11 Irish Nobel Prize Winners

The Nobel Prize is the most important acknowledgement in the whole world annually assigned to personalities that distinguished themselves for their work and their contribution in the various fields of human knowledge, and their commitment to world peace. The prizes were first awarded in 1901 in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine. Who are the Irish Nobel Prize winners? Let’s find out!

• William Butler Yeats, Literature, 1923
• George Bernard Shaw, Literature, 1925
• Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton, Physics, 1951
• Samuel Beckett, Literature, 1969
• Seán MacBride, Peace, 1974
• William Cecil Campbell, Physiology or Medicine, 2015

William Butler Yeats (1923)

The biography of William Butler Yeats is strictly linked to the history of Irish nationalism. Both in turn provide major themes for his poetry. In the early period, he combined the use of Irish folklore with an original symbolism, influenced by his reading of the French symbolists and his edition of the works of William Blake. The middle period dates from the beginning of the 20th century: Yeats’s style became more modern and flexible, he started to conceive his symbols as a means to evoke universal myths. The late period covers the years of maturity when a new and passionate intensity.
The sense of spiritual loss led the author to attempt particularly drastic and bizarre remedies, dabbling in theosophy, spiritualism, Buddhism, reincarnation, Irish folklore, Neoplatonism, and other forms of esoteric belief, building up from these various influences a private symbolic system. Yeats’s greatness as a poet received international recognition with the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and he was the first Irish Nobel Prize winner.
Yeats’s imagination worked especially through the conflict and resolution of opposites: he widely employed the stylistic devices of antithesis, oxymoron, and paradox. Yeat’s vocabulary contains many words of sensual and sensory experience. Some of his most frequent images include bird imagery.

George Bernard Shaw (1925)

After a very unsuccessful debut as a novelist, he devoted himself to journalism and between 1890 and 1894 to music criticism, using the pseudonym “Corno di Bassetto”. He led strenuous battles arguing, in controversy with the repertoire of the time, for a theatre that was “a forge of thoughts, a guide of conscience, a commentary on social conduct, an armor against despair and stupidity, and a temple to the Elevation of Man”. In 1892 he began his career as a playwright. After his marriage, he has devoted himself entirely to the theatre, writing dozens of highly successful works, many of them for Granville Barker’s Royal Court Theater.
In 1925 Shaw became a Nobel Prize winner for Literature, the crowning achievement of an enfant terrible, a wise desecrator who became a solid institution of nonconformity. Shaw was an exceptional playwright, master of theatrical technique, and always able to calculate and control the effect of every line. Of his comedies survive today the fluency of dialogue, the intelligence and vivacity of debate, the acute characterization of the characters: they are the modern version of the eighteenth-century “Comedy di manners”.

Ernest Thomas Sinton Walton (1951)

He is an Irish experimental physicist. Researcher at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and, since 1947, professor at the University of Dublin, He linked his name to the research carried out with J. D. Cockcroft, which led to the realization (1929) of the first linear electrostatic accelerator later used (1932) in nuclear physics, which culminated in the disintegration of the lithium helium nucleus by bombardment with protons accelerated by voltages of 700 kV. His other important research concerns microwaves. They did atom-smashing experiments and they were the first ones to split the atom in history. In the late 1950s, he was able to study the phosphorescent effect in glasses, secondary-electron emissions from surfaces under positive-ion bombardment, radiocarbon dating, and low-level tallying. For these investigations he shared with Cockcroft they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1951.

Samuel Beckett (1969)

He developed into such a profoundly introverted and unhappy man. He moved abroad as a young man, making his permanent home in Paris, where he was for a time part of the circle of James Joyce. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre for taking part in the French Resistance. He began writing fiction in the 1930s. He achieved fame in 1953 with Waiting for Godot, as a mere relaxation from the serious business of his fiction, and of no special merit. This play presents his essential vision of life as a series of desperate distractions from the recognition of the absence of meaning. He dispensed in the end not only with any kind of dramatic action in the commonly accepted sense of the term, but even with what we would ordinarily call characters. His prose works exhibit a similar development: have some of the recognizable features of traditional novels, closer to being monologues in which the single narrative voice enunciates its despairing sense of the futility of existence. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969 also seems strange, given that the terms of reference for that award include the writer’s offering an ennobling vision of human life.

Seán MacBride (1974)

Seán MacBride was a politician. He founded and collaborated with many international organizations including the United Nations, the Council of Europe and Amnesty International. In 1946 MacBride founded the Clann na Poblachta, a socialist and republican party, for which he was constantly re-elected to parliament from 1947 to 1957. MacBride served as President of the Commission of Ministers of the Council of Europe from 1949 to 1950 and gave a strong impetus to the creation of a European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. He was also one of the main proponents of Ireland’s accession to NATO. MacBride fought for the External Relations Act and the Declaration of the Republic of Ireland of 1949 whereby the Free State of Ireland left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland. MacBride was a founding member of Amnesty International of which he was also an international president. He was Secretary General of the International Commission of Jurists from 1963 to 1971 and was elected President of the International Peace Bureau. He was also Vice-President of the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OECE, now OECD). He wrote the Constitution of the Organization of African Unity and the first Constitution of Ghana, the first African country under British rule to gain independence. He became a Nobel Prize winner for Peace in 1974, the American Medal for Peace in 1975, the Lenin Peace Prize in 1975-1976, and the UNESCO Silver Medal in 1980.

Contemporary Irish literature – from 60s until today

William Cecil Campbell (2015)

William Cecil Campbell is an Irish biochemist, biologist and parasitologist. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1930 to R.J. Campbell who worked on a farm. He attended Campbell College Belfast and graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1952, followed by a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1957.
His work was based on the discovery of a new therapy against infections caused by nematodes. He contributed to the discovery of a class of drugs called avermectins. Its derivatives have been shown to have “extraordinary efficacy” in the treatment of river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, among other parasitic diseases affecting animals and humans. Campbell worked at the Merck Institute for Therapeutic Research 1957-1990, and is currently a fellow research emeritus at Drew University. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2002.
In 2015 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine together with the Japanese Satoshi Ōmura “for their discoveries concerning a new therapy against intestinal parasite infections”. He is the first Irish Nobel Prize winner for this area.

These over mentioned are the Irish Nobel Prize winners, but which are the Northern Ireland Nobel Prize winners?

  • John Hume, Peace 1998

  • David Trimble, Peace, 1998

  • Séamus Heaney, Literature, 1995

  • Mairead Corrigan, Peace, 1976

  • Betty Williams, Peace, 1976


John Hume (1998)

John Hume is considered one of the most important figures in the recent history of Northern Ireland and one of the main architects of the peace process in that region. Founder and leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). He was the second leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a position he held from 1979 until 2001. He served as a Member of the European Parliament and a Member of the United Kingdom Parliament and a member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He and David Trimble received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998 on the following grounds: “their commitment to the peace agreement for Northern Ireland and their efforts to find a political solution in the troubled province”. He is regarded as one of the most important figures in Ireland’s recent political history and one of the architects of the peace process in Northern Ireland. He is also a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Prize and the Martin Luther King Award, the only recipient of the three most important peace awards. In 2010 he was named “Ireland of the Greatest” in an Irish public survey RTÉ national broadcaster to find the greatest person in the history of Ireland. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI made Hume Knight Commander of the State of the Church of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

David Trimble (1998)

David Trimble was a Northern Irish politician. He was a protestant leader, secretary (1995-2005) of Northern Ireland’s largest party, the Ulster unionist party. Prime Minister of the Ulster government from 1998 to 2002. In 1998 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with J. Hume for his courage and efforts to find a solution to the Northern Ireland conflict. In 2006 he joined the House of Lords and was appointed Baron; in 2007 he joined the Conservative Party.

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Séamus Heaney (1995)

Heaney Seamus is an Irish poet. He has stood out for his sobriety and rigorous technique of language and a poetics constantly crossed by political commitment. The evocative lyricism of the first collections is followed by the political commitment of North (1976), supported by faith in the saving power of collective memory and the work of the poet. In Station Island, a sort of Dantean purgatory, Heaney retraces the history of Ireland meeting old masters and fellow travellers. He has increasingly focused on an “aggressively updated” reading, in his words, of the degraded landscape of the contemporary world, with particular attention to the linguistic corruption that derives from the trades and commerce of international capitalism. The fabric of the verse appears crossed by rhythmic and stylistic ambivalences, in an emphasis on the technical and self-referential dimension of poetry that H. likes to take up again in his theoretical reflections. In 1995 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The speech given by Heaney on the occasion of the award is published under the title Crediting poetry: the Nobel lecture (1996). His collections include Door into the dark, North, and The spirit level.

Mairead Corrigan (1976)

Mairead Corrigan Maguire is the co-founder of Northern Ireland’s most influential peace movement, the Community of Peoples of Peace. She became a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1976 together with Betty Williams. On 10 August 1976, a member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was shot dead by British troops because he and a colleague in their car were carrying a rifle in their seat. Three children, who were also on the street with their mother, were killed in the shooting. This prompted Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the aunt of the three dead children, to work for peace in Northern Ireland. Together with Betty Williams, she founded the Community of Peace People, an organization that sought to bring Catholics and Protestants together peacefully and to end sectarian violence.

Betty Williams (1976)

Betty Williams was a North-Irish Catholic activist from a modest family, descended on her mother’s side from a Polish Jewish family. After an initial sympathy for the IRA, she joined (1972) the organization Witness for peace, of Pastor J. Parker, aimed at overcoming the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. In 1976 he founded, together with M. Corrigan, the movement Women for peace, immediately renamed Community for peace people. For the activities carried out in this movement, in 1976 she was awarded, together with M. Corrigan, the Nobel Peace Prize.


These are the Irish personalities who were awarded Nobel Prizes. Did you know them all? Which one you didn’t? Who is your favourite? Let us know!

Veronica De Biasio
Veronica De Biasio

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