(An t-Ollamh Mairéad Ni Éimhigh)
by Professor Etienne Rynne
Athenry Contact Magazine 1980
With Professor Margaret Heavey’s sudden and unexpected death last February, Athenry lost one of its more extraordinary residents. Born in the pre-Great War period, she performed brilliantly at school and at UniversityCollege, Galway, which she entered in 1924 and where four years later she obtained a Travelling Studentship in Ancient Classics which took her to Munich, Germany. She returned to U.C.G. in 1931 as lecturer in Latin through Irish, and three years later she added lecturing in Greek, also through Irish, to her duties. In 1958 she was appointed Professor in Ancient Classics, the position she held until her retirement in 1977.
First Class Scholar
Her academic output was small but impressive, and mainly comprised translations into Irish of College text-books, such as Greek Grammar for Schools, Greek Prose Composition, Latin Prose Composition, and book 11 of Caesar’s Gallic War. As will be readily appreciated, Professor Heavey was a first-class scholar not only in Latin and Greek but also in Irish, the language of her own ancestors. Indeed, much as she loved the Classics, particularly Latin, it is probably fair to say that she loved Irish more.
Kind and Considerate
But although Professor Heavey’s academic side was noteworthy, she will undoubtedly be best remembered for her human side. She was a person who lived quietly for others, always with a kind, considerate, consoling or encouraging word, a marvelously sympathetic listener, most charitable in her opinions of others and always most generous with her time and goodwill. Few who knew her in any way well will not at one time or another have received one of her thoughtful, hand-written letters or notes; if she knew that the recipient spoke Irish then she generally wrote in that language and signed off with “Brict”, a medieval abbreviated version of “Beacnnacht”. Those letters and notes, whether in her idiomatic and beautiful Irish or in her elegant English, unconsciously displayed her very sincere Christianity and her sense of humour. Nor was the Classical touch often missing – I have a note from her dated “Julius Caesar’s Birthday”!
Athenry’s unique fame
Professor Heavey always felt proud to be not the first but the fourth notable Classical Scholar from Athenry, thus keeping up the town’s surely unique claim to fame. The first of these was George O’Connor who graduated in Ancient Greek and Latin at Queen’s College, Galway, in 1874, obtained an M.A. there in 1875, but was tragically drowned in the River Isis in June 1878 while pursuing a post-graduate degree in Classics at Oxford, and is buried in the small graveyard behind Athenry (Catholic) Church. Then there were her own two mentors, Professor Thomas Fahy and Professor Thomas Dempsey, both from the immediate Athenry neighbourhood and both of whom preceded her in the Chair of Ancient Classics at U.C.G.
Athenry Prizes in Classics
It is not widely known and appreciated in Athenry that, in consequence of that Classical tradition and of her own real love for the old town, she presented, on “La Fheile Michil, 1978”, a not inconsiderable part of her life’s saving to University College, Galway, so as to provide annual prizes for the best students studying Latin, Greek, and Classical Civilization. She did this anonymously – though how she expected it to remain anonymous when she requested that the Prizes be known as “Duaiseanna Ath na Riogh ins na Classaici”/”The Athenry Prizes in the Classics” is only to be wondered at! (She also referred to them as “Praemia Athenriensia – Studiis Fovendis Classicis”.) Professor Heavey instituted these Prizes “ ina gcomhartha buiochais uaim do mhuintir mo cheantair dhuchais a thug tus an leinn chlasaicigh dhom fado, fado, agus go mor mhor don Alma Mater Galveiensis seo againne a d’fhailtigh romham isteach im oige and a bhronn orm a bheith istigh im sheanaois”.
George O’Connor is commemorated in U.C.G. by a brass plaque placed in the old library by his former fellow-students, the only such plaque erected in U.C.G. for one of its scholars. Professor Heavey will also be commemorated there, but in a different way. Her former colleagues and students feel so strongly her loss that they have raised a fund to establish in her honour an annual Memorial Lecture to be known as “Leacht Chuimhneacháin an Ollaimh Mairead Ni Eimligh”. But Professor Heavey already has her own brass plaque, on the second seat from the front in the new Athenry Church, and it reads as follows:
PRO. THOMA. ET. ALICIA. HEAVEY
PRO. OMNIBUSOUE. SUIS
Although placed there by herself, this plaque’s inscription and its very placing in the church typifies so much of herself that it truly serves as her own memorial too.
I measc aingil Dé go raibh a anam dílis.