Consummate scientist and mathematician with well-honed political instincts

Dr Caroline Hussey: born, December 3rd, 1941; died, May 11th, 2017

Dr Caroline Hussey, UCD; a ‘free spirit’ whose huge contribution to public service is a matter of record

Dr Caroline Hussey, UCD; a ‘free spirit’ whose huge contribution to public service is a matter of record


During the 1989 General Election, Dr Caroline Hussey phoned Ruairí Quinn from the count centre for the Dublin South-East constituency early in the day and informed him that he would be elected on either the 12th or 13th count, around 2am, and his surplus would elect Garret FitzGerald. The legendary tally-woman’s only weapons were her pencil and paper and her ability to compute in her head.

Her prescience was helped, however, by the fact that she was a consummate scientist and mathematician with well-honed political instincts as a long-time Labour Party stalwart.

In her role as registrar and deputy president at UCD from 1994 to her retirement in 2004, Caroline continued a lifelong commitment to the core values of education, eschewing academic fads or increased government interference through her professional and political ethos of being “influential [but] not powerful” in the espousal of strong ideas.

The only daughter of Aileen and Frank Hussey, her association with UCD began during her early years when the family lived in An Grianán, in the grounds of the university’s agricultural school, Albert College, Glasnevin, where her father was a lecturer and housemaster.

Caroline’s primary and secondary school education was completed over 10 years, from the age of six to 16, at the Holy Faith Convent, Glasnevin. She then studied biological science at UCD, specialising in industrial microbiology. This was followed by a PhD at TCD and post-doctoral research both there and at Harvard University. Witnessing and embracing the counter-culture of flower power, civil rights and the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations led to the family soubriquet of “free spirit”.

Fairness, equality and justice underpinned her life on all levels: personal, professional and political. Known for her one-liners – more kindly than cutting – her ripostes often diffused potentially tense stand-offs in boardrooms and during interactions with staff and students.

Caroline returned to UCD’s department of industrial microbiology in 1973 and remained there until her appointment as the first female registrar in 1994, a pioneering role in a mainly male world of senior university administration.

From the outset, her busy academic life often complemented her political beliefs and passions. An abiding interest in the area of health and safety culminated in a diploma course at UCD and ultimately contributed to the first Health, Safety and Welfare at Work Act 1989, under the auspices of her friend and political comrade, the then minister for labour, Ruairí Quinn.

With her Labour Party roots reaching back to the 1970s, when the late Frank Cluskey was in the ascendant, Caroline broke yet another glass ceiling by becoming the first female director of elections in the country. She was director of elections for Ruairí Quinn during the 1970s and right through the 1980s, a decade of political turbulence with five general elections, two of which were in 1982.

Her strong work ethic ensured that efficiency and calm prevailed in the midst of the regular challenges for candidates. These attributes were carried into her other roles, helping to establish the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), as a member of the Senate of the National University of Ireland (NUI), as chairwoman of the National Council for Curriculum Assessment (1995-200) and as UCD registrar. Her proficiency in cutting to the core of issues while exercising empathy and good humour were hallmarks for both staff and students who sought her counsel. Her commitment as the spiritual overseer of UCD’s students to the building of the long-awaited student centre was categorical. While often defending overworked lecturers, she never compromised on the primary importance of academic standards.

When Ruairí Quinn was appointed Minister for Education and Skills in March 2011 one of the first initiatives he undertook was the establishment of the Forum for Patronage and Pluralism, which was charged with a radical overhaul of the primary school system. Along with Prof John Coolihan and Fiona Kilfeather, Caroline was appointed to the advisory group.

While her huge contribution to public service is a matter of record, during a brief foray into crime writing she wrote two novels under the pseudonym, HJ Forrest. Published in 1991 and 1992, Publish or Perish and Murder by the Book were set in south Dublin suburbs and on the UCD campus, leading to much speculation as to the identity of the author. However, the detective work of the Dean of the Faculty of Science, Dr Tony Scott, uncovered the mystery of the author’s identity, much to her amusement.

A big fan of cricket and soccer, she was vice-president of the UCD football club for more than 20 years, attending games assiduously. Indeed, her passion for the beautiful game meant she called one of her beloved cats Keano, while the other family felines, Katie (Taylor) and Spotify miaowed to a different beat.

Caroline Hussey is survived by her brothers, Paul and Roger, sisters-in-law, Bernadette and Pat, nieces, nephews and many friends.