Dr. Joan Byrne

In the last century, there has been an increased social and governmental push to increase the amount of people working in STEM, and to specifically increase the amount of women working in STEM. However, the social perception of women in STEM has been contentious to many, and while the number of women in STEM have been increasing, it has been at a slow rate. A 2022 report from the Department of Education noted that, “In Ireland, out of almost 120,000 people working in STEM, just a quarter are women.” With all that in mind, it’s essential to remember and pay homage to women who worked in STEM during the 1900s and undertook the initial shift towards scientific work (or fought to stay involved during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s). Dr. Joan Byrne (1929-2017) is such a woman. 

Born in 1929 and raised in Ballymurphy, Co Carlow, Dr. Byrne began her education at St Mary’s College in Arklow, before becoming a microbiologist and working at the Medical Research Council (based out of Trinity College Dublin). In 1971 she completed her PhD in microbiology at TCD and continued working at the Medical Research Council until her lab closed in the 1990s. Dr. Byrne’s research covered a variety of topics including anticancer agents and absorption rates of microbiological compounds, among other microbiology topics. 

Dr. Byrne was heavily involved in her community; she served as equality officer for the Irish Federation of University Teachers in the 1980s and 1990s. She played Scrabble competitively with the All-Ireland Scrabble Association and was also involved in a range of other interests including the RDS (Royal Dublin Society), the Wexford Festival Opera , Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne (she spoke several languages fluently, including Irish), Cumann Merrimann, the Byrne-Perry Summer School, and the Irish Chinese Cultural Society. Dr. Byrne was also an intrepid and voracious traveler. Her travels took across most of western Europe in the 1950s, eastern Europe in the 1960s, and expanded outward to continue globe-trotting for the next three decades, covering much of the rest of the world. 

Figure 1 (IE BL/LH/B/1/10) – Admission card for the Tenth Cork International Film Festival 12th to 19th September 1965 issued to Joan Byrne for the full eight days. The card includes the received seat number and the rules of the Cork Tostal Film Association and cost £3 in old money.

Cork International Film Festival

Dr. Byrne’s most documented involvement however, was her work with the Irish Film Society and the Cork International Film Festival. The Dr. Joan Byrne Collection at University College Cork details her involvement and steward her materials as she (presumably) had them arranged. The collection contains delegates lists, jury lists, photographs, programmes, newspaper cuttings, film brochures, letters to Byrne and other ephemera relating to the Cork International Film Festival from the late 1950s to late 1980s. Dr. Byrne served as the Honorary Secretary of the Irish Film Society for many years and was a regular attendee on the judging committee of the Cork International Film Festival in the 1960s and 1970s. The Cork International Film Festival was established in 1956, and is still running, making it one of Ireland’s oldest and now largest film festivals. This year, it will run from November 7th to 17th.

Dr. Byrne was a competent judge, and the thoroughness of her collection and its items highlight her dedication and passion to film in Ireland. Figures 2 and 3, both undated, illustrate Dr. Byrne’s record keeping and initial opinions as notes, as well as the films showed. Some of the films listed include ‘Energy for the 80s’, ‘The Artist’s Horse’, and ‘Rivers’. The type list in Figure 3 corresponds with the notes in Figure 2. ‘Energy for the 80s”, for example, was a 28 and a half minute long film from the United States of America, that Dr. Byrne noted features “quickly changing pictures” but had maybe less than clear edit-style (the note ‘? editing’ implies some level of puzzlement on Dr. Byrne’s behalf). ‘The Artist’s Horse’, a 20 minute long film from the United Kingdom was given the note ‘Beauty of [-] matched by good photo[graphy]’. And finally, ‘Rivers’, a 17 and a half minute long film from Australia was described as ‘cliche’ (though she took more notes on ‘Rivers’ than ‘Energy for the 80s’ and ‘The Artist’s Horse’). 

Figure 4 is a brochure-like-flyer from the festival held in 1975. It mentions the winners of the 1974 festival, so that the reader might have a potential idea of what the festival program will possibly be like for 1975 festival as “…the programme cannot be announced until immediately prior to the event.” It also provides information about the Cork Film International Festival, the benefits of Film International Club membership, and where to stay in Cork during the visit. Participants such as Michael Twomey, Simon Williams, Grigor Vachkov, and Patrick Carey feature in the photographs on the brochure.

Figure 4 (IE BL/LH/B/1/2) – Flyer-type brochure of the 20th Cork Film International Festival containing press comments, pictures and the award winners of the Cork Film International Festival.

Final Thoughts

The Dr. Joan Byrne Collection unequivocally focuses on Dr. Byrne’s passion for the Cork Film Festival. A dynamic and successful woman, her passion for film is abundant in her collection (and proves that just because a person is scientifically inclined and driven, it doesn’t mean that cannot appreciate and passionately support the arts – it could be cautiously inferred that Dr. Byrne’s analytical skills likely honed by her scientific work aided her in the judging of film for the Cork International Film Festival). Dr. Byrne’s collection helps archive users to develop a greater understanding of the history and influence of film festivals in Ireland, as well as a deeper understanding into who Dr. Byrne was, and how she spent time in her community.

Ella Padden, Archivist

Massive thanks to University College Cork Library Special Collections and Archives for use of photos from the Joan Byrne Collection.


  • IE BL/LH/B/2/6, Joan Byrne Collection, Special Collections & Archives, UCC Library,
    University College Cork, Ireland.
  • IE BL/LH/B/2/13, Joan Byrne Collection, Special Collections & Archives, UCC Library,
    University College Cork, Ireland.
  • IE BL/LH/B/1/2, Joan Byrne Collection, Special Collections & Archives, UCC Library,
    University College Cork, Ireland.
  • IE BL/LH/B/1/10, Joan Byrne Collection, Special Collections & Archives, UCC Library,
    University College Cork, Ireland.
  • Joan Byrne Collection, University College Cork Library Special Collections and Archives, https://libguides.ucc.ie/DrJoanByrneCollection/Home.
  • Gender Balance in STEM Education Advisory Group. Recommendations on gender balance in STEM education, March 8, 2022. https://assets.gov.ie/218113/f39170d2-72c7-42c5-931c-68a7067c0fa1.pdf.

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