Con McGrath tells the story of Tipperary man, John Desmond Bernal – The scientist whose top-secret plan for a ‘harbour’ help secure the Normandy beaches on D-Day


When the Allies were planning the top-secret invasion of Nazis occupied France, a number of issues arose in the planning; not least of which was the need for a harbour.
Without a harbour the Allies would not be able to support the men landing on D-Day.

The problem was that large ocean-going ships of the type needed to transport heavy and bulky cargoes and stores needed sufficient depth of water under their keels, together with dockside cranes, to off-load their cargo.

Of course there were already several harbours off the coast of France, which were more than suitable for this purpose; however these harbours were heavily-defended by the Nazis. The Allies knew from previous experience, the Dieppe Raid of 1942, that they could not rely on the landing forces to penetrate the Atlantic Wall guarding France to capture any such port.

What was needed was an artificial harbour of sorts, one that could be assembled quickly off the coast of France and land the supplies necessary for an invasion, which if successful, would give the Allied Forces a foothold in Europe.

Some of the greatest minds of the period were given this problem to solve. Thus was born the idea of the Mulberry floating harbour, which could be placed wherever it was needed. At the forefront of devolving this idea was Tipperary man John Desmond Bernal.

J.D. Bernal was born in Brookwatson, Nenagh on May 10, 1901. He was the eldest child of Samuel and Elizabeth (Bessie). Samuel’s ancestors had been Sephardic Jews who arrived in Ireland in 1840 from Spain, via Amsterdam and London. On settling in Ireland, the family converted to Catholicism.

Samuel’s parents were John Genese Bernal and Catherine O’Carroll, who lived in Albert Lodge, Laurel Hill Avenue, Limerick. Samuel, when a young man, emigrated to Australia and worked on a sheep farm. He returned in 1898 and lived with his elder sister, Mrs Margaret Riggs-Miller, in Tullaheady, just outside Nenagh, in North Tipperary. Later Samuel bought his own farm at Brookwatson.

In 1900 Samuel married Elizabeth (Bessie) Miller, an educated, energetic, and much-travelled woman. American born, Bessie’s father was a Presbyterian clergyman, the Rev. William Miller; while her mother was Elisabeth Johnston, who was born at Moneyglass House, Toombridge, Co. Antrim. Bessie converted to Catholicism prior to the marriage.

“Brookwatson is a very pleasant house set in the most beautiful country, with hills and woods and streams around it.” So Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin O.M., F.R.S., FRIC, describes the scenic place where her colleague Professor Bernal was born.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own