The death of Mairead Sutherland on 30th December 2003 has robbed the Society not only of one of its longest standing members but also one of its most ardent supporters and colourful characters.
Mairead was born in Dublin City, County Dublin, Ireland on 22nd September 1923. Her father was T.J.O'Connel, Head of the Irish National Teacher's Organisation and leader of the opposition party to Eamon de Valera at the time of Home Rule. She was educated at Loretta Abbey, Dublin and then University College, Dublin. After qualifying as a radiographer (no mean feat for a single Irish woman in those days) she moved to Swansea in 1947, where she met her future husband, fellow Irishman William (Bill) Sutherland and then to Cardiff where she soon began her 50 year membership of the Society.
After the commencement of her membership of the Society in 1953 she became increasingly involved in the Society's activities and in 1962 began her first term of office as both the Membership Secretary to the Parent Society and a committee member of the Biological and Geological Section. For the next 30 years she served the Society and its sections in numerous official roles. She was President of the Society 1979-1980, General Secretary 1991-1992, Membership Secretary 1962-1965 and a Council Member from 1965-1970 and 1981-1990; Vice President of the Ornithological Section 1972-1973, its President 1973-1974 and a member of its committee from 1969-1972 and 1974-1975; Honorary Secretary of the Biological and Geological Section 1971-1973 and a member of its committee from 1962-1967. Out of the limelight of these official positions she worked tirelessly on the Society's behalf over the years and in recognition of this outstanding service was given Honorary Membership in 1990.
Mairead Sutherland receiving a presentation from Col. Sir Cennydd George Traherne 88th President at the Centenary event
We remember Mairead as a regular lecturer to the Society but it is interesting to note that her first talk did not take place until November 1969 when she gave the first of many talks to the then Junior Section. Her well informed, witty style and excellent slides made her a popular speaker and her services became increasingly called upon by both the sections and the main Society so that she became a regular contributor to the Society's programme. She was a great supporter of the Junior Section seeing the success of this as the key to the success of the Society in years to come.
Her first love was ornithology and she was very much an ornithologist in the true sense of the word. She undertook a long-term study of the kingfishers on the Glamorganshire Canal the results of which she happily disseminated widely. Many of her findings were used by other research workers, sometimes without true recognition, much to her chagrin. Her natural history interests were broad and she got immense pleasure from travelling to ever more exotic localities around the World to savour new habitats and species. She only started these overseas trips in 1969 but between then and the end of her life managed to visit every continent except Antarctica. No doubt, that was next on the list. Her adventures abroad often formed the subject of many lectures but few may have been aware of the lengths that she often had to overcome in order to raise funds to finance these trips in the first place, especially in the latter years. Her first trip was to East Africa, which she financed by working in the local butcher's shop. On her return she wrote and which sadly was never published, Safari on a Sausage, a book that she hoped might help fund her next trip. Once her mind was set on a destination any problem could be overcome in order to achieve her aim, even the increasing problems with mobility that she suffered in her later years.
Mairead Sutherland (with backpack smiling) about to alight from the boat to Steepholm, June 1992.
Picture from the https://marygillhamarchiveproject.com/
Despite her exotic overseas trips Mairead still had an avid interest in the natural history of the world much closer to home and became involved with many other local groups and societies, including the Merthyr Naturalists' Society and the Friends of Fforest Farm. She and Kay Collings were at the forefront of the battle to establish the Glamorganshire Canal Nature Reserve, an area with which she had a great affiliation, and she was heavily involved in numerous other local conservation issues. Her many years on Council and vast experience of rules and procedures made her a valued asset especially in the later years as the Society gradually lost the core of its experienced membership.
The Glamorgan Canal at Forest Farm
Mairead was saddened to witness the Society's gradual decline. However, having worked for the Society when it was at its height she felt that standards should be maintained no matter what its size and had the knack of letting you politely, but firmly, know if she felt that things were not as they should be. She did not suffer fools gladly and was an extremely articulate and determined adversary, as many a member of Council could bear witness too, but no matter how big the argument never held a grudge. She had a great and at times cutting wit and had that marvellous ability to see the funny side of any situation. No matter how much of a calamity she might find herself in, and there were numerous hair-raising examples, she always managed to shrug these off as minor inconveniences and concentrate on regaling you with the funnier side. She also had a great faith and worked tirelessly for the Church both at home and abroad. There are not many people who, in their 70s, would drop everything at short notice to help out at a mission in the South American rainforest. Her faith certainly helped her through the harder periods of her life and is no doubt reflected in her genuine concerns for those less fortunate than herself.
Mairead keeping cool, Whiteford, June 1981.
Picture from the https://marygillhamarchiveproject.com/
Personally, I will always remember her as a great raconteur, a valued mentor and an extremely considerate and loyal friend. She brightened up many a day (and also gave me earache at times) and will be sorely missed. Our thoughts go out to Eleanor, Fiona and Liam.
These pages are part of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society 150th Anniversary celebrations and are about our history and are celebrating the people who developed our Society and helped build the city and the cultural heritage of Cardiff. You can read more about that using the links above
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