The Clerke Sisters, Ellen and Agnes, are two very fascinating women who were streaks ahead of their time. Born in Skibbereen in 1840 and 1842 respectively, they became very respected astronomers and writers during their lifespan. In an era where women traditionally received little education, these two sisters, who were entirely home-schooled, went on to write several acclaimed articles and essays, an accomplishment that any parent would be proud of.
Agnes was interested in astronomy from an early age and had begun to write essays on the topic before she turned 15. In 1861, her family moved to Dublin and then onwards to Italy where Agnes remained until 1877 when she moved to London. By 1885, she had achieved worldwide recognition for her writings, especially a piece called ‘Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century.’ By 1892, she was awarded the ‘Actonian Prize’ by the Royal Institution and in 1903 was elected as an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Ellen, also wrote about astronomy and was considered a gifted and accomplished writer. For many years she was an editorial writers for the London ‘Tablet’. From her seven year stay in Italy, she had gathered remarkable insight and understanding of the religious and political problems of continental Europe at the time. She contributed regularly to periodicals in Florence and was fluent in Italian. Her writings on ‘Jupiter and His System’ and ‘The Planet Venus’ were valuable additions to the literature of popular astronomy. In 1899, Ellen published ‘Fable and Song in Italy’ which was a well-received collection of essays and studies translated in original metre into English. The novel ‘Flowers of Fire’ published in 1902 was her last work of fiction.
What an outstanding achievement and credit to Skibbereen by two young girls born on the brink of the onset of the potato famine of 1845 to lead their lives in such a shining way that the lunar crater, Clerke, is named after them.