I think that even today if a 21 years old woman applied for permanency to her job as Galway county surveyor, which she held from December 1906 for five months, and was turned down due to her young age and lack of experience, most of us would not be surprised.
Alice J Perry was, however, a brilliant young woman, who had previously accompanied her father, the county surveyor for Galway, on his official tours. She knew his work intimately, and had acted as his private secretary. Following his sudden death Galway County Council voted unanimously to appoint her acting county surveyor for the western division in her father’s place for the same salary. It was a temporary appointment, but remarkable for the time nevertheless.
Alice was one of six children of James Perry (originally from county Derry ), and Martha Park from Glasgow. She was born at Wellpark, Galway in 1885. Educated at Galway High School, where she excelled at mathematics, she won a scholarship to Queen’s College and graduated with first-class honours in engineering, becoming the first woman to do so in any university in Great Britain of the time.
Her sisters also blazed trails at QCG. Nettie, a senior scholar in modern languages, later became a lecturer in Spanish at London university; while Molly was quoted as being ‘the most distinguished mathematician of her time at the university’.
All the girls were involved in the Irish Women’s Franchise League which was particularly active in Galway attracting to public meetings some of the biggest hitters of the day including Christabel Pankhurst.
On graduating in the autumn of 1906, Alice was invited to continue her academic studies, but was prevented from taking it up due to the death of her father. Instead she accepted the offer from Galway County Council to carry on her father’s duties.
There is an amusing snippit in the Tuam Herald of January 5 1907, when the clerk, a Mr McDonogh, reads out a letter from the secretary of the Galway County Council, informing the Tuam Rural District Council that ‘Miss Alice Perry B.E, Galway, has been appointed to discharge the duties of county surveyor of the Western Division of this county until further notice. All official documents may be sent to Miss Perry at the county surveyor’s office, Galway.’
Cllr Martin Hughes, probably acting mischievously, asked: “What do you think of that now Mr McDonogh?”
There was no comment.
Alice Perry’s duties consisted of travelling throughout the town and county, and to the islands off our coast to inspect roads, piers, courthouses and other buildings. The Connaught Champion acknowledged that ‘the many arduous duties of the county surveyor have never been better or more faithfully discharged than since they were taken over by Miss Perry’.
Although the regulations governing the permanent appointment stipulated that the candidate should be at least 26 years of age, have engineering experience, and be able to conduct business through Irish, Alice Perry in the final selection for her father’s job, still came joint second among 17 candidates. According to the same report in the Champion ‘every member of the county council has borne willing testimony of her outstanding ability’. Her duties ended in April 1907. She applied for the east Galway county surveyorship in May that year, but was not selected.
Alice and her siblings were born into a talented family whose father James, and uncle John Perry harnessed the energy from the fast flowing Corrib through the city in the 1880s. Their hydroelectric scheme soon won the contract to light the town, thus ending the era of gas light. Its ‘blue moonlight’ glow over the quays of the old town, surprised a visiting journalist from Sweden who did not expect such modernity in the Ireland of the time.*
Unable to find work at home, Alice emigrated to London where she was appointed a Home Office inspector, responsible for enforcing laws relating to the employment of women, especially in industries where hazardous chemicals were used. She married an English soldier, Robert Shaw, who was killed in World War I.
Although raised a Presbyterian, she began to write spiritual poetry, and became interested in the Christian Science movement. She moved to Boston where she worked for various Christian Science journals, and died there August 2 1969. Some volumes of her poetry were later donated to the NUIG library by her nephew Joss Lynam, the engineer and mountain climber.
The spectacular, and award winning, engineering building at NUIG, designed by Taylor McCarney (seen on the Newcastle side of the Quincentennial Bridge ), is appropriately named the Alice Perry School of Engineering.
NOTES: *I have written last week about the visit of Hugo Vallentin to Galway in the summer of 1893, which has been researched and translated from Swedish, by historian Andrew G Newby, and published in the recent Journal of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society, Volume 70 2018.
I have been generously helped by librarian researchers Ruairi O hAodha, and Ms Mary Qualter; the Dictionary of Irish Architects, and the biographical note by Marie Coleman in the Dictionary of Irish Biography.