The scholar’s life is popularly thought to be one of ‘secure seclusion’, where travel is down the ‘peaceful walks of literature and learning’ (Felix Adler). But long before the provostship of Trinity College Dublin gave him access to the likes of Dmitri Shostakovich, Clement Atlee and John D. Rockefeller Jr, Albert Joseph McConnell (1903-1993) – like Woody Allen’s Zelig – had a habit of unobtrusively knocking up against some of the more notorious figures of the twentieth century.
McConnell was a precocious student at TCD, winning the gold medal for mathematics in 1926. Two years later, he went to fascist Italy to pursue doctoral study with the Jewish mathematician Tullio Levi-Civita, who had been an early influence on Albert Einstein. The McConnell Archive (TCD MS 10888) contains photographs from McConnell’s return trip to Rome in 1935. One shows Benito Mussolini walking the Streets with supporters; two others document his opening the academic year at Rome University.
Himself sometimes described as a dictator, Eamon de Valera was a close friend of McConnell’s, with whom he shared a common interest – de Valera was a graduate and teacher of mathematics. This friendship is credited with bringing TCD in from the social and economic cold in which it had languished after Independence; after becoming Provost in 1952, McConnell pushed for grants and state recognition previously denied the College. President de Valera would appoint McConnell to the Council of State in 1973, the first TCD officer so honoured.
De Valera established the Institute for Advanced Studies in 1940 to further research in physics and Celtic studies. One of McConnell’s fellow members was Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger, resident in Ireland on de Valera’s invitation from 1939-1956 (he became an Irish citizen in 1948). McConnell became a great friend of Schrödinger’s. When McConnell attended the 1950 International Congress of Mathematics in Cambridge, Massachussets, his first wife Hilda (herself a scholar who assisted Edmund Curtis on his Calendar of Ormond Deeds) stayed with Hildegunde March in Innsbruck. March was the wife of Schrödinger’s former assistant, the physicist Arthur March, and had Schrödinger’s child Ruth. Hilda’s funny ‘catty’, letters from Innsbruck describe the March household (‘the Herr Prof.’ and the ‘Hausfrau’), where the atmosphere was tense because ‘naughty’ ‘Erwin’ was also a guest.