2013 is the centenary of some important events in Irish history. It is also the centenary of some very obscure ones. 1913 saw the publication of one of the earliest books of essays honouring an Irish academic. ‘A great Irish scholar’, the Irish Times called him in its review of the book, and ‘one of the most seminal minds now in mortal existence’.
Such books are common nowadays, and many professors and lecturers are presented with one when they retire, written by their colleagues, students and friends. A hundred years ago, it was a new practice and was imitating universities in Germany, hence its usual name, ‘festschrift’. In the later nineteenth century, German universities were the most advanced in the world, and a lot of the features of modern academic life were developed there, such as the PhD thesis and the research seminar. These then spread to the rest of Europe and the United States, often brought back by those who had gone to Germany to study.
The man who was given this book on his 60th birthday was William Ridgeway, born in Aghanvilla, King’s County (Offaly), which is between Tullamore and Portarlington, in 1858, and educated at Portarlington school, Trinity College Dublin and Cambridge.
After a decade as Professor of Greek in Queen’s College Cork, he was appointed professor of archaeology in Cambridge in 1893. The book was presented to him at a 60th birthday dinner in Cambridge in July 1913, and at the back of the book is printed the menu of the birthday dinner:
as well as the seating plan of the four dinner tables. The poet A.E. Housman is in the middle of the page on the right, the anthropologist A.C. Haddon on the bottom right, and the physicist Joseph Larmor, previously at Queen’s College Galway, in the middle of the page on the left (click to enlarge):
Two things are noticeable about the seating plan. The first is the presence of no fewer than five newspaper correspondents (in the top right corner), and the event was widely reported.
The second is that there were no women present. Even Mrs Ridgeway, Lucy Samuels from Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) wasn’t present at her husband’s birthday dinner, even though she ‘was hardly less interested than he was in his work’, according to the Dictionary of National Biography. This may have been university practice at the time, or it may have been William Ridgeway’s own choice. Women were only beginning to be admitted to Cambridge, and one of the principal opponents of this change was Ridgeway himself. ‘The higher education of men is far more important for the community than that of women’, he wrote to the Times in 1920, adding that women students ‘distract the men from their proper pursuits’, leading to ‘ill-advised or improvident marriages’!
– Niall ó Ciosáin