04 Professor Emer Colleran

Professor Emer Colleran
Mayo Co Co Library
Professor Emer Colleran at work at NUIG
NUIG Library

Dr Emer Colleran was one of Ireland’s leading environmental activists, whose committed advocacy for the environment combined a radical energy with scientific discipline and expertise.

Born in Ballinrobe in 1945, as the Second World War drew to a close, she was to become a leading voice in Ireland of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s as part of generation of radical reformers who envisaged a new and progressive Ireland.

Emer and her twin sister, Noreen, were born to parents, John and Josie Colleran, and along with siblings, Nuala, John and Denis lived on Main Street. Her father, John was school principal in Cloonliffen National School, and Emer attended Cloonliffen for her primary education.  Her mother Josie, a primary school teacher, died when Emer was just 11-years old.

She attended St Louis secondary school in Kiltimagh, and armed with a scholarship to undertake her studies through Irish, took her primary science degree at what was then University College, Galway, graduating in 1967 with a first-class honors degree in Science. She undertook postgraduate studies in her specialist area, anaerobic digestion, and became a post-doctoral fellow at Bristol University in 1971. She subsequently lectured in biology at Athlone Regional Technical College and at Galway Regional Technical College, and was appointed a lecturer in microbiology at UCG in 1976.

Long before issues of climate change and environmental action were current, her research work focused on the environmental impact of agriculture.  She studied and researched pollution prevention and energy recycling in the form of methane gas, along with treatment of pig slurry, silage effluent and industrial waste water treatment.

She built an international reputation as a expert in environmental science, leading a number of research consortia with agencies and universities in Holland, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. She developed teaching and research links with University of Barcelona, University of Rennes (France) and University of Oklahoma (US) serving as adjunct professor and external examiner at a range of European universities, as well as on the editorial board of the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

She was appointed Professor of Microbiology at NUI Galway in 2000, and served as chairwoman of the department. She was the founding director of the University’s Environmental Change Institute ((ECI) in 2000, established under the Higher Education Authority‘s Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions.

Emer was known as a brilliant academic colleague, an inspirational teacher, and a mentor to generations of students.  She was also a member of the University’s Governing Body for a number of years, resigning on a matter of principle in May 2000.

By then she was also heavily involved in various international and national bodies, including several EU and European Environmental Bureau working groups and committees, and was a board member of Ireland’s Marine Institute and chairwoman of the Environmental Sciences Association of Ireland

An active public intellectual, Emer was appointed as member of the Heritage Council in 1995 by then Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins.  Since her election in 1973 to the committee of the Galway branch of An Taisce, Emer had served at regional and national levels before becoming Environmental Officer, and then National Chair of An Taisce.  She served as Chair from 1987 to 1990 and during which time she was regarded as an enlightened and pioneering leader who was particularly active in a range of national debates on planning, pollution and local environment issues. In 1991 she became a core member of the Burren Action Group which campaigned against the construction of an interpretative centre at Mullaghmore in Co Clare.

She was elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 2003, and was a member of the Council of State during fellow her Mayo woman, Mary Robinson’s term of office as President of Ireland from February 1991 to September 1997.

In her obituary in The Irish Times, former environment editor, Frank McDonald is quoted as describing her as “fearless”, and observed that her west of Ireland roots and accent helped to offset any notion that a metropolitan elite at An Taisce were lecturing to the rural population.

She spent much of her childhood outdoors as a child, particularly fishing, and he recalled that one of her favourite ways of getting things done was to take people out on a boat on Lough Corrib “or her beloved Lough Mask” and sharing her enthusiasm for and practical knowledge of the western lakes.

Emer Colleran was a passionate environmentalist.  Her native place, Ballinrobe and its environs, the great western lakes of Lough Mask, Corrib and Carra might be viewed as formative in developing that love of the natural world, that sense of place and the importance of protecting our environment.

Emer’s legacy is that she gave voice to environmental causes at a time when Ireland’s unprecedented economic development was in danger of laying waste to much of our heritage and landscape. Her expertise and her advocacy – combined with her role as an educator and scholar – ensured that that environmental interests were articulated with authority and conviction.   She was regarded as a fair-minded, balanced and far-seeing advocate for care of Ireland’s natural and built environment.

Comments about this page

  • What a fascinating read. Really great to hear about Emer’s inspirational work and passion for Ireland’s environment. Thank you for sharing.

    By Geraldine Breen (02/04/2024)

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