First poet to win Cunningham Medal


The Cunningham Medal was established by the Royal Irish Academy in 1789 in recognition of outstanding contributions to scholarship by an academy member. Seamus Heaney is the first poet so honoured by the academy.

The list of recipients amounts to a remarkable roll of honour and includes distinguished antiquarians, mathematicians, physicists, geologists and Celtic scholars. In one year in particular, 1848, four major scholars each collected the medal.

John O'Donovan, who played a vital role in preserving native place names during the Ordnance Survey and who had founded the Irish Archaeological Society, was honoured with the medal in 1848 as was mathematician and astronomer, William Rowan Hamilton, by then sir, who had previously been awarded the medal in 1834.

By 1848 O'Donovan was already working on his edition and translation of Annals of the Four Masters. A third scholar to receive the medal that year, was the orientalist Edward Hincks, who had become the rector of Killyleagh in Co Down in 1825 and although he remained settled there until his death in 1866, Hincks became a pioneer in the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. Samuel Haughton, having already written important papers on physics and polarised light, had begun to concentrate on geology, publishing papers on mineralogy.

Two of the pioneering fathers of Irish archaeology, the musicologist, illustrator and antiquarian, George Petrie, and surgeon William Wilde were both recipients. Petrie won the medal three times, including in 1839 for his essay, On the Antiquities of Tara. Wilde, who had been knighted in 1864 for his services to the census, won in 1873, three years before his death.

The Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes, who had once practised as a lawyer in London and later India, carried out extensive research in Irish and Old Irish. He was awarded the Cunningham medal in 1862.

Of the more recent recipients was the late Frank Mitchell, a former president of the academy, and author of Reading the Irish Landscape, who was awarded the medal in 1989. Geologist Mitchell's polymath scholarship typified the multi-dimensional approach of the Royal Irish Academy as intended by its founder, James Caulfield, later Earl of Charlemont who established the Royal Irish Academy in 1785 as an institution engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.