Former Irish Times columnist Ethna Viney dies aged 95

Author was a feminist, economist and environmentalist who wrote the weekly Eye on Nature column for 33 years

Michael and Ethna Viney at their home in Thallabawn, Louisburgh, Co. Mayo. Photograph: Michael Mc Laughlin

Former Irish Times columnist Ethna Viney died on Friday, aged 95.

Visitors to the Viney cottage and smallholding overlooking Tonakerra Point and the mouth of the Killary in west Mayo would invariably be greeted by a warm, smiling and affable Michael, and by his side a similarly gracious Ethna.

In this extraordinarily long and loving relationship, Ethna Viney brought with her an air of both urgency and protectiveness. She was incredibly energetic and accomplished – an equal to Michael in a partnership that was both personal and professional.

In several respects, Ethna Viney was a woman well before her time. As a young woman in late 1950s and early 1960s Ireland, she was a feminist, an economist and an environmentalist.


She was born Ethna McManus and grew up in 1930s Cavan with her father, civil servant James McManus, and her mother, the former Mai Penrose, a bank official. At a time when very few women went to college, let alone to study science, Ethna did just that, graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1957.

From 1961, she worked as a television producer of current affairs programmes, an editor, a freelance journalist, writer, and critic. It was through her media work that she met her future husband, then a reporter at The Irish Times.

Ethna had written a lengthy article about the then-new trade agreements negotiated with Britain by the government of Sean Lemass and which she sent to the newspaper hoping to get it published.

Many years later she recalled: “I was living in a bedsit up two flights of stairs when the phone in the hall rang a couple of days later and I ran down the stairs. It was Michael Viney with a very posh voice. He said: ‘We’re going to use your piece but I’d like to divide it up into three parts’, and that was the first time ...’”

They met and her future husband was smitten, recalling that she “had a long blond ponytail right down her back ... She was very vivacious and full of energy, full of beans”.

In less than a year, in October 1965, they were married – a partnership that produced a daughter, Michele, and lasted for 57 years, until his death last year.

Throughout those years, Ethna followed her own interests, as well as partnering Michael in many of his. She was interested in economics and politics (she was a lifelong socialist), sexuality and feminism, and was influenced by feminist writers of the preceding 300 years.

Eye on Nature writer Ethna Viney with her husband, Michael, who wrote the Another Life column for the Irish Times

In 1989, she published Ancient Wars – Sex and Sexuality.

That was followed in 1996 by Dancing to Different Tunes: Sexuality and its Misconceptions. In 1994, she, along with others, among them Eavan Boland, Clodagh Corcoran, Carol Coulter, Gretchen Fitzgerald, Edna Longley, Maureen Gaffney, and Ruth Riddick, contributed an essay to A Dozen Lips, a collection edited by Boland.

In 1988, she began a weekly column, Eye on Nature, with The Irish Times, an early engagement with readers in which Ethna answered their wildlife questions. She wrote it until 2021, when Éanna Ní Lamhna took it over.

In 2008, she co-authored, with Michael, a monumental joint work, Ireland’s Oceans: A Natural History. And, again with him, in 1981, she revisited an earlier work of his alone, which they entitled Another Life Again – an echo of his long-running column and book, Another Life.

In 1972, the Vineys decamped to Thallabawn in west Mayo to live their “other life” about which they wrote extensively.

Ethna was small of stature but was a big presence in any company – an equal to her husband, in relationship terms, but also in terms of their scientific knowledge and endeavour. Conversationally energetic, her opinions were always clear and both pronounced and defended with intellectual vigour and passion.

She became well-known to her neighbours in Thallabawn and in nearby Louisburgh, as well as in Westport. Between her and Michael, it was always she who drove the car.

As the years closed in on both of them, Ethna guarded and guided Michael through old age and creeping infirmity, well into her 90s, as they both continued to work.

She remained a bundle of energy almost right to the end.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times