Skibbereen 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, ‘Clerke’s 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 world’s 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 father’s 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 and write.
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 women’s 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 Mary Bruck.

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