Maureen Wall: Glenswilly historian of Ireland’s Penal Laws

This feature is part of a Women’s Lives Women’s Voices series by Historian Dr Angela Byrne from Donegal, who pays tribute to Donegal’s Historical women. 

By Angela Byrne


Penal Laws in IrelandMaureen Wall, née MacGeehin, was born in Glenswilly in June 1918. Her parents were both teachers, but she seems to have been most influenced by her father, who was a song collector, local historian, and Irish speaker. Her parents delivered her primary education at the local national school, and in 1931 she was sent to Coláiste Bríghde in Falcarragh. In 1935 she qualified as a primary teacher from Carysfort College in Dublin.


Maureen had a busy life in Dublin. She taught in a primary school while attending evening courses in Irish and history at UCD, graduating BA in 1940. She got involved in the Abbey Theatre school of acting and performed in Irish plays. Like so many other Dublin residents at the time, she contracted TB in 1944. This forced her to quit her teaching job and her acting. She survived her long illness, but sadly, her mother and two of her sisters died from the disease.

Unable to return to teaching due to her poor health, Maureen took a position as secretary and archivist at the Irish Folklore Commission – an organization founded in 1935 to record and study the folklore and traditions of Ireland. She would later marry the Commission’s librarian, Dr Thomas Wall. She continued to study, and in 1953 she was awarded an MA for a thesis on eighteenth-century Irish Catholicism. Her thesis supervisor was the eminent Irish historian, Professor Robert Dudley Edwards. Her success as a historian was, in part, due to her standing as his protégé – this helped her to be taken seriously as a scholar.


Maureen worked in various roles for the department of history at UCD from 1952 onwards, and in 1959 was finally made a full-time assistant lecturer. Sadly, she died just before her belated promotion to statutory lecturer in 1972 took effect. The 1940s saw the last influx of women students and lecturers to Irish universities, not to be repeated until the late 1960s. In all, the mid-twentieth century was not an easy time for women academics. Married women were denied academic positions, but Maureen refused to resign her post when she married.

An important part of Maureen’s legacy is the fact that her research was taken seriously by the conservative, male-dominated Irish academy. She is remembered as an inspirational lecturer and as a person who wished to communicate her research to the widest possible audience, which she did by broadcasting lectures on national radio.


Maureen remains best known for her research on eighteenth-century Irish catholicism. Her pamphlet, The Penal Laws, 1691–1780 was published in 1961. When I was an undergraduate at Maynooth in the early 2000s, this little book was still on our list of recommended reading. It deservedly won the National University of Ireland prize for Irish Historical Research, and while scholarship on the topic has developed greatly since then, her work was groundbreaking in its time, and has influenced generations of Irish historians.


The enduring importance of Maureen’s research is reflected in the publication in 1989, seventeen years after her death, of a collection of her essays titled Catholic Ireland in the eighteenth century: collected essays of Maureen Wall. The Maureen Wall Memorial Medal is awarded annually to the student who obtains first place in History at UCD.


Dictionary of Irish Biography online edition

Gerard O’Brien and Tom Dunne (ed.), Catholic Ireland in the eighteenth century: collected essays of Maureen Wall (1989)

Nadia Clare Smith, A ‘Manly Study’?: Irish Women Historians, 1868–1949 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)


NCCWN Donegal are always looking for women to share their stories and looking for women to write features on topics of their choice which we will profile as part of our Women’s Lives, Women’s Voices’ series.