Frank Mitchell


Frank Mitchell died peacefully last month after a short illness, aged 85. He led an extraordinarily distinguished, productive and varied life. While a student at Trinity he became a Scholar of the House, a gold medallist in natural sciences (geology and zoology), president of the Phil., editor of TCD and a fine swimmer.

Chance determined his career directions. The Royal Irish Academy had established a committee for quaternary research in Ireland, with Robert Lloyd Praeger as chairman and Tony Farrington as secretary. It invited Knud Jessen, Professor of Botany in the University of Copenhagen, to come to Ireland to study the history of Ireland's plant life as revealed by plant fossils preserved in bogs, using fossil seeds and pollen.

Jessen needed field assistants and Frank was employed through long summers of fieldwork and occasional visits to Copenhagen. Besides fossil plants, there were many opportunities to study archaeological objects found during peat-cutting and to study animal remains such as the extinct giant deer buried under bogs. Tony Farrington, who was also secretary of the academy, became his mentor in glacial geology and landscape, helping to develop Frank's special eye for how landscapes came into being and how they were influenced by man. Arthur Stelfox of the Natural History Museum, another mentor, helped to develop his love of birds and wildlife. His work was an intertwining of archaeology, fossil plants, the understanding of landscape and of its use by man. It is not a fashionable phrase, but he was a great natural historian.

Trinity was an important part of his life: he was a lecturer or professor from 1934 until his retirement in 1979, then a Pro-Chancellor presiding over degree-conferring ceremonies from 1985 to 1987. His early involvement with the Royal Irish Academy continued through his life, culminating with the presidency in 1976-79.

He was president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland from 1957-60, while his contribution to conservation was recognised by the presidency of An Taisce, of which he was a founder member, from 1991 to 1993. He was a Boyle medallist of the Royal Dublin Society, together with many other awards. His work has always had Ireland as its focus, but he achieved wide international recognition also. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, held an honorary doctorate from Uppsala and was President of INQUA (the International Quaternary Association) from 1969-73, delivering his presidential address in New Zealand. He travelled extensively and had a special love for France.

After his retirement he lived at Townley Hall, near Drogheda, until his wife Pic's death, when he withdrew to the too-modestly described "gardener's cottage", where he liked to receive visitors in a sun-porch adorned with potted plants. There his career found a new vigour and direction, in writing a series of books about Ireland's geology, landscape and prehistory, the most recent with Michael Ryan on Reading the Irish Landscapes. The Way That I Followed, dedicated to his friend Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, appeared in 1990 and contained much autobiographical material. He wrote The Great Bog of Ardee with Breeda Tuite and became very interested in Valentia Island in his last years. There his proclaimed leisure activity of "archaeological field walking" reached a high point. Papers still lay before reviewers at his death. He was a great populariser, wellknown as a radio broadcaster with John Quinn as editor, and he appeared on television.

A catalogue of Frank's achievements could be very long, but the small details of his life reveal something of his range. He attended Samuel Beckett's lectures in French and often regretted that he could not now lay hand on his lecture notes. He was a firewarden on the roof of Trinity's Old Library in the war years, for there was a real fear of incendiary bombs. He was a very tough junior dean (he mellowed later). One student who paid a fine by pouring coins through his letterbox found his fine doubled for "insubordinate insolence".

He was Trinity's Registrar when Board Minutes were ceasing to be recorded in longhand. He had much to do with founding the college's modern, professional administration. Many of the older generation will remember his popular crowded lectures in Irish archaeology, always well illustrated by colour slides. When he was president of the Society of Antiquaries, the family lived in a flat above the society's rooms in Merrion Square. A meeting of the society often ended with an invitation upstairs. Frank and Pic were accomplished hosts, and their receptions and his work with the academy created many friendships which helped to link Trinity to the wider Irish society.

He became convinced that a country so dependent on agriculture should teach and research it well. He persuaded the college to buy the Francis Johnston house, Townley Hall near Drogheda, with its 800-acre estate, as a field station to teach agriculture. Ultimately the venture failed because there were not enough students to justify it. The land was sold again but Frank, whose many interests included architecture, was determined to save the house.

He acquired it and it became a study centre, paid for out of his own pocket, which facilitated research in several fields, notably the archaeological investigations at Knowth. Generations of students involved in the Knowth dig lived there and used its laboratory facilities. Without exaggeration he was a great man, one of the greatest Irishmen of his time. He touched many people's lives to their benefit and pleasure. We offer our sympathy to his family, especially his daughters Lucy and Rosamund and his sister Lillias. It is trite but true: we will not see his like again. W.A.W. and G.E.