woman on the Moon
2007 marks the centenary of the death of an exceptional
Skibbereen woman, Agnes Mary Clerke who has an indent on
the moon, Clerkes Crater named in her
honour by NASA. In addition to this permanent lunar memorial,
Skibbereen Credit Union has sponsored a panel at Skibbereen
Heritage Centre giving information on her life and studies.
An astronomer and writer, Agnes was born in Skibbereen in
1842. When she died at the age of 65, she was one of the
worlds most respected scientific writers in her field
- no mean achievement for a self educated woman of her era.
Her father, John William Clerke, was a bank manager in Skibbereen
at the time of the Famine and was one of the founding members
of the Relief Committee which set up a soup kitchen at the
Steam Mill in Ilen Street. He was a classics graduate of
Trinity College Dublin, but his main interest was in experimental
science and astronomy. He used an instrument attached to
his telescope to tell the time and so provided a time
service for the town of Skibbereen.
Her mother, Catherine, was one of the Deasy family of Clonakilty
- founders of the famous brewery. She attended the Ursuline
Convent Boarding School and was highly educated for a woman
of the time with a strong interest in music and art.
Agnes and her sister Ellen were never sent to school (while
their brother Aubrey went to boarding school and later to
Trinity) but were taught at home by masters and their parents.
Agnes had access to her fathers scientific library
and took up astronomy seriously at the age of 11 and later
translated text books from German, Latin, Spanish, French,
Greek, Italian and Portuguese in order to further her studies.
The family moved to Dublin in 1861 and JW Clerke was honoured
on his departure by being given a presentation of books
a memorial of regard and esteem from the inhabitants
of Skibbereen, Agnes and Ellen began to over winter
in Italy from 1867, eventually moving to Florence to live
permanently in 1873. Ellen also had a love of astronomy
but her favourite field of study was Italian literature
and she also published extensively.
It was in Florence that Agnes first started writing for
the Edinburgh Review, a prestigious scientific journal,
and over the next 30 years she wrote 54 articles for this
publication on a variety of topics including science, antiquities
and literature. She was also commissioned to write for Encyclopedia
Britannia in 1879 and started to work on her book, A Popular
History of Astronomy, during the nineteenth century, which
was published in 1885 and took her seven years to research
The book received excellent reviews (the first printing
was sold out in a matter of months) and brought her into
contact with leading astronomers worldwide. There was a
curiosity and regard for this unknown Miss Clerke (her Edinburgh
Review articles were unsigned) and she met and befriended
many of the leading scientists of the time.
Sir David Gill, Director of the Royal Observatory at the
Cape of Good Hope, met Agnes in London in 1887 and invited
her to study in South Africa which she did in 1888, Gill
tried unsuccessfully to have her admitted to the Royal Astronomical
Society but, as a woman, she was not permitted to use its
library. She also corresponded with Edward Holden, Director
of the prestigious Lick Observatory in California, who wished
to have her appointed Professor of Astronomy at Vassar College,
the first womens college in the USA. She also befriended
the American George Hale, who discovered the magnetism of
sunspots and the Englishman, Edward Maunder who also made
important discoveries about the sun.
Agnes continued to write on a variety of topics, The system
of the stars in 1890 and Problems in Astrophysics in 1903,
both scientific books of note and she also wrote books of
more general appeal. Her last book Modern Cosmogonies in
1905, was a simple language account of the theories of the
origin and evolution of the universe, covering the period
from ancient Greece to her writing. She was highly regarded
in astronomy circles and her biography was published in
2002, Agnes Mary Clarke and the Rise of Astrophysics by
As a scientist and writer, Agnes was an exceptionally talented
person but her achievements were even more worthy when her
gender was taken into consideration. Although a lot of avenues
were closed to her being a woman, she was finally made an
honourary member of The Royal Astronomical Society in 1903
when it was felt by her male associated that her membership
... could no longer be postponed. Agnes died in London
in 1907, where she lived, from 1877, with her sister and
fellow author Ellen Clerke.
Skibbereen Credit Union is proud to sponsor the information
panel on this outstanding woman. It is appropriate for it
to do so, as one of the founding members of the Credit Union
movement was another pioneering Cork woman, Nora Herlihy.
For further information please contact the Skibbereen Heritage
Centre on 028 40900.
Courtesy of The Southern Star