When the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) was established in 1785, it was founded for the promotion and investigation of the sciences, polite literature and antiquities, and the encouragement of discussion and debate between scholars of diverse backgrounds and interests. However, this being the eighteenth century, ‘diverse backgrounds and interests’ referred solely to men of a certain background. Lord Charlemont was the first president, and William Conyngham the first treasurer; and the first members represented the most distinguished men of their day from civil, ecclesiastical and academic life.
The first woman to apply to enter the hallowed portals of 114 Grafton Street (the original home of the RIA) was Charlotte Brooke, daughter of the playwright Henry Brooke. She was a pioneering eighteenth-century poet, dramatist and literary translator in her own right, but following the death of her father she had fallen upon straitened times. Although she had the support of several members of the Academy, including Bishop Thomas Percy and Lord Charlemont, Charlotte was not doing anything so daring as applying to be admitted as a member of the Academy; rather she sought the position of housekeeper which would have afforded her shelter and finance, though she specified she was willing to waive the money. But there seems to have been opposition to her appointment. Academy members John Kearney and John Stack both wrote to Charlotte hoping to deter her from applying. In an outraged letter to Bishop Percy, Charlotte wrote that Dr Stack had urged her to accept a position as a tutoress in a nobleman’s family, hoping, she said, to both ‘humble me AND get me out of the way.’ It would appear that the gentlemen were successful in their campaign against her, although Charlotte was bewildered as to why. In a letter to Bishop Percy she wrote, ‘How I have provoked their resentment is really a mystery to me’, and, suitably discouraged, she withdrew her application. But perhaps the gentlemen of the Academy had done her a favour, because two years later, in 1789, Charlotte published the work by which her name is remembered and honoured in the history of Irish literature; the work which acclaimed her as the forerunner of the Irish language literary revival movement in the nineteenth century. The reliques of Irish poetry was the first time that a wide selection of Irish verse had appeared in print, and it set the example for the following century. Although her work was received with great acclaim, it was not accompanied by large sums of money and Charlotte retired to share a house with a friend in Longford, where she lived until her death in 1793. As for the position of housekeeper, it was given to William Hayes, already a clerk of the Academy, who was awarded a salary of £40 per annum, permission to reside in the Academy, and an allowance for firing and candles. Thus, the gentlemen members retained their all-male preserve.
The first woman to breech the hallowed halls of the Academy was a pioneer in every sense. Princess Ekaterina Romonova Dashkova was one of the most important women of the European Enlightenment and very much used to moving in a man’s world. Her academic credentials were impeccable: she was fluent in five languages and had amassed a library of over 900 volumes. In addition, she was director of the Russian Academy of Sciences, as well as director of the Imperial Academy of Russian Languages, making her the first woman in the world to head a national science academy. In a personal capacity she published translations of the great philosophers Hume and Voltaire, as well as articles, papers, letters and poetry; whilst in her capacity as director she oversaw the publication of the Imperial Academy’s six-volume Russian dictionary, the very first of its kind. In 1768 she began a fourteen-year tour of Europe where she met and conversed with some of the greatest minds of the age, including Diderot, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin. And as part of her tour, she spent seven months (between 1789 and 1790) in Ireland staying with her dear friend Lady Catherine Hamilton (there was the small matter of a revolution going on in France at the time, so it was probably a sensible decision to head to a small island far removed from mainland Europe!).
Whilst in Ireland Princess Dashkova most probably sought to meet and converse with the great scientific and literary minds of the day, as she had done throughout her tour of Continental Europe. No doubt this contributed to the members of the RIA inviting her, on 23 April 1791, to become the first honorary female member of the Academy, an honour she graciously accepted. Thanks to the work of an Irishwoman, Martha Wilmot, we have a personal account of Dashkova’s life. In 1802 Martha travelled to Moscow to make Dashkova’s acquaintance at the urging of their mutual friend Lady Hamilton. While there Martha participated in court life and became a close confidante of the princess, with whom she conversed daily on Russian history, politics and art. Besides keeping a diary and writing frequent letters home, Martha persuaded the princess to write an autobiographical memoir, and when it was complete she dedicated it to her ‘young friend’ and gave Martha permission to publish it. The memoirs finally appeared in 1840 under the title Memoirs of the Princess Daschkaw, lady of honour to Catherine II, empress of all the Russias, written by herself: comprising letters of the empress, and other correspondence. Owing to strenuous opposition from the princess's brother, Simon Vorontsov, Martha had delayed publication until thirty years after Dashkova's death.
The next woman invited to cross the RIA threshold was antiquarian, author and artist Louisa Beaufort. Although a brilliant academic in her own right, it was most probably her family connections that earned her an invite as the first woman to present a paper to the Academy. Louisa’s father Daniel was one of the original founding members and had served as the Academy’s librarian between 1788 and 1791; whilst her brother Francis, creator of the Beaufort wind-scale, was also a full member. In October 1827 Louisa delivered a paper to the Academy entitled ‘An essay upon the state of architecture and antiquities in Ireland, previous to the landing of the Anglo-Normans', and the paper was published the following year in the Academy’s Transactions in another first for women and for the Academy.
But far from opening the floodgates to women scholars of the time, the Academy proceeded cautiously, some might say, glacially. In 1834 Scottish scientist, writer and polymath Mary Somerville was invited to become an honorary member, and she was followed four years later by German astronomer Caroline Herschel. In her article ‘Better without the ladies: the Royal Irish Academy and the admission of women members (History Ireland, Nov./Dec. 2011) Dr Clare O’Halloran postulated that at least part of the attraction of Somerville and Herschel (and indeed Dashkova the century before), might have been the very fact that they were foreign, ‘and thus there was no danger that they could lay claim to occupy the space or privileges of full academicians.’ In other words, foreign ladies were a safe bet – all the prestige of the association without any interruption of a comfortable all-male haven.
The mould was finally broken when Maria Edgeworth was invited to become the first Irish female honorary member. Similar to Louisa Beaufort, Maria had family connections, in that her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth had been a founding member of the Academy. (In fact, Louisa Beaufort was Maria Edgeworth’s step-aunt – Louisa's sister Frances Anne was Maria’s stepmother). In addition, she was one of the best-known and most influential writers of the nineteenth century, and in that capacity she had already enjoyed correspondence with the president of the Academy, William Hamilton. In 1838 he sought her opinion on how to improve the position of literature in the Academy because it languished in comparison to other fields of study. In his letter he wrote: ‘it is known to all the world that you are not only a lover of literature, but a successful pursuer and powerful promoter of it, and that on any point connected therewith, your opinion must be most valuable.’ In response, Maria advised Hamilton that the Academy should give out medals for prize essay competitions, and in addition should set subscriptions at a lower rate for men of literature to afford. She also commented that admitting ladies to evening parties could be ‘advantageous’. In a second letter she went further, suggesting that the Academy could hold events, recreating those of London and Paris where men and women of learning met at public lectures, exhibitions and musical events. She had gone too far! Hamilton explained that it was physically impossible to accommodate ladies in the Academy, and that asking them to withdraw whilst the men discussed finance and legislation might prove awkward. Edgeworth, one of the greatest literary minds of the nineteenth century, responded humbly: ‘I am rather sorry that you wasted a page upon a suggestion of mine which you have completely convinced me could not be carried into effect’. Despite their reluctance to accommodate women at Academy meetings, nonetheless in 1842 Edgeworth was invited to become an honorary member, a position she accepted. Although, as Dr O’Halloran ruefully notes, they waited until almost the last minute before they honoured her – she was seventy-four years of age and past her academic prime.
Lest the Academy be overrun by crinolines, bonnets and fripperies, it was thirty-four more years before another woman was invited to become an honorary member of the Academy. Again, this woman had familial connections. Margaret Stokes was the daughter of William Stokes, the first physician elected president of the Academy. And she was also the sister of Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who had been awarded a gold medal by the RIA for his book on Irish glosses. Margaret was an internationally renowned archaeologist and has been described as the most important woman antiquarian of her age. Throughout her long and distinguished career, she published widely on Irish antiquities such as the Tara brooch, the cross of Cong, the Ardagh chalice, crosiers, and ancient funeral customs. She translated a volume of Adolphe Didron's Christian iconography (2 vols, 1891), edited the whole of it, and contributed appendices and illustrations. Her constant enthusiasm for study and travel, even late in life, is evident in her Six months on the Apennines (1892), recording a pilgrimage in search of vestiges of Irish saints in Italy; this was followed three years later by Three months in the forests of France on a similar subject. Like all her works, these volumes contained finely crafted illustrations, as does her Notes on the cross of Cong, privately printed in 1895. Her lifelong interest was Irish high crosses, and she planned a comprehensive descriptive illustrated catalogue for the RIA. In addition, she was a member of the Royal Society of Archaeologists of Ireland, a member of the County Kildare Archaeological Society, and an Associate of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries. In 1876 she was invited to become an honorary member of the RIA, only the second Irish woman to do so, and when she presented a series of papers to the Academy in April 1897, she became the first woman honorary member to present to, and then publish with, the Academy.
Sadly, Margaret’s position as an honorary woman member who both presented and published with the Academy, was an outlier. In January 1910 an impressive group of scholars led by Douglas Hyde, Edward Gwynn and Eoin MacNeill proposed membership for Mrs Mary Ann Hutton. Hutton was one of the first women to attend the University of London and had received awards and scholarships for her academic work. At the request of Patrick Pearse, she wrote for the Conradh na Gaeilge newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, and she is said to have lectured in the Belfast Irish College, and in Ard Sgoil Uladh. (In a nice link with the past, in 1908 Hutton gave the Margaret Stokes Memorial Lectures in Alexandra College, Dublin, on visions of other worlds in early Irish literature.) Sadly for Mrs Hutton, she enjoyed two ignominious firsts – she was the first woman proposed for full membership of the Academy, and she was also the first woman refused that membership. Considering the heavyweight nature of the men proposing her, Mrs Hutton would have been a shoo-in for membership had she been a man. And indeed, at a special meeting of the council called in February a motion was introduced calling for her nomination to be considered in the usual way. However, an amendment was passed at the same council, deferring the issue until legal advice had been obtained. And in September 1910 the Academy’s solicitor advised that under the current charter women could not be lawfully admitted.
During the first world war, women throughout Ireland and Britain entered public and civic life as never before, taking up roles traditionally thought of as male-only domains. And it seemed these strides forward would be cemented with the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919 which stated that ‘a person shall not be disqualified by sex or marriage from … admission to any incorporated society (whether incorporated by royal charter or otherwise)’. But a law passed in Westminster had little resonance for Ireland in 1919 – this was the year that the war of independence began in earnest, and it was followed by two years of bloody civil war. Although Irish women played a significant role in both conflicts; in the aftermath, the Free State slowly but surely sought to unwind women’s engagement in civil and political life, giving cover to institutions to continue excluding them. In 1930 the Academy was legally advised that women could be admitted and the following year the council minutes record that ‘in the existing state of law, women are eligible [for membership].’
Finally in 1949, 162 after years after Charlotte Brooke was discouraged from seeking the position of housekeeper, the doors of Academy House creaked open and four women, two from the sciences and two from the humanities, were admitted as full members. These four women – Sheila Tinney, Phyllis Clinch, Françoise Henry and Eleanor Knott – were the first of a slow trickle of women MRIAs and paved the way for those that came after. Mathematical physicist Sheila Tinney is believed to be the first Irish woman to receive a doctorate in mathematical sciences, and Erwin Schrödinger described her as one of the 'best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of theoretical physicists in this country'. Similarly, scientist Phyllis Clinch achieved international fame for her achievement in unravelling the complex viruses in the potato. As a direct result of her work, growers were able to get stocks of virus-free potatoes and increase the profitability of the Irish potato industry considerably. In 1943 she was awarded a D.Sc. based on her published work. Françoise Henry’s career in Ireland began after a chance invitation to come to Tipperary in 1926, and she went on to become one of Ireland’s most important archaeologists and art historians. During her long career, she introduced hundreds of students to European art history and in 1965 founded the Department of History of European Painting in UCD. Finally, Irish language scholar Eleanor Knott joined the staff of the RIA's Dictionary of the Irish Language as an assistant to Carl Marstrander. The three volumes jointly edited by her over the next forty years are regarded as among the best lexicographical works produced by the Academy. A special chair of early Irish was created for her in TCD in 1939.
In 2016 these four women pioneers were honoured by the Academy in an exhibition entitled ‘Women on walls’. As a final blow to the gentlemen of 1787 who turned Charlotte Brooke away from the position of housekeeper, these portraits are a permanent fixture in Academy house and a reminder of how the founding charter’s promise to encourage discussion and debate between scholars of diverse backgrounds has finally been fulfilled.