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Science for the love of it

Dr Martyn Linnie. Photo Credit: Trinity College Dublin

I remember it was a couple of years ago, I was in the pub with my friend Conor and we were just after watching Blue Planet. That was the first time he told me that his father was a professor of Zoology in Trinity College. Which you might think, isn’t something too out of the ordinary.

But then Conor told me the that his dad hadn’t started out as a student in Trinity. At the start he was just sweeping the floors in there. That’s when my interest was piqued. So, I turned to him and said, “your dad’s a professor in Trinity, but he started out sweeping the floors? How did that happen?”

That was the first time I’d heard the name Martyn Linnie and the kernel of his story stuck in my head for the last couple of years. I’d met Martyn briefly in the meantime, if you’re looking for a mental image, think J.K Simmons in the film Whiplash. [just add a quintessential Dublin dad moustache, and that’s him]

Martyn’s not your typical professor. He didn’t start out on a fast track to studying science, or going to college. Indeed if it wasn’t for a small square of newspaper, and some luck, he never would have ended up in Trinity College. And you’d never be reading how a man who never sat his Junior Cert ended up with a PHD.

Born into a working class catholic family in the 1950s, Martyn as a young boy was never destined for college. In his own words,

…none of our family had gone to university, it was never even something that was mentioned, never discussed, it wasn’t an option for me. All my friends were picking up apprenticeships, electricians, welders etc…university life, just wasn’t an option for us. Working class environment, working class background, you know, universities weren’t for us apparently.

Martyn Linnie

More than that, Martyn was catholic, and if you don’t know, although catholics were technically allowed to attend Trinity in the 1950s. In the minds of the Irish public, it was a thoroughly protestant institution. Indeed this popular nursery rhyme from the era captures the church’s position succinctly.

You may plunder and loot, you may murder and shoot, You may even have carnal knowledge; But if you want to be saved, and not be depraved, You must stay out of Trinity College.

Back then for a catholic to attend Trinity without a letter of toleration from the Archbishop of Dublin, it was technically considered a mortal sin.

You might wonder then how was it that Martyn ended up there, with all these conditions social and otherwise arrayed against him. Just before he was due to do his Junior Cert, Martyn’s father spotted an advertisement in the national paper, technician wanted, Dept of Zoology, Trinity College Dublin.

So, Martyn applied, and got an interview, of course the reaction of his family wasn’t what you’d expect to hear today.

Well the first thing I was told by all my aunties and uncles, was ‘you’re going for an interview in Trinity College? You wont get that, you’re a catholic, they wont take catholics in there.’

But Martyn did get the interview and he’s spent the last 50 years working his way up, from technician, to chief technical officer and professor of Zoology.

Although it wasn’t plain sailing all the way, indeed the first few weeks weren’t quite what Martyn had expected.

When I came in first, I assumed I’d be immediately working with animals, but I was left at a sink cleaning glassware for a week, or two weeks, and the glassware kept coming and coming and coming

I certainly wouldn’t consider myself to be that confident to be honest, but I really said this was not what I signed up for, I’m giving up school here, I didn’t come in here to wash glassware!

The early weeks were a bit disappointing, but as soon as they realised that I wasn’t here just to stand at a sink all day, they involved me in more interesting and animal orientated things.

Martyn Linnie

Martyn’s worked at Trinity since he was 15 years old, that’s 50 years, so the obvious topic that gets brought up a lot is retiring.

People always say to me when are you retiring? I suppose you cant wait to go? A lot of people can’t wait to go and retire, but I could do this for the next 100 years wouldn’t bother me.

Work occupies such a large part of our lives, if you’re not enjoying it, you’re not going to have an enjoyable life. There’ll be something missing all the time, its like what I always say to leaving cert students, when they come in for access program…don’t do something because your friends have done it, don’t do a business degree because you think there’s money in it, or better prospects…

If you start off and say, ‘I’m gonna do this because I like it and I enjoy it, chances are you’re going to be successful at it.’

Martyn Linnie

Martyn Linnie is Chief Technical Officer and Curator at Trinity’s Zoology Department and museum.

Find more details here on how you can visit the zoology museum and see ‘the real book of Kells’ as Martyn puts it.

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