Barbara Wright, 1935-2019

Tributes paid to Irish expert on French literature who ‘recognised languages as a key to future opportunities in Europe’

January 30, 2020
Barbara Wright, 1935-2019

One of a pioneering generation of female fellows at Trinity College Dublin has died.

Barbara Wright was born in Dublin in 1935 and completed degrees in both French and Irish and in law at TCD (1956) before going on to a master’s (1960). She taught at the University of Manchester (1960-61), completed a PhD at the University of Cambridge on the French writer and artist Eugène Fromentin (1962) and took on a further teaching position at the University of Exeter (1963-65).

After that, Professor Wright returned to TCD for the rest of her career and in 1968 became one of the first four women to be elected to a fellowship there. She was later promoted to professor of French literature (1978) and served as dean of the Faculty of Arts for two separate periods amounting to a total of nine years (1983-86 and 1990-96).

Fromentin (1820-76) remained at the heart of Professor Wright’s research interests. She published an edition of his novel Dominique (1996) and his vast correspondence (1995) as well as an acclaimed biography Eugène Fromentin: A Life in Arts and Letters (2000), translated into French in 2006. She also co-authored with James Thomson a two-volume edition of his paintings and drawings (2008). She was made an honorary citizen of Fromentin’s hometown of La Rochelle and, most unusually for a foreign academic, a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur in 2019.

Beyond this, Professor Wright published widely on 19th-century French culture and was active in promoting interdisciplinary and international courses. In his tribute at her memorial service, Roger Little, former professor of French at TCD, said that he “could not have wished” for a colleague “more loyal and supportive”.

While she was dean of the Faculty of Arts, he went on, she developed “several innovative new courses which recognised languages as a key to future opportunities in Europe, combining them with computer studies and linguistics, law, business studies, and developing with several colleagues a master’s course in textual and visual studies” which from the outset involved Paris Diderot University and soon added Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. She also set up a joint degree in music education with the Royal Irish Academy of Music.

Though Professor Wright formally retired in 2005, she remained active as a researcher until the end, most recently working on an edition of an unpublished 1824 manuscript by Édouard de Tocqueville – brother of Alexis – describing a journey through Britain and Ireland.

She died following a brain tumour on 14 December and is survived by her son Jonathan and two grandchildren.

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