Ethna Viney obituary: Irish Times nature columnist, environmental and feminist

When Michael Viney’s second column An Eye on Nature answering readers queries began, Ethna ran it for years under his name until she was finally acknowledged as the author

Born January 17th, 1929

Died April 26th, 2024

Ethna Viney, nee McManus, pharmacist, TV and film producer, editor and journalist has died aged 95.

Viney was born in Glangevlin, a village surrounded by the Cuilcagh Mountains in west Cavan in 1929, the eldest of five children of Seamus McManus, a teacher and civil servant and his wife, Mae Penrose. The family moved to St John’s Terrace in Westport when she was 11, after her father got a job as a social welfare officer in the town. She was sent to school in the Sacred Heart.


Viney initially wanted to study science, which was not then taught to girls, so she had to attend maths and science classes at a local boy’s school instead. Remembered as the first female in the McManus family to wear trousers, her independent spirit, intelligence and high grades marked her out early as one with strong ideas and opinions.

After leaving school and unable to study science, she opted instead for pharmacy, interning first in Westport, later running her own chemist’s in Killala where she also organised a group of women to form a cheese-making co-operative, an early indication of her interest and involvement in the co-operative movement. During this time, she encouraged a group of young people to plant a forest, another reflection of a growing environmental awareness. Having decided against continuing as a pharmacist, she moved to Dublin to UCD to study politics and economics.

She first met Michael Viney, a young British journalist, at a party in Galway when they were both given a lift home – he to Tully in Renvyle where he lived for a year in 1961 before joining The Irish Times, and she to Westport. He described her “with her ponytail bouncing” as an activist, a community development officer before those terms were current.

Another account of their first meeting is that she had written an opinion piece for this paper and was told that Michael Viney had shorthand and typing and could deal with it.

After a 10-month courtship – her engagement ring his signet ring – they married in 1965 in historic Ballintubber Abbey, where she had to sign an agreement beforehand that any future children would be brought up as Catholics given that she was marrying a Protestant. Their daughter Michele was born four years later.

Following her graduation from UCD in 1966, Ethna took up work as a researcher in RTÉ and, despite producing many programmes for the station, was routinely described as a researcher. Some of the features she worked on took her abroad – to Zambia for a feature on mining and to Iceland covering aspects of the Cod Wars and disputes over fishing rights.

When she and Michael were in their 40s with successful media careers, they made a life-changing decision to move to Mayo to a remote cottage on one acre on the west coast. According to Michele, it was her mother who made it happen. “We became convinced of a need for much less in our lives – and much more,” Michael Viney recalled in his book A Year’s Turning.

Self-sufficiency was a radical catchword of the 1970s and Michael began his weekly Another Life column for this paper, commissioned by editor Douglas Gageby during a chance encounter in Grafton Street in 1977. Chronicling their life on the land, it ran for more than 40 years, distilling what he described as an “often exhilarating, deeply felt experience”. Those “simple” early years in Mayo involved a complicated grappling with new skills – goat keeping, beekeeping, duck raising, winemaking, spillet-fishing, horse breaking, fence-straining, shed building, while dealing with curious queries from visiting city dwellers as to what they did all day.

Ethna was a committed feminist and environmentalist. One of her ideas at the time was to bring together the fishermen of north Connemara and south Mayo in a co-operative mussel farming project which thrives to this day in Killary. It harked back to her north Mayo experience in Killala, her interest in the co-op movement promoting economic democracy, equality and solidarity. She was an editor of Technology Ireland and became a freelance writer for this paper on economics and women’s issues. She was also a founder member of the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN).

When Michael’s second column An Eye on Nature answering readers queries began, Ethna ran it for years under his name until she was finally acknowledged as the author. She also co-authored with Michael the monumental work Ireland’s Ocean: A Natural History.

From 1991-2001, she was a documentary film-maker concentrating on features that dealt with the human impact on the environment, along with one on the Céide Fields in Mayo, Ireland’s most extensive Neolithic site – as well as producing a four-part television documentary series on A Year’s Turning for RTÉ in 2001. Michele Viney, who is a TV and film production accountant, credits her mother with teaching her how to research and organise film production. Ethna also skilfully managed to deal with new technology and the internet, learning how to use a scanner so she could send Michael’s drawings to this paper.

During Covid and the first lockdown, Ethna was receiving 75-100 emails a day to her Eye on Nature column and replied to each of them, a formidable workload and commitment. Her many various essays included contributions to Eavan Boland’s A Dozen Lips in 1994, while her book Dancing to Different Tunes published by the Blackstaff Press in 1996 was a comprehensive study of sexuality and feminism that unravelled modern theories on the subject and the shifting choices women had to make in the 1990s.

It was dedicated to Michael, “who gave unswerving support”, and to Michele, whose arrival inspired it. In 2021 she suffered a couple of minor strokes that led her, after 33 years of writing her column, eventually to retire three years ago at the age of 92. Michael predeceased her in May last year.

She is survived by her daughter, Michele, her sister, Eva, and her brother, Bert.