The de Valera connection

This morning I took the early flight to Dublin, which was on time, and thence via the Airport Hopper to Maynooth. There were only two passengers on the bus, both going to the terminus, so it made good time, travelling all the way along the motorway.

Walking into the Maynooth campus I remembered an interesting little historical fact that I stumbled across last week, concerning Éamon de Valera, founder of Fianna Fáil (one of the two largest political parties in Ireland) and architect of the Irish constitution. De Valera (nickname `Dev’) is an enigmatic figure, who was a Commandant in the Irish Republican Army during the 1916 Easter Rising, but despite being captured he somehow evaded execution by the British. He subsequently became Taoiseach (Prime Minister) and then President (Head of State) of the Irish Republic.

Eamon de Valera, photographed sometime during the 1920s.

The point of connection with Maynooth, however, is less about Dev’s political career than his educational background: he was a mathematics graduate, and for a short time (1912-13) he was Head of the Department of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, which was then a recognised college of the National University of Ireland. The Department became incorporated in Maynooth University, when it was created in 1997. It is said that one of the spare gowns available to be borrowed by staff for graduation ceremonies belonged to de Valera. Mathematical Physics is no longer a part of the Mathematics Department at Maynooth, having become a Department in its own right and it recently changed its name to the Department of Theoretical Physics.

De Valera missed out on a Professorship in Mathematical Physics at University College Cork in 1913. He joined the the Irish Volunteers, when it was established the same year. And the rest is history. I wonder how differently things would have turned out had he got the job in Cork?

That’s one connection, but when I arrived in the office this morning I found another. An email had arrived announcing a conference later this year in honour of Erwin Schrödinger.  It was de Valera – a notable advocate for science – who in 1940 set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS); Schrödinger became the first Director of the School of Theoretical Physics, one of the three Schools in DIAS.


8 Responses to “The de Valera connection”

  1. Yes, deV originally hoped to get Einstein. His point was that a small neutral county with no resources could benefit by offering positions to world class theoreticians fleeing g the nazi regime. schrodinger was recommended to deV by max born, if I recall correctly

    How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics” by Paul Halpern has quite a bit on how Schrodinger got to Ireland and the efforts to staff the DIAS. The book was a very good read.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I knew that Dev was a “mathematics teacher” but I didn’t realise that he was higher up than the (high) school system. Which raises the obvious question: did he (co-)author any papers?

    • telescoper Says:

      I asked myself that question too. I haven’t seen any of his mathematical publications but will peruse the extensive archive at UCD and see what I can find.

    • I searched the archive and there’s nothing like an actual paper by him, but there are various items that may indicate what research he was doing. The testimonials for his job application suggest he was working on quaternions, e.g.

      he [de Valera] has in the past two years [1910-1912] gone deeply into the subject of Quaternions, and is at present prosecuting an important original research in them which promises to be of considerable interest..

      It does seem, however, that he was mainly doing teaching, and I don’t think he published any papers in mathematical journals.

      The index to the complete archive is here:

    • During this time, de Valera was engaged by several of the top Dublin schools to teach higher mathematics and mathematical physics classes. Without application, he was offered a post lecturing mathematics in Carysfort Teacher Training College. This was an all-female third level institution which was dedicated to preparing girls as primary teachers. Arising from this, and his friendship with Conway and Whittaker, de Valera’s confidence grew and he applied for the Chair of Mathematical Physics in University College, Cork, in 1912. A reference, written by Whittaker, describes de Valera’s knowledge as both ‘broad and deep’, and additionally, Whittaker wrote he was impressed by:

      … the intellectual vigour with which he … interested himself in the most difficult problems of natural philosophy.


  4. His Spanish surname is due to a Cuban father. The Irish first name is probably the influence of his mother. He was born in Manhattan, though his mother was from Ireland.

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