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27 Jan

Edward Synge, friend and father

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The Episcopal Throne in the ruined Cathedral of Elphin (c) Vox Hiberionacum, with permission

The Episcopal Throne in the ruined Cathedral of Elphin
(c) Vox Hiberionacum, with permission

Edward Synge was born around 1690 and died in Dublin on the 27th January, 1762. He was the son of the elder Edward Synge, who was himself involved in the philosophical debates of the time.

He was educated in Trinity College Dublin (M.A. in 1712 and D.D. in 1728) and after being chancellor of St. Patrick’s (1726), was successively bishop of Clonfert (1730), Cloyne (1731), Ferns (1733), and finally Elphin (1740 until his death).

Synge was close to Francis Hutcheson and appears to have been a member of the Molesworth Circle. He assisted Hutcheson in developing revising his work and Hutcheson himself acknowledged that Synge had devised the general scheme of “Inquiry into Beauty and Virtue” before Hutcheson. The connection seems to have continued after Hutcheson’s departure for Glasgow and until his death, since his son dedicated the posthumous collection of his father’s works to Synge 1. Letters from the 1760s from Edward Synge giving advice to the younger Hutcheson still exist.

Synge was also friendly with George Berkeley who, like Hutcheson, was living in Dublin at the same time.

Despite his connections, Synge’s work in philosophy is minor, and is centred in the areas of moral and political philosophy. He argued for limited toleration (as his father before him had done), most notably in the sermon of 23rd October 1725 which he preached to the members of the House of Commons while prebendary of St Patricks. The sermon drew acclaim and was printed. It also drew vehement disagreement from the Church of Ireland vicar of Naas, Stephen Radcliffe, who wrote a 45 page pamphlet opposing the arguments of the sermon. Edward Synge wrote a vindication of his sermon in reply, along with a detailed outline of a possible oath that might be acceptable to Catholics2

Stephen Radcliffe advocated using force against those who were unorthodox in their religious opinions. Synge argued that force ought not be used by magistrates against the religiously unorthodox “if the publick civil interests are in no way affected”, aligning himself with Locke (and Francis Hutcheson). Like Locke, however, while he says everyone has a right to worship according to his conscience, atheists are beyond the pale since their beliefs are destructive of society. But otherwise “all persons in a society, whose principles of religion have no tendency to hurt the public, have a right to a toleration.”3

In his reply to Radcliffe and following in his father’s footsteps, Synge put forward his own version of an oath that might be acceptable to Catholics, and a proposal that the country accommodate 500 secular priests to serve the Catholic community. He made no other proposals regarding the Penal Laws, but noted that the limitations put on Catholic ownership of land meant they turned to trade, and held their wealth in money. Money was not as good a guarantor of their peaceful behaviour as money, and money could be used in revolt more readily4

The Elphim Windmill, built by Edward Synge (c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Elphim Windmill, built by Edward Synge
(c) Phil Burns/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Synge had six children, only one of whom, Alicia (1733-1807) survived into adulthood.  Synge was widowed in 1737 and when he was promoted to Bishop of Elphin Alicia stayed in the family home in Kevin Street. Synge lived in Roscommon in the summer, and with her in Dublin for the parliamentary winter term. While separated he wrote her a series of letters, collected as The Synge Letters. Bishop Edward Synge to His Daughter Alicia, Roscommon to Dublin 1746-1752. Extracts have also been printed in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (extracts on google). These letters give insight into the paternal relationship to daughters, and education and care of girls in the 18th century. They have been described as his most enduring legacy.

Synge died in office on 27 January 1762, aged 71.

Further Reading

David Berman (2004) “Synge, Edward, the younger (c. 1690-1762)” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, pp. 322-323

Robert Dunlop, “Synge Edward” in <Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55

Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy – on the Radcliffe controversy.

The Synge Letters. Bishop Edward Synge to His Daughter Alicia, Roscommon to Dublin 1746-1752

Fluidr: Roscommon – Elphim (pictures from the area including images of the ruined cathedral).

  1. David Berman (2004) “Synge, Edward, the younger (c. 1690-1762)” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, pp. 322-323
  2. Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, pp. 124-125, pp. 114-120.
  3. Synge’s sermon quoted in Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, p. 124. Also see David Berman (2004) “Synge, Edward, the younger (c. 1690-1762)” in Thomas Duddy (ed) Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, pp. 322-323
  4. Synge’s sermon quoted in Patrick Fagan (1991) Dublin’s Turbulent Priest: Cornelius Nary 1658-1738, Dublin:Royal Irish Academy, p. 125.

4 thoughts on “Edward Synge, friend and father

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