British Association Meetings in Ireland

Roy H W Johnston


This analysis uses the BA meetings as a means of providing a sequence of snapshots of scientific activity in Ireland over most of the 19th century. Originally published in the Crane Bag in 1983 with numerous misprints, this version is corrected and some new material added. RJ 2/2/99)


Literary readers of The Crane Bag are no doubt familiar with Brian Friel's Translations, which illustrates acutely the cultural gap between the young officer, engaged in Ordnance Survey work in Donegal, and the local people, who represented residual Irish culture, linked to classical learning via the hedge-schools. The gap is such that the budding aspiration to Irishness of the young officer is cruelly aborted.

Friel here has touched the tip of an iceberg. The Ordnance Survey represented one of the areas of applied science into which the British Government put resources in the decades following the Napoleonic Wars. It constituted a training ground for many Irish people who subsequently became distinguished and influential scientists, identifying completely with the British imperial culture: one can think immediately of people like Sabine and Tyndall.

There was, of course, more to science than surveying. At the time of the Survey, there was in Ireland a strong, optimistic and, in a sense, patriotic, scientific culture, which had originated in the pre-Union 'belle epoque' and which carried on with its own momentum to a pre-Famine peak which can be identified with the 1843 Cork meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The technological component of this rising tide of Irish scientific competence was focused in the work of the Royal Dublin Society, which aspired to become a University of Technology, a sort of Irish analogue of the Paris Ecole Polytechnique.

The eclipse of the RDS as the prime focus of Irish scientific activity took place during the 1830s. It would be interesting to know the details of how and why this happened: in what way was it related to the Act of Union, and the political environment?

Perhaps there is a case to be made along the lines that the run-down of applied science in the RDS, and the concentration of intellectual effort into pure science in the University and the Academy, were important contributing factors to the 1846-1848 famine and subsequent depopulation, and that there were malign political factors involved.

I don't propose to make this case. The most I can do is to try to sketch some of the processes at work, and to ask a few questions. I use, for the raw material of the sketch, the series of meetings of the British Association which took place as shown in Table 1.

Dublin 1835

The BA was founded in 1831 and its first meeting in Dublin in 1835 was full of excitement and novelty. Literary attention to the BA has been biased by Dickens, who attacked its philosophy and methods of work humorously in Pickwick; also in 'Hard Times' there is a suggestion that Gradgrind and Bounderby, who are seen by Dickens to be at the root of the inhumanity of the First Industrial Revolution, are sort of archetypal BA members.

The Presidential Address in 1835 was given by Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Royal Astronomer of Ireland, then at the height of a formidable international reputation, based at that time on his unification of the mathematical theories of the previously disparate fields of dynamics and optics, and on the successful prediction of unsuspected anomalous optical phenomena in crystals. (Quaternions came later. I must avoid chasing hares here.) A cultivated philosopher, poet and linguist, Hamilton could hardly be further from Dickens' stereotypes.

The assembly included Joseph and Nathaniel Hone, who carried the (then still proud) RDS banner, along with about a dozen others, including Edward Davy the RDS Professor of Chemistry (who read a paper on corrosion by sea water) and Maurice Scanlon, an industrial chemist from Rogerson's Quay. Citizens present included Yates the optician (2 Grafton St). Members of the Royal Irish Academy present included DP Thompson of Dingle, a stalwart subsequent BA supporter. The MP (or perhaps ex-MP Privy Councillor; Rt Hon, anyway) was Francis Blackburne, of Leinster St, Dublin. See Table II for a breakdown of the social composition of the various meetings.

The meeting concerned itself with astronomy and the art of navigation, atmospheric refraction effects, comets, tides, laying the basis for the subsequently-developed science of meteorology, global magnetism, mapping, steam engine efficiencies, statistics in India. The needs of Empire were beginning to be in the ascendant. Hamilton in his address referred to the 'triple realm of England, Scotland and Ireland', and clearly identified participation in the Empire with his own Irish patriotic aspirations.

The Irish component in the contributed papers was formidable; a clear third of the papers in physics, mathematics and chemistry were Irish originating, and they represented significant contributions to the frontiers of knowledge. Noteworthy names are McCullough, Kane (the same Sir Robert who subsequently wrote 'The Industrial Resources of Ireland', published just prior to the Famine which sterilised its impact), Hudson, Mallet, Sabine, Apjohn, Barker, Geoghegan and others. There was a Rev McGauley experimenting with magnetic engines.

Cork 1843

The Cork meeting, although the absolute numbers were down (due no doubt to a dislike for travel to remote provinces on the part of metropolitan citizens), was in relative terms the pinnacle of Irish participation. The two MPs were John O'Connell and Lord Bernard. No less than 10 councillors and aldermen attended. Academic participation was still dominated by TCD. The RDS influence was visibly declining. The one State servant who made the trip was Captain la Touche of the Ordnance Survey. Titled gentry included the Earl of Bandon, the Earl of Mountcashel, Sir George Goold, Sir William Wrixon Beecher and Sir William Chatterton. The FRS was Major W L Beamish. it would be interesting to know (apart, of course, from Beamish) whether, and by what routes, any of these upper landed gentry made the transition towards becoming industrial bourgeoisie; also if not, why not, because they were clearly on the right road.

The meeting set about getting funding for researchers with balloons from the military, looking also into Mediterranean hydrography, contours on maps, the forms of ships, meteorology, tides, railway-cuttings as a source of geological knowledge, and, locally, the restoration of the Royal Cork Institution. This concern expressed itself by setting up committees or working groups to report subsequently. One such committee included Kane and Apjohn along with two Oxbridge dons; it was allowed £10 '....for the purpose of investigating the preservation of animal and vegetable substances...' . Science had not yet been professionalised; gentlemen did it in their leisure time. The BA could carry out a global temperature survey for a few hundred pounds, using the marginal time of the gentlemen-officers of the Royal Navy.

The Earl of Rosse presided; his reputation rested on the remarkable 72-inch reflecting telescope which he had designed and built on his estate at Birr. His purpose bad been to take the witchcraft out of telescope design, hitherto dominated by the craft mysteries of the opticians. This instrument remained in scientific use until 1908. 'Spin-offs' from this high-technology scientific enterprise included the Grubb optical works at Rathmines (a shadowy relic of which remains, in the name 'Observatory Lane') which was evacuated to St Albans in 1917-19 for strategic reasons. This firm had been set up by Thomas Grubb FRS, whose family firm had earlier worked on the telescope for the Earl. It was the prime supplier of optical range-finders and periscopes for the British Navy. Another spin-off was the Parsons steam turbine; the Earl's youngest son Sir Charles Parsons served his time in the Birr Castle workshops.

Reports included a review article by Robert Mallet (who counts as a founding father of the Institute of Civil Engineers) on corrosion in iron and steel; 82 types were evaluated (including Arigna iron). Mallet went on to look into the question of corrosion in iron in ships. Mallet remained in engineering practice in Dublin in 1852, but by '57 be bad emigrated to England. Diurnal magnetic variations, measured globally, had been correlated with the aurora; Sabine, still in Dublin, had a hand in this. 'Barometric waves' (now identified as cyclonic depressions) had been discovered and tracked from Britain to the Continent.

Contributions to mathematics, physics and chemistry from Irish work were significant; Hamilton, McCullough, Lloyd and Apjohn were prominent from TCD, with Andrews coming in from Belfast. Applied-scientific contributions from the RDS, which had been important in 1835, were now lacking. World figures like Joule, Brewster and Herschel were there.

Thomas Davis, of The Nation, was present. He gave it 6 column-inches in the August 26 issue, hidden among pages and pages of after-dinner speeches by Daniel O'Connell and his supporters: the 'verbal republic'. He named the principal local notabilities and ignored the scientists, except one Robert Hunt, of the Cornwall Polytechnic Institution, who described an embryonic photographic process which, given development, might eventually have lent itself to newspaper reproduction. Davis must have been somewhat out of his depth, but be was smart enough to pick up what might have been of use to his main weapon.

It is appropriate to ask whether any of the elements contributing to the Thomas Davis Republic would have been alive to the importance of scientific technology to a newly-liberated nation. Also, to ask whether any of the 'improving landlords', who were in the process of converting themselves into an industrial bourgeoisie, would have been able to take their eyes off the flesh-pots of imperial science in the interests of an emerging independent national economy.

Adare was at the 1835 Dublin meeting. Hamilton's biographer Thomas L Hankin records Hamilton as being friendly with Smith O'Brien and Speranza, and socialising on the Adare estate.

Davis, in the next issue of The Nation (Sept 2) indulges in what looks like a side-swipe at the BA identifying it with the Gradgrind/Bounderby tradition, as subsequently labelled by Dickens. The context is curious: he refers to Puseyism and comments on it favourably: '....we sympathise with the intense nationality of their piety; their veneration for their national church ....(their desire) . . . to make England 'Merrie England' ... we respect...the nationality ...of 'Young England', as it bas been nicknamed .... infinitely superior to the Radical Philosophers who would benefit the world by breaking down everything worthy of reverence, and building up instead a system of crudities, with Jeremy Bentham as the Allah...' Was this Davis? The article is unsigned. It could credibly have been the fruit of a week's reflection on the Cork BA meeting. If so, I wonder was he aware of Hamilton's Puseyism, and the fact that the Puseyites, along with Adare and others, had founded St Columba's College in order to teach Irish to landlords' sons? This would have squared with the Puseyites' tolerant and positive approach to nationality, so much approved of by Davis.

There is work to be done in teasing out what linkages there were, or could have been, between the Nation group and the scientific elite. Could the latter, with some skillful wooing, have been won over to the national cause, or was the imperial pull too powerful? The RDS was the key to this possibility, and it was in decline. The cultural gap was, perhaps, not so wide as suggested in Friel's play. The hedge-schoolmasters taught basic mathematics, including surveying. Merriman was a surveyor. Tyndall was introduced to surveying by Conwill at a Carlow hedge-school, qualifying for recruitment to the Ordnance Survey.

Belfast 1853

The first post-famine meeting was in Belfast in 1853. Titled gentry again included Sir William Chatterton and Adare (now Dunraven). Solid citizens included Ebenezer Pike of Cork and Jonathan Goodbody of Clara. The MP was J Whiteside of Dublin. There was the usual sprinkling of Protestant clergy and medical doctors. Engineers were now beginning to appear explicitly. Queens College was in the ascendant, outnumbering Trinity. The Academy was beginning to peak. The Presidential Address was by Col Edward Sabine, who called for a southern-hemisphere telescope.

The Irish input to the sectional reports remained considerable: 10 out of 45 in maths/physics, 7 out of 17 in chemistry, 10 out of 38 in geology. The key names are Hamilton, Lloyd, Townsend (Cork), Hennessy (MRIA subsequently FRS and Professor in the Catholic University), McFarland and the Earl of Rosse. There was heavy emphasis on optics and spectroscopy. William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) contributed, but from Glasgow.

Tyndall, by now ensconced in the Royal Institution, contributed a paper on 'the Poisson theory of magneto-crystallic action' (ferromagnetism). Tyndall's route into applied science was via England and Germany; he owed nothing to the Irish scientific elite. Could it be that he grew to disdain them? Was his controversy with Wigham over lighthouse technology motivated simply by bile? Wigham's papers look competent enough. Tyndall didn't contribute to the 1878 Dublin meeting, though then at the height of his career. His bombshell 1874 Presidential Address at Belfast, in defence of Darwinism, and the philosophy of science in general, is what most people remember. He was vehemently anti-Home Rule, holding that the Irish State would be Church dominated (Had he a point?).

Tyndall's 'gauntlet' is worth quoting: '....We claim, and we shall wrest, from theology the entire domain of cosmological theory. All schemes and systems which thus infringe upon the domain of science must, insofar as they do this, submit to its control, and relinquish all thought of controlling it. Acting otherwise proved disastrous in the past, and it is simply fatuous today'...'

Did he feel that Dublin might have been uncongenial in 1878, after Belfast in 1874? But I digress; I have allowed Tyndall to start a hare. Norman McMillan's collection of essays, published by the RDS, should be consulted for further insights into this remarkable Irish scientist.

Let me return to Belfast 1853; the reports included Hodges on flax and J Thomson, William's elder brother, a civil engineer, described his 'vortex waterwheel' (water-turbine). The burgeoning field of ethnology/geography had 29 papers, dominated by the Empire; possibly 2 are Irish: Gralton on Irish crania and Hume on Antrim and Down dialects.

The new Statistics section had one paper on the Famine, by John Locke, from the London Statistical Society. Sir William Wilde analysed deaf and dumb statistics. One A G Malcolm MD discussed the sanitary state of Belfast. There was a strong Belfast component in the Mechanics section, which dealt with telegraphs, railways, artillery, water, boilers, bridges.

Why so little concern, on the part of the Irish elite, with the impact of the Famine and the emigration?

The interval between BA meetings in Ireland was still quite short. It lengthened as British towns prospered and Ireland stagnated.

Dublin 1857

The Dublin meeting of 1857 was presided over by Humphrey Lloyd, Provost of TCD, and vice-President of the Academy. He reviewed the state of astronomy. The RDS participation was down to 2: EW Davy, who now styles himself MD, FRS, MRIA, Professor of Chemistry to the RDS, and W K Sullivan, curator of the Museum of Irish Industry (this was absorbed into the National Museum circa 1980). This was the last occasion on which participants seemed to like to claim association with the RDS. Citizens participating included Isaac Butt (who also came to Belfast in 1874 and to Dublin in 1878, though he didn't buy the report; he was accompanied by The O'Connor Don MP, who did), William Watt (Flax Works, Bedford St, Belfast), Charles Bewley and Ebenezer Pike of Cork. Titled gentry were Dunraven, Talbot de Malahide and Lord Otho Fitzgerald. The academic input remained dominated by TCD, but Cork, Galway and Maynooth, the Catholic University in Dublin were beginning to come in.

The reports, of which there were 23 sponsored, tend to cover topics like tonnage and power of steamships, shipping construction and economy, suspension bridges; Irish-based reports were Hodges (QUB) on flax, Grubb on equatorial mountings, Dickie on zoology of Strangford Lough, Hyndman on dredging in Belfast Lough (for zoological specimens). Sabine, on geomagnetism, was by now in London.

The sectoral contributions showed an Irish concentration into mathematics, where 9 out of 12 papers are Irish-originating: Boole (in Cork), Curtis, Graves, Hamilton, Jellet, Martin, Salmon.

In optics, Grubb contributed the one Irish paper out of 7. The electromagnetic section, with 11 papers, showed a major effort on induction effects and the electric telegraph. Technology had yet to come up with the dynamo and the electric motor, but this was very close. There were papers from G. Johnstone Stoney and William Thomson (now in Glasgow), and one from the Rev Callan in Maynooth, which is interesting in that he reported work done 20 years previously, and from the tone of the abstract it looked as if no-one believed him: '..after stating that he had discovered the induction coil in 1836, that in 1837 he had devised an instrument for getting a rapid succession of electrical currents from the coil, and that be had completed the coil in 1837, as a machine whereby a regular supply of electricity might be furnished...' Callan went on to describe 20 years of work done with the equipment.

What were the obstacles to his interacting earlier with other experimenters with electricity? If he had come to Dublin in 1835 be would have met the Rev McGauley; at Cork in '43 he would have met Joule and at Belfast in '52 Thomson. Was it so difficult for a Catholic priest to break into the Irish scientific elite, who were overwhelmingly Protestant? What form did the barriers take? The combination of Thomson and Callan would have been formidable: perhaps we would have had practical electrotechnics 2 decades before Gramme. So there were 2 papers out of 11 in electromagnetics.

In astronomy and meteorology there were 8 Irish papers out of 27, of which 5 were from Henry Hennessy, FRS, of the Catholic University.

Of the 45 papers in chemistry 11 were Irish; as well as the usual basic work by Andrews and Apjohn we have Buchan on Leitrim coal and iron, Johnson on peat gas for illumination and Rogers on medicinal peat. Peat gas cropped up again, in the mechanics section: the reason it never took off is that its economics is dominated by transport costs; it must be used locally.

The score in geology was 15 out of 38; we had also 4 out of 42 in biology and 17 out of 37 in geography/ethnology. The latter included O'Donovan on the ancient Irish as viewed by Bede, and Graves on the Brehon Laws. This reflects Academy influence.

In the Statistics section we have 5 out of 40, mostly on land and crime; there was, however, a gem from Bianconi, following up an earlier paper at Cork on transportation system management, in which he showed how he had adapted to the railways. In contrast to the other topics, he defended Irish morality against the scurrility of the English press, on the grounds that he had never had a vehicle delayed as a result of any criminal act, or robbed.

The mechanics section was presided over by Lord Rosse, who fulminated on the weakness of naval architecture, noting that the only English manual on ship design was by an artisan, and ' familiar with differential calculus chopping timber in the dockyards, in company with common mechanics....'. British ships were inferior to the French, where science had been called in (this was the lesson of the Crimean War). The main concern of the section was artillery and submarine cables.

Insofar as Lord Rosse represented the 'technically competent upper landed gentry in the process of transformation into an industrial bourgeoisie', it is quite clear that the identification of this rising class with the Empire and its opportunities was by now copper-fastened. I must stop at this point, to take it up again, hopefully, later.

1874 to date

The 1874 - 1878 - 1902 - 1908 sequence represents a different world, dominated by an increasing Irish sense of nostalgia; Sir William Wilde presided in 1874 over the anthropologists dominated by Empire material, and tried, in vain, to get over a Home Rule message based on analysis of Irish history; no doubt be was indulged as the local GOM; Professor J Purser in 1902 looked back to the great days of Hamilton and Lloyd from his chairmanship of the Maths/Physics section, which had 53 papers with 5 Irish (Stoney, Dixon, Whittaker).

In 1908 there was one Edward de Valera, a schoolteacher from Blackrock. Apart from him one looks in vain for any evidence on the part of the (again rising) national movement for appreciation of the importance of science and technology in the nation-building process.

David Houston, botany lecturer in the Royal College of Science, attended the 1908 BA; he subsequently taught science for Pearse in St Enda's. Pearse himself didn't attend, as he was totally involved in preparations for opening the school that autumn. I wonder how far it was from his thinking? So the link of the 1916 leadership with mainstream European scientific technology was tenuous. The limitations of de Valera's view are illustrated by the way in which be constituted the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, and Friel's cultural gap is illustrated by the fact that he got no help from the Academy.

In conclusion: science and technology, and their interactions, are embedded in the culture of the Irish proto-nation, the roots however being primarily in the Protestant component, and the fruits being sequestered and digested by the Empire, particularly in the l9th century, the dominant process being emigration of scientists towards the application of science in the imperial interest abroad.

No nation-building process can be complete unless it is possible on the home ground to translate science into relevant industrial technology, and to keep the best innovative people at home doing it, using temporary emigration creatively to pick up experience. This process has never been fully understood by any of the many generations of leaderships of the national movement, and even today it is recognised only grudgingly by our political leaders.

Nor has it been appreciated by the gurus of the educational system, where prestige attaches to verbal skills, and the technical component at second level is a cinderella. The present emphasis on technology at third-level is remedial.

Most educated English people would know of Telford or Brunel. How many Irish would know of MacNeill?

The fact that the Irish nation has suffered from imperial domination based on the abuse of scientific technology should not blind us to its necessary role in national survival.

We will not be able to claim a rounded, mature national culture until the names of Hamilton, MacNeill, Joly and Bernal are as well known to educated laymen as those of Maria Edgeworth, O'Grady, Yeats and Joyce.

There are various people who have been researching aspects of this area of Irish culture, mostly however disparately, within institution or within discipline. I refrain from naming them, for fear of offending by omission. It would be a stimulus to this work if it could be brought together into a comprehensive review of science and technology as aspects of Irish culture.

The above article is intended to provoke the undertaking of an enterprise of this nature, in part by its no doubt numerous errors and omissions, and in part by the questions asked.

I can list development areas additional to the ones already hinted at in the text above, where people may have material in gestation, or may know of work already done and published:

  • the links with French radicalism in the 1790s,
  • the railways,
  • the Shannon navigation,
  • the Fenians and the Holland submarine,
  • the peat saga,
  • the Irish scientific elite (particularly Fitzgerald) and Parnellite Home Rule,
  • early electrification and the transition to the ESB,
  • electric traction and the Drumm battery, etc.

There is enough material here to fill several Crane-bags, along with abstracts and bibliographies of the various scattered monographs which are on record. Such a compendium would make available for schools and colleges a source book of Irish scientific culture to help fill a disastrous gap in our national consciousness.

Table I: Irish meetings of the British Association

            Date	Location	Total	Irish	Irish %
	    1835	Dublin		1100	315	28.6
	    1843	Cork		579	246	42.5
	    1853	Belfast		582	122	21.0
	    1857	Dublin		951	175	18.4
	    1874	Belfast		1573	143	9.1
	    1878	Dublin		1788	164	9.2
	    1902	Belfast		2016	132	6.2
	    1908	Dublin		2367	196	8.3
	    1952	Belfast		4600	?
	    1957	Dublin		3166	1047	33.1
The above figures are complicated by the manner in which the BA has published its membership records. Up to 1857 there are 'life members' and 'annual members', all of whom get reports. Subsequently up to 1908 each of these categories may or may not get reports according as they pay up; they are printed in capitals if they do committee work. No lists are published for the two recent meetings; in the Dublin case the Irish participation is mentioned in the introductory review. For 1874-1908 I have counted a member as 'committed' if he does committee work or receives a report. Participants not interested in the Report tend to be either socialite-fringe or else academics who opt out because the library gets it, or perhaps because they 'look down' on the BA, an increasing factor in later years.

TABLE II: Social Composition of Irish Participants
Year		1835	1843	1853	1857	1874	1878	1902	1908
Titled		3	6	4	3	4	3	3	1

medics		47	35	14	24	6	14	9	17
engineers	-	-	3	8	3	3	4	5

clergy P	28	27	12	12	10	10	4	5
clergy RC	-	-	-	1	-	1	1	1

FRS		-	1	-	4	3	1	2	3
citizens	183	135	51	59	57	70	66	95
MPs		1	2	1	1	-	1	-	5
cllrs		-	10	-	-	-	1	-	2
RDS		14	3	1	2	-		-	-
RIA		15	8	15	31	11	14	6	9
State		6	1	1	3	10	11	4	9
TCD		17	13	8	18	19	16	13	16
Queens		1	-	12	1	10	9	9	9
Other		-	-	-	8	11	10	11	19
Total		315	246	122	175	143	164	132	196
I cannot guarantee absolute consistency in the above categories over the whole period; there are ambiguities in styling. All categories other than academic may include people with an undeclared academic status. People belonging to any non-academic category are classed as such only if there is no indication of their association with a university or college.

Copyright (c) Roy Johnston; Web version re-edited July 1998 and further corrected Jan 1999; originally published in the Crane Bag, Forum Issue, Vol 7 no 2, 1983; ISSN 0332-060X.

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