The members of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA), founded in 1785, are the top scholars in their respective disciplines. However, while women were only legally entitled to be members after a 1919 act of parliament, it was another 30 years before the academy elected the first females.
Four of the five portraits unveiled this week are of those first four female RIA members, as depicted by artist Vera Klute. Their relatives were present when the artworks were revealed, along with the subjects of a fifth painting, in which Blaise Smith portrays eight of today’s top Irish female scientists.
The Women on Walls campaign was the brainchild of professional services company Accenture which has been very active in efforts to promote careers for women in science, technology, engineering, and maths. It commissioned the portraits after executives at a meeting in the RIA noticed the absence of women among the portraits in the halls of Academy House.
“We have long been committed to tackling gender inequality and increasing the profile of women within Accenture and throughout the business community,” said Alastair Blair, Accenture’s managing director in Ireland.
“In this centenary year, this initiative was a natural extension of that work. After all, you can’t be what you can’t see.”
RIA chief executive Laura Mahony said the hope is for members of the public to visit Academy House to see the portraits and find out about the women and their work.
The first four women elected to the RIA, the country’s highest academic honour, include Sheila Tinney, who died six years ago. The pioneer of mathematical physics became a member in 1949, along with art historian Francoise Henry, inventor and plant virus researcher Phyllis Clinch, and classical Irish literature researcher Eleanor Knott.
Their portraits were unveiled by Tánaiste and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, who said that sometimes the most powerful and effective ideas are the simplest.
“Most importantly, this campaign challenges us to ask where are the women across all aspects of Irish society,” she said.
The areas of expertise of the women in Ms Smith’s portrait include human aging, solar panels, and bio-medical engineering. Among them is University College Cork palaeobiologist Maria McNamara, who worked on the 2014 study which found evidence that the first plant-eating dinosaur had both scales and feathers.