Leading scientist and advocate for environment
Obituary: Emer Colleran was a mentor to generations of students
Prof Emer Colleran: her fine character and intellectual rigour made her a special asset to the many community groups and activists she assisted and advised over the years. Photograph: Aengus McMahon
Dr Emer Colleran
Born: October 12th, 1945
Died: 30 June, 2018
Dr Emer Colleran was a leading microbiologist and one of the State’s foremost advocates for the environment, combining a radical energy with scientific discipline and expertise.
The NUI Galway (NUIG) professor of microbiology was a pioneering chairwoman of An Taisce and a core member of the Burren Action Group which campaigned against the construction of an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore in Co Clare.
As a close friend and colleague has noted, her fine character and intellectual rigour, her sense of humour and benign presence made her a special asset to the many community groups and activists she assisted and advised over the years.
She and her twin sister, Noreen, were among a family of five children born in Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, where her father was a school principal. Her mother died when she was just 11 years old. She attended St Louis secondary school in Kiltimagh, and took her primary science degree at what was then University College, Galway.
She undertook postgraduate studies in her specialty, anaerobic digestion, and became a post doctoral fellow at Bristol University in 1971. She subsequently lectured in biology at Athlone Regional Technical College and at Galway Regional Technical College, and was appointed a lecturer in microbiology at NUIG in 1976.
Her research work focused on pollution prevention and energy recycling in the form of methane gas, along with treatment of pig slurry, silage effluent and industrial waste water treatment. She handled a number of research contracts from various agencies, and was co-ordinator for a network of laboratories in Holland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.
She presented courses on anaerobic digestion at the University of Barcelona, Spain, the University of Rennes, France, and University of Oklahoma, US, and was adjunct professor to several postgraduate courses in environmental science in Budapest, Hungary in the mid-1990s. She served as an external examiner, member of a number of professional and international bodies, and was on the editorial board of the Journal of Applied Microbiology.
She was appointed professor of microbiology at NUIG in 2000, and served as chairwoman of the department. She was also a member of the NUIG governing body for a number of years, resigning on a matter of principle in May 2000 in connection with the college’s Irish language protocol and the selection procedure for the new president.
By then she was also heavily involved in various international and national bodies, including several EU and European Environmental Bureau working groups and committees, and was a board member of the Marine Institute and chairwoman of the Environmental Sciences Association of Ireland.
She was a council member and chairwoman of An Taisce, the national trust. She was regarded as a mild, firm and far-seeing advocate for care of Ireland’s natural and built environment.
During her term, An Taisce hosted a groundbreaking conference in Connemara on aquaculture, which sought to find common ground among opponents and proponents of fish farming.
Former Irish Times environment editor Frank McDonald recalls that she was fearless, and her west of Ireland accent helped to offset any notion that An Taisce was run by “west Brits”. He recalls that one of her favourite ways of getting things done was to take people out on a boat on one of the great western lakes, either Corrib or her beloved Lough Mask, and “talk turkey” with them.
When the Office of Public Works unveiled plans for an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore on the Burren, she formed a campaign group in the early 1990s to oppose it, along with author John O’Donoghue, film-maker Lelia Doolan, and RTÉ presenter PJ Curtis, among others.
The 10-year campaign went to the Supreme Court and back, culminating in An Bord Pleanála upholding a Clare County Council refusal of permission for a scaled-down version of the original plan.
As one of the group’s seven plaintiffs in protracted courts proceedings, her fair-minded wisdom was a crucial and unifying factor, according to Ms Doolan.
Joe Saunders, the action group’s press spokesman, recalls that her “knowledge came in torrents, but never in a superior way” and it was “easy to see why her students held her in high esteem”.
An active member of the Heritage Council, she was elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 2003, and was a member of the Council of State during president Mary Robinson’s term of office.
She was known as a brilliant academic colleague and inspirational teacher, and a mentor to generations of students.
The Burren Action Group will plant a tree in her memory and hold a celebration in the autumn in Co Clare.
She is survived by her sisters, Nuala (Monahan) and Noreen, brother John and extended family. She was predeceased by her brother Denis.