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[Post Famine Ireland- Social Structure Ireland as it Really Was. Copyright © 2006 by Desmond Keenan. Book available from and]

Chapter Eleven


Chapter Summary. This chapter deal with those aspects of science and invention where Irishmen were distinguished in this period.  The hyperlinks immediately below are to the most important headings.

Irish Language and Antiquities


Science and Invention

The great strengths of Irish science were in the related sciences of mathematics, physics, and astronomy. Most of the leading scientists were from Trinity College Dublin, but a few were from the other colleges. The greatest Irish scientist of the period was undoubtedly William Thompson, Lord Kelvin, but he spent most of his life in Scotland or England.

            There was an extraordinary interest in astronomy. The largest telescope in the world was at Parsonstown (Birr, Co. Offaly) the property of Sir Lawrence Parsons, 4th Earl of Rosse. His special interest was to determine the radiated heat of the moon. He used his great telescope to study the nebula of Orion. The most important observatories were Dunsink which was connected with Trinity College, followed by Armagh observatory established in 1790 by Archbishop Richard Robinson of Armagh. There were no fewer than nine private observatories, Birr Castle at Birr, Crawford (1878 in the grounds of Queen’s College, Cork), Diamond (1871, at Street, Co. Westmeath), Fathered (1908 at Fathered, Co. Wexford), Gore’s (1879 at Ballysadare, Co. Sligo), Marcree (1831 Collooney, Co. Sligo), Milbrook (1866 at Tuam, Co. Galway), Monck’s (1888, Dublin) and Sherrington (1877, Bray, Co. Wicklow (Encyclopaedia of Ireland). Irish astronomers were fortunate that two of the best manufacturers of optical instruments, Thomas and Sir Howard Grubb worked in Ireland.

            Professor Charles Joly, a mathematician of Trinity College, became the Irish Astronomer Royal, and in 1900 went, along with Sir Howard Grubb, with an expedition to Spain to photograph the sun’s corona during a total eclipse. Grubb had designed special instruments for the purpose. The coated plates had to be changed very quickly (Warder 6 April 1901).

            As was common at the time Latin and Greek were given the highest standing. Professor Sir John Mahaffy, the professor of Greek was for 40 years a leading authority on the Greek world. When Flinders Petrie discovered numerous papyri written in later or koine Greek Mahaffy devoted himself to their decipherment and publication. The New Testament was written in koine Greek. The Rev. John Gwynne became a leading authority on Syriac the language spoken in Syria at the time of the Roman Empire. It was important for biblical studies for the New Testament was translated into Syriac at an early date. The Rev. Edward Hincks was a leading expert on the decipherment of cuneiform script and of the Assyrian language. He was also an authority on ancient Egypt. Ireland produced no theologian of the first rank but the Rev. Richard Chevenix Trench wrote some exegetical works on the New Testament esteemed at the time. It was a time when exegesis of the Bible was moving towards what the text actually said rather than a place to find props for pre-established theological opinions.

            On the science side, the College was noted for its mathematicians following the traditions from the 1st half of the century. Richard Townsend established the reputation of the College as a centre for the study of mathematics. He was particularly interested in geometry. George Johnston Allman was educated in Trinity College and became professor of mathematics in The Queen’s College, Galway and wrote a history of geometry. The self-educated George Boole continued his pioneering work in mathematics, called Boolean mathematics after him, until his death in 1864. His enduring legacy on the mathematical analysis of logic was published in 1854. George Johnstone Stoney began his career as an assistant to Lord Parsons at Parsonstown and continued his interest in astronomy all his life. In 1857 he became secretary to The Queen’s University. He examined the wave theory of light by geometrical analysis, studied molecular physics and the kinetic theory of gases. He invented and was the first to use the term ‘electron’ (DNB Stoney, G.J.; Mahaffy, Sir J.; Gwyn, J.; Hincks, E.). John Thomas Graves had expertise in two quite unrelated fields, Roman law and mathematics. His best work was done before 1850 though he lived until 1870. His brother Charles Graves succeeded James McCullagh as professor of mathematics in Trinity College and became bishop of Limerick in 1866. Like many at the college his chief interest was in geometry and he studied the properties of cones. The name Graves was well known in many spheres of academic life. James Graves was a leader in Irish archaeology and in the study of Irish historical records. Robert James Graves pioneered clinical medicine. Best known is Alfred Percival Graves the writer (DNB).

Sir Robert Ball was an astronomer and mathematician. After graduating from Trinity College he became tutor to the children of the 3rd Earl of Rosse at Parsonstown and became interested in astronomy. He became professor of applied mathematics and mechanism at the newly-founded Royal College of Science, and later professor of astronomy in Trinity College. At Dunsink he followed his predecessor Dr. F. Brünnow in trying to determine the distance of the stars by the parallax method, namely by measuring the angle of the star at six-month intervals giving a base line of around 180 million miles. He did not succeed, though the method proved successful much later using photography. His more lasting achievement was in mathematics with his investigation of the theory of screws. Like many who were trained in Trinity College at the time his approach was from geometry (DNB Ball). Sir Charles Joly studied mathematics and physics in Trinity College, developed quaternion analysis, and applied the quaternion analysis of Rowan Hamilton to complex problems of geometry (DNB Joly).

Like astronomy, experimental physics, especially with regard to related questions of heat, light, electricity and magnetism attracted some scholars. The greatest Irish scientist of his generation was William Thomson, Baron Kelvin. At the age of eight his family moved to Scotland, and Kelvin’s connection with Ireland ceased. John Tyndall of Co. Carlow was an expert in many fields, but like Kelvin his work was done outside Ireland. He collaborated with Michael Faraday in the Royal Institution in London. He made pioneering studies of ice in glaciers.  He also studied the absorption and radiation of heat, and supported John Wigham in his work on the illumination of lighthouses (DNB, Tyndall). Samuel Houghton also of Trinity College came to physics, geology, and geography by way of mathematics. Much of his field work was in geology, both on Irish granites and sandstones, and lavas of Vesuvius in Italy. He was also interested in calculating variations in solar radiation. Of particular interest was his work in analysing the tides on Irish coasts from the data collected by the Royal Irish Academy in 1850-1. He also analysed the tides in the Arctic seas from the observations of the McClintock expedition financed by Lady Franklin to determine the fate of her husband in 1858-9. Haughton then studied medicine and investigated the mechanical principles of muscular action. He also tried to establish a mathematical relationship between the atomic weights of elements and their valencies (DNB Haughton). James Emerson Reynolds was a leader in the study of organic chemistry. He became professor of chemistry in Trinity College. His greatest achievement was in revolutionising the teaching of chemistry to undergraduates by devising simple laboratory experiments by which the students could verify for themselves the laws of chemistry. The method was to form the basis of all future teaching of chemistry. His book on the subject was translated into German (DNB, Reynolds).

Exploration was largely undertaken for the benefit of geographical studies. Admiral Francis McClintock from Dundalk, Co. Louth was an Arctic explorer. He joined the Royal Navy in 1831. He first went to the Arctic in 1848 under Sir James Clark Ross in 1849 and established himself as an explorer. He was later chosen by Lady Franklin to discover what happened to her husband in which enterprise he was successful. Sir Charles Wyville Thompson was born in Scotland and was appointed professor of Natural History in Queen’s College, Cork in 1853 but subsequently went to the college in Belfast where he became interested in the study of marine biology. He took part in an expedition to the seas off the north of Scotland and the west of Ireland in 1868-9. He was the chief scientist on board the Challenger which sailed on its famous expedition to explore the depths of the oceans in 1872 and arrived back home in 1876. Robert O’Hara Burke of Co. Galway was the first to traverse Australia from south to north, though he died on the return journey; still another Irishman, John King, arrived back in Melbourne (DNB, Encyc. of Ireland). Thomas Heazle Parke of Co. Roscommon was an army surgeon and accompanied the army to Tel el Kebir in Egypt in 1882 and later with the expedition to Khartoum in 1884. In 1887 he accompanied Henry Morton Stanley on his ascent of the Congo and reached the eastern coast at Zanzibar (DNB Parke). Earlier in the century Captain James Tuckey from Cork made an attempt to explore the Congo in 1816 beyond the first cataracts. His expedition failed and he died and it was forty years before Stanley traversed the river in the opposite direction. Though barely able to be described as an explorer, a seaman in the Royal Navy named Thomas Crean of Kerry was selected by both Robert Scott and Ernest Shackelton for their expeditions.

The most famous explorer was Ernest Shackelton. As the Encylopaedia of Ireland notes the question of nationality bedevils any consideration of Irish explorers (‘Explorers). Not only explorers. Irish nationalists in the twentieth century had great difficulty in recognising anyone as Irish who did not have a ‘Celtic’ surname, or who did not favour Irish separatism, for example the Duke of Wellington or Lord Castlereagh. Ernest Shackleton was born into an Irish Quaker family in Co. Kildare. This family came from Yorkshire early in the 18th century. In 1890 Shackleton went to sea in a sailing ship in the merchant service. His knowledge of sailing ships overcame the disadvantage of not being of the Royal Navy when Captain Robert Scott RN was organising an Antarctic expedition in 1901. He later led other expeditions to the Antarctic, the last being an attempted trans-Antarctic expedition in 1914. He died in 1922 on a final private expedition. Scott lectured in Dublin in 1904 on the advance he and Shackleton had made towards the South Pole (Weekly Irish Times 17 Dec. 1904).

Botany was another branch of natural history which was carefully studied in the 19th century. Plant collectors in Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom collected plants from all around the world (Encyc. of Ireland ‘Botanic gardens and arboreta’). The principal collections are in the Botanic Gardens, Belfast, and the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin. George James Allman was a botanist and zoologist who specialised in organisms which lived in water. George Herbert Carpenter studied insects, and is chiefly noted for his discovery of the life-cycle of warble fly in cattle. Carpenter worked with Robert Lloyd Praegar to study Irish natural history. The latter had degrees in arts and engineering from Queen’s College, Belfast, and studied fossil shells in estuarine clays, glacial deposits, and botany. A complete study under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy of the flora and fauna of Clare Island in Co. Mayo was done between 1911 and 1915. The study identified 3,219 plant species and 5,269 animal species on the small island. The study failed in its stated objective of finding species peculiar to that island alone and therefore of importance in the theory of evolution. He also cultivated and studied 1,500 specimens of the genus sedum (stonecrop) (Lysaght Online DNB Praeger).

Social statistics were collected from 1847 onwards by the Statistical and Social Enquiry Society of Ireland. It and the Society for Promoting Scientific Enquiries into Social Questions were promoted by Archbishop Richard Whately.

Archaeology was of particular interest to many Irish scholars but almost invariably they dwelt only with Irish antiquities. The great discoveries in Egypt and the Middle East passed them by, apart from the attempts to interpret cuneiform inscriptions or papyri. Thomas Gann, a doctor who was born in Mayo but educated in England studied Mayan antiquities in British Honduras. Sir William Ridgeway of Queen’s County who in 1883 became professor of Greek in Queen’s College, Cork, studied the origins of money in the Middle East, and also of Mycenaean culture. Though his work was illustrated by numerous artefacts he was strictly speaking an historian (DNB, Ridgeway). [Top]

Irish Language and Antiquities

          It may be said at the outset that despite considerable interest in the related subjects of history, the Celtic language, and archaeology there were no outstanding achievements in the period. There was however considerable success in laying the groundwork for advances after the Second World War. Historians and antiquarians lacked the techniques which were not yet invented of systematic scientific excavation of strata like that developed by Flinders Petrie in Egypt from 1885 onwards. They were antiquarians rather than archaeologists. By means of artefacts like pottery strata on Irish sites could be related to those in other countries, and a relative chronology established. A reliable absolute dating system was to be provided by carbon 14 dating after the Second World War. Philologists had not worked out the secrets of the ancient Irish language. Historians still found earlier Catholic polemical works on Irish history like those of the 17th century Catholic apologist Geoffrey Keating credible. In the 18th century, the Rev. Thomas Leland produced a three-volume History of Ireland, based entirely on 17th century works in English (DNB Leland). Worse, in the 1840s the theories of separate European races engaged in a Darwinian ‘race-struggle’ gripped the imaginations of scholars all over Europe. There were theories of successive waves of invaders, each marked by its distinct language, Celtic, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Teutonic, Italic, etc. spreading over Europe and totally eliminating the preceding race. The Anglo-Saxons and Teutons prided themselves on being successful dominant races, while the supposed Celts tried to claim they were never really beaten fairly, and given the chance, could be equally successful. In Ireland and in Germany in the 20th century much archaeological effort was devoted to trying to discover the origins and achievements of these imaginary ‘races’. Successive invasions of Ireland related by Keating lent support to the invasions theory.

It was not until the 1840s that scholars with sufficient skills like Petrie began to emerge and it is from this time that the study of the Irish language and antiquities can be said to have started. With regard to studies of the Irish language mention must be made of Kuno Meyer, a German authority on Celtic languages who in 1884 lectured on Celtic at Liverpool University and took a particular interest in Old Irish manuscripts. Another was Rudolf Thurneysen of Freiburg and Bonn whose grammar of Old Irish was published in 1913. Carl Mastrander was another German philologist whose work was fostered by the Royal Irish Academy. Two Irish Jesuit scholars, the Rev. Edmund Hogan S.J. and the Rev. Patrick Dinneen S.J. advanced the study of earlier forms of Irish.

            Much of the early work of Irish antiquarians after 1850 consisted of tracking down sites, recording them, and if possible providing illustrations of notable features. It also consisted of examining artefacts, particularly gold ornaments held in collections, and illuminated Irish manuscripts. Margaret Stokes became an authority on early Irish art in this way. She accompanied her father, William Stokes M.D., George Petrie, and the 3rd Earl of Dunraven to sites all over Ireland. George Petrie’s greatest days were over, but he continued to collect ancient inscriptions, and traditional Irish music. Margaret Stokes’ father, William Stokes MD, though a busy physician, had a great interest in antiquities, and accompanied his daughter and the Earl of Dunraven on their journeys. After Petrie’s death in 1866 he wrote a book on his life and work. Edwin Quin (or Wyndham-Quin), 3rd Earl of Dunraven, a Protestant graduate of Trinity College who became a Catholic, was interested in astronomy, and spiritualism, but principally in antiquities. He is said to have visited every barony in Ireland, and every island off its coasts, usually attended by a photographer, and Dr Stokes and his daughter. Ruins over ground and especially architectural remains interested him. Ireland had stone monuments dating back to the Neolithic period, as well as stone buildings in every architectural style from the 9th century onwards. In many ways these were the preliminaries to any serious study of Irish antiquities. Many of these ancient monuments were placed under the care of the Board of Works which fenced them off and protected them. The newly completed Ordnance Survey grid made it possible to indicate their exact whereabouts. Local archaeological societies continued the work of identifying and describing field works, and nationally, there was the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. No archaeologist of note emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Others in this circle of enthusiastic amateurs were John Thomas Gilbert, James Henthorne Todd, Sir William Wilde, Eugene O’Curry, John O’Donovan, Charles Graves, William Reeves, John Gwynne, and Sir Thomas Larcom. Imperfect though their work was it was an enormous advance on the popular ‘Histories of Ireland’ written by the likes of Thomas Moore or Daniel O’Connell who knew very little about the subject they were writing on. Indeed, Moore was said to have been astonished when he saw the number of books with which O’Curry surrounded himself.

            A quite remarkable number of Irish manuscripts from all periods from the 6th or 7th centuries onwards had survived all the wars and burnings, and scholars turned their attention to them and in many cases had them printed. There was incredible industry in publishing these ancient records. As elsewhere in Europe many of these were records from Government archives. Records of basic Government activities could be found in the Calendars of Patent and Closed Rolls and such like. The organising and cataloguing of Irish records, especially those of the Irish Government in Dublin, had begun and a Historical Manuscripts Commission had been established. Sir John Thomas Gilbert criticised the defects in the treatment of Irish historical documents in the Calendar of Patent and Close Rolls of Chancery who publication was being financed by the Treasury. When a new Public Record Office was opened in Dublin in 1867 Gilbert was appointed its Secretary. In this he collaborated with Sir Thomas Duffus Hardy, Deputy Keeper of the English Public Record Office who was similarly engaged in publishing English medieval Rolls. Gilbert was also librarian of the Royal Irish Academy (DNB, Gilbert, Hardy).

The source materials for Irish history were gradually edited and printed. James Henthorne Todd was librarian of Trinity College and took a special interest in its collection of Irish manuscripts. He increased this collection by acquiring transcripts from continental libraries. In general he quadrupled the size of the library’s collection of books, making it one of the great libraries of Europe. Todd’s Life of St Patrick (1864) started academic discussion about St Patrick which lasts to this day. Patrician studies, or studies of Ireland in the Fifth Century, being at the very edge of the earliest historical documentation concerning Ireland, are a test of any person’s scholarship. The sagas, the laws, and other texts of the Gaelic period were edited, translated, and published. At first the lack of comparable materials as well as racial considerations often led to them being interpreted literally. The total failure of archaeologists to find any evidence of chariot warfare in Ireland caused a scepticism to emerge regarding the historicity of the ancient sagas.

One of the earliest of those editing and publishing manuscripts was John O’Donovan of the Ordnance Survey historical department. He commenced his career by examining Irish manuscripts to determine the origins of local place names of which 144,000 were recorded by the Survey. The late (17th century) Annals of the Four Masters was translated and published by O’Donovan in 7 volumes between 1848 and 1851 and provided a basic chronology with snippets of information regarding most dates. At the suggestion of James Todd and Charles Graves, and following similar projects in France, Denmark, and England, the Government appointed commissioners to publish the Brehon or Gaelic Laws and O’Donovan commenced the work. After 1852 O’Donovan was engaged in preparing the great compilation of ‘Brehon’ Law, the Senchus Mor, which was published after his death which occurred in 1861. It was not realised at the time that the publishing of the Senchus Mor was merely a starting point. The task was finally completed with the publication of the fifth and sixth volumes in 1902. The Annals of Lough were published in 1871; the Annals of Ulster in 1887-1901; the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1896; and so on. Of Government documents the publication of the Calendar of Patent Rolls commenced in 1891, the Calendar of Close Rolls in 1892, the Calendar of Fine Rolls in 1911, the Calendar of Justiciary Rolls in 1905, and so on. Of their nature calendars are translations with annotations of various documents inscribed not in books but on parchment scrolls or rolls discovered in medieval archives, mostly in Dublin Castle. Charles Graves, the mathematician mentioned above, used mathematical methods to decipher ogham inscriptions, a cryptic alphabet of about 20 letters.

            Another scholar who emerged from the Ordnance Survey was Eugene O’Curry who was self-educated. He was a farmer’s son who got work in its topographical and historical section and then was engaged by the Royal Irish Academy to copy, examine and arrange Irish manuscripts, and was soon involved in translations. He thus acquired a wide knowledge of ancient Ireland from the manuscripts and was engaged by Dr John Henry Newman as professor of Irish history and archaeology in the Catholic University. This was the first such chair in an Irish university. His lectures dealt largely with the manuscripts he had personally examined. He also lectured on the manners and customs of the ancient Irish. Patrick Weston Joyce followed George Petrie’s interest in collecting traditional music, and wrote several books on the history of Ireland and on the meanings of Irish place names. Though good in their time they were superseded by later works. The Rev. John Gwynn, mentioned above as an authority on the Syriac language was also an expert on ancient Ireland. He worked for 20 years preparing the manuscript of the 9th century Book of Armagh for the press and it was published in 1913. William Reeves in 1857 published St Adamnan’s (Eunan) Life of St Columba. It was inevitable that their Protestant beliefs influenced their conclusions, so a rival school of Catholic historians, often themselves priests, grew up to refute them, but with conclusions no more reliable.

The Rev. Patrick Moran (later Cardinal Moran) wrote extensively on Irish religious history from a very partisan standpoint. The Rev. John O’Hanlon was another Catholic researcher into Irish ecclesiastical history. He is chiefly famous for his ten-volume Lives of the Irish Saints. Uncritical, and indeed wholly invented, ‘Lives’ of saints were a commonplace all over Europe in the Middle Ages with motifs wandering from one ‘Life’ to another, and from one country to another. The various ‘Lives’ are still mined by scholars for local details, but in general they reveal more about their authors than their subjects. The Rev. E.A, D’Alton, a Catholic priest, wrote a selective history of Ireland, typical of its time, describing the glories of the ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’ followed by centuries of oppressions by the English. As Archbishop Healey noted in 1912 in his preface to D’Alton’s work, there was no satisfactory history of Ireland, though D’Alton was making a good start (D’Alton, History of Ireland). The Presbyterian minister, the Rev. W.D. Killen wrote a history of the Christian Church in Ireland from a Presbyterian point of view.

John (Eoin) MacNeill was appointed the first professor of early Irish history in University College Dublin, having studied early and middle Irish under the Rev. Edmund Hogan S.J.. He dismissed as fables much of what earlier scholars had accepted as fact. He was an extreme Irish nationalist, and as D.A Binchy observed, his conclusions (like those of his contemporary historians in Nazi Germany) seem to have been coloured by his political views, (DNB MacNeill). It was inevitable that the work of these pioneers should be improved by later and better-trained scholars. There was in fact no even half-satisfactory general History of Ireland before that of Edmund Curtis in 1936.

            Various local archaeological societies were founded in this period to pursue antiquarian research at a local level. James Graves helped to found the Kilkenny Archaeological Society in 1849. In 1869 this society became the Royal Historical and Archaeological Society of Ireland and later the Royal Society of Antiquaries. In 1840 James Todd founded the Irish Celtic and Archaeological Society which most of Irish leading antiquarians joined. They were originally two separate societies which amalgamated. In 1851 an attempt was made to establish a Society for the Preservation and Publication of the Melodies of Ireland, but it failed. In 1853 the Ossianic Society was formed with a view to publishing the tales of the ‘Fenian Cycle’ but failed after the first six volumes were published. The Ossory Society was active when Patrick Moran was bishop of Ossory but failed when he went to Australia. The Cork Historical and Archaeological Society gradually reduced its efforts to producing a quarterly journal. County archaeological societies were formed in Waterford, Kildare, Louth, and Galway. The Irish Texts Society was formed in London in 1898 to promote the use of the Irish language and to publish suitable texts in Irish. This published the Irish-English Dictionary of the Rev. Patrick Dineen S.J. in 1904. The Royal Irish Academy was always the principal learned society and it devoted much of its time to Irish antiquities

            In 1896 the Treasury agreed to pay the full market value of antiquities. Such objects should be handed in to the police, would by valued by experts of the Royal Irish Academy, and eventually be exhibited by the Royal Irish Academy (National Museum) (New Irish Jurist 26 June, 17 July, 1903). Strictly speaking, gold ornaments were treasure trove and should go to the crown. The agreement meant that a finder could normally get a better price than if he tried to sell it to a private dealer.

            With regard to more recent history, an English historian, James Anthony Froude, wrote a book in 1872 The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century aimed at undermining Gladstone’s policies in Ireland. This immediately produced a riposte from the Irish Protestant Whig William Lecky who supported Gladstone. The latter’s History of England in the Eighteenth Century in 8 volumes devoted an inordinate space to affairs in Ireland, and was for a long time cited uncritically by Irish nationalists as confirming their views. About four fifths of the work too is devoted to the period 1780 to 1800. But like in all works on history a selection of material must be made, and Lecky selected material for his purpose in hand, and should never be quoted uncritically. Subsequently he parted company with Gladstone and became a Liberal Unionist. A third historian, Thomas Dunbar Ingram, disagreed with both Froude and Lecky. A review of his book A Critical Examination of Irish History in the Church of Ireland Gazette noted that Ingram, like Lecky, overstressed some points and minimised others, and agreed that Ingram had at times the better of the argument (Church of Ireland Gazette 11 Jan 1901). In the 20th century G.H. Orpen in his four-volume Ireland under the Normans (1911-1920) set new standards on how to approach the writing of Irish history.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.