Sigerson, George (1836–1925), physician, biologist, poet and author, was born 11 January 1836 at Holyhill, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, youngest of William and Nancy Sigerson's eleven children. His parents’ marriage had a romantic background: in the 1820s William Sigerson, a catholic from Derry city, eloped with a protestant girl, Nancy Neilson (a cousin of Samuel Neilson (qv), the United Irishman). Their families were quickly reconciled, and William inherited the Neilson lands and a spade mill at Holyhill. George attended a local school before proceeding to Letterkenny Academy from which, because of local sectarian tensions, he was sent to France, where at St Joseph's College, Montrouge, under the supervision of the Abbé Joliclerc, he led his class. He took first place in Latin, Greek, German, and drawing, and second place in literary analysis and French composition. A floral couronne was placed on his head by the aumônier of Napoleon III.
Leaving France in 1855, he entered Queen's College Galway (QCG), but came down with typhoid fever and moved in the following year to Cork. Influenced by a group of nationalists, he added the Irish language to his medical studies, and was active in literary circles. His friends included the Young Irelanders Ralph and Isaac Varian, whose cousin Hester – a painter, writer, and musician – he later married. Sigerson took the Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree of Queen's University of Ireland (QUI) (1859) and the Master in Surgery (M.Ch.) degree when it was introduced (1865); both were primary degrees. He had studied, too, at the Catholic University medical school in Cecilia Street, Dublin, with which he was to have a long academic connection. He became licentiate of the King and Queen's College of Physicians (Ireland) in 1875.
As a youth, Sigerson contributed poems, translations and sketches to the Nation, the Harp, the Celt, and other periodicals. He was twenty-four when his first book, The poets and poetry of Munster, was published. It contains forty-six poems, selected and translated by the author, who signs himself ‘Erionnach, M.D.’. In what he calls ‘a desultory [but not, he hopes,] an unreadable preface’ he explains he has not chosen his material from the ‘varied and intricate kinds of verses’ that preoccupied the bards, but from simpler sources. He describes himself as ‘an Ulsterman and of viking race’. The preface contains strongly anti-British sentiments, and resents the damage done to what had been the Irish vernacular, to the advantage of what he calls ‘the un-endearing language of the “porker” Saxons’. He quotes lines evoked by the sight of an Englishman hanging from a tree – ‘Good is thy fruit, O tree / Plenty of such to each branch of thee’ – and repeats a taunt that among things to beware of is ‘the smile of a Saxon’. It is a contribution to the polemics of the mid-nineteenth century, a little reminiscent of the styles of Thomas Davis (qv) and John Mitchel (qv), both of whom are cited. The poems in the body of the work are aislings, love-lyrics, Jacobite songs etc. Fourteen of Sigerson's poems were published in a collection edited by Ralph Varian (1864), and Varian's The harp of Erin (1869) offers ten Sigerson items, including the famous song ‘On the mountains of Pomeroy’.
During the 1860s Sigerson was consistently engaged in political journalism – his articles in the Chronicle were republished as Modern Ireland (1869) – an involvement that was probably responsible for his failure to obtain a hospital appointment. To some extent this was compensated for by his academic attachment from 1865 to the Catholic University medical school. The first post he held in that unendowed and struggling institution was lecturer in botany. Eventually he was professor of biology in University College Dublin (UCD), but continued to maintain an active interest in literature. He was president of the National Literary Society, and published Bards of the Gael and Gall in 1897.
Throughout the decade 1870–80 Sigerson went annually to France to study under J. M. Charcot, duchenne de Boulogne (d. 1875), and others. Sigerson's translation into English of Charcot's Leçons sur les maladies du système nerveux, was published by the New Sydenham Society (1877). Charcot's ‘Lecture on certain phenomena of hysteria major’, delivered at the Salpêtrière (17 November 1878), was published later in the month in the British Medical Journal in Sigerson's translation.
After their marriage the Sigersons lived in Synge St., Dublin, moving to 17 Richmond Hill, Rathmines, and finally in 1877 to 3 Clare Street. William, their eldest son, died before he was two. The surviving children were Dora, George, and Hester. In his prime, Sigerson was a man of remarkable presence, and lines borrowed from his own Saga of King Lir may be used to describe him: ‘Magnificent he stood; his red-brown locks / from ample brow and kingly head flowed down.’ Advancing years increased rather than diminished his stature. When Augustine Birrell (qv), chief secretary for Ireland, was drawing up the bill to create the National University of Ireland (NUI) in 1908 he visited UCD and saw with some amazement Sigerson, a splendid viking apparition. ‘Such a monument’, he said, ‘must certainly have a university to hold it.’
Sigerson's Sunday evening dinner parties were attractive occasions, possibly influenced by Charcot's soirées. They have been recalled in some detail by Mary Colum (qv), who found the atmosphere of a French salon about them: ‘Sigerson was very “Frenchified”, his house full of French furniture and bibelots. He would sometimes have met his guests in his consulting room, which … was off the dining room. After a glass of sherry the connecting doors were thrown open, the doctor would gravely offer his arm to the youngest lady present, and march with her into the dining room, placing her on his right, with the most important lady on his left. He led the conversation, urging the whole table to take part, while he tackled the roast with a carving knife which he had sharpened loudly.’ He was eighty-two when the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI), of which he had been a licentiate since 1875, moved belatedly to make him an honorary fellow. The conferral took place at a special meeting in the college hall (15 March 1918). It was wartime and the president of the college, Col. Joseph Carroll, wore his robe of office over his uniform. The lord chancellor of Ireland was among the dignitaries present. Thanking the college for the honour, Sigerson referred to his early scientific work and to his first contribution to medical literature which had been read in the college hall: ‘If he had diverged a little from medical work [he continued] it was on principles that derived from their great brotherhood. Nations sometimes suffered from diseases, and required remedies not less by the surgeon's knife than by the mental or intellectual aid of the physician. When that great patient – one's country – suffered, let it not be accounted odd that the physician took part in what he considered his duty to relieve pain, to heal wounds, to cultivate hope, and assure her of a happier future. It is true that in leisure hours he had essayed something in the lighter paths of literature, but a change of work was often the best recreation . . .’
His last book, The Easter song of Sedulius, was published in 1922. He was a member of the Irish Free State senate, and represented Ireland at the Pasteur celebrations in Paris (1924). He retained his faculties to within a few days before his death from a stroke on 17 February 1925. There is a portrait of Sigerson by Sir John Lavery (qv) in UCD, and drawings by John B. Yeats (qv) in the National Library of Ireland, which holds Sigerson's papers. His interest in Gaelic games led him to purchase a trophy in 1911 for a Gaelic football competition to be contested annually by the three NUI colleges; known as the Sigerson cup, it was later opened to other universities and third level colleges.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).