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Dr Matthew Parkes: An Appreciation on Behalf of the Irish Geological Association, and a Personal Recollection by Patrick Roycroft

31 October, 2020

An Appreciation from the Irish Geological Association

By Patrick Roycroft


Dr Matthew Parkes, exceptional Senior Curator of the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History (NMINH), passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack on 23 October 2020. It is an honour to write a short tribute on behalf of the Irish Geological Association (IGA).

Matthew Parkes leading a field trip and pointing out a feature of interest to two fascinated participants. Photo: Alan O’Connor.


After Matthew completed his PhD in biostratigraphy and palaeontology at the National University of Ireland, Galway in 1990, he became a strong advocate of Ireland’s geological heritage. Over the ensuing decades, he developed an astonishing breadth of knowledge on Ireland’s geology and on what makes it special. And he was passionate about this. However, what became arguably more important for him was the need to get the message across that our geological heritage mattered. On this front, he was always ready to convince not only fellow geologists but, even more importantly, the general public. Securing a position in the National Museum of Ireland in 2005 allowed him to do this: and he loved that. He wrote many popular geology books on the geological heritage of local or county areas; he wrote many geological heritage reports for county councils the length and breadth of Ireland. He gave public lectures whenever he could, including, of course, during the national festival that is Heritage Week at the end of every August. And he would go out of his way to encourage youngsters.

As part of that ethos, Matthew gave of his time generously and selflessly to the Irish Geological Association: he was well aware that we have a membership that includes amateurs and the interested public. Despite the fact that Matthew was on seemingly countless committees and editorial boards, as well as having a phenomenal workload at the NMINH itself, if the IGA asked him to do an event for them he would willingly do it. And we were always eternally thankful. He gave us lectures, he organised workshops [His workshop on amber, using NMINH specimens, was always oversubscribed], he took us on field trips (both day trips and weekend ones), and gave us tours behind the scenes at the National Museum of Ireland. He was there as a mentor, giving sage advice on how best to organise an outreach event. And he was always available whenever a member had a palaeontology mystery to solve. Members of the Irish Geological Association loved Matthew because of his warmth, his enthusiasm, his phenomenal generosity of spirit, his fundamentally gentle nature, and his unflustered patience in explaining anything. Amateurs, in particular, always felt they could ask him a question. He would never, ever, put anyone down. He was both very knowledgeable and totally approachable.  

Matthew had one very special connection with the IGA. He was a vital part of saving the IGA Archive, that formerly homeless trove of irreplaceable documentation (and strange ephemera) that covers the span of the IGA’s existence, telling its history. The archive has now found a permanent home with the NMINH in large part thanks to Matthew giving the ‘green light’ that the museum could hold it for posterity, making the IGA Archive a public part of Ireland’s history-of-geology heritage. It was Matthew who trained IGA volunteers in the art of document preservation, and he did everything possible from the museum’s side to make sure that the IGA had all it needed when working to organise and preserve the archive. Typical of the man, he would even give up some of his rare ‘free’ weekends to help us. We will never forget that. 

The IGA expresses its deepest condolences to Matthew’s wife, Michelle, and to all the Davern and Parkes families. Matthew will be remembered with huge affection and esteem by the IGA.

For more on Matthew’s life and career, please read https://www.museum.ie/en-IE/News/Matthew-Alastair-Parkes?fbclid=IwAR1Y-20Hq8nLSUlzjPb0PQHk2hxcawNXjzQ0QEZRcQa2hS9yrR21PN_dmrk .

For expressions of condolence, please see https://rip.ie/cb.php?dn=437559 .


A Personal Recollection in Seven Photographs

By Patrick Roycroft


I can say, with some certainty, that a great deal of what I achieved geologically from 2012 to 2020 would barely have been possible without Matthew Parkes. 

I offer here a few reminisces about Matthew through a selection of photos taken during the time I was working with him over the last 8 years at the museum (though I had first met him back in the 1990s). It is worth noting that Matthew did not generally like having his picture taken – I have dozens of unusable photos where he dodges out of shot at the last second, turns away at the crucial moment, or puts his hands over his face!  This makes the photos I have of him all the more precious. I will miss his phenomenal helpfulness, gentle manner, and total integrity.


1. Matthew Parkes, 23 June 2014, at UCD loading up drawers of minerals from the UCD mineral collection into a Geological Survey of Ireland van. Photo: Patrick Roycroft.

I was searching for a ‘lost’ cotterite in the UCD mineral collection in late 2012. The collection was being stored in a leaky shipping container outside UCD’s geology department, and I noted that here was a wonderful, and huge, historic collection of minerals in dire need of rescue. I contacted Matthew about saving it, and he jumped at the opportunity. He suggested that we could both work to save it if I could get a Heritage Council grant. I applied, and I got one. This set in motion a really wonderful working relationship for the next 8 years … including my being awarded a second Heritage Council grant! I remember he helped me to submit that second one at his own computer in the Beggar’s Bush stores with literally minutes to spare. The picture above is the day we finally got to start moving the collection from UCD to the National Museum of Ireland’s stores at Beggar’s Bush. Matthew worked hard the whole day, helping me shift the many dozens of boxes of minerals. If I’d done this on my own, I’d probably still be doing it. He would always help, even if it meant hard physical labour.


2. Matthew Parkes, 1 August 2014, at the National Museum of Ireland’s Collections Resource Centre in Swords (Fingal, north County Dublin).

Matthew not only hauled UCD minerals around. He also carried an enormous quantity of ‘stuff’ between, and within, the different museum buildings scattered around County Dublin. The above is the Collections Resource Centre in Swords, and this is another ‘typical’ Matthew shot. I realised, while watching him, that being a museum curator required the ability to ‘move stuff around’. And this can sometimes hurt the back. Matthew did sometimes hurt his back, but he rarely said anything about it. He took measures to remedy any damage, but he never made a big deal about it.


3. Matthew Parkes, Patrick Roycroft, Nigel Monaghan, 14 August 2014, in the ‘UCD minerals room’ in Beggar’s Bush stores. Photo: Kim Chandler.

This is one of my favourite photos of Matthew. It manages to capture him smiling and looking at the camera. This was a most happy occasion: the final layout plan and the panel texts for my first public exhibition. Matthew and Nigel had both given the green light for me to use one of the display cabinets in the iconic National Museum of Ireland – Natural History on Merrion Street (‘the Dead Zoo’) to tell the essence of the story of the UCD mineral collection [Why it needed rescuing and what treasures it contained]. Matthew was instrumental in this because he organised the logistics to make it happen.


4. Matthew Parkes, 22 August 2014, preparing one of the National Museum of Ireland – Natural History’s historic display cabinets into which would go my UCD mineral exhibit. Photo: Patrick Roycroft.

Matthew here is helping to take out the previous material in this display case and to replace it with my UCD minerals display. I was quite excited at this happening – it is not every day that one gets an exhibition (the size is irrelevant) in so wonderful a public setting. I thanked Matthew for this opportunity, and will always be grateful to him for doing the behind-the-scenes work to make this a reality: even a seemingly simple public display requires a lot of background work. 


5. Matthew Parkes, Mary-Jane Fitzsimons, Patrick Roycroft, Siobhan Pierce, 1 September 2014, outside the National Museum of Ireland – Archaeology on Kildare Street (Dublin). Photo: Kim Chandler.

The above photo is when Matthew drove me down to the main archaeology museum where a box of UCD minerals was to be collected after I had used them as part of a public lecture I had given on behalf of the museum during Heritage Week 2014. The two ladies are/were part of the museum’s Education Department. I never stopped being impressed at Matthew’s generosity of spirit: he had a million other things to do, but he would always take a few hours out to help me. And, because there was a space in his car, he also gave the opportunity that day for museum volunteer Kim Chandler to come along and see more of the museum behind-the-scenes. 


6. Matthew and a group of volunteers and museum staff, 28 July 2015, at a birthday party organised for me in the coffee room at the museum’s Beggar’s Bush stores. Photo: Patrick Roycroft.


No matter how busy everyone was, if a party needed to be organised, a party would be organised. Co-conspirators Nigel Monaghan and Matthew Parkes would expertly sequester the requisite materials (biscuits, sweets, savoury snacks, cake, and Prosecco) into the building in readiness for the surprise. On this occasion, the surprise was for my 50th birthday … and I was absolutely delighted. Not only that, but mineral volunteer Isabel O’Brien (far left, just in shot) had made a strawberry and cream cake (note the candles)! The happy group includes (left to right): Isabel O’Brien, Maria Cullen, Matthew Parkes, Alan O’Connor, Mark Holmes, and Leona McArdle (née Leonard). 


7. Matthew and a group of museum staff and associates, December 2018, at the annual Natural History section Christmas Party, held that year at the School House Bar and Hotel (Beggar’s Bush). Photo: Antoinette Madden.


Matthew and some of the ‘Natural History Gang’ (current and former) looking suitably refreshed at the 2018 Christmas party: left to right – Patrick Roycroft, Mark Holmes, Jim O’Connor, Paolo Viscardi, Nigel Monaghan, Matthew Parkes. This photo is somewhat more typical of Matthew – you can almost see the “Oh God, not another photo” look. This was in 2018, and I was still working, when I could, on the UCD minerals (long after both my Heritage Council grants were over) and had benefited from Matthew’s help in publishing a few papers in the Irish Journal of Earth Sciences

I remember going in to the Beggar’s Bush stores one day around this time with a bottle of wine in my rucksack. I went up to Matthew’s office and said, “Matthew, as a small token for all that you’ve done for me, I’d like to give you a good bottle of wine.” In typical fashion, he brushed off all the selfless work he had done for me, saying it was nothing, all part of his job, don’t worry about it, and he could not possibly accept the wine. So, I gave it to him anyway. But that’s the sort of person he was. And that’s why I and all who knew him loved Matthew. The really amazing thing is that my memorable association with Matthew is one that could be replicated through similar stories from dozens of other individuals and organisations. His own very modest disposition belied the enormous contribution he made to Irish geology and the impact he had on Irish geologists. Matthew, you were a joy to know.


31 October, 2020
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