Mary Mulvihill

Our friend Mary Mulvihill, science writer, has just died after a brief illness, aged only 55.

Mary and her then-partner and later-husband Brian, were our neighbours for some years in Stoneybatter in Dublin, but being friendly people they soon became our friends as well. Mary had written a proper book, which impressed us no end. Ingenious Ireland is a remarkable book, a celebration of Ireland’s achievements in science and technology, and since my own interest in science at the time was and is great, while my knowledge was small but growing fast, I was mightily impressed with it. Mary herself wore her own great knowledge of science history extremely lightly. Of all the writers I’ve met, she was one of the kindest and friendliest, and certainly the least inclined to be complacent about having written anything at all — which is not to say that she didn’t have a proper sense of its worth, but I got the impression that she regarded the book as a start, rather than as a life’s work. Her mode of talking about the stuff that interested her was welcoming, and made you want to hear more about it; she never had the science writer’s sometimes shrill insistence on the value of reason. She had too much interest in the quirks of humanity for that; it wasn’t that she suffered fools gladly, but she was at least reconciled to the fact that there will always be fools.

She wrote more books: a guide to ethical consumerism with the characteristically witty title Drive Like A Woman, Shop Like A Man. Later came Lab Coats and Lace, a study of Irish women scientists; and the Kindle-only Ingenious Dublin. It’s a testimony to Mary’s modesty as an author that I didn’t know about the latter two books until I was writing this piece. We never got to go on her scientific walking tours of Dublin, but they were her main work in recent years and she was quietly proud of their success.

Mary was the kind of person who knew the names of trees, something I’ve never been able to remember; I don’t know if she really did know the names of all trees, but she was certainly the kind of person willing and able to remember them. She and Brian were among the first people to learn that we were going to have our first child, and they were generously congratulatory, even though it meant living next door to a sometimes very loud baby. We would take it in turns to have them for dinner, and they would always invite us to something delicious, well-balanced and beautifully cooked, whereas we would generally invite them to eat huge amounts of something wildly calorific, such as lasagna with Italian sausage in it. Not that she was in any way puritanical; when we lived in Dublin they would often invite us to sample their home-brewed beer, which was an excellent mild ale if you like that kind of thing, but if not … The only time I ever saw Mary close to nonplussed was when she met our cat George; for some reason, he took against her trousers, and managed to snag his paw in them. She was patient and highly amused as we detached him.

It only occurred to us after Mary’s death that when we first met her, she was younger than we are now. The last time I saw her was not long before Christmas, and she seemed in the peak of health; then a few weeks ago we received an email from her saying that she’d been seriously ill but was taking it easy. After that, it all happened very quickly. It is a scandal that she didn’t live long enough to do everything that she must have wanted to do; I will never again get to sit at her table and hear her wise, funny, sceptical talk, and she and I will never again get to marvel at the beauty and weirdness of quaternions. One Christmas she came to see us in Edinburgh, she brought an old hardback book with her, and spent the first part of her visit folding its pages patiently and meticulously while chatting away; after a while, she placed it on the table and she’d folded its pages into something that is either a Christmas tree or, if you regard the book’s cover as wings, a sort of abstract angel. It was a beautiful, daft present and it sits in our daughter’s room to this day, keeping an eye on things.

If we must be content with what Mary did achieve, she did a lot, and I urge you to read her books. In the meantime, those of us who were lucky enough to know her even a little bit have been robbed of a warm, wise, highly intelligent and valued friend. Our thoughts are with Brian, and with her family.

Mary Mulvihill