Century of Endeavour

Science and Politics in the Irish Colonial to Post-Colonial Transition

(c)Dr Roy H W Johnston(1) 2001
(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

This review paper appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Irish Literary Supplement, published by Boston College, edited by Bob Lowery. [Bracketed] sections indicate possible cuts.

The three books under review share several common features. They are from small niche author-editor-publishers who share an interest in the Enlightenment political tradition, together with an interest in the cultural role of science, and the cultural barriers preventing science assuming the elite status necessary for viability in an emerging national culture. Even in paperback all three books weigh heavy, the 'postage and packing' to the US being in the region of £10 additional.

They should however appeal to those cultural and political historians who have woken up to the existence of scientific and technological dimensions to Irish cultural studies. There are signs of the emergence of the embryo of such a school within the Irish Studies community, as evidenced for example by JW Foster's socio-technical and cultural analysis of the Titanic disaster and its Belfast background, and his more recent scientific and cultural history Nature in Ireland (Lilliput 1997).

I should also perhaps instance some work in the University of Illinois by Salim Rachid(2), who mentions the work of my father Joe Johnston (1890-1972) on Bishop Berkeley as economist, in support of his (Rachid's) thesis regarding the existence of an 'Irish School of Economic Development 1720-1750'. This school included Berkeley, Molyneux, Swift, Dobbs and Prior, and was closely linked to applied-scientific development activity via the Dublin Society. Rachid distinguishes this group from the 'Merchantilists' with whom all economic ideas prior to Adam Smith have tended to be uncritically identified by historians of economic thought, and shows how the 'Irish School of Economic Development' were in fact Adam Smith precursors. My father went further and regarded Berkeley as being a Keynes precursor.

I suggest that there is perhaps some raw material here for exploitation by scholars interested in the historical roots of development economics, and the relation between the latter and scientific technology. I would go further and suggest that in the composition of this group, with the strong scientific component as expressed in Dobbs and Prior, we have a good model which in current development economic thinking needs to be recaptured. The key to economic development is technical competence in the useful arts, and this was the Dublin Society's prime objective.

I take this opportunity of drawing the Rachid work to the attention of the Irish Studies community, as it has surfaced primarily in the 'development economics' community in a global third-world context. The status of Ireland, and Irish Studies, as an important resource in the global study of the colonial to post-colonial transition, and the 'science and society' cultural interaction in this context, needs more emphasis than it has been getting hitherto.

[I have also encountered a science dimension in Irish literary studies through an e-mail correspondence with Margot Backus, who picked up on Marconi references in the work of Brian Friel. There is a considerable Irish dimension in Marconi studies; not only was his mother a (whiskey) Jameson but he did much of his early radio experimentation in various Irish locations, most of which are celebrated locally but unknown nationally, and the first use of radio transmission to convey news for the press related to a sporting event near Dublin. Enough of this background, however; let us consider the books.]

Prometheus's Fire: a History of Scientific and Technological Education in Ireland; ed Norman McMillan, Tyndall Publications 2000, £24 pb, £42 hb; ISBN 0 9525974 0 3

(I have adapted this review from one commissioned by History Ireland, shortly to appear at the time of writing.)

In his first encounter with Trinity College in 1971 Dr Norman McMillan was shown around the Physics Department, and in passing his attention was drawn to a heap of old notebooks, which he was told belonged to GF Fitzgerald (a physics luminary of the 1880s and 90s celebrated along with Lorentz as an Einstein-precursor) but it seemed no-one wanted them. [There was no sense at the time that these might have been historically important. Gradually however, with the aid of Provost McConnell, Gordon Herries Davies (who has authored the history of the Geological Survey of Ireland), David Spearman and others a sense of the need to conserve historical artifacts and documents relating to science became more widely known.] As a result of this experience McMillan, while teaching physics in Carlow, and engaging in innovative instrumentation development work, has brought together a significant collection of papers from a variety of authors on various aspects of the history of technical, technological and scientific education in Ireland, the result of which is this book.

JG Ryan, on 'Early Irish Crafts and Apprenticeships', traces the history of apprenticeship back 5 millennia, with the aid of the Talmud, Babylonian and Egyptian sources. There was parallel recognition of the process in Ireland under the Brehon Law, where craft skills were hereditary or passed on by fosterage. [The author outlines at length the history of craft work in pre-Norman Irish society, explaining why it did not evolve towards a guild model.]

The guild system, as it evolved in medieval Europe from the 11th century, came into Ireland with the Normans, and became established in the main towns, primarily Dublin, but on the basis of excluding the Irish; after the Reformation this was reinforced on a religious basis. As a consequence the Dublin guild system acted as a barrier to the survival of the native Irish craft culture, which declined into an underworld existence.

Dr Juan José Pérez-Camacho, on 'Late Renaissance Humanism and the Dublin Scientific Tradition (1592-1641)', analyses the elite of the colonial culture concentrated in TCD: Ussher, Lydyat and Carpenter. Lydyat in his ''De Natura Coeli' published in 1605 attacked the Aristotelian system, and was a supporter of Tycho Brahe. [The Copernican system was slow to become generally accepted, but Carpenter and Ussher made the issues known to the Irish-based scientific community, with Ussher advocating the Keplerian heliocentric system.] Another contribution to the understanding of early science in Ireland was the editing of the work of John Duns Scotus by Luke Wadding, at the Irish Franciscan College in Rome. The works of Duns Scotus, who was an early medieval supporter of the heliocentric system, were known to Ussher. This promising early linkage between Irish intellectuals, both native and colonial, and the European scientific renaissance was cut short in the 1640s, in the context of the European religious wars, which assumed catastrophic intensity in Ireland during the Cromwell period.

There follow three chapters by McMillan with others covering the links with Protestantism, the scientific societies, and the 19th century reform movement; Church-State relations, and the Baconian theory of the State. [The Tudor monarchy used Trinity College as a means of exiling from England intellectuals of the Puritan persuasion, perceived as a threat.] There was a 'Baconian' movement in Ireland aimed at disseminating scientific knowledge among tradesmen and artisans which included the Dublin Society (1731), the Society of Arts (1754) and the Society of Improvers (1723).

In Chapter 5 McMillan makes the case that TCD has consistently played a pioneering role in the reform of university education in the UK as a whole, beginning with the example of Bartholemew Lloyd who introduced French mathematical notation in 1815, overthrowing what by then had become the 'dead hand of Newton', and risking being labelled as subversive in the political reaction of the time.

Richard Jarrell, of York (Toronto) in Chapter 6 compares technical education in the core industrial nations of Europe, and in the US. Germany, a late arrival, leapfrogged Britain by central State initiatives aimed at producing an educated workforce, and industrial PhDs were the norm. Irish experience is interesting because it falls between that of the US and that of the Colonies. Agriculture, as practiced by the 'improving landlords' with the aid of the RDS, was the main channel for technical education, and this trend led to Plunkett and the Recess Committee at the end of the century. [The 'Mechanics Institute' movement in the Irish context was however a false start; they made sense in Britain, keeping factory workers out of the pubs, but in Ireland they became middle-class clubs; they were a 'borrowed concept in an inappropriate setting'.]

Sean McCartain in Chapters 7 and 8 traces the rise of technical education in the context of the development of the fruits of the Recess Committee. In the background the author concentrates on obstacles placed in way of technical education by dominant laissez-faire philosophy of government. [It was opposition from Liverpool Financial Reform Association which killed the Model Agricultural Schools. Most initiatives were therefore via private subscriptions, from people such as Bianconi in Clonmel and Crawford in Cork.] A turning-point was the 1884 Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (Samuelson) which laid the basis for subsequent local government involvement, once this was established in 1898. Education in the principles underlying a trade was distinguished from 'learning a trade', thus getting round the 'laissez-faire' objectors.

Important as this was, it was focused on England, and it took the 1895 Recess Committee, organised by Sir Horace Plunkett, to develop the political leverage which arose from Samuelson, using for example the extraordinary discrepancy in the public money spent on science, art and technical instruction per head of population between England (over £3) and Ireland (one old penny).

The Recess Committee met in the Dublin Mansion House, organised to pick up experience from abroad, and produced a seminal report which led eventually to setting up the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, with Plunkett in the lead. The author develops many interesting themes relating to Home Rule politics and religion in this context. The Recess Committee included Father Thomas Findlay, the co-operative activist priest, and Rev Dr Kane, the Grand Master of the Belfast Orange Lodge.

Other chapters cover the development of the Vocational Education Committees' curricula and the emergence of the National Council for Educational Awards, modern apprenticeship procedures, case studies of historic Mechanics Institute episodes, the development of the examination system under the influence of James Booth, agricultural education, early teacher trade unionism, the role of local government and central government. There is a chapter by Clive Williams on the Pestalozzi method in technical education (learning by doing); this, in the context of general and technical education, became established in England after 1822 thanks to the prior work of John Synge of Glanmore, the grandfather of JM Synge, by a convoluted route which the author traces.

In Chapter 19, which is given in full on the Tyndall Publications web-site(3), Patricia Phillips traces the history of the Queens Institute, Dublin (1861- 1881); this was the first technical college for women in Europe. The problem of how to employ 'gentlewomen' had emerged in Britain as a consequence of the restrictive middle-class mores of the Victorian era. Teaching and governess-ing were the only open professions. It was addressed by early feminists, in the spirit of Mary Wollstonecraft the 18th century feminist pioneer.

[In England there was founded in 1859 the Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women. The author goes at some length into the English feminist and radical roots of this, and then makes the link into Ireland via the 1861 conference of the Association, which took place in Dublin.] The prime movers in the Irish initiative which followed were the Quaker Anne Jellicoe (celebrated as the founder of Alexandra College) and Barbara Corlett. [The former was married to a mill-owner, whose attempts to educate and train the local girls in useful arts had fallen foul of the Catholic Church, and the latter was the daughter of a coach-spring manufacturer.] They had to overcome the social barriers between perceived 'gentility' and work and this in the Irish environment proved to be more acute a problem than in England. Dublin was awash with impecunious gentlewomen, consequent on the numerous bankruptcies of estates due to the famine.

Rather than attempting to invent 'suitable' occupations for distressed gentry, they decided to embark on a technical training centre for women, to teach the basic skills of industry and commerce. They got patronage from leading citizens and from Royalty, and set up classes covering a wide range of skills, including telegraphy, photography, engraving. They got industrial sponsorship from the B and I Magnetic Telegraph Co. Shortly after this time Anne Jellicoe took up her post with the nascent Alexandra College, leaving Barbara Corlett to run the show according to her lights, which were however somewhat restricted to the 'decaying gentry' market. [Ms Corlett steered the curriculum away from the practical arts, towards things like French and music, considered more ladylike. In the 1880s an attempt was made to return to the original aims of the 1861 project by a group of influentials, and a new Association for the Training and Employment of Women was set up. The Provost of Trinity College participated, along with the great and the good.] The initiative was subsumed into the overall Dublin technical education system, which was open to women from the outset.

The references for each chapter are extensive at the end of the book, sometimes interspersed with explanatory notes, and there is a reasonably comprehensive index. The publishers are indebted to the Irish Vocational Education Association for sponsorship. The book deserves the attention of the increasing number of historians who are concerned with the cultural impact on their period of the state of the practical arts.

Buried Alive in Ireland: a Story of a 20th Century Inquisition; Derry Kelleher, Justice Books (Fernhurst, Hillside Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow)(4), 2001; 490pp £20 pb (add £10 for postage)

The message conveyed by 'Prometheus' (above) is one of a serious culture-gap between the practical arts, including the application of the global science culture to the specific problems encountered in a developing post-colonial nation like Ireland, on the one hand, and on the other hand the culture of the Irish government establishment, dominated as it was by civil servants without any college education, and imbued with a Christian Brother culture of rote-learned book-knowledge.

Kelleher shares with the present writer a background in science and technology, and a tradition of swimming against the tide of emigration in the 1950s, in order to try to convey a vision derived from the classic Enlightenment republican political message, and its Marxist consequences, in the somewhat obscurantist Irish environment of the day.

Unknown to me in my parallel Trinity College universe in the 1940s, Kelleher did a science degree in University College Cork, after a period of internment in the Curragh. He was associated with the development of the Cork Socialist Party, which ran public lectures on topics like 'science and socialism', 'on the Jewish question', 'West Cork Pioneers of Socialism' (a key such pioneer being William Thompson to whom Marx was indebted for his 'labour theory of value', and who figures in James Connolly's Labour in Irish History), [getting a good vote for Micheal O Riordain in the 1946 by-election, upstaging the catholic-nationalist right-wing Aiseiri group (mostly Fianna Fail dissidents), and] triggering by its success a virulent anti-communist campaign led by Alfred O'Rahilly, of which the result was that Kelleher after getting his degree had to emigrate. He went to Trinidad, where he began to pick up the experience that led to his becoming a full-fledged chemical engineer, with experience in the sugar and petroleum industries, both relevant to Irish economic development. Kelleher attributed most of the trouble he had subsequently in getting back to Ireland to this O'Rahilly 'Inquisition', which process underlies the title of the book.

[The present reviewer, after an apprenticeship with the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, spent a relatively sheltered 1950s in the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, a cosmopolitan enclave where world-class scientific research was done, attracting students from abroad, to work under people like Schroedinger (who invented quantum-mechanics), Lanczos (an Einstein collaborator from his Princeton period), Synge (JL, the nephew of JM the playwright, and a respected world-class relativist) and our own Cormac O Ceallaigh, the discoverer of the K-meson. O Ceallaigh had to spend most of his time fighting the civil service constraints imposed on the DIAS, which had been set up by a well-intentioned de Valera in the 1940s as a haven for anti-fascist refugee scholars. But Dev had no idea how science worked, and he set it up in isolation from the TCD and UCD postgraduate systems, which if let it could have helped to catalyse into a dynamic Dublin-based cross-cultural unity. Thus] Kelleher and I were both, in different ways, victims of the intellectual partition of the Free State university system, mirroring the political partition of the country.

During his spell in the Fawley oil-refinery in the 1950s he encountered the Irish trainees who had been sent there in preparation for the Whitegate oil-refinery project, and he has some critical things to say about the socio-technical aspects of this, and the workings of the Free State establishment mafias. [Although nominally declared a 'republic' in 1948 Kelleher consistently identifies the '26-counties' as the 'Free State', with the true inclusive all-Ireland Republic remaining a distant vision.]

During the 1960s Derry Kelleher was involved with the present writer in an attempt to set up a Kane-Bernal Society, the objective of which was to pick up on the legacies of Sir Robert Kane and Desmond Bernal where they related to the role of science and technology in the Irish national economic and cultural context. [He has kind words to say about Joseph O'Reilly the Cork chemistry professor who had defended him against the 'O'Rahilly Inquisition', and Colm O h-Eocha the National Science Council chairman, whom he credits with knowledge of something of the Bernal legacy.]

[Sir Robert Kane FRS is perhaps most remembered as the first President of Queens College Cork, where as a Catholic he attempted to make the foundation acceptable to Catholics, despite Cardinal Cullen's 'Godless Colleges' ban. He was a scientist of world standing, having served his time with Liebig in Germany; he had produced a global best-selling textbook on chemistry. JD Bernal FRS (born in Nenagh 1901) invented the analytical technology which enabled Watson and Crick to identify the structure of DNA in the 1950s; he also pioneered 'science and society' studies, and the study of the development of science itself using the methods of science. Both were active at the interface between science and politics, as have been Kelleher and I from the 1950s to date.]

Kelleher then develops an apparent digression into the background of the Orange Order and the Boyne mythology, with the Pope being in alliance with William in the Augsburg League, and then goes into the Dissenting tradition in the North, which he correctly credits as the originator of modern Republicanism, quoting my father Joe Johnston who in the Seanad on 2/02/1939 reminded us that '..the men behind the walls of Derry were better Republicans than the besiegers..'.

[His analysis of the decline of 'official Sinn Fein' towards its present 'Workers party' role is insightful, but better treated in the second publication under review.] During the late 1960s and early 70s Kelleher was active in the 'Christian-Marxist Dialogue' in the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, and also in the work of the Dublin Wolfe Tone Society which was then in the lead of the republican politicisation process, with the present writer also involved. [His treatment of the events leading up to the 1970 split, and the foundation of the Provisionals, is insightful, uncovering the negative roles of both the irredentist catholic-nationalism of Blaney et al, and the adventurist ultra-leftism of the Queens students who with the 'Peoples Democracy' group undermined the work of the NI Civil Rights Association. He gives credit to the latter and to Tony Coughlan for the attempt to develop in 1970 a campaign for a Bill of Rights, which if it had been pursued with vigour would have give us the current Good Friday Agreement situation without the decades of mayhem.]

We have a book here which will be mined by future historians seeking to understand the problems confronting the development of political ideas in the context of Connolly's 'Carnival of Reaction' which the latter predicted would be the consequence of the partition of the country. Some will find it a good read; many will find it infuriating, but will read it all the same.

Irish Republicanism - an Authentic Perspective, Derry Kelleher, (Justice Books, Fernhurst, Hillside Road, Greystones, Co Wicklow)(4), 2001; 490pp £20 pb (add £10 for postage).

Kelleher adds two different sub-titles; on the title-page we have 'through truth to enlightened action, peace and Irish unity', and at the beginning of the Preface we have 'a primer for peace in the millennium'. [The 20-page preface opens with a quote from Nelson Mandela. He dedicates the book to his mentors whom he identifies as Mick Kelly, in whose history classes in the Curragh Internment Camp in 1940 Kelleher learned to question school history, Desmond Greaves as the progenitor of the Civil Rights approach to Northern political radicalisation, and George Gilmore as the founder of the 1934 Republican Congress and as a living link with the Dissenter republican tradition.]

Together with the other book, we have an attempt by the author to place on record a lifetime of struggle and marginalisation, in his attempt to rescue the Enlightenment tradition of the 1790s Dissenters, with their inclusive Republic, from the unwelcome overlay of Catholic nationalism and from the dead hand of the Fenian conspiratorial tradition. [The former he attributes to British influence in the way they set up Maynooth, and the latter he identifies as pervading Free State establishment thinking, surfacing with particularly pernicious consequences in 1970, with active support given to the emergence of the Provisionals by elements in the then Dublin Government, and the consequent undermining of the NI Civil Rights Association and its campaign for a Bill of Rights.]

Both books share a concern about the culture-gap between political leaderships (whether mainstream or emergent left-republican) and the application of scientific technology in the Irish context, concerning issues such as the Whitegate refinery, production of nitrogen fertiliser at the Avoca works, or the Asahi synthetic fibre works at Killala. There is a socio-technical dimension, and he documents the interaction with the present writer on the various issues.

The first book is Kelleher's personal odyssey, while the second focuses on the 1960s politicisation of Sinn Fein and the then IRA, on the Provisional split, and on the subsequent erosion of the embryonic 1960s Enlightenment republican tradition within the post-split 'officials' and its substitution by a pseudo-Marxist 'workerist' economism, with the evolution of the movement towards its current 'Workers Party' situation, and the subsequent shedding of its opportunist political wing towards the Labour Party via the Democratic Left.

The first half of the book is taken up with historical background, in the form of a polemical re-interpretation of Irish history from a variety of sources. [To get its flavour I can perhaps quote some of the chapter heads and sub-heads. Foreword: Republicanism is not a Papish invention... when English Rule was Rome Rule... King Billy and the Battle of the Boyne, Fact and Fantasy: the League of Augsburg... the class issue at the Boyne... the fate of the Presbyterians after William's victory... The Legacy of the English Revolution: ...international significance.. economic and social determinants.. the Irish Dimension... the New Model Army, the Levellers and the Diggers... ] He instances the mutiny of Cromwell's army at Banbury on May 2 1649, the Leveller leaders holding that '...the cause of the Irish natives ... was the very same with our cause here...' He argues that the first supporters of, and martyrs for, the Irish Republic were the English Levellers who attempted to resist being sent to Ireland.

Kelleher then has a chapter on the French Revolution, the Nation, the wars of intervention and the Bonapartist counter-evolution, leading in to a chapter of the Legacy of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. The key point in this section is that Tone's Argument on behalf of the Catholics was addressed to the Dissenters, and he recognised that the '...historically anomalous position of the Catholics vis-a-vis the Stuart dynasty was the cause of the lingering prejudice against them amongst the Dissenters..'. He follows with a chapter (the Genesis of Neo-Colonialism) in which, leaning heavily on Connolly, he adumbrates the arguments for the key role of the British in setting up the Catholic Church as their 'moral constabulary', and the role of O'Connell in keeping Protestants out of the Repeal movement. In passing he relates the arguments to the politics of the NICRA and Stormont.

He continues with 'The Lessons of the Civil Rights Struggle' which illustrates Connolly's 'carnival of reaction', and shows how the Civil Rights movement was destabilised from the right by catholic-nationalism and from the ultra-left by the 'Peoples Democracy'. He credits the Cameron Report with recognising the constructive role of the then politicising republican movement. Bloody Sunday killed the last vestiges of potential for the Civil Rights approach, and Kelleher attacks bitterly the pathological 'official republican' response to it with the Aldershot bombing. [In this context he is also critical of my evaluation of Goulding in a letter to the press round the time of his funeral last year. I accept his criticism; Goulding's attempts to manage the politicisation process was indeed deeply flawed and inconsistent, and I hope to treat this in some depth elsewhere in due course.]

The remainder of the book is taken up with an attempted critical analysis of Fianna Fail, the demise of 'official republicanism', Orange mythology etc; this is the least satisfactory part of the book but even in its incomplete state it gives a myriad of trails for researchers to follow, and poses many unanswered questions.

The notes and references are extensive but their editing leaves a lot to be desired. Books on this scale badly need indexes, and we must wait for this, alas, until a second edition. In fact, the two books would benefit hugely by being put together into one, edited down and indexed, a technical challenge for an empathetic modern historian dedicated to resurrecting the embers of the Enlightenment tradition in the philosophy of the Irish Republic.

Notes and References

1. Dr Roy Johnston rjtechne@iol.ie is an applied-scientific consultant who has written extensively on 'science and society' questions, mostly in the Irish context; a selection is accessible on his web-site http://www.iol.ie/~rjtechne.

2. cf s-rashid@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu; the paper is in the Manchester School, Vol LVI, no 4, December 1988.

3. see http://www.tyndallpublications.com where there is also an abstract given for each chapter.

4. Kelleher being alas deceased this address is no longer valid, but the distribution has been taken on by Athol Books in Belfast, whose e-mail is athol-st@dircon.co.uk

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