Lá Fhéile Pádraig Shona Dhaoibh!* Today’s the day when Irish people around the world celebrate our heritage and indulge a few national stereotypes. The self-respecting among us will be shying away from the green beer (the writer Flann O’Brien said it best – a pint of plain is your only man), there are parades, parties, leprechaun hunts and courtesy of Dublin Zoo, a heavy dose of irony as they welcome a new King Ratsnake.
It seemed appropriate then, that I mark the country’s geeky heritage. Our actors have portrayed James Bond, Jedi masters, Batman villains and starship engineers. There’s an Irish character in the video game Tekken. I could devote an entire post just to our scientists – I feel a little bad for leaving off the man who coined the term ‘electron’ or our only science Nobel laureate. But I wanted to pick from a range of fields and I stand by my choices in the science category. So without further ado, here is my entirely subjective list of ten great Irish geeks.
Honorable mention: Oliver Jeffers
I already had a load of writers on the list, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout out to the Belfast based artist and children’s book writer who I credit with making my two year old son fascinated with the moon. Check out his books on Amazon, or the iPad app (iTunes link) for one of them.
Stoker almost shouldn’t be on this list, as his most famous novel was only a small aspect of his life. A civil servant, a mathematician, a drama critic, a theatre manager and a barrister (albeit a non-practising one), Dracula has almost overshadowed the rest of Stoker’s life’s work and has influenced, for better or worse, countless books, TV shows and movies. Stoker compiled his own influences from dozens of sources, and the result has become an icon of fantasy and horror.
Unlike Stoker, Northern Irish writer is known for his work on quite a few titles – starting with seminal British comic “2000 AD,” where he worked on “Judge Dredd.” He moved to DC Comics to work on “Hellblazer,” which he wrote until 1994, where he met artist Steve Dillon, with whom he’d create “Preacher,” probably his most famous work to date. He has worked for Valiant, Vertigo, Wildstorm, Image and Marvel Comics including a nine year run on “Punisher” and has an Eagle and an Eisner Award as well as a handful of nominations to his name. The term “prolific” seems apt.
During a Twitter conversation about this post, fellow GeekDad Brian McLaughlin described Parsons, The Third Earl of Rosse as “a true 19th century geek.” In the 1840s Parsons had the Leviathan of Parsonstown, a 72 inch reflecting telescope that replaced a 36 inch telescope he had built previously at Birr Castle, County Offaly. Until 1917 it was the largest telescope in the world, and was used to make dozens of astronomical discoveries and observations, including first recognising the Whirlpool Galaxy as a spiral. The Leviathan was restored in the 1990s and is now open to the public. Appropriately, Parsons was also a Knight of the Order of St. Patrick.
If Graham Linehan had done nothing else since 1998, he’d still be spoken of with reverence among Irish comedy and television fans for co-creating Father Ted. What followed was Black Books, a comedy set in a book store and a “sister” show to British geek sitcom Spaced and then The IT Crowd, an intensely nerdy sitcom set in the IT Department of a fictional corporation. The show is full of geeky in-jokes – parodies, xkcd references, games references and Electronic Frontier Foundation and Open Rights Group slogans, many of which reflect Linehan’s interests and convictions. There’s also, of course, the recurring gag for any one who has ever advised someone less computer literate:
Dara O’Briain is best known here as a stand up comedian and the host and a panellist on many, many comedy quiz shows on both TV and radio. However, he’s also a devoted science nerd, hosting TV and radio shows on astronomy and physics and an outspoken skeptic. In his most recent show, ‘This Is The Show’ (allegedly so-called because it would be abbreviated on Twitter as “Dara O’Briain’s…” you get the idea) he admits to being an enthusiastic gamer, too – although not a very good one.
The Guys Who Built Newgrange
Because there weren’t a whole lot of people around here demonstrating any sort of astronomical knowledge 5,000 years ago. Every year the sun shines down the central passageway of this tomb on the winter solstice. There’s a lottery to get in on that day, although it is open all year and definitely one of the most interesting places to visit should you ever find yourself in Ireland. With that said, it’s maybe 40 minutes drive from my house, and I haven’t been there since I was 11. I’ll rectify that soon.
All right, naming your band after the first supersonic aircraft is, at best, a tentative link to geekdom, but I needed a music one and I’ll take any excuse to post this video of this gorgeous song. Word of warning, as this is a family blog – there’s a couple of instances of bad language. It’s still one of the best songs to come out of this country in recent years.
His sixth installment of the Hitchhiker’s ‘trilogy’ was controversial, to say the least. Our own Curtis Silver liked it. Io9 didn’t. I have a friend who can’t talk about it without swearing profusely. Before all that though, Wexford-born Colfer had established himself as a hugely popular children’s fantasy author with, among others the Artemis Fowl series (which he describes, rather wonderfully, as ‘Die Hard With Fairies’) as well as some other standalone sci-fi and fantasy titles. He doesn’t always get the best reviews, (His Wikipedia entry contains the line “His novels have been compared to the works of J. K. Rowling” – sadly the citation is far from a favorable comparison) but he remains something of a cultural phenomenon in Irish children’s literature.
I was a little apprehensive about including Pearse on this list, as I wanted to avoid any political figures – they tend to be somewhat divisive, especially those, like Pearse, from around the time of the Easter Rising. Pearse’s reputation, though, is also as an educator, and no small amount of his life was devoted to trying to reform education in Ireland, with a particular view to teaching Irish language and culture. There’s been debate in this country in recent months about proposed reforms that have resulted in claims that Irish will be a “dead language” in less than fifty years. I don’t speak it, bar a couple of words and phrases, and I don’t know more than a handful of people who can speak it. It’s sad that that part of our national identity is endangered and for his efforts to preserve it, Patrick Pearse makes the list.
I think I saved the best for last. Yes, there are dozens and dozens of Irish scientists who arguably made more significant or startling discoveries. Maybe George Boole, whose math is used in the design and operation of modern electronics. Or John Tyndall, who was first to explain why the sky is blue (the specific shade of blue is named for him). Robert Boyle, though, was the father of chemistry. He coined the term analysis and taught the scientific method of experimentation and observation. He was a friend of Sir Isaac Newton, and one of the first things taught in school science classes, at least here, is Boyle’s Law. If you’re a science geek that’s a lot to thank him for and that’s why he makes, and indeed tops, this highly subjective list. (And the fact that he shares a name with the very talented cartoonist of “Geek Life” doesn’t hurt, either.)
* That’s “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day To You!” as Gaeilge (in Irish). If you want to say it to your nearest group of Irishmen, say “Law ayla pawdrig hunna yeev” (or Law ayla pawdrig hunna ditch, if there’s only one.) If you want to upset your nearest Irishman, call it ‘Patty’s Day.’ We hate that.