Archaeologist who used beetles to unlock past

Obituary: Dr Eileen Reilly analysed insect remains to understand medieval living

Dr Eileen Reilly will be remembered fondly as a strong promoter of archaeology, a great scholar of palaeo-ecology and environmental archaeology and a loving wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend.

Dr Eileen Reilly will be remembered fondly as a strong promoter of archaeology, a great scholar of palaeo-ecology and environmental archaeology and a loving wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend.


Eileen Reilly

Born: May 15th, 1970

Died: July 27th, 2018

Archaeologist Dr Eileen Reilly, who died at the age of 48 was widely appreciated for that rare blend of academic rigour, intellectual curiosity, kindness and generosity towards others.

At the time of her death, she was poised to become a leading European researcher in environmental archaeology – a specialism which looks into the living conditions of early medieval towns and rural settlements through the analysis of insect remains in archaeological sites. She single-handedly created a new research field in Ireland in the study of beetles.

Growing up the second of four children in the Dublin suburb of Donaghmede, Eileen developed a love for archaeology from a young age. Filling in her CAO form during her Leaving Cert year at Grange Community College, she only applied for archaeology and was thrilled to be accepted into University College Dublin. Following graduation in 1992 from her joint honours degree in archaeology and geography, she went on to complete an MSc in environmental archaeology and palaeo-economy at Sheffield University in 1995.

From 1995-2002, she worked as an archaeoentomologist on multi-disciplinary excavation projects including the Viking Age Temple Bar West excavations; the Corlea Bog, Co Longford; and the Troitsky quarter of medieval Novgorod in Russia. She then completed a PhD on how natural and human-driven change affects insect biodiversity in historic woodlands, at the department of botany in Trinity College Dublin.

From 2008 onwards, Reilly worked on significant excavations, most notably the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age waterfront sites of Clancy Barracks and Ormond Quay in Dublin, the early medieval monastic site of Skellig Michael in Co Kerry and the medieval town ditch of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Fishamble Street

In 2011, Reilly secured funding to assess, catalogue and repack over 1000 samples from the Viking site of Fishamble Street (which had been excavated between 1979-1981 by Dr Pat Wallace). Environmental archaeologist Lorna O’Donnell who worked with her on this project remembers how they spent two months in the underground stores of the National Museum talking and laughing all day while repacking cess, decaying bird samples and burnt archaeological layers.

This archive of environmental material – which is available to future generations of scientists led to Reilly’s post-doctoral research project Dirt, Dwellings and Culture: Reconstructing Living Conditions in Early Medieval Ireland and Northwestern Europe AD 600-1100. Funded by the Irish Research Council and mentored by Prof Aidan O’Sullivan at the UCD school of archaeology, this project went on to form the basis for her book, Living Conditions in Early Medieval Europe: A Case Study from Viking Age Fishamble Street, Dublin (to be published by Archaeopress in Oxford in 2019).

Dr Reilly had recently been appointed adjunct research fellow at UCD archaeology where she lectured. She was also prominent in the development of the Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture at UCD – particularly in the early medieval and Viking house projects on the Belfield site. Prof O’Sullivan, director of the centre, says her death is a tremendous loss to the discipline at a time when she was becoming more and more involved in large European research projects.

Labour Party

Reilly first encountered her husband-to-be, Ronan O’Brien, at a student Labour Party meeting in UCD. From these formative days as secretary of the student branch, she remained a very committed Labour Party activist through her life, widely known and appreciated in the Dublin Labour Party. Her husband worked in the Labour Party and was a special adviser to Brendan Howlin in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform from 2011-2016. The President, Michael D Higgins, attended her funeral in a personal capacity.

Following the birth of their daughter, Áine, on Christmas Day in 2008, Dr Reilly embraced motherhood wholeheartedly. Mother and daughter enjoyed endless hours of baking, reading books and watching movies in their Dublin home.

Her first diagnosis with breast cancer was in September 2016 and she finished her treatment in the summer of 2017. Ready to embrace a new direction, Dr Reilly was appointed to a new position of archaeologist in the Irish Forest Service. She was excited about beginning this new chapter in her life which – aside from her expert knowledge – also offered her the excuse to buy an office work wardrobe and smart handbags previously not required when working with 1,000-year-old beetle samples. Sadly, her breast cancer returned and metastasized to the liver in June 2018 and she died seven weeks later before taking up the position.

Dr Eileen Reilly will be remembered fondly as a strong promoter of the profession of archaeology, a great scholar of palaeo-ecology and environmental archaeology and a supportive, enthusiastic and loving wife, mother, sister, daughter and friend. She is survived by her husband Ronan O’Brien, her daughter Áine (9), her father Willie, sister Abina, brothers Bill and Joe, and extended family and friends.