The Practical Arts in Irish Culture

Roy Johnston (1)

This article was published in the first issue of Causeway, the Belfast 'Cultural Traditions' quarterly, Vol 1 no 1, September 1993. The above is the title under which I submitted it; the editor improved on it with 'Godless Colleges and Non-Persons'.

Everybody knows about people like Joyce and Shaw; they are claimed as Irish by the Irish in Ireland, and recognised as Irish by people abroad who know about writing in English. The same could be said of Synge and Yeats, with more justification, since they made their careers in Ireland. The fact that 3 out of the 4 were of Protestant background does not appear to be a problem, nor does the fact that the fourth was a drop-out Catholic with no great love for the Church. So in the literary area ethnic or tribal origin does not appear to be an obstacle to adoption in the canon of national culture.

Consider now names like Hamilton and Tyndall; also, to complete the analogous quartet, Callan and Fitzgerald. All four are of world stature, known abroad for their contributions to physical science, their names embedded in university texts in all languages which support university physics teaching. Few scientists, outside Ireland, would however know them as Irish, and few people in Ireland outside the scientific discipline would know them as Irish scientists of world stature.

Hamilton (1805-1865)(2) was the great generaliser and integrator of Newtonian dynamics, as refined by the Enlightenment French (Laplace, Lagrange); he built a bridge into optics via the Least Action principle; he generalised complex numbers to 4 dimensions with his 'quaternions', the first algebra for which the commutative law (x*y = y*x) was not obeyed, opening up a whole new area of mathematics; he was Royal Astronomer of Ireland in the 1830s. He bestrode the scientific world of the 1840s with status analogous to that of Einstein in the 1920s.

De Valera, being a mathematician, knew about him, and promoted him somewhat; there was a commemorative stamp issue in the late 1950s, and an unveiling of a plaque on Broome Bridge on the Royal Canal (now marked on the map as H S Reilly Bridge; Hamilton remains uncelebrated), at the spot where Hamilton had had the flash of insight leading to quaternions, while walking from Dunsink Observatory in to the Academy. I attended the ceremony, and took a photo, which I parted with in the context of an article which I subsequently wrote for the Irish Times, somewhat on the theme of this current article, in or about 1968. (This was a precursor of my weekly Science and Technology column, which ran from 1970 to 1976.)

When the National Institute of Higher Education in Dublin was elevated to university status, a couple of years ago, the proposal came up to name it Hamilton University, which would have been appropriate, as Dunsink is practically on the campus.

The response from the assembled Irish academic elite was 'who was Hamilton?', and the idea was dropped. Hamilton has become a non-person, despite the best efforts of de Valera, and indeed the present writer.

Now consider Tyndall (1820-1893)(3), whose route from his Carlow origin to the Royal Institution in London led via the Ordnance Survey in Ireland, the railway boom in England, a spell at teaching in a school with Quaker and Owenite background, and the University of Marburg in Germany (with Bunsen). He contributed articles from Germany to the Carlow Sentinel, covering the 1848 events.

From his final position in the Royal Institution (which was, and still is, an applied research laboratory with a popularising remit; his public lecture-demonstrations were famous) he ran a sort of conspiracy known as the 'X-club', the objective of which was to further the interests of science; this included Huxley, Spenser, Frankland and others. From this base he influenced the British Association and the Royal Society, and through them the general public and government. He was the consummate scientific politician. He is perhaps best remembered, outside science itself, for his Belfast Address to the 1874 meeting of the British Association, in which he drove the last nail into the coffin of the opposition to Darwinism from the religious establishment. Within science, he is remembered for the Tyndall effect (which explains why the sky is blue), for 'Tyndallisation' (which is what Pasteurisation is known as in France), for infra-red spectro-photometry and numerous other contributions to basic instrumentation. He is also revered among alpinists as a founder of the art.

Tyndall kept in touch with Ireland and contributed to the work of the Royal Irish Academy, often controversially. He was put off by political developments in Ireland, which appeared to be dominated by the O'Connellite tradition, and opposed Parnellite Home Rule, somewhat vehemently (he is said to have originated the 'Home Rule is Rome Rule' slogan).

Tyndall was for a long time a non-person in Ireland, due perhaps to the aftermath of the 1874 Belfast Address. He has, however, been 'posthumously rehabilitated' quite decisively, thanks to the work of Norman McMillan and others in the Carlow Regional Technical College. Technical education in Carlow goes back to the 1850s, with the Mechanics Institutes, and Tyndall had a hand in its beginnings. Carlow was among the first towns to have public electric lighting, which was inaugurated by Parnell in 1881. So it is appropriate that Carlow should pick up this tradition, rediscover Tyndall, and popularise him; the first Tyndall Summer School takes place there this year (1993), on Sept 11-19.

(It has not, to my knowledge, taken place since. The reason for this needs to be explored. My initial guess is that the organisers cast the net too wide, to pick up on Tyndall's wide range of interests, with the result that a strong enough focus did not develop, motivating continuity. A not dissimilar Johnstone Stoney Summer School has however take place annually since 1995, organised by the Irish Research Scientists' Association (IRSA), and this has established a tenuous link between the science community and State science policy. George Johnstone Stoney FRS was Fitzgerald's uncle, and between them they were influential in ensuring that the Royal University had a strong science component, which helped to prime the science stream in the NUI when it was established in 1906. RJ Feb 1999).

Tyndall was an emigrant, a Shaw/Joyce analogue; Hamilton and the others below made their careers in Ireland.

Consider now the remaining Synge/Yeats analogues, who made their careers at home. (There are of course many in both categories, I am not going to list them; I have had to make a somewhat arbitrary selection for this illustrative purpose, influenced by the ready availability of referencable material.)

Nicholas Callan (1799-1864) is of particular interest in this context, as he proves definitively that there is nothing intrinsic in the culture of Roman Catholicism to prevent people contributing significantly to the practical arts, which negative view is widely held among certain types of Protestant bigot. He was professor of Natural Philosophy in Maynooth College from 1826 to his death in 1864. He picked up his interest in magnetism from his predecessor in the Maynooth chair Cornelius Denvir (later Bishop of Down and Connor), and his electrical interests from Galvani and Volta whom he encountered in Rome.

Callan was the inventor of the induction coil; this however was widely attributed to Ruhmkorff up to as late as the 60s of this century, Callan's work having been forgotten. He did the work in the 1830s and 40s, publishing in Sturgeon's Annals of Electricity and in the Philosophical Magazine; he gave a paper to the 1857 meeting of the British Association in Dublin in which he referred to the work he had done 20 years earlier. Reading the abstract of the paper in the BA report, one gets the impression that he was not credited much by the then solidly Protestant scientific establishment. It was 1957 before Callan's priority was finally and generally recognised, on foot of a paper by J D Gallivan at the Dublin British Association meeting which took place in that year; this was subsequently reprinted in Nature. The need for recognition of Callan was for many years a 'cause celebre' among the Irish scientific and engineering fraternity. The definitive paper on Callan by Rev M T Casey was published in the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical Engineers in December 1985.

The induction coil was the focus, but the general thrust was into the need for a cheap supply of electricity for industrial purposes. One of his earliest inventions was an electromagnet on an industrial scale, which would lift two tons. He also had a prototype electric motor. The limiting factor was of course the supply source; this was before the dynamo was invented. So he worked to improve the performance of batteries, coming up with an iron-zinc cell, which was manufactured and marketed by E M Clarke in the Strand in London.

The 1837 induction coil is preserved in Maynooth, and is worth a look; it was working up to the 1890s and produced a 15 inch spark. Callan realised that the voltage depended on the speed of the break. He probably would have come up with the dynamo concept, had he had the resources and the contacts in his later years; this was the lateral leap waiting to be made, from the platform he had built. There is a limit to what you can do working in relative isolation, with material from the village blacksmith.

One can only conjecture what might have happened had the Maynooth work been taken on board, as part of the Irish university system, in the context of the new Queens Colleges in the 1840s. Callan would have contributed substantially, along with Boole, Andrews, Larmor, Kane and numerous others to an Irish university system with a recognised place in the European scientific mainstream.

Instead, Cardinal Cullen blocked Catholics from going to the 'Godless colleges', and access to scientific technology for the sons of the rising Catholic bourgeoisie was severely restricted for the next 50 years, until the NUI was set up. The choice was effectively limited to the priesthood (ie science in Maynooth) or the Mechanics Institutes. Protestant predominance in 19th century Irish science must be attributed to Cardinal Cullen. Callan showed what the potential was, and it was strangled at birth.

Now consider George Francis Fitzgerald (1851-1901) who was Professor of Natural Philosophy in Trinity College from 1881. There was an international correspondence between Fitzgerald, Hertz and Maxwell in the 1870s and 80s about developments in electromagnetic theory. Some light was thrown on the role of Fitzgerald in this context at the Royal Irish Academy bicentenary symposium in 1985, with contributions from B J Hunt of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and by James O'Hara from Hamburg.

(It is shameful that the proceedings of this Academy event were never published, as it could have been an important landmark in Irish scientific historiography. Most of the contributions were from abroad. I enquired about publication, and was told that the consensus among the authors was that their papers would be published elsewhere one way or another, and they saw no need for a published proceedings. If they had been published, it would have exposed the weakness of the Irish participation in the celebration of this aspect of Irish culture, and the lack of strategic planning of the content of the symposium itself; we had a rag-bag of what academics here and there, mostly outside Ireland, happened to be working on, rather than a celebration worthy of the bicentenary of a key national institution.)

Fitzgerald is perhaps best known internationally for his explanation of the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment, which was supposed to show the drift of the earth through the 'ether'. The path from this led directly to Einstein's Relativity.

He introduced the practical teaching of physics, and built a flying machine. He was instrumental in founding the College of Technology in Kevin St in 1887; he did for Dublin what Tyndall helped to do for Carlow half a century earlier. Fitzgerald is revered as a founding father of what is now the Dublin Institute of Technology. This was in the context of the politicking leading up to the foundation of the NUI, in which Fitzgerald also played a part, though without success. He saw more of a future in educating the Dublin artisans, on a basis which was 'laique' and non-sectarian, than in going along with a national university system which was visibly shaping up as the inheritor of the O'Connellite Rome Rule tradition. The harm done by Cardinal Cullen has left us with a university system divided along sectarian lines up to recent times, even (it could be argued) to this day.

Like Tyndall, Fitzgerald was Unionist, being reinforced in that position by the 'Home Rule Rome Rule' threat, as evidenced by the 'Godless Colleges' episode, and the ensuing 'Catholic University' campaign. One wonders how people like Fitzgerald and Tyndall would have evolved had the Irish separatist tradition developed along the lines laid down by Davis, rather than O'Connell; in this context, the political philosophy being secular and liberal-democratic, in the European tradition, the Queens Colleges would have become the National University, with Maynooth College as a constituent, Callan's work being taken on board. And if Parnellite Home Rule had broken through, the Protestant Parnell would have had no trouble in winning the support of the (initially Protestant) scientific elite for a policy of enrichment by recruitment from the Catholic intellectuals, via a non-sectarian 'laique' national educational system.

The analogous problem currently faces South Africa; it is topical and non-trivial.

Without a strong scientific component in the national high culture, the nation does not exist, except as rhetoric and sentiment.

Notes and References:

(1) Roy Johnston is an applied-scientific consultant specialising in socio-technical and cultural aspects of the innovation process. He can be contacted at, as below.

(2) Sir William Rowan Hamilton; T L Hankins; Johns Hopkins UP (Baltimore & London, 1980)

(3) John Tyndall; ed W H Brock, N D McMillan & R C Mollan; (RDS 1981)


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