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Dare to dream: The Irish people who aimed high and did the country proud

Sarah Webb writes about why she wanted to inspire young people through bringing them the story of some fascinating Irish achievers.

Sarah Webb

I FEEL STRONGLY that all history books written and published from now on should tell both women and men’s stories. We have had many years of history, a few years of herstory – now it is time for ‘ourstory’ – all stories together!

While researching my previous book, Blazing a Trail: Irish Women who Changed the World, I came across dozens of fascinating Irish women but due to space constraints I had to leave them out.

During my reading I also found lots of amazing Irish men who I was interested in finding out more about. 

So when Michael O’Brien asked me to write a second book about remarkable Irish people I jumped at the chance. I chose ‘dreamers’ as my theme – we are after all a nation built by dreamers, brave people like Pearse and Markievicz who dreamed of a new Ireland – an Ireland that was independent, equal and free.

I thoroughly enjoyed the months spent researching remarkable Irish people for Dare to Dream and it’s hard to select ‘favourites’. I wanted to show children that there are different ways of being brave and different kinds of ‘dreams’ for each person.

Here are some of the people I discovered.

Jack Kyle

Jack Kyle by Graham Corcoran Jack Kyle by Graham Corcoran.

I was very struck by Jack Kyle’s story. He gave up an extraordinary rugby career to become a surgeon and save lives in Africa. Born in Belfast, he studied medicine at Queen’s University, Belfast where his rugby career took off.

He played for Ulster at only 19 and played for Ireland and the Lions. In total he won 46 caps for Ireland, including their first Grand Slam in 1948. There is a famous photograph of Jack congratulating Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll after Ireland won the Grand Slam for the second time in 2009.

He loved rugby but medicine was his first love and he devoted the rest of his working life (he worked as a surgeon until he was 74) to helping save lives in Africa. In his daughter Justine’s book, Conversations With My Father, she says: “If decency were measured in stars, then to me, Dad is a galaxy.”

The word decent perfectly sums up Jack Kyle.

Maude Delap

Maude Delap by Graham Corcoran Maude Delap by Graham Corcoran

I also have huge admiration for Maude Delap, who spent a lifetime studying jellyfish and working out their life cycles. Maude was born in 1866 and as a child moved to Valentia Island, County Kerry with her family.

At this time women were largely not allowed to attend college (the first woman student in Trinity College Dublin was admitted in 1904) and for intelligent, thoughtful women like Maude this must have been limiting and frustrating.

As a child she spent most of her time outside, searching the island and the sea around it for unusual creatures. As I was fascinated by whales and dolphins as a child, and still am, this really spoke to me.

In the 1890s a group of scientists visited the island and Maude and her sister Connie helped them catch sea creatures in nets, and also took the temperature of the sea. It was the start of Maude’s passion for jellyfish.

She designed and made her own jellyfish aquarium, calling it ‘the department’, and became the first person in the world to successfully raise them in captivity. She also cracked the mystery of the lifecycle of the jellyfish – quite the puzzle! Look it up, it’s truly fascinating. She published her work in 1901 and scientists still use her research to this day.

I was really taken by Maude’s passion and tenacity – it took great care and hard work to raise jellyfish but she never gave up. She dedicated her life to her work and will be remembered as a brilliant citizen scientist.

Madam Dragonfly

DaretoDream

Another woman of science I greatly enjoyed reading about was Cynthia Longfield, or Madam Dragonfly.

Born in 1896, like Maude she spent her childhood outside watching nature. And like me, she was a devoted Girl Guide, going on many hikes and camps, which proved brilliant training for her future.

In 1924 she went on her first of many, many voyages and adventures – to the Pacific islands, retracing Darwin’s Beagle expedition. She travelled all over the world during her long lifetime (she lived to 94), studying insects – most especially her beloved dragonfly – and became an international expert on dragonflies, with several important books to her name. 

Many of her papers and photographs are in the Royal Irish Academy and some of her insect specimens are on display in the Natural History Museum.

I wrote Dare to Dream to inspire the next generation of young scientists, sportspeople, doctors, artists, writers and activists.

It’s often said ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ and I hope by shining a light on some remarkable people from Irish history that children will be inspired to follow their own dreams.

Dare to Dream: Irish People Who Took on the World (and Won!) by Sarah Webb and Illustrated by Graham Corcoran (The O’Brien Press) has been nominated for the Irish Book Awards in the Best Irish Published Book category. The awards take place on Wednesday night – for more information, visit the website.

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About the author:

Sarah Webb

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