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Professor James Mac Cullagh M.R.I.A . , F.R.S. 1809- 1847

James MacCullaghJames Mac Cullagh was born in the townland of Landahussy, Plumbridge in 1809. He was to become one of Ireland's and indeed Europe's most brilliant mathematicians and physicists. Within his short lifespan, he made significant contributions to the advance of science. Even more important, was the encouragement and the inspiration which he gave his contemporaries and those who followed.

The eldest of twelve children, it was apparent even at a very early age that he was remarkably intelligent. He was to leave Glenelly, aged seven years, to be educated in Lifford. He then entered Trinity College, Dublin aged just fifteen years. He became a Fellow of Trinity eight years later, having conducted a highly competitive examination, orally in Latin.

James Mac Cullagh stands out, however, as one of the more complex and perhaps more enigmatic personalities of Irish Science. While a genius academically, he demonstrated a lack of stability and a deep self questioning insecurity together with a powerful urge towards achievement. While not a Nationalist, he was an Irishman through and through. His achievements, he considered to be achievements for Ireland. It was seen as his earnest desire to increase the self respect of his fellow countrymen and to create a pride in being Irish.

He had a tremendous appreciation of every branch of knowledge and was hugely influential in establishing the collection of artefacts which were to form the basis of the National Museum of Ireland. Amongst other things, he purchased the early twelfth century Cross of Cong using what was at that time, his life savings. On presenting it to the Irish Academy, he stated that his motivation for acquiring it was 'to save it from the shameful process of destruction to which everything venerable in Ireland has been exposed for centuries and to contribute at the same time, to the formation of a national collection'. He trusted that the time was 'not far distant when the relics of antiquity, now scattered over the kingdom, would find their way to a place where they could be appreciated, studied and preserved'.

While not a political man, in 1847 James Mac Cullagh stood as a candidate for a seat in the Dublin University constituency in the Westminster election. In the past the seats had been held by Oxford graduates. He stated that 'the university ought to be represented in parliament by her own sons'. He was to lose the election, but while it was a disappointment, it would not have been regarded a disgrace. Probably, in those uncertain times, the electorate would not have chosen an idealist, with no practical knowledge of politics. James Mac Cullagh had hoped for an opportunity to improve the conditions for those suffering from the disastrous impact of famine at that time. In his scientific work meanwhile, he was showing signs of becoming more frustrated. He had begun to look for new ideas of activity outside mathematics.

A culmination of factors were, therefore, what were likely to have led to his ending his own life in his chambers at Trinity College on the evening of Sunday 24th October 1847.

On Monday 1st November, much of Dublin came to a standstill as the remains of Professor Mac Cullagh made their way through the city. Having reached the top of Rutland Street, the procession halted as his body was removed to the hearse, which was to convey the corpse to Tyrone. His last resting place is at St. Patrick's Church, Upper Badoney (in the townland of Glenroan). A committed member of the Church of Ireland, he was described as unobtrusive, modest, utterly unselfish, charitable, generous and religious.

2009 was the bicentenary of the birth of James Mac Cullagh M.R.I.A., F.R.I., in Upper Badoney. Glenelly Historical Society hosted a number of events. On the afternoon of Friday, May 15th a Blue Plaque, erected by the Ulster History Circle, was unveiled at St Patrick's Church to commemorate someone who was described as 'an ornament of our society and country' (London Daily News, Nov 1st 1847). For a report of the unveiling click HERE

The family vault in the churchyard at St. Patrick's, Church of Ireland, Upper Badoney has been extensively restored. Glenelly Historical Society acknowledges generous contributions from the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, Dublin, towards costs. They are most grateful to the Church of Ireland congregation at St. Patrick's for their tremendous support.

Before restoration After restoration
Before restoration
After restoration

James Mac Cullagh was undoubtedly, someone the people of Upper Badoney should be immensely proud of!

Glenelly Historical Society is grateful to Professor Brendan K. P. Scaife, Trinity College, Dublin and Peter Mc Cullagh, University of Chicago for help in research.

Further source: works of Professor T. D Spearman, Trinity College.