Every year since 1901, the international Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for peace. There is an elite group of Irish and Northern Irish scholars and activists who have won this prestigious award. Here’s the roster:
William Butler Yeats
1923 – Literature
"for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation"
Dublin-born Yeats received the Nobel Prize chiefly for his dramatic works, but some of his greatest work, and for which he is most recognizable, was done after he won the award – his poetry. His volumes "The Wild Swans at Coole," "Michael Robartes and the Dancer," "The Tower," "The Winding Stair and Other Poems" and "Last Poems and Plays" helped Yeats become one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century.
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
- From “The Second Coming”
"I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born."
- From "Easter 1916"
George Bernard Shaw
1925 – Literature
"for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty"
Another Dublin native, George Bernard Shaw started his career as a music and theater critic in the late 19th century. Though he began as a critic and a novelist, Shaw is best remembered for his genius plays that deeply criticize many social conventions of his day.
His greatest successes on stage include "Candida" (1898), a satire about the Victorian attitude toward marriage and sexual relationships, and "Pygmalion" (1912), a play based on a Greek myth of the same name, and one that spurred many adaptations, including the stage and film version of "My Fair Lady."
“I can forgive Alfred Nobel for having invented dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.”
“Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”
– From "The Doctor’s Dilemma"
“The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one.”
Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton
1951 – Physics (shared with Sir John Douglas Cockcroft of the U.K.)
"for their pioneer work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles"
The Irish took a hiatus from the Nobel scene for 25 years until Ernest T.S. Walton of Co. Waterford came along and conducted “atom-smashing” experiments. The Trinity College professor, and only Irishman to ever have won the Nobel Prize in science, is credited along with J.D. Cockcroft for being the first to split an atom with fast-moving protons.
1969 – Literature
“for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation”
Yet another Irish Nobel Laureate from County Dublin, Beckett was a successful writer in both English and French. In fact, he lived in Paris for some time, and was befriended by James Joyce. He is best known for his masterpiece, "Waiting for Godot," but has written other classic plays such as "Endgame" (1957) and "Krapp’s Last Tape" (1958), plus numerous novels such as "Molloy" (1951). Most critics consider Beckett’s works to be minimalist. In a much-quoted 1956 article from the Irish Times, the critic Vivian Mercier summed up the plot of "Waiting for Godot" with the following: “Nothing happens…twice.”
“The tears of the world are a constant quantity. For each one who begins to weep somewhere else another stops. The same is true of the laugh. Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. Let us not speak of it at all. It is true the population has increased.”
- From "Waiting for Godot"
“We are all born mad. Some remain so.”
- From "Waiting for Godot"
1974 – Peace (won ½ the prize; the other half went to Eisaku Sato, Prime Minister of Japan)
President of the International Peace Bureau, Geneva, Switzerland; President of the Commission of Namibia, United Nations, New York, USA
Seán MacBride was born in Paris to Major John MacBride, who fought in and was executed after the Easter Rising of 1916, and Maud Gonne, the legendary advocate of Irish Nationalism and W.B. Yeats’ muse. MacBride himself fought against the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 and was jailed, and later became Chief of Staff of the IRA.
MacBride changed his direction and eventually departed from the IRA. He built an impressive resume in his lifetime as a member of the Irish Parliament, Vice President of the Organization for European Economic Cooperation, Chairman of Amnesty International Executive and Vice Chairman of the Congress of World Peace Forces, among numerous other influential positions.
Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan
1976 – Peace
Founders of the Northern Ireland Peace Movement (later renamed Community of Peace People)
These two women, one Protestant, one Catholic, took to the streets of Belfast advocating re-education, rather than violence, to achieve peace between the loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland.
Both Williams and Corrigan worked tirelessly throughout the years promoting peaceful resolution in the North. In 2006, Williams and Corrigan, among other female Nobel Laureates, founded The Nobel Women’s Initiative to bring together advocates from around the world for a joint peace initiative.
1995 – Literature
“for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past”
Heaney, unlike his Nobel Prize winners in Literature counterparts, was born in Northern Ireland, on a small farm in County Derry.
The poet’s work is infused with the tensions of his upbringing, from the political tensions in his area, to his inner conflict between “the pen” and “the spade,” the life and purpose of a poet as opposed to the duty and responsibility of a farmer, such as his father.
His most famous collections of poetry include his first, "Death of a Naturalist" (1966), "Seeing Things" (1991) and "The Spirit Level" (1996).
“Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.”
- From “Digging”
My passport's green.
No glass of ours was ever raised
To toast The Queen.”
- From “Open Letter”
1998 – Peace (shared with David Trimble of the U.K.)
“for their efforts to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland”
The most recent Irish winner of the Nobel Prize is John Hume, former leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, who shared his prize with David Trimble, former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and first First Minister of Northern Ireland. The men are recognized as two of the principle architects of the Northern Ireland peace process of the 1990s.
Always an opponent of violence, Hume worked tirelessly for peace in Northern Ireland throughout his political career. For reaching out to Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein, he was savaged by sections of the British and Irish media, criticism which affected his health. But the results of his work can be seen today: a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland.
Mary McAleese, President of the Republic of Ireland, has praised the role of the Nobel Peace Prize in the Northern peace process. Her commentary is covered on IrishTimes.com