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Cyril Williams, 1922-2009

The geological community in Ireland lost one of its most respected and influential members on 4 January 2009. Cyril Williams, OBE, MRIA, BA, MA, PhD, FGS, was one of the longest serving directors ever of the Geological Survey of Ireland, from 1967 to 1987. He was a geologist of outstanding international experience. As Director of the GSI he transformed it, after years of neglect, into a modern, confident and internationally respected organisation.

Cyril was born in Durban, South Africa on 9 November 1922 and studied geology at Cape Town University. After a break for military service in World War II, flying many missions in the Mediterranean theatre, his first professional work was contract mapping for the Geological Survey of South Africa. He then served with geological surveys in Uganda, Mauritius and the New Hebrides before returning to the Uganda Survey where he was Commissioner for Mines and the Geological Survey from 1962-67. He was awarded the OBE for his services to geology and mining in Uganda.

Mainly as a consequence of the revival of the Irish metal mining industry, the government recognised the need to revive the GSI as a source of expert and independent advice. Thus the post of Director was advertised around the world and Cyril Williams was appointed to the post in 1967.

The GSI was then a technical division within the Department of Industry and Commerce and Cyril’s first task was to submit to that department an ambitious and comprehensive plan for the revival and expansion of the GSI. He argued it was needed to meet the needs of the nation for practical, applied specialist advice to government, industry and the public in relation to all aspects of its earth resources.

The plan was approved and an expanded multi-disciplinary team of new geologists was recruited. Through the 70s and 80s the GSI became a dynamic productive organisation under Cyril Williams’s leadership. The GSI reclaimed its place at the centre of national developments in many fields of the practical earth sciences, including the licensing and promotion of the booming mining and mineral exploration activity, the establishment of a legal and regulatory framework for the nascent offshore oil and gas exploration developments, ensuring the effective but sustainable development of groundwater resources and building national databases of sub-surface data so valuable to the infrastructure developments of the 90s.

A priority for the revitalised survey was to expand the basic knowledge of Ireland’s geology, through field mapping, data collection and interpretation so that all the publications and advice coming from the Survey would be of the highest quality possible.

The revolution of plate tectonics in the mid-1960s had come from the seabed discoveries in the world’s oceans. Cyril had seen at first hand the manifestation of ocean dynamics in the New Hebrides. He also recognised the importance to island nations with no onshore hydrocarbon resources of looking offshore. He therefore advocated to government the need for Ireland to have detailed knowledge of its offshore territorial waters as a vital national interest. He established a marine geology capability in the survey early in his directorship that over the years led to the major National Seabed Survey managed by the GSI.

With Cyril Williams’s international background and perspectives, he also encouraged and empowered the Survey to become involved in wider, international geoscience issues; for example, Survey staff provided important technical input to the series of Law of the Sea Conferences that set international agreements on marine law and resources.

The growth of the GSI through the 70s and 80s led to it outgrowing its historical headquarters at 14 Hume Street. A major achievement of Cyril Williams later career was leading the designing and negotiating the building of a new headquarters, with appropriate modern facilities, on the Beggars Bush Barracks site, which the GSI still occupies.

Cyril and Margaret Williams retired in 1987 to Ogenelloe in County Clare above Lough Derg. There he enjoyed welcoming and entertaining many visitors from around Ireland and abroad and sailing on the Shannon waterways. He never retired, however, from his love of the Earth and its rocks. He debated and wrote to the end on the volcanoes of Africa and the wider world.

Ralph Horne