A President’s love story that’s full of chemistry

As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, CHRIS DUNNE catches up with the President of UCC, whose love story started on campus
A President’s love story that’s full of chemistry
UCC President Patrick O'Shea with wife Miriam Smyth. Picture: Emmet Curtin

THE law of attraction was certainly at work when young Cork UCC students, Patrick O’Shea, now the 15th President of UCC, and Dr Miriam Smyth were assigned the same workbench in the science lab at the Kane building.

“I had already spotted Miriam with two other young ladies when I was 15 at a dance in Nano Nagle Hall, which was an Irish Club then,” recalls Patrick, a UCC Physics graduate whose area of expertise is electro-magnetics.

Patrick is former Vice-President and Chief Research Officer at the University of Maryland, and his academic, political and business acumen helped the university to become one of the leading institutions in the world.

“It was after my inter-cert,” says Patrick, recalling when he first set eyes on the love of his life.

“And I was allowed go to the dance. I knew Miriam, seeing her about, so I was familiar with her.”

Did he ask her out at the dance?

“Not then,” says Patrick. “We were just teenagers.”

And he had other things on his mind.

“I was very studious!” he says. “When I was small, I wanted to be a scientist. They used to call me ‘The Professor! I spent a lot of time studying at Tory Top Library in Ballyphehane.”

The two students, destined for great things, and destined to be together, met when Patrick was studying Physics and Chemistry at UCC, while Miriam got her undergraduate degree in Marine Biology.

Fate and natural chemistry between the two students worked its magic.

“I remember I went home for my lunch, and I was late back to the Kane building, the Science building, after 2pm,” says Patrick.

Patrick O'Shea and wife Miriam on their wedding day at UCC.
Patrick O'Shea and wife Miriam on their wedding day at UCC.

“When I walked in, the first week of term, the lecture hall was full and the only spare seat I could see was beside Miriam,” says Patrick.

“So I sat down beside her. The lecturer called us both up to the front and said ‘You two are working at the same bench’. We were assigned the same work bench for the year.”

Was that a formula for love?

“When I asked Miriam out on a date, she was worried it might not work out, and that she’d be stuck with me for a year!” says Patrick, laughing.

“We were lab partners for the whole year. It was like a contract; we were bound together.”

Did he chat her up?

“I’m an introvert — basically a physics and mathematics nerd!” he replies.

But he made the first move?

“I did,” says Patrick, smiling. “My father was a very sociable man. I have to work very hard every day to fake being an extrovert!”

And some days he likes to reminisce about romance. Patrick’s parents had their own special love story.

“My parents met as a result of a tragedy,” says Patrick. “Both my uncles, Paddy and Dermot, were killed in accidents a few months apart. Paddy died in a mine in England, and Dermot was killed in an accident on the island of Mauritius. Dermot’s best friend sent a letter to my grandmother, Mary O’Shea, in French. She raised her three young sons near Glengarriff in West Cork, and her husband, Patrick, died of TB.

Patrick O Shea's parents Jo and Michael on their first date. 
Patrick O Shea's parents Jo and Michael on their first date. 

Mary O’Shea was an astute woman.

“My grandmother opened a sweet shop to make a living which was fairly successful until she was evicted from the building she rented,” says Patrick.

“She moved to Popes’ Quay in Cork where she made a living as a maid. It was a pretty tough life for the family.”

Love found a way to bind Patrick’s parents together.

“Someone told my father, Michael, that there was a young lady called Jo (Josephine), Watkins, who grew up on the South Terrace, who could read French. They first met on Brown Street in the Legion of Mary Hall to translate the letter (which Dermot’s best friend had sent)”

Love blossomed and matured between the two. But true love doesn’t always run smooth.

“Just like his own father, my father contracted TB when I was a baby,” says Patrick.

“He spent two years in a TB sanatorium in Glanmire. My mother would cycle to see him with me on the back of her bike.”

The little family couldn’t touch or hug each other.

“We weren’t allowed in the hospital because the disease was so contagious. So I remember looking up at my father’s room and seeing a figure out on the balcony,” says Patrick.

“He spent two years in the sanatorium and he was in bad condition in the prime of his life. He was emaciated when he came out.”

Patrick’s dad also had diabetes to contend with.

“There used to be test tubes on the kitchen table to calculate his blood sugar. I think that was my first start in science,” says Patrick.

“My dad had to wind up his wholesale sweet shop business and go out on the road to work for somebody else as a travelling salesman.”

He had the gift of the gab.

Miriam and Patrick O'Shea with son, Ronan.
Miriam and Patrick O'Shea with son, Ronan.

“Yes, he used to stop and take the time to talk to everybody on his travels to Shanagarry and to Ballycotton, places now where I take my son Ronan when he’s back here from his studies in the USA,” says Patrick.

“My father liked speaking with people and he had a positive outlook.

“My mother and father never finished secondary school,” says Patrick.

“They were a good couple who worked hard. My mother dealt with a lot of illness in the family. We lived in a tiny house with granny.”

Patrick made his parents proud.

“They were both very proud of me, valuing education, and of my brother and sisters, both teachers,” says Patrick.

“It was far from where they’d come. My mother didn’t live to see me come back home and become President here at UCC, which was a shame.”

Patrick inherited his parents’ values and won his place at UCC. Soon he would win the affection of his future wife.

Where did they go on their first date?

“I asked Miriam out in October; we went to the pictures, but I don’t recall the film,” says Patrick.

He does recall ,though, that the two sweethearts had a lot in common, both from the same home town, appreciating where they came from, and with a keen interest in forging successful careers.

“I went on to advance my career,” says Patrick.

“Miriam followed the same path, moving to Maryland in the USA, both of us achieving PhDs.”

They were like a lot of young students.

“We had no money!” says Patrick.

But things were looking up. The couple who had their first date in autumn in Cork, were soon betrothed, surrounded by the dappled trees and autumn hues in Maryland, Prince George’s County, outside Washington.

“I proposed to Miriam in the University Park,” says Patrick. “It was 1980 and we collaborated on the ring. We were both 29 with Ph.Ds. We were done with formal education.”

And the world was their oyster.

“We worked in new Mexico, Sante Fe, in the Californian Lab for several years,” says Patrick.

“And also in Duke University, North Carolina. Our son, Ronan, aged 21, was born there. We returned to Maryland University. We had a very productive life in the USA for 30 years.”

And they returned to their old Alma Mater to tie the knot in the Honan Chapel in Cork on June 6, 1987.

“My brother, William, was our best man, and Miriam’s sister-in-law, Ber, was our Matron of Honour. It was a beautiful summer’s day,” re-calls Patrick.

“We had our reception in Coakley’s, Garretstown, and we honeymooned round Ireland. Today, our favourite place is Gougane Barra. It is so peaceful there and a real getaway. When we are both off we enjoy quality time together, enjoying long walks in the countryside.”

Does absence make the heart grow fonder?

“I think it does,” says Patrick. “Now, we can know where each other is all the time. I remember when Miriam’s mother died: I paid $100 to call home from the USA. Now I can text for free. My mother used to send me the Cork Examiner every week for the job ads. Now, I can see the American papers here every morning.”

Miriam is currently head of clinical research strategic planning in the US Department of Veteran Affairs.

Ronan is an undergraduate in Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island in the USA. He is a runner like his father.

Patrick said: “We are a little triangle and when we get together we love spending time together in lovely places like Ballycotton and West Cork. We enjoy that so much because we travel so much.”

Patrick is at home in the President’s office at UCC, the place that inspired him to become an academic and where he met the love of his life.

“Miriam and I know each other 46 years,” he says.

Do they ever row?

“We have the odd row, but nothing fatal,” Patrick says, smiling.

He is reminded of the happiest day of his life every time he looks out his window.

“Looking out my window here, from my office; I can see the young happy couples coming out of the Honan Chapel after getting married. It is a lovely sight to see,” says Patrick, gazing out at the early spring flowers on the manicured gardens.

Does he think romance is dead?

“Not at all, we are a nation of talkers,” says Patrick.

“It is a characteristic of Irish life; our heritage. I suspect human interaction is how most students here meet.

“In our day there were 5,000 students, now there are 20,000.”

They all have a common bond.

“You know, I think in some way or another; we are all related to each other!”

That is an interesting theory.

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