeavoured to have Trinity brought out of isolation and into the mainstream of Irish life and culture. Funding was sought based on the merits of the college, and past attitudes became less relevant. The removal of the catholic church's ‘ban’ on Trinity in 1970 signalled a change, and in 1973 Éamon de Valera (qv) appointed McConnell to the council of state (1973–91), an historic first for a member of the TCD board. Government funding allowed the expansion of the college and the restoration of historic buildings – as well as a new building programme – was set in place: the Moyne Institute, the Berkeley library (1967), and the foundations of the new arts block were initiated before he left office. He had strong links with Fianna Fáil government ministers and a close friendship with de Valera that went back to the 1930s. After Conway's death (1950) McConnell became mathematical mentor to de Valera, who had once been a mathematics teacher and kept up a lively interest in the subject. McConnell voluntarily retired in his seventieth year, but by that time he had become more isolated from the general life of the college. Some say he overstayed his time as provost, becoming in turn a member of the old guard, which he had so avidly sought to reform in his younger days.
He was a member of several bodies; the London Mathematical Society, the American Mathematical Society, the Kildare Street and University Club, the Athenaeum, and the RIA, for which he served as member of council, vice-president (1957–8, 1975–6), and senior vice-president (1976–9). He was chairman of the governing board of the School of Theoretical Physics and a member of the council of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.
Although a gregarious and hospitable man, he did not enjoy public speaking and disliked giving after-dinner speeches as (he said) they detracted from his enjoyment of a good meal. He had a delightful sense of humour and an open manner. He married (1934) Hilda, daughter of Michael Maguire and his wife Emily (née Soden). Hilda died in 1966 and he married (1983) Jean Shekleton, although she died two years later (1985). He died 24 August 1993 in Dublin, and was buried at Deans Grange cemetery, Dublin; President Mary Robinson and former taoiseach Jack Lynch (qv) were among the mourners.