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Enthusiastic Curator of Newman House

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Birth: January 29, 1963

Died: December 25, 2021

Ruth Ferguson, well-known art and architecture expert and curator of Newman House, St Stephen’s Green for over 15 years, died on Christmas Day 2021.

Famous for his guided tours of numbers 85 and 86 St Stephen’s Green, Ferguson regaled the public with stories of Cardinal John Henry Newman (the founder of University College Dublin, whose forerunner, the Catholic University, was in these St Stephen’s Green buildings from 1854); later, Jesuit teachers, including the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins; and notorious students from James Joyce to Flann O’Brien.

Visitors to Newman House would also testify to his encyclopedic knowledge and immense enthusiasm for the buildings themselves, constructed in 1738 and 1765 respectively. Number 85 was the first stone-fronted house built on the Green and was designed for Hugh Montgomery by Richard Castle (also the architect of Leinster House). Number 86 – one of the largest buildings in the Green – was built for Richard Whaley. Whaley later connected the two buildings with a secret staircase from the upper hall in 85 to what later became the Bishops’ Hall in 86 – which was one of the treasures Ferguson loved to reveal to visitors.

Preserving and promoting Newman House as a center of cultural and academic activity was central to Ferguson’s role as curator. Yet that hasn’t stopped her from tackling the practical and sometimes daunting demands of maintaining a building of such historical significance. Nothing deterred her – whether it was scaling the roof of No. 85 to unclog a leaky gutter or investigating water seepage or animal intrusions in the bowels of the complex of buildings.

In May 2007, when the last medical and engineering students made the journey from Earlsfort Terrace to Belfield, Ferguson was part of the team organizing the ‘farewell to the terrace’ to mark this historic transition. When 5,000 people signed up for what was expected to attract 200 people, the farewell turned into a week-long festival that included meetings, lectures and tours, a large garden party in Iveagh Gardens , debates between students and “oldies”, and a special performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor at the University Church. Ferguson – with his typical panache – hosted a very, very long post-event lunch in the garden of Newman House.

Cultural evolution

Ferguson cherished Newman House’s past, but she also believed that it had to continually evolve. So when Museum of Literature Ireland (MoLI) projects began over a decade ago, she was a lifeblood whose ability to make things look elegant with the lightest touch encouraged others to aim for the Excellency. Many elements of MoLI reveal its distinctive imagination at work; for example, she is the one who gave her name and her creative energy to the immersive installation “riverrun of language”. As she noted at the time, “MoLI makes the perfect bed companion for the historic fabric of ours. 85 and 86. The museum revives the vision and tradition of Dr JH Newman who wrote in The Idea of ​​a University (1852): “The central purpose of a university is to give those who pass through it a true broadening of the mind”. . I know MoLI will be truly mind-blowing! »

In recognition of her extensive knowledge of Cardinal Newman and his importance in Irish education, the Oratorian community personally invited Ruth and her mother, Monica, to attend the canonization of John Henry Newman at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in October 2019. To her delight, she sat on the dais overlooking St. Peter’s Square with other prominent dignitaries.

During his early years at Newman House, Ferguson helped establish the JH Newman Bequest Library. This scholarly collection became a center for research on Newman and evolved into the UCD Newman Center for the Study of Religions based at the UCD School of Philosophy. Ferguson’s infectious enthusiasm made its way through UCD and onto the Belfield campus. She was a founding member of the Visual Arts Committee in the late 1990s and spearheaded the acquisition of the modest but inspiring collection of new works for the halls and hallways of campus buildings. Later, when the focus shifted outward, she played a pivotal role in the creation of the UCD Sculpture Trail in 2008.

Talent for exhibitions

Ruth Ferguson grew up one of three children in North Dublin. She was educated at the Loreto Nuns in North Great Georges Street before going to UCD to study Art History and Archaeology. During her undergraduate studies, she worked as a teaching assistant and press officer at the National Gallery of Ireland where she demonstrated her talent for exhibitions, events and communications. After graduating in 1988, she moved to work at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (RHK) where she became head guide and liaison with production companies who used the building as a film location.

Later, as exhibitions manager for the RHK, she selected and curated exhibitions. She was appointed Assistant Curator of the new Irish Museum of Modern Art in 1991 and her role and reputation spread across the world of art, heritage and culture. In 1995, University College Dublin appointed her curator of the recently restored Newman House. And, in 2002, she completed an MA in Palladio and Palladian Art and Architecture at UCD.

Ferguson never ceased to be enthusiastic. And when her ill health meant she couldn’t tear it up anymore with her laughter roaring and auburn hair flowing behind, she still contributed to ‘Making Belfield’, the publication marking UCD’s last 50 years on the Belfield campus. . And she was, as always, charming, helpful, efficient and cheerful with a great sense of humour.

Ferguson loved color, especially yellow as depicted in Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in Arles. The front door of the family home she shared with her mother, Monica, was yellow, and the plants and flowers in her garden were yellow.

Ruth and Monica had an extraordinarily deep bond and their home in Belton Park, North Dublin, was a treasure trove of art and literature, as well as quirky style and generous hospitality. They were known for their glamor and elegance and enjoyed traveling together, especially to cities where Ruth would be as much a guide as a tourist. Monica passed away in April 2021.

Ruth is survived by her siblings, Susan and Nick, nieces Sive and Genevieve, and nephew Sonny.