Academic, inspiring teacher and defender of Tara

Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin: May 15th, 1955 - April 14th, 2015

The academic, political activist and Tara campaigner Dr Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, who has died aged 59, campaigned strongly for social justice issues through the Labour Party, working closely with Emmet Stagg, Michael D Higgins while he was minister for arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht, and on Maynooth Community Council.

"Her research interests were in women in early literature and history and genealogy but her very particular passion was for teaching, where she enthralled and challenged her students with her unique energy, knowledge and humour," said her colleague Dr Mary Leenane of NUI Maynooth (NUIM).

She was raised in Salthill, Galway, one of three daughters of Cillian Ó Brolcháin, professor of physics at UCG, and Mairéad Coughlan, from Macroom, Co Cork, a domestic science teacher before her marriage. She attended Scoil Fhursa, Nile Lodge primary school and Salerno Secondary School, Salthill, one of only three schools of the Jesus and Mary Sisters in Ireland. At school she was very involved in musical productions, often playing a leading role.

Lore of women

Ní Bhrolcháin studied English, philosophy, history and Irish at UCG, completing an MA there before spending three years at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, where she wrote her PhD thesis on An Banshenchas (the lore of women), which was based on surviving prose and metrical works concerning the different marriages of aristocratic Irish women down to the 12th century.

She was active in musical and theatre productions in the Taibhdhearc in Galway and was an accomplished singer. She met her husband, Jim Cunningham, through the Galway theatre scene, and they had two daughters. They later separated.

She began lecturing part-time in modern Irish at NUIM in 1980, then became a full-time lecturer in the department of early Irish.

She promoted Irish language and culture, eventually becoming associate dean and senior lecturer in the school of Celtic studies. She was instrumental in the establishment of the Centre for Irish Cultural Heritage there; she was also a member of the university’s governing authority.

Widely published on many aspects of early Irish literature and culture, including the recent Introduction to Irish Literature (2009), Ní Bhrolcháin was also an award-winning author of adolescent fiction in Irish and a scriptwriter for TG4's Ros na Rún.

Drawn to politics from a young age, she was deeply involved in Labour campaigns during both the divorce referendums (1986 and 1995). She served on Maynooth Community Council for 30 years, filling many roles.

Tara campaign

The issue of protecting the ancient site of Tara from any possible damage caused by routing the M3 motorway through the historically and archaeologically rich Gabhra Valley was dear to her heart and she took a prominent and tireless part in the campaign, which included her being arrested and meeting the then taoiseach and relevant ministers.

In May 2005, she helped to get 350 academics from all over the world to sign a statement calling on the Irish government not to proceed with the route.

Dr Ní Bhrolcháin is survived by her long-term partner, Don Foley, whom she met in 1986, by her daughters Eithne and Rachel Cunningham and by her sisters Clíona and Deirbhile.