Exploits of trailblazing Wexford nun recalled as SETU launch new PhD in STEM

Elsie Redmond and Mae Boyle (nieces of Margaret Gough) who unveiled the Memorial Plaque with Professor Veronica Campbell (President of SETU) and Cllr Jim Moore (grandnephew of Margaret Gough).

Simon BourkeWexford People

The achievements of a trailblazing woman from Kilmore have been celebrated in a special ceremony at the South East Technological University (SETU) as it launched its new PhD in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths). Margaret ‘Maggie’ Gough, who was born in 1892 in Rackardstown, was the first Irish woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics in 1931 and, to celebrate her work SETU has developed a programme in her honour.

Part-funded by Maggie’s family the PhD will, according to Professor Veronica Campbell, President SETU, “allow Maggie’s story and achievements to provide inspiration and encouragement to current students in our university. In so doing we are pleased to provide this support and motivation for excellence in memory of an exceptional woman….who did original research in a highly technical subject at a time when very few women got that opportunity.”

Karen Hennessey, Head of the Wexford Campus, hosted the event and had a special word of welcome for Mae Boyle and Elsie Redmond both nieces of Margaret Gough. Also present was local councillor and grandnephew of Maggie, Councillor Jim Moore, and he explained how the family had only recently learned of her exploits.

“This discovery, led by Prof Colm Mulcahy and Dr Mary Cunneen, has given us new insights into the life of this talented woman, born and raised in rural Wexford at the end of the 19th century,” said Cllr Moore. “We have discovered her impact in the academic world and though none of the family met her, her family story is available, if not in its entirety yet.”

Margaret Mary Gough was born on February 15, 1892 in Rickardstown Kilmore to Walter and Ellen Gough. Walter was a local labourer while Ellen was a home maker. Margaret had one younger sister Elizabeth. In the census of 1901, the house number 15 confirms four residents, including Maggie (9) and Lizzie (6).

In their research Prof Mulcahy and Dr Cunneen note how the arrival of three nuns, including a Sister M Aidan, to take charge of the national school when Margaret was a child had a pivotal impact on her young life. Referring to Sr M Aidan the annals of the St John of God Order state, “Many of her past pupils are Sisters of the Incarnate Word in Texas, all of whom have now university degrees which they got when they completed their novitiate.”

Perhaps it was this strong influence which compelled Margaret to emigrate to Texas in 1909 at the age of 17, a journey she undertook with neighbours Margaret Barry and Annie Daly. The journey from Liverpool to Galveston, Texas took three weeks and the ship’s manifest lists Margaret and her two friends as  “alien passengers”.

Margaret was first professed on August 15, 1911 with her final profession five years later. She continued her studies and taught maths in Texas and Missouri and proceeded to gain her BA in 1920, her MA in 1923 and her PhD in 1931 which had the title ‘On the Condition for the Existence of Triangles In-and-Circumscribed to Certain Types of the Rational Quartic Curve and Having a Common Side’.

“From what we know Aunt de Lellis, as the family referred to her, wrote regularly to them and also sent presents to her sister and family,” continues Cllr Moore. “Some of her sister colleagues did travel home and Sr Antonio Barry (Margaret Barry) made a number of trips. I am reliably informed that in 1939 she brought presents of clothes to the Moore household and returned to Texas as WWII was about to begin.

“We were also regular recipients of Christmas cards, prayer books, rosary beads and the like. One handwritten letter from Aunt de Lellis, dated October 8, 1971, when she was 80-years-old, confirms she had eye problems and had a bad fall which prevented her from joining her Diamond Jubilee ceremonies the previous August.”

Despite her penchant for letter writing Aunt de Lellis never disclosed her academic achievements to her family and passed away on April 7, 1983 in Texas.

“I am sure she would be quite amazed at the event here today celebrating her pioneering career and the family hopes that sharing this story will do what the university logo says – Inspiring Futures,” said Cllr Moore. Speaking on behalf of Mae and Elsie, Margaret’s nieces, Cllr Moore said, “They are both absolutely thrilled with the acknowledgement of their aunt and were taken by surprise by the discovery of the news. They recall their mother Elizabeth speaking of her sister as extremely capable and smart. Their mother maintained regular contact by letter and she shared a similar interest in education and attaining skills.

"They experienced the loss of their mother at 51 years of age while they were all quite young and the regular contact from Margaret to their father is well remembered. They were delighted to be accompanied by many family members at the event. They expressed gratitude to the university for the wonderful acknowledgement of their aunt Margaret and both felt that she would be delighted with the day's celebrations.”