(Explanation: papersky has proclaimed today to be International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day, when anyone who feels so inclined should give away professional quality work online.)
The social context of science in Ireland between 1890 and 1930 is examined against the social and political background of the time, which included the rise of Irish cultural nationalism, the troubled period of 1916-1923, and the granting of independence to most of the island in 1922. In particular, scientists are divided into three groups who reacted to and were affected by the events of the day in different ways.
Many Ascendancy scientists (including those based at Trinity College, Dublin; the Royal Dublin Society; the Royal Irish Academy; and many with private incomes, in particular astronomers) had practised science as a cultural rather than a practical activity, and some actively sought to exclude Catholics from positions of influence within the Irish scientific community. The social and political reforms of the period affected the financial ability of Ascendancy scientists and their institutions to carry out much scientific work, and after 1922 they were faced with a political settlement that many of them had opposed.
The State’s scientific employees were seldom of Irish origin but nonetheless took part in the discourse of Irish nationalism; their institutions were mostly of Irish foundation, taken over by the government in London during the 19th century, and returned to Irish administrative control in 1900. Although they were more inclined to make the most of the 1922 settlement, government spending and thus scientific activity declined after independence.
Scientists from a Nationalist or Catholic background had faced discrimination during the nineteenth century from their Protestant fellow-countrymen. There is little evidence to suggest that the Catholic church ever actively discouraged the practice of science in Ireland, and some to suggest that leading Irish nationalists positively favoured scientific activity as a tool of nation-building.
Extract 1 (astronomers):
The group of Irish astronomers who became active in the 1820s — Thomas Romney Robinson, Edward Cooper, the third Earl of Rosse and William Rowan Hamilton — had a common Ascendancy background. However they did not have identical political outlooks. Cooper and Rosse were both MPs during the 1830s, but sat on opposite sides of the House; while Rosse was a Whig, Cooper and Robinson were Tories, as was Hamilton when he turned his mind to such mundane matters. Michael Hoskin has shown that while Rosse was relatively cautious about claiming new discoveries made with the Leviathan, Robinson could barely be restrained from proclaiming the great Birr telescope’s success at rendering visible the component stars of various nebulæ as a triumph of the Irish national genius against the (liberal) nebular hypothesis.
[Norman] McMillan portrays the decline of the ‘Network’ as the result of the breaking down of a political consensus (whose existence is doubtful) among Ascendancy scientists into a ‘bitter internecine struggle’, with ‘a group of “Home Rulers” in the Royal Irish Academy’, including the Trinity Fellows J.A. Galbraith and Samuel Haughton, becoming estranged from their colleagues in the Unionist camp led by George Johnstone Stoney. He claims that, under pressure from Stoney, the fourth Earl of Rosse ‘abandoned his family’s long-held nationalist politics and moved into the Unionist camp’. He may be drawing from Webb and McDowell, who say of the fourth Earl around 1900 that ‘the events of the past twenty years had made him desert the liberal traditions of his family for a pessimistic and disillusioned Toryism’.
But the Parsons family’s aristocratic Whiggery cannot possibly be described as ‘nationalist’. As a young MP, the third Earl supported Catholic Emancipation and the Maynooth grant, and was a late convert to Reform; but he also wrote a pamphlet and spoke in Parliament opposing the repeal of the Corn Laws, and there is no evidence to suggest that he had any sympathy for O’Connell’s Repeal movement or for the Young Irelanders. Another pamphlet, written in the midst of the Famine, lumps together new-fangled political economists with the ‘profoundly ignorant’ opponents of Newtonian philosophy. Certainly by the time he had graduated to the House of Lords (as an Irish representative peer) he was to be found supporting the Irish policies of Peel’s Tory administration, although he favoured closer government supervision rather than local control of the state’s faltering efforts at famine relief. As for the fourth Earl, Webb and McDowell imply that his political conversion was a result of disenchantment with Balfourian Unionism and the weakening of the Ascendancy in the 1880s and 1890s, rather than moral pressure from Stoney in the 1870s. Rosse would not have been alone in this; the impact of ‘constructive Unionism’ on Unionist voters in Dublin was so negative that both their parliamentary seats were lost in the 1900 general election.
Extract 2 (museums)
It is interesting to compare the experience of the Dublin museum with the case-studies of natural history museums in Christchurch, Melbourne, Montreal, Buenos Aires and La Plata described by Susan Sheets-Pyenson. She points to a general world-wide growth in interest in (and building of) museums up to 1890 (the year that the new Dublin buildings were opened), followed by a period of precarious funding in the era of increasing local autonomy and an eventual shift to a programme of local studies rather than international collecting. The Dublin museum’s funding and staff levels remained secure up to the change in the political situation in 1922; but Scharff was conscious of the political advantages to be gained for the museum as Irish autonomy became more and more likely. As we shall see, he was prepared to challenge other scientists on those grounds.
Sheets-Pyenson also notes that support staff in colonial museums tended to be either graduates, imported from the metropolis, or local unqualiﬁed recruits, often from the lower social classes, who might well eventually achieve relatively senior rank despite their humble beginnings. In this context it is remarkable that only a minority of the Natural History Museum’s staff (Halbert and the two women, Stephens and Knowles) were born in Ireland, and that they tended to start (and in the women’s cases to remain) at a lower level than their better-educated English colleagues. Sufﬁciently qualiﬁed Irish recruits were scarce; Robert Lloyd Praeger, perhaps the most outstanding amateur of his age in Ireland, remarked ﬁfty years later that his failure to get the job which went to Carpenter after a competitive examination in 1888 was due to ‘inadequate time for reading, and a disbelief in examinations — which I still hold’. Praeger eventually used the security of a career with the National Library, on the far side of Leinster House, to support a passionate interest in natural history which enabled him to set the agenda for his professional colleagues.
Extract 3 (nationalism and science)
Another element in the scholarly consensus about the lack of science in Catholic Ireland has been the suggestion that Irish Nationalists generally were too much taken up with the ‘national struggle’ or with the revival of Gaelic culture to be interested in scientiﬁc activities. There can be no doubt that the Irish cultural revival, and the Gaelic League in particular, did indeed appeal to the growing Catholic urban middle class in the decade or so after its foundation in 1893. Tom Garvin has said of the period that ‘the cultural atmosphere in which the new leaders [of the 1920s] had grown up was suffused with a nationalist and anti-modernist romanticism’ , and John Wilson Foster has argued that the internationalism of science made it incompatible with nationalist political activity.
Here it will be argued that this difference of outlook was not, and need not have been, a fundamental incompatibility, and that in fact the perceived hostility of Irish nationalists to science is to a certain extent a misinterpretation. It is important to understand the shifts in Nationalist thinking over time. Around the end of the nineteenth century, a number of Nationalists were very interested in scientiﬁc matters; the interaction of the cultural revival with science should not be simply characterised as the vampiric relationship which some writers seem to favour. The undeniable decrease in enthusiasm for state funding of science after independence is probably to be better understood as yet another facet of a general reluctance on the part of the new government to part with taxpayers’ money for any purpose not perceived as essential.
The Irish Nationalist party under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell was as inﬂuenced by the Victorian industrialising milieu as any other group in nineteenth-century Britain. Parnell himself was an amateur mineralogist in his spare time; this interest may have originated from his efforts to make his estate at Avondale, Co. Wicklow proﬁtable, but he went to the lengths of equipping his lover’s house at Eltham with a small furnace so that he could carry out his own tests. For vivid scientiﬁc imagery at the heart of Irish politics, it is difﬁcult to better Tim Healy, during the December 1890 meeting in Committee Room 15 which sealed Parnell’s fate, comparing the disgraced leader’s personal magnetism to that produced by an iron bar in an electrical coil: ‘This party was that electrical coil. There [indicating Parnell] stood the iron bar. The electricity is gone, and the magnetism with it, when our support has passed away.’