Desmond Bernal - Nenagh honours unsung hero
On Wednesday July 20 a plaque was unveiled at the Nenagh
Heritage Centre in commemoration of a most remarkable Nenagh
man. At a low-key, but well attended ceremony, the life
of John Desmond (J.D.) Bernal was recalled and celebrated.
Finally, Nenagh has acknowledged one of the most extraordinary
men ever to come out of the town.
Some of you might not know a lot about the life of this
man, but before going into that it is necessary to pay tribute
to those behind this initiative. Firstly there are the Nenagh
townspeople and local historians Nancy and Donal Murphy.
Then Dr Bill Davis and Dr Norman McMillan, members of the
National Committee for Science and Engineering Plaques.
This body actually donated the plaque. Also Dr Roy Johnston,
who identified the Heritage Centre as the most appropriate
location for the memorial. Dr Johnston is an expert on the
life of Bernal and has contributed many biographical articles
on J. D. Bernal to various publications.
John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, molecular physicist,
social scientist, committed Communist and campaigner for
world peace, was born in Brookwatson, Nenagh on May 10,
1901. He was the eldest child of Samuel and Elizabeth (Bessie).
His ancestors had been Sephardic Jews who arrived in Ireland
in 1840 from Spain, via Amsterdam and London. On settling
in Ireland, the family converted to Catholicism.
Samuel came originally from Limerick. He emigrated for some
years to Australia and on his return stayed with his sister
Margaret Riggs-Miller in Tullaheady, just outside Nenagh.
In 1898 he bought the farm in Brookwatson and built the
existing house. On a visit to the continent he met his future
wife. Bessie was an energetic, educated and much-travelled
women of Presbyterian stock. She converted to Catholicism
prior to their marriage in 1900.
John Desmond was the first born, with Kevin following in
January 1903. There was less than two years between the
boys and they were very close for many years.
Initially, both went to the local convent, but later transferred
to the Protestant school, which was then based in Barrack
Street. Despite this, it seems that the young John Desmond
was a very devout Catholic who wore a scapular constantly,
even when he was swimming. There were three other children:
Geraldine, Fiona (who died young) and Godfrey, who only
died in January of this year.
A major upheaval occurred in 1910 when Samuel Bernal decided
to send his two eldest sons to Hodder Place, the preparatory
school in Lancashire. For John Desmond, this was the beginning
of a lifelong association with England, even though he never
forgot his roots and throughout his life was proud of being
As a teenager, it would appear that he was a very bright
but rather introspective young man. He was also a staunch
nationalist who believed that all of Ireland's problems
could be resolved if only the English could be driven out.
Writing about this later, he noted that even in his home
town, the four most imposing buildings were "the law
court, the jail, and the military and police barracks."
Meanwhile he was performing well academically and won several
school prizes and finally a scholarship to Emmanuel College,
It was at Cambridge in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution
of 1917 that he first encountered socialism. For John Desmond,
this discovery was an epiphany. Later he wrote: "The
theory of Marxism, the great Russian experiment, what we
could do here and now, it was all so clear, so compelling,
so universal. How narrow my Irish patriotism seemed, how
absurdly reactionary my military schemes. All power to the
Soviets. It was the people themselves who would sweep away
all the things that I hated, smash the arrogance of the
English public schoolboy gentleman."
Thus began a lifelong commitment to the ideals of Communism.
Over the following fifty years this odyssey would take him
to many parts of the world and meetings with many international
leaders including Nehru, Khrushchev, Mao and Ho Chi Minh.
He was the first president of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War
Group, president of the World Peace Council and drafted
the constitution for the World Federation of Scientific
Workers. He lectured regularly on scientific or political
themes at conferences worldwide and was involved in the
foundation of UNESCO.
Even though Bernal supported the Allied war effort and was
centrally involved in the planning of the Normandy landings,
he was often ostracised by the Western powers, with both
the US and France refusing him visas in later years. In
the fifties he became somewhat disillusioned with the Soviet
Union after the invasion of Hungary, but he never renounced
his socialist beliefs. He was to remain a thorn in the side
of Western governments until the end of his days.
As a scientist, the most remarkable thing is that he never
won a Noble Prize, even though three of his students did.
Conventional wisdom would have it that he spread himself
too wide and was too involved in other matters, to achieve
this ultimate accolade. Nonetheless, as Chair of Physics
at Birkbeck College (University of London) and later as
Professor of Crystallography, he presided over a centre
of excellence that was celebrated worldwide. After graduating
from Cambridge, Birkbeck was where he had spent most of
his days as a research scientist and where in 1948 he founded
the Biomolecular Research Laboratory, later to become the
internationally renowned Crystallography Department.
Along the way J.D Bernal managed to write several books,
mainly dealing with the role of science in society. He also
published 224 scientific papers and nearly 400 articles
of a non-scientific nature. His marriage in 1922 to Eileen
Sprague produced two sons.
An interesting aside occurred in 1950 when Bernal encountered
Pablo Picasso, the famous painter. Picasso had come to England
to attend a peace conference which John Desmond was instrumental
When the British government refused visas to the delegates
from Eastern Europe, the conference was cancelled and some
of those present retired to Bernal's flat in London for
a "peace party". During the course of the evening
Picasso drew a mural on the wall of the flat. Subsequently
the house was demolished, but the mural survived and is
now on permanent display at Birkbeck College. It is known
as Bernal's Picasso.
J.D Bernal suffered a stroke in the summer of 1963, followed
by a second in September 1965. He was seriously disabled
by this second blow and retired from his Professorship in
1968. He died on the 15 September 1971.
For many years John Desmond Bernal was a prophet without
honour in his own land. Personally, as a young fellow, I
recall hearing about this local Communist scientist who
had "been to Russia".
Thankfully, this neglect has now been rectified. At the
unveiling of the plaque (MC was Geraldine McNulty of the
Heritage Service), some words were said by Tom Harrington
on behalf of the County Council who are now running the
Service, the aforementioned Nancy Murphy, Dr David Fegan
on behalf of the Royal Irish Academy and Dr Norman McMillan.
The unveiling itself was performed by J. D.'s granddaughter
Nenagh should be proud of itself to honour one of our most
Thanks should also go to St. Mary's Secondary School who
provided the space for a buffet lunch for all who attended
the unveiling. This was prepared by Marie Nagle of Cinnamon
Alley. Also, St. Mary's of the Rosary opened their gates
for anyone wishing to park. Bridget Delaney took photographs.
Courtesy Tipperary Star