I first came across Mary Mulvhill in 1994 when she was Joint Editor of Technology Ireland, the flagship science and technology magazine published by Enterprise Ireland.
I’d returned from the US, still a journalistic ‘greenhorn’ where I’d just finished a Masters in science journalism at New York University. I was keen to get some freelance science writing experience under my belt.
I put a call in to Technology Ireland, as one visit to Eason told me that it was the only publication of quality in the country which appeared interested in covering science; Mary took my call.
From the very first instant we spoke, I realised I was dealing with someone of substance. She was open to ideas being pitched at her, but she had high standards, so I knew the ideas had to be good and well thought out.
After struggling to answer a few of Mary’s questions during that first phone call, I made sure that I had my homework completely done before I rang her again.
She was a tough, but talented editor, and a meticulous fact-checker. It’d be safe to say, very little got past Mary. If a piece went in, it would inevitably come back with questions and things that had to be dealt with before publication.
There were no easy short-cuts with Mary. She set the standard, and, us freelancers, had to make sure we met it.
In time, I took over myself as Joint Editor and later Editor of Technology Ireland. I began to respect her even more, as I learned what it took to produce a magazine with content of a high standard, over many years.
Mary was more than an editor, she was a beautiful writer too with a gift for an ‘eye catching lead’. A piece she wrote about Nicholas Callan, the priest scientist, based at Maynooth, who played an important part in the development of electricity for the masses in the 19th century, comes to mind.
Callan had famously electrocuted turkeys to test the levels of voltage he was producing in his magnets, coils and batteries. He had been forbidden to test voltages on his clerical students after one of them collapsed.
Mary began telling her Callan story with the lead in: “This is a story about a priest, a battery and a turkey”
How could anyone not read on after that introduction? The rest of the story demands to be read. Pure Mary, brilliant journalism.
Mary, of course, wrote a number of books, including the classic “Ingenious Ireland”. She, like me, was hugely interested in Irish scientific history, and the mark that our scientists had made on towns and cities here and around the world.
If any teacher is trying to inspire their students to take an interest in science, I’d urge them to read this book. It’s Mary’s masterpiece, based on an immense amount of research, meticulous fact-checking and proofing, and writing flair.
Mary just had a natural gift for telling stories, and that, at the end of the day, is the only way to interest people in science, or anything else, for that matter. Human beings respond best to stories. Mary knew this.
She was also a brilliant radio broadcaster, involved in multiple RTE Radio 1 science-themed programmes going back many years. On radio, she used her calm, assured voice to draw people in, and, to tell her stories.
Mary’s work was consistently at a high level, over many years, whether she was writing books, doing pieces for The Irish Times, giving talks or tours, or training scientists how to speak to the public. If Mary was involved, you knew it’d be great.
On a personal level, I respected Mary enormously. She had backbone, principles, a good sense of herself and how she wanted to live her life, and wasn’t going to be easily swayed. That was part of what made her such a formidable journalist.
She could be very kind too.
I recall back in 2007, when my mother passed away aged 68, I was devastated. I’d lost one of my best friends, as well as my mother and felt disorientated and depressed for several months afterwards.
During that time, I met Mary on her bike passing through Terenure. She could see I was upset so I told her of my loss. We talked and talked and she said some nice things that day which helped me.
Little did I think that only 8 years later, I would be writing about the passing of Mary herself, at the age of just 55.
A giant of Irish science journalism has departed, and she’ll be missed.
Categories: Ireland's greatest