Inspirational Irish Women Who Changed the World


Updated On: November 07, 2023 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Women have made incredible contributions to society and Ireland is no exception. Inspirational Irish women have transformed history and pioneered movements that still affect lives today. These inspirational women have defied convention and traditional gender roles to carve the way for future women, inspiring women leaders, inventors, scientists, and conveyors of the arts. Some of the most inspirational women figures in Irish history have changed the course of history for all genders, for which we owe them a debt of gratitude. 

Women celebrating International Women’s Day (Source: The Co-op Group)

Inspirational Women in the Stars: Jocelyn Bell Burnell 

Though you may not have heard of her, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is one of the foremost astrophysicists alive today – easily an inspirational Irish woman. Pioneering researcher, she is best known for her discovery of pulsating radio stars which has been described by the BBC as “one of the most significant scientific achievements of the 20th century”.  This achievement alone is outstanding but considering this discovery came when she was a postgraduate student at Cambridge University in July 1967. With this phenomenal founding, it comes at no surprise that the research was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1974. What was vastly disappointing was that, rather than go to her, the Nobel Prize went to her supervisor Anthony Hewish and the astronomer Martin Ryle. While it was thought for a while that she was passed over because of being a woman she, herself, has pointed out that the committee would never have known she was a woman and that scientific prizes almost never go to graduate students – humble as well as talented. Originally, Bell Burnell and other researchers thought their discovery was a sign of an intelligent alien civilisation. Though, upon closer inspection, she realised they were looking at a family of objects that had been unseen before. Hailing from County Armagh in Northern Ireland, she easily fits the category of being one of the most inspirational women figures in Irish history

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a brilliant physicist. (Source: Roger W. Haworth)

Super Computer and Inspirational Irish Women: Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli 

Something that has become indispensable in the 21st century is the computer. Incredibly, we have an Irish woman to thank for that. Kathleen McNulty Mauchly Antonelli, a Donegal lass, was one of the original programmers for the very first electronic computer – ENIAC. She emigrated to the United States in 1924 and, after excelling in mathematics in school, went on to work for the US Army as a human ‘computer’. Her role required her to compile tables that predicted the trajectories of various weaponry – an important task during a world war. After the war, Antonelli, along with five other women mathematicians, became programmers for the ENIAC computer and made invaluable progress on the software side of the programming. These inspirational Irish women converted complicated mathematical equations into single operations so that computers could perform in sequence. These women weren’t honoured for their contributions when the ENIAC was unveiled to the public and it was years later before this recognition was given. Including this role, she also assisted with the software development for her husband, John Mauchly’s, hardware company. A native Irish speaker, Kay is clearly one of the most inspirational women in Irish history. 

Kay McNulty Mauchly Antonelli graduating.

Inspirational Irish Women in Literary History: Lady Augusta Gregory

They say that behind every great man, there is a woman, and nothing could be truer of Lady Augusta Gregory. It is argued that without her assistance, Ireland’s ‘Celtic Revival’ would never have happened. Her home in Coole Park, Galway was always filled with the intelligentsia and she frequented circles that included people like George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, and Sean O’Casey. Perhaps her biggest contribution to Irish culture is that of the Abbey Theatre. Originally set up as the Irish Literary Theatre and, in conjunction with the Fay brother’s National Dramatic Society, the National Theatre of Ireland was established, later to become the Abbey Theatre. George Bernard Shaw bestowed upon her the title of the “greatest living Irishwoman” of her day and it is with her cultivation of the arts that Ireland has seen some of the best works of literature globally. Despite being an editor and confidante for people like Yeats, her own work is impressive and conducive to Irishness at that time. One of the inspiring women leaders from the Irish literary history, Lady Gregory is a name that will stand the test of time.  

Lady Gregory posing at Coole Park. (Source: George C. Beresford —Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Inspiring Women Leaders: Carmel Snow and the world of Fashion Journalism

Move over Anna Wintour, Carmel Snow dominated the world of high fashion with a career that spanned three decades. The editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, Carmel Snow was born in Dublin, emigrating to America after the death of her father. Always having a keen interest in clothing after watching her mother work as a dressmaker for the rich women of New York, Snow rose to prominence in the renowned fashion publication, Vogue. Working as a fashion editor, her tenacity drew the attention of Conde Nast, who took it on himself to mentor her and mould her into a successor of his publication. Part of a list of inspirational Irish women who decide to create their own destiny, Snow abandoned Vogue to go work at Harper’s Bazaar after her brother got a position working for Hearst publications. What made this move particularly stinging was her previous promise to Naste not to jump ship. Snow’s incredible eye for creativity and detail allowed for many fantastic writers, artists, and photographers to be showcased in her magazine. People such as Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Jean Cocteau Man Ray are just some that have been featured under her tutelage. Carmel Snow is an example of inspiring women leaders who opened the world of journalism and fashion in a way that defied how women were previously presented. She made waves for behaving in a way that suited her, rather than being domicile and subservient.

Carmel Snow at work for Harper’s Bazaar. (Source: Gleb Derujinsky)

Inspirational Women Figures in Irish History

Irish women have transformed society in so many positive facets. Having contributed to the arts, sciences, politics, and journalism, Irish women in history attest for being some of the most inspirational women to have lived. From influencing what we wear to helping us understand the stars, they have transformed our lives and futures. As International Women’s Day looms, it is good to remember the incredible accomplishments of these amazing women.

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