Science and Politics in 20th Century Ireland

The RDS Boyle Medal as an Indicator of Esteem

Roy H W Johnston


In this monograph I attempt to relate the internal politics of the science community in Ireland, as expressed in measures of esteem, to the evolving external political scene in the transition from colonial to post-colonial society. It makes use of the awarding of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) Boyle Medal as an indicator of scientific esteem, and attempts to relate perception of esteem to the evolving political environment.

I touch marginally upon the need to relate Irish experience to that of Britain and mainland Europe, in the broader context of 'core and fringe', and the roles of national scientific elites in the maintenance and break-up of empires, and establishment of nation-states. The full analysis of Irish experience in this respect however must await significant allocation of resources to the professionalising of the research into the history of science and its interaction with government in the Irish context, and in the course of what follows I attempt to identify some aspects of this research agenda, where the Boyle Medal processes suggest them as 'hares needing to be chased'. The actual chasing of these hares however I leave to others.

The readership of this monograph I hope will include not only the science community in Ireland but also those who are seeking to understand the relationship between our current (1999) unprecedented prosperity and the existence of an effective culture of science, technology and innovation. I would therefore put it forward, not as a 'science' or a 'history of science' paper, but as a contribution to the 'public awareness of science'. The Boyle Medals of the century in this context constitute a sequence of snapshots enabling an overview of a complex process to be constructed. The 'notes and references' section should be understood as supporting this process.

I give first some background to the situation in Ireland prior to 1895 when the the idea for the Boyle Medal first emerged from Professor D J Cunningham, the then Honorary Secretary of the RDS. I then overview the Boyle Medal century, identifying four distinct periods, related to changes in the RDS regulations in response to changes in the environment. I give a short outline of the work on which the awards were based, and of the careers of the award-winners. Finally I outline the current transition process in which the Medal is currently being updated to meet the initial needs of its next century.


Robert Boyle(1) was one of the members of the 'Invisible College' in 17th century England which included Newton, Petty, Oldenberg, Hooke and others in a mutual recognition network for the promotion of the scientific approach to finding out about the laws of nature. They achieved State recognition under Charles II as the Royal Society (RS), providing what has come to be known as the Baconian(2) institutional model which was copied in all European States in the 18th century, once it was recognised that there was an essential relationship between scientific knowledge and State power.

The Baconian model was first consciously implemented in Ireland in 1731 with the foundation of the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) and again in 1786 with the foundation of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA). The Academy covered basic sciences and included archaeology, linguistics and 'polite literature', while the RDS looked to national development, to industrial applications of science and to agriculture.

The RS in Britain related to the sciences integrally, and left the arts to others. This was a weakness, in that it may be considered to be at the root of the 'two cultures' syndrome in Britain, as identified by C P Snow, but also a strength in that there was no artificial division between the pure and applied sciences, with the result that the pioneering technologies of the Industrial Revolution were fuelled intellectually by literate artisans who met in local societies (eg the Mechanics Institutes) to discuss the latest papers from the RS in metallurgy, industrial chemistry and other useful arts(3).

The politics of the two Irish Baconian institutions in their relationship to Irish social, economic and political history, in the various attempts at the establishment of nation-statehood, remains to be analysed by historians as an important part of the Irish nation-building project. What I want to do in this monograph is to focus on one aspect, the initiation of the Boyle Medal in 1895 by the RDS on the initiative of Professor Cunningham, and its taking up by Joly(4), and to trace its role as it has evolved from then until now. The full understanding of this role requires some prior understanding of the histories of the two bodies from their foundation, particularly the episode during the Parnellite period (worthy of further attention by historians of science) when they were engaged in public controversy. On this occasion I will sketch in the background, as it relates to the Cunningham-Joly 1895-98 initiative.

RIA and RDS Background

In the 1790s the RDS had played an important role in the support of industrial chemistry, in areas like the bleaching of linen. Up to the early 1800s there were many RDS scientific papers, often taking up scientific ideas from the Continent. After the 1801 Act of Union, however, there was a decline, and scientific publication lapsed in the RDS until the 1860s.

The RIA was active during this hiatus, not only with the history, language and archaeology work of Wilde(5), MacAdamh(6) and others, but also with world-class basic scientific work from people like Hamilton(7) and Lloyd(8). It was also a platform used by Callan(9) for his pioneering electrotechnical discoveries and inventions at Maynooth, though Callan also published in the new specialist electrical journals (10) in London.

As a consequence of its broad scope, and association with the process of conservation of the Irish manuscripts and artifacts, the RIA during this period constituted a focus in which the intellectual elite of the colonial nation were prepared to defend their interests against the encroachments of the London imperial bureaucracy: early stirrings perhaps of an embryonic national consciousness on the American model.

This is illustrated by the spirited defence of their right to deal direct with the Treasury, rather than to come in under the Department of Science and Arts in Kensington, which was attempting to manoever a bureaucratic takeover and amalgamation of the RIA with the RDS. John Kells Ingram, author of the patriotic ballad 'Who Fears to Speak of Ninety Eight', was the Secretary of the Academy at the time (1876), and they were in correspondence with Isaac Butt MP, then leader of the Irish Party in Westminster, who put up a spirited defence in the Commons. William Stokes FRS (11) was RIA President. This episode has been touched on by Jarrell(12). There were complex undercurrents; G J Stoney(13) and Emerson Reynolds(14), who were on the Council of the RIA, were prepared to promote a move which they saw as liberating science from agriculture on the one hand and from antiquities on the other. This issue emerged again in 1883.

At the start of the Parnell period, the President was Sir Robert Kane(15), of 'Industrial Resources of Ireland' (1845) fame, whose father had picked up his industrial chemistry in France when in exile after 1798, subsequently introducing the Gay-Lussac sulphuric acid process to Ireland. Kane had picked up his chemistry from the RDS lectures of Higgins(16), and had subsequently studied in Germany under Liebig(17). Kane was Catholic, and had accepted the post of President of the Queens College in Cork at its foundation. The opportunity for Catholics to get a scientific education presented by the Queens Colleges was, however, blocked by the Hierarchy; Cardinal Cullen's 'Godless Colleges' were deemed not acceptable, and there was a campaign on for a Catholic University. Kane by 1880 must have been tired and disillusioned. Thanks to the failure of the British Government to provide for Catholic needs in the constitution of the Queens Colleges, and to the consequent ban imposed by Cardinal Cullen, science remained mostly a Protestant pursuit.

The revival of the RDS as a platform for scientific publication needs historical analysis. Key figures from the 1880s onwards were Stoney(13) and later his nephew G F Fitzgerald(18). Fitzgerald had joined the Council of the RIA in 1878, and the second (1883) attempt to bring about a merger between the RIA and the RDS was on the basis of the need to unify science and abolish the distinction between pure and applied. This also failed; the RIA tended to look down on the RDS from a height (19). However, during the later 1880s and 1890s the centre of gravity of scientific publication shifted to the RDS, under the lead of Fitzgerald and Stoney. Fitzgerald remained a member of the Academy while he devoted his time to the RDS in the 1880s; during this time RIA publication declined, and the emphasis shifted away from science, though not totally.

The momentum built up during this period with RDS publication persisted for decades, despite Fitzgerald's dramatic 1890 resignation from the Committee for Science, on the grounds that the RDS Council was dominated by the agricultural interests of its predominantly landlord membership. It had thus failed to appreciate and support his attempt to establish an honorific status of Fellow of the RDS, to which Fellows of the Royal Society would initially be entitled, and which would perpetuate itself subsequently as the main focus of Irish scientific esteem, becoming an Irish RS.

In the foregoing there seems to me to be indications of the existence of an important ideological battleground, relating to the question of national identity, worthy of the attention of historians. The Academy would seem to have served as the intellectual focus of the emerging nation, on the basis of a broader inclusive version of what had become the standard European 'Baconian model'. The lead at this time was visibly with the literary people (like Samuel Ferguson and others) and this was acceptable to the RIA scientists. The RDS on the other hand was the focus of those who aspired to identify with the objectives of the Empire, and was a platform for recognition of scientists on the road to FRS status. Indeed, the second onslaught on the RIA by the RDS was associated with a re-naming as the RS of Dublin.

With the foregoing background, the Boyle Medal initiative of Joly may perhaps be seen, as one possible motivation hypothesis, as a nailing of the RS flag to the mast of the RDS, setting up the latter as the focus of an Irish FRS coterie, the better to get recognition for their colleagues at the Baconian pinnacle in London, and as an alternative road to the establishment in Ireland of an RS-like core-group, the road to Fellow of the RDS having been blocked by the action of the RDS Council, over which Fitzgerald had resigned. An alternative motivation hypothesis is the provision of an incentive to scientists to publish in in the RDS Proceedings, enhancing the role and prestige of the science section of the Society. These motivations are not incompatible.

Copyright (c) Roy Johnston. Web version re-edited June 1999; further editing for printed publication is not precluded.

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