John Desmond Bernal - Nenagh honours unsung hero

On Wednesday July 20 a plaque was unveiled at the Nenagh Heritage Centre in commemoration of a most remarkable Nenagh man. At a low-key, but well attended ceremony, the life of John Desmond (J.D.) Bernal was recalled and celebrated. Finally, Nenagh has acknowledged one of the most extraordinary men ever to come out of the town.

Some of you might not know a lot about the life of this man, but before going into that it is necessary to pay tribute to those behind this initiative. Firstly there are the Nenagh townspeople and local historians Nancy and Donal Murphy. Then Dr Bill Davis and Dr Norman McMillan, members of the National Committee for Science and Engineering Plaques. This body actually donated the plaque. Also Dr Roy Johnston, who identified the Heritage Centre as the most appropriate location for the memorial. Dr Johnston is an expert on the life of Bernal and has contributed many biographical articles on J. D. Bernal to various publications.

John Desmond Bernal, crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist and campaigner for world peace, was born in Brookwatson, Nenagh on May 10, 1901. He was the eldest child of Samuel and Elizabeth (Bessie). His ancestors had been Sephardic Jews who arrived in Ireland in 1840 from Spain, via Amsterdam and London. On settling in Ireland, the family converted to Catholicism.

Samuel came originally from Limerick. He emigrated for some years to Australia and on his return stayed with his sister Margaret Riggs-Miller in Tullaheady, just outside Nenagh. In 1898 he bought the farm in Brookwatson and built the existing house. On a visit to the continent he met his future wife. Bessie was an energetic, educated and much-travelled women of Presbyterian stock. She converted to Catholicism prior to their marriage in 1900.

John Desmond was the first born, with Kevin following in January 1903. There was less than two years between the boys and they were very close for many years.

Initially, both went to the local convent, but later transferred to the Protestant school, which was then based in Barrack Street. Despite this, it seems that the young John Desmond was a very devout Catholic who wore a scapular constantly, even when he was swimming. There were three other children: Geraldine, Fiona (who died young) and Godfrey, who only died in January of this year.
A major upheaval occurred in 1910 when Samuel Bernal decided to send his two eldest sons to Hodder Place, the preparatory school in Lancashire. For John Desmond, this was the beginning of a lifelong association with England, even though he never forgot his roots and throughout his life was proud of being an Irishman.

As a teenager, it would appear that he was a very bright but rather introspective young man. He was also a staunch nationalist who believed that all of Ireland's problems could be resolved if only the English could be driven out. Writing about this later, he noted that even in his home town, the four most imposing buildings were "the law court, the jail, and the military and police barracks." Meanwhile he was performing well academically and won several school prizes and finally a scholarship to Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

It was at Cambridge in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 that he first encountered socialism. For John Desmond, this discovery was an epiphany. Later he wrote: "The theory of Marxism, the great Russian experiment, what we could do here and now, it was all so clear, so compelling, so universal. How narrow my Irish patriotism seemed, how absurdly reactionary my military schemes. All power to the Soviets. It was the people themselves who would sweep away all the things that I hated, smash the arrogance of the English public schoolboy gentleman."

Thus began a lifelong commitment to the ideals of Communism. Over the following fifty years this odyssey would take him to many parts of the world and meetings with many international leaders including Nehru, Khrushchev, Mao and Ho Chi Minh. He was the first president of the Cambridge Scientists Anti-War Group, president of the World Peace Council and drafted the constitution for the World Federation of Scientific Workers. He lectured regularly on scientific or political themes at conferences worldwide and was involved in the foundation of UNESCO.

Even though Bernal supported the Allied war effort and was centrally involved in the planning of the Normandy landings, he was often ostracised by the Western powers, with both the US and France refusing him visas in later years. In the fifties he became somewhat disillusioned with the Soviet Union after the invasion of Hungary, but he never renounced his socialist beliefs. He was to remain a thorn in the side of Western governments until the end of his days.

As a scientist, the most remarkable thing is that he never won a Noble Prize, even though three of his students did. Conventional wisdom would have it that he spread himself too wide and was too involved in other matters, to achieve this ultimate accolade. Nonetheless, as Chair of Physics at Birkbeck College (University of London) and later as Professor of Crystallography, he presided over a centre of excellence that was celebrated worldwide. After graduating from Cambridge, Birkbeck was where he had spent most of his days as a research scientist and where in 1948 he founded the Biomolecular Research Laboratory, later to become the internationally renowned Crystallography Department.
Along the way J.D Bernal managed to write several books, mainly dealing with the role of science in society. He also published 224 scientific papers and nearly 400 articles of a non-scientific nature. His marriage in 1922 to Eileen Sprague produced two sons.

An interesting aside occurred in 1950 when Bernal encountered Pablo Picasso, the famous painter. Picasso had come to England to attend a peace conference which John Desmond was instrumental in organising.

When the British government refused visas to the delegates from Eastern Europe, the conference was cancelled and some of those present retired to Bernal's flat in London for a "peace party". During the course of the evening Picasso drew a mural on the wall of the flat. Subsequently the house was demolished, but the mural survived and is now on permanent display at Birkbeck College. It is known as Bernal's Picasso.

J.D Bernal suffered a stroke in the summer of 1963, followed by a second in September 1965. He was seriously disabled by this second blow and retired from his Professorship in 1968. He died on the 15 September 1971.

For many years John Desmond Bernal was a prophet without honour in his own land. Personally, as a young fellow, I recall hearing about this local Communist scientist who had "been to Russia".
Thankfully, this neglect has now been rectified. At the unveiling of the plaque (MC was Geraldine McNulty of the Heritage Service), some words were said by Tom Harrington on behalf of the County Council who are now running the Service, the aforementioned Nancy Murphy, Dr David Fegan on behalf of the Royal Irish Academy and Dr Norman McMillan. The unveiling itself was performed by J. D.'s granddaughter Sophie.

Nenagh should be proud of itself to honour one of our most esteemed sons.
Thanks should also go to St. Mary's Secondary School who provided the space for a buffet lunch for all who attended the unveiling. This was prepared by Marie Nagle of Cinnamon Alley. Also, St. Mary's of the Rosary opened their gates for anyone wishing to park. Bridget Delaney took photographs.

Courtesy Tipperary Star
August 2005