Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Nov 2015







PROFESSOR JOHN A. MURPHY, Emeritus Professor of History, in University College Cork, on 2 November 2015, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, on DESMOND MACHALE


A Sheansailéir agus a mhuintir uilig na hOllscoile,


Since Desmond MacHale took up a lecturing appointment in UCC in 1972, he has always remained a Mayo-man.  Rather than becoming “one of our own” – that smug Cork definition of bland assimilation – he retained a native authenticity, thus adding a distinctive colour to the mosaic of the university and of his adopted city.  With the enthusiasm he has brought to all his activities, he became a powerful propagandist of that Mayo cult movie, The Quiet Man.  During his student days in University College Galway, he kept the corpus sanum in good shape, excelling in several sports.  His “greatest sporting achievement” (his own words) was winning a Connacht Minor Hurling medal with Mayo in 1964, the only time his native county won the title.  This prompts the disturbing reflection that perhaps Mayo should have been playing with the small ball all these years.


Whatever differences George Boole may have had with some of his colleagues in Queen’s College Cork, they were quick to recognise his genius on his tragically premature death.  The splendid stained glass window in his memory was erected in this Aula only two years after he died in 1864.  One panel shows the great scholar seated at his desk at work while Aristotle and Euclid are depicted conversing in the background.


It would be a mistake to think that Boole was forgotten by UCC thereafter.  In 1964, the centenary year of his death, the Royal Irish Academy, at the invitation of our President and Governing Body, held a meeting in UCC to honour Boole.  In 1969, Cork University Press published a booklet George Boole: A Miscellany, edited by P.D. Barry, now Emeritus Professor of Mathematics.


One feels, however, that the strong nationalist, Catholic ethos of UCC from the 1920’s to the 1960’s would have repelled a free-thinker like Boole, who didn’t believe in the divinity of Christ; for whom religious doctrine was idolatry; who, with typical English Victorian disdain, regarded Irish Catholics as superstitious heretics; and who (horror of horrors!) wasn’t happy all of the time in Cork!


But from the early 1970’s, Ireland changed and UCC changed with it.  “When the people begin to reason”, said Voltaire with splendid sarcasm, “all is lost”.  Des MacHale arrived in UCC in this new age of reason.  He became the champion of remembering Boole.  He gave the first Boole memorial lecture in 1981 and strongly pushed for the new Library, then abuilding, to be named after Boole.  His eloquence won out, the Governing Body agreed, other proposals (including my own) fell by the wayside, and the outcome was a personal triumph for Des MacHale.  He thus ensured that the name of Boole would be on the lips of thousands of students daily.  The newly christened Library was opened in 1984, and MacHale’s biography of George Boole, first edition, appeared in 1985.


Today we are honouring Professor MacHale primarily in the Boole context but we are also recognising the man in the round, his whole career, his contribution to society as well as to the academy.  Like Boole, he has a strong sense of social conscience and compassion.  He anticipated the national anti-smoking initiative by launching his own crusade, the Irish Association of Non-Smokers, and for decades he personally counselled smokers wishing to quit.  In this respect, he held myself up as a role model, unlikely as that may seem.


He is also renowned and widely published as a humourist.  Unlike other academic students of humour who are sometimes clinical and humourless in their approach to the subject, he is immensely tickled by his own and other people’s jokes.  Let me remind toffee-nosed disapprovers not to confuse seriousness with solemnity.  Indeed, the imperatives of mental health require us to observe the wisdom of the maxim, dulce est desipere in loco, indeed even more strongly, necesse est.


A sensitive Kerryman on the UCC Governing Body once rhetorically fumed that MacHale should write a book of Mayo jokes: he was somewhat mollified when it was suggested to him that such a compilation was both unnecessary and impossible.


I must add that I was flattered when Professor MacHale dedicated one of his books, The Humour of Cork (1995) to me, albeit in a somewhat quirky fashion,


It is with very great reluctance, and under the threat of legal proceedings,

that I dedicate this book to my friend and protagonist Professor John A Murphy, who fondly believes that all the stories in the book are his.


In presenting Professor MacHale to the University as meus filius, it enhances my pleasure that he has also been meus amicus for many years.  We differ only in fundamentals.  We share the same sense of absurdity about things, including my pass degree in mathematics.  We both hold the unfashionable view that financial support should be forthcoming for pure research, not in expectation of a quick investment return.


Des MacHale is the ideal university man, excelling in teaching and distinguished in research.  He thus gives the lie to the mistaken notion that an outstanding scholar can’t be a remarkable teacher, and vice versa.  It is not too fanciful to think that Boole who was “a great man at the blackboard” would have greatly enjoyed MacHale’s power of lucid communication, as displayed in a recent television documentary.


The planning of this bicentenary has been the work of many hands and I can assert this strongly, having played no part myself in this year’s proceedings. But I can also say that it is widely felt in UCC that the immense success of the enterprise would not have been possible without the part played by Professor MacHale.


In 2015, in UCC, on his 200th birthday, there is no god but George Boole and Desmond MacHale is his prophet.


Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Litteris, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.


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