07 Aug 2022

Derry City Cemetery Series: Mary Isabella Leebody: The botanical expert who married Magee’s leading professor

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Mary Isabella Welsh was born in Portaferry, County Down in 1847 and by the time of her death in 1911 had become a major figure in the field of botany in Ireland. Her most active years in the field were between the years 1893-1904 when her diligent work as a field botanist focused on counties Derry, Donegal and Antrim. An active member of the Belfast Naturalists’ Field Club, she is credited with adding many new records to the natural world including a species of orchid whose Latin name Spiranthes romanzoffiana is also known as Irish Ladies Tresses, the Mountain Avens or Dryas octopetala on Muckish Mountain, Malaxis another species of orchid on Slieve Sneacht also in Donegal and the plant Teesdalia, often referred to as Shepherds Cress on the shores of Lough Neagh. On September 11, 1866 Mary married John Robinsion Leebody at Kircubbin Presbyterian Church, Inishargy, Newtonards in Co Down as this was the home parish of her father Jonathan Welsh. J.R. Leebody was born in 1840 and was the son of Reverend H Leebody of Ballinderry, Co Antrim. By the time of the wedding he was already Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Magee College in Derry and it was in the city that the couple would spend the rest of their days. The marriage of the pair in fact created a highly regarded academic couple. Professor Leebody had been educated at the Royal Academical Institution in Belfast before moving onto Queen’s University where he was the First Science Scholar and the First Honourman and Gold Medallist in Mathematics and Physics to pass through the institution’s gates. He also obtained a Master of Arts and Doctor of Science degree’s which earned him his leading role in Derry by 1865. He was also the President of Magee Presbyterian College and a member of the Senate at Queen’s University, a Fellow of the Institute of Chemistry and a member of the Society of Public Analysts and other analytical Chemists. An insight into the lineage of Professor Leebody was given by the man himself in a book on his affluent ancestry in the McClure family. He wrote: “My great-grandfather, the Rev Robert McClure, was minister of Anahilt from 1760 to 1823. “His family resided near Belfast where they owned some property. From this Mr McClure derived income sufficient to live in easy circumstances. His staff of servants included a butler-not a usual luxury for a Presbyterian minister either then or now. “His wife was a daughter of Archdeacon Benson, of Hillsborough and a granddaughter of a former Bishop of Down and Conor. “Mr McClure was on terms of intimacy with the country gent and a great favourite with the Marquis of Downshire, with whom he used to dine every Wednesday at the castle. “Many offers of promotion were made to him if he joined the Episcopal Church, which he resolutely declined. “He had numerous family, but of the history of several of them I have no details. One of his daughters married Rev Dr Wright, his assistant and successor. Another, John Robinson, a gentleman farmer near Hillsborough, who was my grandfather after whom I am named. Another, Rev Mr Ashe was an English rector. “One of his younger sons, Arthur was in the army and I believe attached to the Duke of Kent. After retiring from the army, he resided near Lisburn and I recollect being at his house as a boy. He used to tell that he had frequently carried our late Queen in his arms when she was a child. “Mr McClure was the Moderator of the Synod in 1779 and was described as a man of distinguished appearance. I have heard my mother say that she remembered seeing him frequently when she was a girl and her recollection of him was a tall, white-haired old gentleman with an ear trumpet.” Meanwhile, the first class and in-depth botanical work of Professor Leebody’s wife Mary had succeeded in attracting the attention of Ireland’s foremost botanist of the age. Robert Llyod Praeger was an Irish naturalist, writer and librarian. He too hailed from County Down having been born at Holywood in 1865. He worked in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin from 1893 until 1923 and wrote papers on the flora and other aspect of the natural history of Ireland. Whilst he was a naturalist by inclination, Praeger was actually a qualified engineer who chose to work as a librarian. He was the man behind the Lambay Survey in 1905-06. Lambay was a privately-owned island off the west coast of Ireland. A larger project followed on Clare Island, also off the west coast, from 1909-1911 and it was a multidisciplinary survey centred on zoological, botanical, archaeological and geological work. It involved the recruitment of over 100 scientists from Ireland, England, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Praeger was awarded the Veitch Memorial Medal of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1921 and became the first President of both An Taisce (the Irish national trust) and the Irish Mountaineering Club and was President of the Royal Irish Academy between 1931-34. In 1893 Robert Llyod Praeger wrote to Mary Isabella Leebody in Derry in to confirm that she had found the Irish Ladies Tresses on Irish soil. Whilst Mary Leebody was an active and enthusiastic member of the Belfast Naturalists Club after her introduction to Praeger, she did not take up his idea of founding a Derry Naturalists Club. But, during the 1890s she collaborated with both Praeger and Matilda Cullen Knowles for Praeger’s paper The Flora of the North East of Ireland (1895). Matilda Cullen Knowles was another highly influential figure in the field of Irish botany. She hailed from Cullybackey near Ballymena and both she and her sister learned a great deal from their father William, an amateur scientist, who took them to meetings of the Belfast Naturalists Club. It was here that Matilda Knowles met Praeger and as a result later met and worked with Mary Leebody. Their work on the Flora of the North-East of Ireland was an update on the 1888 work of Samuel Stewart and T.H. Corey. Considered as the founder of the modern studies on Irish lichens, Matilda Cullen Knowles also worked on the survey of Clare Iasland with Praeger. Mary Isabella Leebody passed away in Derry on September 19, 1911 aged 64. Her will stated that her accumulated effects, with a total worth of £626 were divided amongst her daughter Elizabeth Welsh Leebody (Spinster) and Sophia Taylor (Married Woman). Her husband, Professor John Robinson Leebody, had been employed at Magee College in Derry for over 60 years when he died aged 87 at 6, College Avenue on August 21, 1927. His will, which bequeathed £3,518 12s. 9d was divided amongst John Welsh Leebody, county surveyor and Colonel Henry Alfred Leebody (retired). Also with Professor Leebody and his wife Mary in the family plot at Derry City Cemetery are their daughter Rachel Welsh Leebody who died at just a year old in 1880, and their other daughter Elizabeth who died aged 79 in 1950. CAPTION: Magee College in Derry, where Professor J.R. Leebody taught for over sixty years.

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