Science and Religion

Kane's 'Industrial Resources of Ireland'

There was a sort of 'apostolic succession' from the heroic revolutionary 1790s epoch, with its French influences, to the Parnellite Home Rule period, embodied in the Kane family, father and son. The father, after participating in the 1798 republican uprising, went on the run to France, where he studied chemistry. He came back to Dublin when the dust had settled, and set up the first embodiment of the Gay-Lussac process outside France. The son, who subsequently became famous as Sir Robert Kane, was President of the Royal Irish Academy in the Parnell epoch.

Kane picked up chemistry from the Higgins RDS lectures(4) after school. He went to pursue his scientific studies in Germany and in 1829 discovered a manganese arsenide in Saxony, which was named Kaneite.

He went on to discover the ethyl radical, and was able to claim priority over Liebig(8), with whom he subsequently worked in Giessen in 1836. He worked in the RDS, mostly on organic chemistry; his process for converting acetone to mesitylene was the first to build a ring from a chain, and was acclaimed by Berzelius. In 1840 he became editor of the Philosophical Magazine of the Royal Society, and in 1849 became an Fellow of the RS. Kane's Elements of Chemistry 1840-41 has 1200 pages and 200 wood-cuts. Faraday introduced it to the Army course at Woolwich, and the American edition in 1843 was adopted as the US standard university course.

Kane's Industrial Resources of Ireland was published in 1843. This was the bible of Irish national techno-economic development for the next century, remaining so right up to de Valera's time, long after the technologies he outlined had become obsolete or irrelevant. It is one of the great Irish 'might-have-beens': if the Young Irelanders had succeeded, and the effects of the Famine contained by a sympathetic national State, Kane's ideas would have had some chance of being realised.

'Godless Colleges'

Kane became the President of Queens College Cork on its foundation in 1846. He was more than just a 'token Catholic'; he was a figure of European stature who had come up despite the Protestant monopoly of higher education.

The Queens Colleges in Cork, Galway and Belfast were however condemned by Cardinal Cullen, and the Catholic establishment held out for a 'Catholic University'. This blocked access to higher education for the rising Catholic middle class for two generations, until the NUI was set up in 1906. The effect of this on the development of access to core-European scientific and technolgical culture in the Irish national context was devastating. It resulted in the virtual confinement of scientific culture into a Protestant colonial ghetto, though before the 1900s occasional Catholics filtered in, mostly via education abroad.

(The analogue in modern times would be if there had been a demand in South Africa for a segregated black university!)

The consequence of this ban was that the key Baconian institutions, the RDS and the RIA, remained as the intellectual foci of the Protestant colonial nation: basically the landed gentry and the Trinity College elite, without enrichment from the rising Catholic middle classes.

Yet they did exist as the scientific foci of an Irish geographical entity, with an economic life, and a national potential. This could not help breaking through. The Protestant scientific elite were divided: some (like McCullagh, Haughton, Preston) looked to the emerging pluralistic geographical nation, with Davis and Parnell, others (like the Earl of Rosse, his son Parsons of steam turbine fame and Fitzgerald) to the then emerging and world-dominating British Empire.

The full analysis of this contradiction remains to be done(18), but broadly speaking in the early 1880s the Academy was Home Rule inclined, under the leadership of the then aging Kane, while the RDS focussed the interests of those who looked to the Empire, led by Fitzgerald and Stoney(19). The extent of the frustrated potential of the Catholics for science is illustrated by the case of Callan(34), who was professor of physics in Maynooth, and had encountered Galvani and Volta when in Rome studying for the priesthood. He was practical and inventive, but in the Irish Protestant colonial scientific context was an outsider. He invented the induction coil, usually attributed to Rumkorff. Callan's priority was not generally established until an article in Nature in the 1950s. The effect of the Catholic ban on the 'Godless colleges' cannot be overestimated. If the Queens Colleges had been allowed to thrive, Callan would have been part of a vibrant nation-wide scientific research community, with an inside track into electro-technology.

Publication Pattern

The Academy Proceedings has had a steady stream of papers from its foundation, at about the same rate, or at most slowly increasing. In recent times the exponential global scientific expansion has been taken up by the tendency to publish for peer-esteem in the specialist journals abroad.

Stoney and Fitzgerald in the 1890s foresaw this trend and tried to stem it, with an unsuccessful attempt to do a deal with Edinburgh against London, in the interests of local publication. (There was an embryonic national consciousness lurking there, even among the Baconian imperial elite).

The RDS, after its 'belle epoque' with the French connection in the 1800s, had a publication hiatus until the 1850s, when it started again, rising rapidly and peaking in the 1880s, when Fitzgerald led the walk-out from the Academy, and again in the 1910s, led by Joly.

In its prime the RDS Proceedings was peppered with papers by FRSs, and were in the mainstream of European cutting-edge technology; they were exchanged with all the main European scientific foci. This momentum continued up the the 1920s, and the bicentenary in 1932 was a gala event, attended by every member of the Free State Government; there was a scientific exhibition, and a ball. After this however RDS publications declined, and in the 1950s they were at the 1850 level. There was a revival in the 60s and 70s when the RDS was adopted by the rising Agricultural Science fraternity, but it has now declined again, and publication has virtually ceased.

A significant proportion of the papers published by the colonial scientific elite in the peak period of the 1910s were to do with the Faustian pact with the imperial military establishment. Sir Howard Grubb FRS was influential in the RDS at that time, and his optical works in Rathmines supplied the British Navy with gunsights, as well as the world with astronomical telescopes. There was also a significant amount of publication based on field-work done in India and elsewhere in the imperial context.

The setting up in 1898 of the Boyle Medal as a means of showing peer-esteem for scientific work done in Ireland can, I suggest, be interpreted as imperial triumphalism. Boyle was celebrated in the RDS as one of the Baconian founders of the Royal Society, rather than as someone of Irish origin (cf Joly's RDS discourse on the occasion). Joly, who was the inheritor of Fitzgerald's mantle, would have been celebrating the defeat of Parnellite Home Rule, and the recovery of the RIA from nationalist domination.

The subsequent history of the Boyle Medal is of interest, and I hope to be able to analyse it in due course. It became for a period, post-1921, an indicator of good work of national significance, but as time went on, the means of identifying such good work became more difficult, as local publication went into decline.

In the 1930s an unsuccessful attempt was made to displace Boyle's name from the Medal, and substitute that of Kane; this was led by Felix Hackett, who was of the first flush of Catholic scientists who came though UCD, under McClelland(20). Hackett however was scientifically in discredit, as having been associated with the N-ray canard(21) in the 1900s.

It is no good substituting 'being politically correct' for doing good science. The first flush of University College Dublin people in the 1900s were enthusiasts and did much good work; in a situation when new things were being discovered and old paradigms overturned some errors of judgment are perhaps inevitable.

Click on the 'Back' button to return to where you were in the overview text. If a highlighted word is not accompanied by a number, it brings up a related argument, which may itself contain highlighted words. If a highlighted word is accompanied by a number, it brings up a footnote or a reference.