The accidental accountant

Apr 01, 2019
Notwithstanding her successful career in accountancy, Yvonne Cohen’s love for history remains as strong as ever.

What led you to a career in Chartered Accountancy?

I fell into a career in Chartered Accountancy accidentally. I was doing a master’s degree in Mathematics at University College Cork (UCC) when the Big 6 accountancy firms were doing the ‘milk-round’ interviews. A classmate suggested that I attend, as he felt it would suit me. When I was accepted by Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in Cork as a “non-relevant graduate” in 1989, I literally didn’t know a debit from a credit as I had never studied any business subjects previously. With lots of help from my colleagues, it all started to make sense after a few months and to my amazement, I got first place in the Professional 2 exams in 1990.

How did you come to co-author a book on the mathematician and logician, George Boole?

My primary degree was a BA in Mathematics and History. Professor Des MacHale of UCC was one of my mathematics lecturers and had published his biography of Boole, The Life and Work of George Boole, in 1985 when I was an undergraduate. Just before Des’s book was published, UCC purchased a collection of Boole’s personal papers and letters from Sotheby’s in London for the Boole Library in UCC (named in Boole’s honour in 1984). Unfortunately for Des, it was too late to incorporate much of the new material into his biography but luckily for me, it provided a wonderful opportunity for a master’s thesis, which I completed in 1989. Des felt that the collection contained enough material for a second book on Boole but with accountancy exams, marriage and three children in quick succession, the book got put on the long finger. In 2014, Des rang me out of the blue to say that UCC would celebrate the bicentenary of George Boole’s birth in 2015, so it was now or never! The book took four years to complete and was published in 2018.

What was the greatest challenge and reward in writing this book?

The greatest challenge was to do justice to George Boole. He was a self-taught genius from a very humble background. Despite a limited secondary education and no third-level education, he became a prominent mathematician and the first Professor of Mathematics in Queen’s College Cork (now UCC) in 1849, publishing mathematical papers prolifically and corresponding with the leading mathematicians of his day. His magnum opus, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854), written in Cork, contained the origins of Boolean algebra and symbolic logic, which provided the ideal foundation for the design of the modern computer, and Boole is often referred to as ‘the father of the information age’.  The greatest reward, however, was the privilege of having a unique window into the life of this genius. Many of the personal letters written by Boole had remained hidden for over 150 years. The letters to his sister, mother and close friends revealed his most personal thoughts and his attitudes on a variety of subjects.

How did you manage to squeeze this into your busy schedule?

With great difficulty! I used to work on the book in the evenings from about 9pm onwards. I didn’t see much television for about four years and my husband and family were very tolerant of George Boole accompanying us to Kerry on summer holidays and weekend breaks. Although Des and I live only about three miles apart in Cork, it was as though we worked in separate time zones. Des is a bit of a night owl so when I emailed him my work at the end of my day, he would generally be online working into the small hours and there was usually an email waiting for me the next morning.

If you weren’t a Chartered Accountant, what other career would you pursue?

History was always my first love, so I would have liked to have been a career historian.