On September 15, at the Geography Department Maynooth University, the Geographical Society of Ireland celebrated the contribution of Emeritus Professor Dennis Pringle to the work of the Society. After introductions from Gerald Mills and Gerry Kearns, Joe Brady of University College Dublin gave a kind, heartfelt and witty review of some of Dennis’s many achievements and contributions. Niamh Moore-Cherry (President GSI) presented Dennis with a commemorative ornament and the bonus of an International Geographical Congress Dublin 2024 T-shirt. Dennis replied with grace and humour, before colleagues and other friends shared conversation and wine. The room had been elegantly prepared by Ronan Foley and Neasa Hogan.
It is a great honour to find myself in Maynooth speaking to you about Dennis Pringle. I have known Dennis for all of my working life and I admire him greatly. I am not going to speak about Dennis as an academic. There is ample evidence of the quality of his work on display here in this room. Nor am I going to note his contribution to fashion over the years, as amply demonstrated by the slides which are being shown. Instead I am going to speak about his contribution to the Geographichal Society of Ireland.
Dennis was one a small group of young geographers who joined university departments in Ireland in the 1970s. They brought a great deal of enthusiasm with them and part of that was focused on getting involved in the Geographical Society of Ireland. Now, it was a challenge both for them and the ‘old guard’. The latter had been the founders of the society and had seen it through its early years. They were still active and, while they welcomed the new blood, they were sometimes less than enthusiastic about the innovations of these energetic newcomers. The Society was a different creature in those days with most of its members in the non-professional category. People came to meetings and meetings could be lively. One such lively meeting was an AGM in the Royal Irish Academy (if memory serves) where there was learned (and not so learned) discourse on the appropriate translation of the Geographical Society of Ireland into Irish. The current translation was achieved only after a vote with Proinnsias Breathnach having delivered the killer debating point, as Gaeilge.
Dennis will also appreciate the fact that the logo which appears on the award he receives tonight was also the outcome of lively, even anguished, debate within the society. It was the occasion of the Jubilee Volume and it was time for a new logo, or so the committee thought. Perhaps a revision to the map of Ireland that had been used for some time? But should there be a border? What emerged produced an accusation of ‘territorial aggrandisement’ from certain quarters [I hope the correspondence still survives!] and a rapid redesign. Paul Ferguson’s design solved the problem though some of the more ‘senior’ members of the society commented that ‘there was nothing wrong with the old one’! As I have said, the society was lively!
It was also busy with a programme of meetings each year, which were generally well attended, fieldtrips and the production of Irish Geography. Dennis got immersed into the business of the society and was soon a member of the committee and then Secretary and ultimately President. He learned that the Society operated on a shoestring; in fact it did not own a shoestring. Irish Geography was published each year only by means of a financial miracle. I was looking back over the Hon. Publications Secretary’s cash book as I thought about this little address and I realised that the Society had developed ‘just in time’ as a concept long before the Japanese. He learned that since there was no money, everything was done by the individual labour of the members of the committee. And he simply got stuck in.
Dennis was one of the new breed of quantitative geographers, a species which struck terror into the hearts of the more traditional geographers. As a disciple myself, I enjoyed Dennis’ publication in Area in 1976 on ‘Normality, Transformations and Grid Square Data’ (Volume 8, pp 42-45) – this is what floated our collective boat! But… this was still not the era of the personal computer and computers were for numbers and not for text. There were rumours of new-fangled things called word processors but nobody had seen one. That is why Dennis’ decision to take on and develop the newsletter of the society is such a great example of his work, enthusiasm and dedication to the Society.
GeoNews emerged in September 1977 as the Irish Geographical Newsletter under the editorship of John Andrews (TCD). It passed to Tony Parker and became the Geographical Society of Ireland Newsletter and moved from A4 to A5 format. I had a go at a few issues when Tony was President of the Society and I had ‘fun’ with one of these ‘word processors’. Dennis took over in 1987 for issue 21 and set about getting it in shape. By then it had turned into the vehicle for publishing, amongst other items, reports on the goings-on in the various geography departments. Hurdle number 1 was getting academics to produce copy on time! However, Dennis’ own words provide the best description of how it was done. This comes from a piece which he wrote on the occasion of the Society’s 75th Anniversary, A Short History of Geonews and describes the production process.
One of the reasons for this expansion in content was that my tenure as editor corresponded with the diffusion of machine readable technologies which reduced the need to retype everything – an important consideration in the absence of secretarial support. However, linking the various technologies presented a challenge, as I proudly explained in issue 23, complete with a Jim Walsh-like flow diagram to illustrate the various steps involved. The problem was that the material submitted for GeoNews could come in numerous different formats. Some arrived typed or handwritten and had to be retyped, some arrived as plain text email messages, and other arrived in a variety of word processor formats saved on floppy discs. Before I could typeset the contents, I had to convert the material from these different sources into a common format, find some way to move them onto the same computer, organise the contents, edit them for spelling mistakes and other typos, and then finally typeset the final assemblage. The Geography Department did not at that time have a computer capable of typesetting documents (nor a laser printer to print them), but I discovered that our Mathematics Department had a Macintosh connected to a laser printer, so I used to sneak in there on a Friday afternoon when there were no students to complete the final stages. I was able to complete the earlier stages on a BBC Micro in my office. Transferring the files from different media (email, Macintosh discs, PC discs, etc.) presented a few challenges, but the main problem was converting the different word processor formats into a common format. After a few experiments, I decided the simplest solution was to write an assembly language program which stripped out all hidden formatting characters except end of paragraph markers which were standardised to ASCII 10 plus 13. The pure ASCII files could then be read into the Maths Department’s MacWrite to be formatted. This worked very successfully, but meant that all other formatting (e.g. underlines, italics, etc.) had to be reinserted manually at the typesetting stage.
It was only when the articles had been formatted on the Macintosh that I knew where I stood in terms of length. In fact it was only when the contents were actually printed that I actually knew for certain – what you saw what not always what you got. The objective was to gauge the content so the number of pages was a multiple of 4. Being a page or so short was not a problem as it was usually possible to add in some sort of filler, although I did have to resort on at least one occasion to printing the word ‘Notes’ at the top of an otherwise blank final page (as if anyone would actually want to make notes on the contents of GeoNews). One filler I never actually got a chance to use was a fictitious report on the court appearance of a ‘well-known Geography Professor’ on a charge of gross indecency involving wet rhubarb. The report would have been padded out with salacious details.
That was only the first part of the production process but it makes the point well. This was unsung work and it is an excellent example of how Dennis worked for the Society for many, many years. It would also have remained unsung, known only to the inner circle, were it not for this excellent idea which the Geographical Society of Ireland has developed of recognising the heroes of the Society, the people without whom there would be no society today.
I am delighted that Dennis is being so honoured and I am personally deeply grateful for being able to address you this evening.
Joe Brady, Maynooth, 15 September 2016″