A YOUGHAL-based Trinity graduate recently took home the gong for Chartered Engineer of the Year at the annual Engineers Ireland Excellence Awards.
Aoife Murphy’s win followed a rigorous review process from the large number of engineers who achieve their chartered title in a given 12-month period.
With more than 10 years’ experience in the design, assessment, repair and construction of building structures in Ireland, the UK and New Zealand, Aoife received the award for her project, ‘Earthquake: The Silver Lining — An Opportunity in a Time of Disaster’.
Originally from Carlow, Aoife was planning on a career in business before she made a last-minute switch to engineering.
“Maths was my strong subject all along but nobody had mentioned engineering to me,” she says.
“Two of my friends’ boyfriends were studying engineering and I asked them about it, what it involved. I think that was around the week after my Leaving Cert so I got the ‘Change of Mind’ form and put down engineering instead. So I changed from business altogether!
“I picked Trinity because I didn’t have any science subjects and Trinity accepts honours maths as a science subject.”
When Aoife got her honours degree in civil, structural and environmental engineering in 2007, the timing was less than ideal when it came to the jobs market.
“The recession was just about to start and there was nothing happening in Ireland,” she says.
She got a job with PM Group in Dublin, but it wasn’t to last.
“I managed to stay working until 2010, but for the last six months there was nothing happening at all. It was time to emigrate. When I was made redundant it was a relief almost because those last couple of months had been so quiet and there was nothing to do so it was soul-destroying. Every job I moved onto was put on hold, I saw nothing through.
“It was a really sad time. But when I was made redundant I think I was only upset for about an hour! And then it was a case of ‘OK, it’s time to go’.
“I had to decide where I could go that was English speaking and where I could work as an engineer. The choices were Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Everybody was in Australia at that time so I thought no, I’m not going there. Canada then, it was too late in the year. So that left New Zealand. The Rugby World Cup was coming as well and I thought, that will be a great place to go now for a year or so. I ended up staying six and a half years.”
Aoife’s extended time in New Zealand had a lot to do with the employment available there because of the 2010/2011 earthquake disasters. She had been travelling when the first one struck so, knowing there would be work there, she headed to Christchurch.
“I was working for about two months when the second big earthquake happened. I was with the Earthquake Commission doing repairs on houses from the first earthquake and kept doing that for the six and a half years then.”
Around this time two years ago, she was starting to think about coming home — however, she didn’t take a direct route. When she was back that Christmas she did an interview with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and won a nine-month scholarship there, which gave her hands-on training in relation to historic building conservation across the UK and Ireland.
“I went back to New Zealand for six weeks at the start of 2017 and then I packed my bags and moved to London for nine months and then at Christmas last year I came home for good. I joined David Kelly Partnership in Youghal in March, 2018, and since then I have worked on a number of conservation projects such as Swords Castle, Drumcullen Church ruins and Youghal Town Wall repairs. Youghal Town Walls are the most intact town walls in Ireland. The Irish Walled Towns Network under the Heritage Council provides the town with grants every year to carry out repairs. We have just completed this year’s work. It’s an ongoing process and a wonderful asset to the town and gives lovely views of the old medieval parts of it.”
Aoife is naturally thrilled with her award, and not just because it gives her a competitive edge in her chosen industry here.
“It also means that the work I’ve done abroad is highly recognised in Ireland and it’s made me feel so welcome coming back home. All of us that had to go during the recession are now experienced engineers and they want us at home again and we are being appreciated.”
While she believes that more females are taking up STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects now, there’s more to be done to encourage them.
“I think we have still a bit to go. Engineering didn’t come into my path at all when I was in school, it’s just a fluke I came across it. I fell into it really. And I’ve spoken to friends since who were above or below me in school and they’ve said they would have been interested in engineering but it just didn’t come up for them.”
To that end, Aoife is involved in the Engineers Ireland STEPS programme. Funded by the Science Foundation Ireland Discover Programme, this not-for-profit strategic outreach programme encourages primary and post-primary students to explore the world of STEM and promotes interest and awareness in engineering as a future career to them through a portfolio of projects.
For example the STEPS Young Engineers Award is a competition to find talented young engineers across the country. This year third and fourth class students were asked to look around their community and identify something they would like to improve. They then become part of an engineering team who will take on the challenge and come up with a solution using an engineering approach.
Volunteer engineers like Aoife visit the classroom to inspire the students and answer any questions they have. She has just been to Aghabullogue National School to see how their projects are coming along and to offer some pointers.
“I’ve just started to volunteer with STEPS. While I lived in New Zealand I volunteered with Radio Lollipop in Christchurch Hospital and I really enjoyed it. I think its an important thing to volunteer in the community and STEPS is a wonderful concept as it introduces kids to engineering and all the different possibilities there. Engineers Week is in March and I will be visiting a school again then.”
Meanwhile, Aoife is very happy to be back in Ireland.
“After eight years away, it’s lovely to be able pop in to see my parents and extended family just an hour away. It was a two-day journey from New Zealand.”
And she loves her new home in Cork.
“I’ve felt very welcome here. Youghal is a lovely town and living on the coast for this wonderful summer we had was a treat! I managed to get into the water a good few times.”