A giant of Irish political science

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Birth: June 30, 1947
Died: January 3, 2022

Richard Sinnott, who died aged 74, was a political scientist who raised the standards of research and analysis, making a significant and lasting contribution to the field in Ireland.

While gaining the admiration and respect of his academic colleagues, he also achieved popular popularity as a lucid and capable communicator as a regular member of RTÉ television election panels.

He spent most of his career as a member of academic staff in the politics department of University College Dublin, but his reputation was European. He has authored numerous research articles and supervised many more; he has authored and co-authored numerous scholarly works, with colleagues from leading academic institutions in the UK, Italy, Denmark and Germany.

“He was truly a trailblazer,” according to his colleague and admirer, David Farrell, a professor of politics at UCD’s School of Politics and International Relations. “Together with Michael Marsh of Trinity he played a major role in introducing the study of Irish elections into political science here…Perhaps his most notable contribution to UCD was the creation of the Center for European Economic and Public Affairs, a pioneer in Europe studies that remain at the heart of our programme.

Richard Sinnott was born in Wexford in June 1947. His parents, Richard and Peggy Sinnott, were medically trained – he was a pharmacist, she a nurse – and met while working together on the tuberculosis eradication program in County Wexford.

Sinnott grew up in the family home, a large house on Rowe Street in the center of town. An early indication of his fondness was in the fact that as a child he kept a book on each of the building’s four floors so that reading material was always close at hand wherever it was in the house.

A prized possession in youth was a telescope, with which he scanned the night sky.

He went to the local Christian Brothers primary school. Aged 10, he spent a year at the Waterford Gaeltacht Irish School in An Rinn. This gave him the ability to win a medal for debating in Irish when he was a boarder at his secondary school, Newbridge College in Kildare.

religious detour

Having been schooled by Dominicans, it was perhaps unsurprising that his first choice after graduation was to enroll as a novice in the order. He trained for four years, one in Cork and three in Tallaght, Co Dublin, but in the event decided not to pursue ordination, preferring instead to study history and politics at UCD.

It was there, during his freshman year, that he met Margaret Murray of Athlone, a social science student. Their first outing was an 18-mile hike in Wicklow with UCD’s Mountaineering Club.

They married in 1971 and eventually settled in Sandymount, where they raised their children, Gillian and Daniel. But life together also included stints in Washington (where Richard earned his PhD at Georgetown University, after earning a master’s degree in UCD under Professor Brian Farrell, David’s father) as well as Florence, Boston and Oxford.

On his return to Dublin from Washington in 1974, he took up a fellowship at the Institute for Economic and Social Research, where he worked with, among others, Brendan Whelan, and published a thought-provoking report on the attitudes of Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland.

In 1976 he was appointed Assistant Lecturer, then Professor, in Politics at UCD, the backbone of his life’s work. Among his innovations were the introduction of the teaching of international relations and the use of computers as a research tool.

“He introduced quantitative research methods, that is to say the use of computers in political science”, explains David Farrell, one of his students at the time. These were the early days of computers as research tools: desktops and laptops were unheard of, and students had to set aside time on a mainframe to do their research, which often involved survey data on research intentions. vote.

“Nowadays it’s much more advanced, but Richard really brought that kind of rigor to political science,” Farrell says.

Scientific rigor

As an election-time analyst for RTÉ, Sinnott brought academic rigor to the reading of runes on voter patterns and permutations of ballot box results. He was unfazed: on one occasion a power failure prevented a computer from printing the earnings charts, but Sinnott, aided by candlelight, drew the charts by hand and the show went on.

In 2010, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that affects speech, balance and ambulatory functions. Despite this, he kept his spirits up, according to his son, Daniel.

“He was always realistic about it, but also in a good mood,” he says.

With Margaret, his wife of 50 years, he had bought a small cottage, outbuildings and some 30 acres of upland at Glenbride, west of Wicklow. About 20 years ago he planted about half the land with native Irish trees and proudly watched them grow.

Richard Sinnott is survived by his wife Margaret, his children Gillian and Daniel, his grandchildren Eliza, Thomas, Frederick and Mabel and his sister Helen.


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