In 1991 a seven-year old schoolgirl, Emma McIlroy, visited the Ulster Museum with a curious fossil that she had found on the Antrim coast near Glenarm. The then Curator of Palaeontology, Dr Andrew Jeram, immediately recognised it as part of the skull of a long extinct marine reptile, an ichthyosaur. What’s more, he realised that Emma’s fossil was the missing link between several other pieces of ichthyosaur skull that had been found at the same location by another collector, George Barker. Sadly, George died in 1995.
After leaving school Emma went to Cambridge University, gaining a First Class Honours degree in Natural Science. Perhaps her future lay in science, maybe even in palaeontology? Who could tell? But at university Emma’s talents extended far beyond natural science, into journalism, radio and tv work, and athletics at a high level. But I knew none of this for the first decade that I worked at the museum. Emma was merely the schoolgirl that had found the ichthyosaur skull.
This skull was such a nice specimen – indeed, it is the best ichthyosaur skull ever found in Northern Ireland - that in 2004 it was sent away to be cleaned by Dave Costin, one of Britain’s best fossil preparators. He used weak acetic acid to etch away some of the limestone and expose the bones beneath. Upon its return to the museum the little skull went on display in our old dinosaur gallery on the ground floor. Now christened the Minnis Monster (after Minnis North, the location where the pieces had been found) it was accompanied by a label describing its discovery by Emma and George.
Then, out of the blue in 2006 I had an e-mail from Emma, now at Barclays bank in London. She was delighted to see that her little skull was on display out there among the dinosaurs, with her name, as discoverer, alongside. It’s one of the things I love about this job – the delight that visitors experience when discovering something unexpected.The skull disappeared from view when the museum closed for refurbishment late in 2006, but it took up a new starring role in the Deep Time gallery upon reopening in 2009. By that time Emma had moved on. When I finally caught up with her again a few years later she was running her own very successful company, Wildfang, designing and selling tomboyish street clothes for women.
This might sound light years from a seven-year old schoolgirl finding an ichthyosaur skull, but that little skull clearly has played a role in Emma’s success. A much greater role than I could have imagined - until I came across Emma’s TEDTalk.
Fittingly, in August 2016 Emma returned to see her little skull once again on display in the Ulster Museum and finally, 25 years on from that discovery, I got to meet this formidably talented woman.