Don's Diary

April 17, 1998


Broken tooth: What a start to the week! During my unscheduled visit to the dentist, I mull over our current research on the curing dynamics of composite monomers as the dentist cures the polymer filler in the offending tooth - science at work to the benefit of humankind.

My 12 o'clock lecture to the first-year students - a somewhat distorted view of modern physics delivered with a partially frozen jaw. Peace talks moving towards completion in Belfast. As a Northerner, I can't get them out of my mind. Newspapers awash with opinion: cliches abound on conflicts of allegiance, the tension between nationality and nationalism, and the usual partisan rhetoric of politicians who tend to argue with polite vehemence, spilling over at times into real vitriol.


Early morning start as usual to avoid the Dublin traffic paralysis. Read The Irish Times at my desk over a cup of coffee. A piece entitled "Scientists' Alarm at Delays in the States Research Funding" sets off alarm bells and the predictable spate of email messages. Will government ever learn that research drives economies and that postgraduate research students must be adequately funded? More alarm bells: Senator Mitchell's draft document is rejected by the Unionists who consider proposals on the so-called Strand 2 talks (North/South bodies) as "a bridge too far". Tension heightens. A telephone call from Paris to remind me of deadline. My invited paper for the Elastomer Conference in May is urgently needed. As Senator Mitchell says, deadlines help focus the mind. Nose to the grindstone for the rest of the day. The evening news reports that Prime Minister Blair and Taoiseach Ahern converge on Belfast. There is renewed hope.


Routine visit to Bausch & Lomb in Waterford for discussions on our joint university/industry project on the manufacture of contact lenses. It is always exciting to see science at work at the coal face. How can I inject that enthusiasm into my students? On the way back to Dublin, I pass through Eniscorthy, the site of the 1798 rebellion involving the United Irishmen - many of whom were presbyterians. Start brooding again on the Northern talks. Can Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter ever be united in the common name of Irishmen (Wolfe Tone)? Despite the traffic, get back to Trinity in good time for 5 o'clock lecture. Return home for dinner with family and the Penetential Service in our local church.


The morning is spent on the Paris paper and one or two administrative chores. Coffee with Brendan Kennelly, poet, professor and friend - provides welcome relief from thinking about polymer science. We discuss the ways that current education practice has made teaching less pleasurable and memorable for the students. We are all caught up in the academic rat race of information transfer rather than developing creative minds. What can we do about it? Back to the talks in the North. Brendan recalls the uniting power of poetry and the arts - a feature of ancient Ireland - and the recent establishment of an all-Ireland poetry chair. Well, at least that is one all-Ireland institution to start with. Discussions with research students in the afternoon leave me wondering who, in fact, is the supervisor and who is the student. I am increasingly amazed at their ingenuity and self-reliance. Weather prompts an early departure for home to beat the evening rush hour traffic on the ten-mile trip to Howth. The four seasons in the one day: hail, rain, snow and sunshine. After attending the Holy Thursday ceremonies, an evening immersed in the TV coverage of the talks. They seem as grid-locked as the Dublin traffic.


College is closed today. News of impending agreement in the talks. An involuntary and fleeting reflection on the personal trauma of the past three decades: incomprehensible surge of emotion and relief. Back to the Paris paper but to little avail. Renewed prayers for peace at the 3 o'clock ceremonies. Again glued to the television. Disbelief at the sense of unanimity during the closing meeting of the talks process. What a triumph for politics and the much maligned politicians who have shown exemplary courage and a level of compromise seldom witnessed in the North. Not inclined to do anything but savour the moment. It is truly a Good Friday.


I reflect on the historic agreement and the long and fragile process of consolidation to follow. Academics have an important role to play. I was much moved by the poet, Seamus Heaney, who wrote in the morning newspaper: "If revolution is the kicking down of a rotten door, evolution is more like pushing the stone from the mouth of the tomb. There is an Easter energy about it, a sense of arrival rather than wreckage... For once, and at long last, the language of the Bible can be appropriated by those with a vision of the future rather than those who sing the battle hymn of the past."

Vincent McBrierty, Professor of Polymer Physics, Trinity College, Dublin.

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