Ellen M. Prendergast

 

The death has just taken place in her native and much loved Kilkenny of Ellen M. (Nell) Prendergast, the first woman archaeologist. Her long career was spent entirely at the National Museum of Ireland, from which she retired in 1983.

A native of Killure near Paulstown, she first came into contact with archaeology at the Brigidine Convent school in Mountrath where one of the foremost antiquarians of the day, Miss Helen Roe, then a librarian, instructed the girls on heritage by showing them slides. When Nell joined the staff of the Museum in the mid 1930s as a technician in Irish Antiquities, Dr Mahr was still Director. She attended UCD and took firstly a BA and later an MA in Celtic Archaeology under the guidance and inspiration of Professor Sean P. O Riord ain. This allowed her to progress into the ranks of professional archaeologists, becoming an Assistant Keeper under Dr. Joe Raftery. Her arrival on the scene predated the advent of her friend, the late Maire de Paor.

Apart from the routine job of working on acquisitions and helping with exhibitions, Nell did considerable work on the single burials of the later Neolithic period in which she showed a mature understanding of parallels and context. She became an expert in prehistoric pottery which showed in her work for John Hunt on the Caherguillamore publication. She investigated and published Early Bronze Age cist burials and worked on items as diverse as amber necklaces and deertraps. She remained devoted to the archaeology of Kilkenny in a range of articles for the Old Kilkenny Review.

Although she was belatedly promoted to the Folklife Division of the Museum and even though she did interesting work in her long career, not least the selection and description of artefacts for the 1973 Viking and Medieval Dublin exhibition, sadly, she was never properly allowed to develop to her full potential as a scholar. Instead of being encouraged, she was directed into unrewarding corners of the collections. Though she sometimes became frustrated with this lack of fulfilment and, uncharacteristically, a bit embittered by the way she felt she was treated, her commitment and freshness of thought about the collections and the institution never dampened.

She was particularly helpful to young researchers; she was popular with visiting researchers, particularly from Britain and Scandinavia - she was friendly with the Norwegian archaeologist Charlotte Blindhen and had excavated for a season at her site at Kaupang. Nell was very popular among the younger staff in the Museum and was well known for her feminism, her trade unionism and her strong support for the Irish language. For years she was the presiding spirit at coffee breaks in the Museum.

A great woman for conferences and field trips, particularly with the Society of Antiquaries, the group for Historic Settlement and all the main Leinster societies, she was especially devoted to the Kilkenny Society. My own first memory of her was on a Thomond Society field outing to Lough Gur over 30 years ago. Typically, she was treated with respect and affection by the other professionals. She was then at her best - tallish, fine-boned and with the rosy complexion of the countryside. Her low soft voice in which she pronounced upon sites in an almost teasing tone dissolving into characteristic warm laughter is the strongest memory.

Nell Prendergast lived for the Museum, archaeology, folklife and especially for Co Kilkenny and its heritage. She never married and after her retirement swapped the banks of the Dodder for the Nore. She frequently came to museum and antiquaries "dos" and seminars in Dublin and kept up her friendships around the country (one thinks here of her friendship with her former colleague Brid Myles in Cavan). She delighted in her nieces and nephews in Kilkenny, Carlow and Dublin and was particularly pleased to be slagged about Paddy who wore Kilkenny's black and amber with such distinction.

Our sympathy to her twin sister, her brother and her nieces and nephews and their families and to her archaeological and antiquarian friends in Dublin and Kilkenny particularly Maureen Hegarty, Una Hughes and not least, the remarkable Margaret Phelan, for decades Nell's mentor and friend. One's sense of privilege for having known and worked with such an honest and committed colleague who paid a price for her mod direach approach is somewhat tinged with a sense of guilt I am sure I share with many of my contemporaries about what extra we could have done collectively to help somebody in the civil service backwater that was the Museum 30 to 40 years ago. Ar dheis De agus lamh le Naomh Cainneach go raibh a anam uasal.