Alfred O’Rahilly, academic with controversial views on both electromagnetism and religion, is born on October 1, 1884, in Listowel, County Kerry. He briefly serves in politics, as a Teachta Dála (TD) for Cork, and is later the president of University College Cork (UCC). He also becomes a priest following the death of his wife, his first cousin, Agnes O’Donoghue.
O’Rahilly is the eighth child of Thomas Francis Rahilly of Ballylongford, County Kerry and Julia Mary Rahilly (née Curry) of Glin, County Limerick. He changes his name to ‘O’Rahilly’ by deed poll in 1920. His fourteen siblings included Celtic scholars Thomas Francis and Cecile, and a first cousin is The O’Rahilly, killed during the 1916 Easter Rising. Educated at St. Michael’s College, Listowel, Blackrock College, and UCC, he undergoes a long period (1901–14) of training as a member of the Society of Jesus, but eventually leaves during the final stages of preparation for the priesthood, because of temperamental unsuitability. Appointed an assistant lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Mathematical Physics in October 1914, he becomes the dominant figure in the institution within six years. He becomes Professor of Mathematical Physics on June 1, 1917 and registrar on February 11, 1920, before vacating these offices when he becomes president (1943–54).
O’Rahilly’s early career in UCC is set against the background of the revolutionary period, and he becomes predominantly identified, within and without the college, with the rise of post-1916 Sinn Féin. At UCC he leads the nationalist interest that ousts the perceived pro-British old regime, personified by Sir Bertram Windle, who resigns from the presidency in 1919. O’Rahilly is flamboyant, extrovert, disputatious and dynamic. During the low-key, unassertive presidency (1919–43) of Patrick J. Merriman, O’Rahilly as registrar is heir-presumptive and acts as de facto president. All in all, the whirlwind age of O’Rahilly lasts for almost four decades.
O’Rahilly is a volatile and bristling polymath of inexhaustible energy. The vast range of his scholarly interests – politics, sociology, finance, Christology, mathematical physics, history – arouse astonishment and envy. One critique of his work Money (1941) ends with the reflection that the book would enable people to relieve rural tedium by laughing the winter nights away. His contemplated multi-volume life of Christ prompts a National University colleague to observe that a life of O’Rahilly by Christ would be much more interesting. He, who is vain but not stuffy, is not offended by such descriptions of him as “a cross between Thomas Aquinas and Jimmy O’Dea,” but is not pleased by the jibe that he has the best mind of the twelfth century, since he considers himself a very modern man indeed.
There are some negative and even frivolous aspects of O’Rahilly’s UCC presidency. He has a strong appetite for the hurly-burly of academic politics and, it is said, enters no controversy that he does not aggravate. He has the reputation of being a bully and exploiter in his dealings with junior academic staff, but he can be kind, helpful, and extraordinarily generous to staff and students with problems. His zeal for vigorously promoting a Roman Catholic ethos in a nominally pluralist institution is frequently paternalistic and extends to acts of petty supervision, particularly perhaps over women students. This is the kind of atmosphere that prompts a visiting examiner to describe the UCC of the 1940s as “a convent run by a mad reverend mother.”
All this being said, O’Rahilly is one of the most vibrant and effective presidents in the history of the National University. His initiatives include extensive improvements in the library, of which he is director, and the institution of student health and restaurant services. He founds the electrical engineering department and the Cork University Press, which he believes would provide a publication outlet for the researches of his colleagues, particularly those concerned with native learning. He strengthens UCC’s links with the city and the province, and these are significantly expressed through the provision of adult education courses, an area where O’Rahilly is particularly innovative and pioneering.
As a young academic, O’Rahilly becomes caught up in the struggle for independence. He serves on Cork Corporation in the heroic age of Tomás Mac Curtain and Terence MacSwiney, and spends a patriotic period in jail and on the run. He represents Cork Borough (1923–24) in Dáil Éireann for Cumann na nGaedheal but resigns his seat in 1924. He is a constitutional adviser to the Irish delegation at the Anglo-Irish Treaty negotiations in 1921, argues publicly for the acceptance of the treaty, and helps to draft the Constitution of the Irish Free State. His links with the local labour and trade-union movement are long and close, and at national level he serves as Irish government chief representative in successive sessions of the International Labour Organization conference in Geneva. He is also a member of government commissions on banking and vocational organisation. After retirement he goes to reside at Blackrock College, where he is ordained a priest on December 18, 1955, and becomes a domestic prelate (monsignor) in 1960.
O’Rahilly dies at the age of 84 in Dublin on August 1, 1969.
No other layman of his day so self-confidently assumes a central role in so many areas of Catholic life – philosophy, sociology, theology, scriptural studies. The controversies in which be becomes involved are a source of interest and pride to UCC students. Their president is a pugnacious polemicist (who jousts with such eminences as H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw), a man of stature, and a formidable Catholic intellectual.
(From: “O’Rahilly, Alfred” by John A. Murphy, Dictionary of Irish Biography, http://www.dib.ie)