The Royal Irish Academy/Acadamh Ríoga na hÉireann champions research. We identify and recognise Ireland’s world class researchers. We support scholarship and promote awareness of how science and the humanities enrich our lives and benefit society. We believe that good research needs to be promoted, sustained and communicated. The Academy is run by a Council of its members. Membership is by election and considered the highest academic honour in Ireland.

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History of the Cunningham Medal

The Cunningham Medal is the Royal Irish Academy’s premier award. Its history goes back to the earliest years of the Academy, which first met in Dublin on 18 April 1785.

Four years later, in 1789, Timothy Cunningham, a barrister of Gray’s Inn and a writer on legal subjects, bequeathed his library and the sum of £1,000 to the Royal Irish Academy, to enable it to award premiums for the ‘improvement of natural knowledge and other subjects of their institution’.

Between 1796 and 1885 the Cunningham Medal was awarded 35 times in each of the three areas of the Academy’s interest (Science, Polite Literature and Antiquities). In that golden era of the Academy, many of Ireland’s most important figures were awarded the Cunningham Medal. They include: in astronomy, John Brinkley; in chemistry, Sir Robert Kane; in Egyptology, Edward Hincks; in Irish studies, John O’Donovan; in seismology, Robert Mallet. William Rowan Hamilton, himself a world-renowned mathematician, won the medal twice, and the great antiquarian George Petrie received it three times, including once for an essay on the history and antiquities of Tara Hill and, most famously, for his landmark essay on Ireland’s round towers. Sir William Wilde, father of Oscar, accepted the Cunningham Medal for his many services to the Academy, particularly the cataloguing of its large museum collection, which was exhibited in Academy House in the 1850s before being transferred to the National Museum of Ireland on its establishment in 1877.

From 1880, the Academy decided to use the Cunningham Bequest both for the awarding of medals and for the publication of research papers. Papers appeared in a valuable series of substantial volumes, known as the Cunningham Fund Memoirs, which continued until 1967.

The medal itself is a notable example of the medallist’s art. It is considered to be the finest work of William Mossop who was a pioneer Irish medallist, born in Dublin in 1751. On the obverse side it shows a bust of the first president of the Academy, Lord Charlemont, in the uniform of the Volunteers, and on the reverse Hibernia, bearing in her right hand a shield showing the harp and Irish crown and holding with her left hand a rod with a cap of liberty.

After a break of almost 100 years, the award was briefly revived in 1989 when a Cunningham Medal was awarded to Frank Mitchell. In 2000 the Council of the Royal Irish Academy agreed to revive the presentation of the Cunningham Medal as an occasional award, to recognise outstanding contributions to scholarship and to the objectives of the Academy, by a member (the medal is awarded only to members of the Academy). Since then, the Cunningham Medal has been awarded at three-yearly intervals, by turn in each of the Academy’s areas of interest: Science or the Humanities and Social Sciences (traditionally Polite Literature and Antiquities).

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