The first installment of Peter Berresford Ellis's two-part feature on the life and work of sophie Bryant, Irish feminist, educationalist and nationalist
IT WAS the last days of August, 1922. It had been a very warm summer and during that month on the lower slopes of Mont Blanc. The average temperatures were between 25 and 28 degrees Celsius
La Jorasse, lays near the village of Cordon, some twenty kilometres west of Chamonix. The area is one of undulating farming country. The fields were green and flowers grew in abundance. On 28 August, two young local farmers were walking along a path where an old Roman boundary stone stood. They were 26 year-old Jules Balmat and his 22 year-old brother Michel.
Here they came across the body of an elderly woman. The body was almost immediately identified as that of 72 year old Sophie Bryant who had been missing for two weeks from the apartment, where she had been staying, in Chamonix.
Sophie Bryant was a Dubliner by birth, a leading scholar and educationalist, an active feminist and suffragette, a member of the United Irish League and passionate advocate of Irish self-determination.
How had she come by her death? Although La Jorasse stands in the mountains at 3000 feet above sea level, the body was found was in a valley area called the 'balcony of Mont Blanc' because it offers a panoramic view of the mountain rising across the valley. It is an area of easy rambles, meadows and tracks with many working farms.
The body was found therefore not by precipitous slopes but of soft hills. It was summer. There was no snow here and the walking conditions are good.
In any case, Sophie Bryant was an experienced climber and hill walker who had been returning regularly to this area for many years and knew it well. She had even climbed the Matterhorn twice as well as Mount Blanc and many other Alpine peaks.
Yet, when Jean Lavaivre, the Mayor of Chamonix, signed the official death certificate on 29 August, apart from the details of finding the body and certifying that she was dead when found, no cause of death was put on the certificate, nor any note of the result of an examination from a doctor.
I will return to this mystery in the second of these two articles in which I intend to examine the life and career a remarkable Irish woman who came to that sad, lonely death, on a mountain so far from her home.
To cover all her interests, and her publications, would lead me into several areas where I feel unqualified. I would not begin to pretend to be an authority in mathematical formulae to be able to argue with Sophie's theory that elongated rhombic semi-dodecahedra are the natural forms of the honeycomb. I cannot argue 'On the Failure of the Attempt to Deduce Inductive Principles from the Mathematical Theory of Probabilities'.
While I have views on the education I would not be the authority to expound on her paper The Many Sidedness of Moral Education. Nor I am qualified in divinity to claim expertise to analyse Moral Education in Relation to Religious Development. In all these fields, Sophie Bryant was a leading and published expert.
Moreover, she was also a pioneer in helping to popularise an understanding of early Irish society - her history Celtic Ireland, published in 1889, her Genius of the Gael, published in 1913, and her magnum opus, Liberty Order and Law Under Native Irish Rule, published posthumously in 1923, were ground breaking in their day.
She was born Sophie Willock in Sandymount, Dublin, on 15 February 1850. Sophie was the third child of six siblings. Her father was Rev. Dr William Willock, a graduate and Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, where he taught mathematics and geometry. He had been influential on the Commission for National Education in Ireland in 1831. Sophie's mother was Sophie Morris came from Screen, Co Wexford. She had descended from the Gaelicised Norman family de Marisco, one of the famous 'Twelve Tribes of Galwa''.
When Sophie was a few years old her father left Trinity and accepted the living of the Church of Ireland parish in Ballymony, Co Cork. A few years later there was another move this time to Cleenish near Enniskillen just by Lough Erne.
Sophie was privately educated, mainly by her father as tutor together with several French and German governesses. In fact, Sophie became fluent in both those languages.
She was sixteen when her father accepted the position as Professor of Geometry at London University. She was able to attend Bedford College, then a girl's college, and sat the Cambridge Local Examination for Girls.
At the age of nineteen she married Dr William Hicks Bryant, a surgeon ten years older than she was. But Dr Bryant died of cirrhosis within a year of their marriage and Sophie never married again. She returned to studies and for most of the rest of her life she lived at No 6 Eldon Grove, Hampstead.
In 1875 Sophie became a teacher. Miss Frances Buss, a legendary pioneering figure in education, who had founded the North London Collegiate School for girls in 1850, invited Sophie to teach mathematics and German at the school. It was then in Camden. The school still exists in Edgware and is an independent day school for girls between the ages of 4 and 18.
When Sophie joined Frances Buss's school, the music teacher of the North London Collegiate School was Mrs Lucinda Shaw, the mother of George Bernard Shaw. A few years earlier Mrs Shaw had left her husband and son in Dublin and ran off with her music teacher George Vandeleur taking her two daughters with her. George Bernard Shaw followed his mother to London when he was twenty years old.
Frances Buss, whom Sophie had met when she was seventeen, also encouraged Sophie to enter degree studies when they became open to women. This was the Victorian age when women were struggling for equality of opportunity and even the right to vote.
When London University opened its degrees courses to women in 1881, Sophie became one of the first women to obtain a First Class Honours, Bachelor of Science, degree in mental and moral sciences - this was a forerunner of the modern degree psychology. She also obtained a second class degree in mathematics.
In 1882 Sophie became the third woman to be elected to the London Mathematical Society but was the only active female member and published her first paper with the Society in 1884.
Being the first, or among the first, to achieve something seems to have developed into a tradition with Sophie. She was the first woman in England to received a Doctorate of Science in 1884 and one of the first three women to sit on a Royal Commission - the Bryce Commission on Secondary Education in 1894-95. She was the first woman to be elected to the Senate of London University in 1898 and, in 1904, when Trinity College, Dublin, opened its degrees to women, she was one of the first three women to be awarded an Hon. Doctorate of Literature. (According to one record she was also the first woman to own and ride a bicycle!)
The list of academic achievements is a long one. She served on numerous education bodies from the Education Committee of the London County Council, to chair of the Teachers Training Council, to president of the Association of Head Mistresses. It was Sophie who was instrumental in setting up the Cambridge University Training College for Women, which became Hughes Hall, the first postgraduate college for women in Cambridge.
In 1895, with the death of Frances Buss, Sophie became headmistress of the North London Collegiate School, a position she did not retire from until 1918 at the age of 68.
The list of her pupils who went on achieved fame themselves is a tribute to Sophie's teachings - women such as Dr Marie Stopes, the pioneer of family planning; the novelist Stella Gibbons who wrote the classic Cold Comfort Farm; the famous poet and novelist Stevie Smith and the novelist and publisher Eleanor Graham who is perhaps better known now as the founder of the Puffin Books imprint for children in 1941.
Against her busy workload, Sophie was constantly doing extra curricular lecturing, political campaigning, writing and travelling. For relaxation she had been a hill walker and climber ever since she had been a child growing up by Lough Erne. She had climbed all the local hills, including the Blue Stacks, by the time she was twelve. She always considered Ireland as 'home'.
By 1879 Sophie had become a committed Irish Home Ruler. She was frequently invited back to Dublin to talk about such topics as 'The Morality of National Sentiment' and her articles on the subject were being published in the Dublin University Magazine.
She was also frequently in Ireland, lecturing at the famous women's higher education college, Alexandra School, founded in 1886 in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, where Pádraig Pearse was a regular part time teacher of the Irish language and its literature.
One of Alexandra School's most famous pupils to attend Sophie's lectures was Dorothy Macardle, who was to become the historian, novelist and playwright and political activist. Dorothy is best remembered for her history The Irish Republic, the standard work on the period of 1916-1923, and, perhaps, surprisingly, as the author of one of the greatest ghost stories ever written in the English language - The Uninvited, made into an Oscar winning film in 1944. Dorothy was one of the women activists during the 1916-23 period, jailed with Maud Gonne, and she served on the first National Executive of de Valéra newly created Fianna Fáil party in 1926. We could side-track into a lengthy discourse on another amazing Irish lady.
Sophie played a leading part in the campaign to abolish the Royal University of Ireland and the creation of the more equitable National University of Ireland. At this time the Royal University (comprising TCD and the Queen's Colleges) was UK-government funded and Protestant orientated and therefore not approved by educationalists from the Catholic population. But it was the only institution then allowed to give degrees - even at the turn of the 20th century.
The Catholic University had no government funding and was not allowed to award degrees. Catholic students had to sit Royal University exams in order to get a degree. Sophie's campaigning pamphlet during this time, A Possible Solution of the Irish University Question, sought to open a higher education institution to the Irish of all religious denominations on an equal footing. The National University finally came into existence in 1908 as a result of the campaign.
Sophie produced a total of ten books and countless academic papers and articles by the time of her death.
As the daughter of an Irish Protestant divine, she was firmly committed to her Christian faith. But it was not a narrow, unquestioning Faith. In her book Moral and Religious Education she talked of an ecumenicalism. She argued that the true Christian ethical ideal was that of "friendly fellow feeling towards all other people whatever their religious creed".
Scriptural teaching in her day was generally the cut and dried dogmatism of those who invited no debates, no questions. Comparative religion and philosophical ideas were generally excluded from religious study in her day.
Sophie was one of the first to substitute a religious teaching in which philosophy was not a side issue but an integral part of such study. Sophie believed that the ideas of Plato and Aristotle had their place in the study of the development of Christian philosophy. She was a member of the Aristotleian Society.
As a psychologist - she was a founder member of the British Psychology Society - she was constantly returning to the theory of mental stimuli, of the process of gaining knowledge. She sought to analyse the effect of a mental event; in other words, the understanding of consciousness.
It is said that her arguments were too diffuse. In this area, as I have already mentioned, I am not qualified but her work in this field, published in the Journal of the Anthropological Institute, is now regarded as a pioneering study.
In an English political context, she was to be found on the radical wing of the Women's Liberal Federation and was president of the Hampstead Suffrage Society. She was leader of the major march and demonstration of the National Union of Suffrage Societies in 1908, fighting for women's right to vote.
In an Irish political context, she initially supported the Irish Party for Home Rule and in 1898 joined the United Irish League founded among others by William O'Brien and Michael Davitt.
A lot of her energies were spent on speaking at public meetings in England, to persuade the English people of the morality of giving Ireland self-determination. She was also found at forefront of protests against the treatment of Irish political prisoners. In her last years she was a supporter of the Irish Self-Determination League in their support for the republican Dáil.
As an Irish Protestant, an ardent advocate of self-government, she was dismayed at what she saw as the 'myth-making' being developed in Ulster. When the British government raised the idea of the partition of Ireland, Sophie became a vehement anti-partitionist and she was saddened at what she saw as the careful political fostering of religious bigotry, created to separate her fellow Protestants, especially in the north, from the rest of Ireland.
She foresaw the tragedy of the artificial division of the country and the violence to which it would inevitably lead - and which we have sadly witnessed ever since the fact of partition. She wrote a foreword to W.A. McKnight's book Ireland and the Ulster Legend: or the truth about Ulster, published in 1921.
She was a close friend of John O'Connor, a barrister and former Irish Party member of parliament for Tipperary, who was imprisoned five times under the Coercion Acts. The Coercion Acts were Acts passed at Westminster giving special powers to deal with what was seen by the administration as Irish disaffection.
In fact, between 1800 and 1921 there were no less than 105 of these Irish Coercion Acts passed at Westminster. John O'Connor was a member of the Irish Literary Society, founded by Yeats, from 1893 until his death in 1923, as was Sophie herself. He wrote an obituary of Sophie in 1922 and I quote:
"Dr Bryant endeared herself to her countrymen and women in an exceptionally intense degree. They were indeed proud of her as they witnessed the devotion with which she was endowed - her sparkling eloquence, her logical power, her charm of manner - all inspired by the warmth of the glowing patriotism of which she was made up. Yes, indeed! They were proud of her; and in the happy future for which she strove, a contented people who do not forget will give her a place in their grateful memory."
Many times Sophie reiterated the words of the great Cork revolutionary, poet and writer, Thomas Davis - "Educate that you might be free". When she wrote her book Educational Ends she took a similar slogan as the theme of her work.
Sophie believed that the ideal of a truly civilised society should be the development of knowledge. And above all it is as an educationalist that her influence has been immense and set the path for subsequent generations, especially for women teachers, who have succeeded as a direct result of her pioneering efforts.
The dedication of her last book, Liberty Order and Law Under Native Irish Rule posthumously published by Harding and More of London in 1923, remained as Sophie had inscribed it when it was still hoped that the unionists would not pull the six counties out of a united Ireland. Sophie dedicated it "to the re-builders of Ireland, United and Free".
Coming soon Sophie Bryant's pioneering work for Ireland and the mystery of her death
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Peter Berresford Ellis