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03 Mar

Catholic Controversialist: Cornelius Nary

Cornelius Nary

Cornelius Nary (detail) © UCD OFM, with permission

Despite living in a time when anti-Catholic legislation was in full force, Cornelius Nary managed to combine scholarship and religious controversy with being a Dublin priest. Little is known of his early life. He was born in Co. Kildare, probably at Tipper, near Naas. Though details of his parents have not been found he was probably the son of a substantial tenant farmer. Two brothers and three sisters are named in his will. He was ordained a priest in Kilkenny in 1682 before starting a course of studies in the Irish College in Paris in 1683. He remained there until 1695 when he obtained a doctorate in civil and canon law 1.

He then appears in London as tutor to the son of Alexander MacDonnell, Catholic third earl of Antrim. His first publication was in 1696, A modest and true account of the chief points in controversy between Roman Catholics and protestants, in which he castigated the late John Tillotson (1630–94), archbishop of Canterbury.

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20 Feb

Eco on a Perfect Language: Gaelic

The dream of a perfect language did not only obsess European culture. The story of the confusion of tongues, and of the attempt to redeem its loss through the rediscovery or invention of a language common to all humanity, can be found in every culture.
[…]
It is in the seventh century, before any known document written in Romance or Germanic languages, that the first allusion to our theme appears. It is contained in an attempt, on the part of the Irish grammarians, to defend spoken Gaelic over written Latin. In a work entitled Auracepit na n-Éces (‘the precepts of the poets’), the Irish grammarians refer to the structural material of the tower of Babel as follows: ‘Others affirm that in the tower there were only nine materials, and that these were clay and water, wool and blood, wood and lime, pitch, linen and bitumen…These represent noun, pronoun, verb, adverb, participle, conjunction, preposition, interjection.’
Ignoring the anomaly of the nine parts of the tower and only eight parts of speech, we are meant to understand that the structure of language and the construction of the tower are analogous. This is part of an argument that the Gaelic language constituted the first and only instance of a language that overcame the confusion of tongues. It was the first, programmed language, constructed after the confusion of tongues, and created by the seventy-two wise men of the school of Fenius.

Umberto Eco (1995) The Search for a Perfect Language (trans. James Fentress), London:Fontana Press, pp. 1, 17, 18.

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15 Feb

Sophie Bryant, (Irish) Renaissance Woman

Sophie Bryant

Sophie Bryant (née Willock) was a true renaissance woman – suffragist, educationalist, mathematician, psychologist, theorist and “one of the most sophisticated and perceptive of the revivalist thinkers” 1 Born in Sandymount, near Dublin, on 15 February 1850 to Revd William Alexander Willock, a mathematician and fellow of Trinity College Dublin, and his wife, daughter of J. P. Morris of Skreen Castle. The family moved to London when Bryant was thirteen.

She married in 1869, but her husband died the next year. She was appointed to teach mathematics in North London Collegiate School, confounding the popular idea that girls were not suited for mathematics by sending a succession of girls to study the subject in Girton. She studied for her own degree at the same time, taking a BSc (London) in 1881 with a first in mental and moral science and a second in mathematics. Three years later she became the first woman to be awarded a DSc (in psychology). She became headmistress of the North London Collegiate in 1895, and was active in the development of education, including teacher training 2

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14 Feb

The Composite Irish Nation

It must contain and represent the races of Ireland. It must not be Celtic, it must not be Saxon—it must be Irish. The Brehon law, and the maxims of Westminster, the cloudy and lightning genius of the Gael, the placid strength of the Sasanach, the marshalling insight of the Norman—these are components of such a nationality.

Thomas Davis, quoted by Sophie Bryant in her 1913 Genius of the Gael (London:T. Fisher Unwin, p. 12), facing chapter 1: “The Composite Irish Nation of Today” (online at archive.org).

The original unabridged quote is from page 268 of:
Thomas Osborne Davis (1914) “Ballad Poetry of Ireland.” in D.J. O Donoghue (ed) Essays, literary and historical. By Thomas Davis. Centenary edition, including several pieces never before collected. Dundalk:Dundalgan Press, pp. 366–376 [online at UCC Celt].

10 Feb

Canon Lawyer, Papal Legate: Gille of Limerick

Imago Ecclesiae (Durham Cathedral Library MS B.II.35, fol 36v)

Imago Ecclesiae (Durham Cathedral Library MS B.II.35, fol 36v)

“For the early Irish Lent began the Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Gilbert of Limerick (†1145) insisted on Ash Wednesday” 1. This injunction was part of the programme of church reform that took place in the 12th century, reform that Gilbert (or Gille) of Limerick was deeply involved with. Gille was also “a philosopher whose philosophical thinking form[ed] the basis of his canon law” 2.

We know very little about Gille’s life: there are even numerous versions given of his name. He refers to himself both as Gille and Gillebertus 3. It is not even clear whether he was of Irish or Norse extraction. John Fleming suggests that his family roots are almost certainly in the Hibero-Norse city of Limerick 4, but his choice to retire to Bangor, Co. Down where he died may suggest that as his birthplace 5
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08 Feb

Being a woman

I think being a woman is like being Irish... Everyone says you're important and nice, but you take second place all the same - Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch (2008/1965) “The Red and the Green”, Random House, p. 36.

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29 Jan

1916 and Ideal Ethics

I have found few people in Ireland deeply concerned about the ethics of civil war or revolution. The majority accept the principle that it is lawful to use physical force in support of high ideals. Their questioning is about the justice of the cause; and if that be admitted, they seem to think the right to use physical force to secure its triumph follows in logical and unquestionable sequence. I will not discuss the morality of civil war or revolution. I remember a man, tired of ideal ethics, who cried out at a meeting many years ago: “Let us hear no more of the good man or the bad man. Let us speak of the wise man and the foolish man.” I am like that man.

Æ George Russell (1923) “Lessons of Revolution” in Studies Vol. 12, No. 45 (Mar., 1923), pp. 1-6 [JSTOR]

This piece was written just after the War of Independence, as the Civil War was looming. This opening paragraph gives Russell’s view of the majority opinion about the ethical status of the Rising and subsequent warfare. The rest of the article gives Russell’s opinion of how successful those events were in producing the type of state he and others had hoped for (not at all).

25 Jan

Boyle’s Corpuscular Philosophy

That both parties agree in deducing all the Phaenomena of Nature from Matter and Local motion; I esteem‘d that notwithstanding those things wherein the Atomists and the Cartesians differ’d, they might be thought to agree in the main, and their Hypotheses might by a Person of a reconciling Disposition be look’d on as, upon the matter, one Philosophy. Which because it explicates things by Corpuscles, or minute Bodies, may (not very unfitly) be call’d Corpuscular.

Robert Boyle, The Physiological Essays, 1661.

Robert Boyle’s attempt to redraw the 17th century lines of debate about nature. For Boyle the major dividing line is between the scholastics who invoke forms to explain nature, while the Cartesians and the Atomists agree that the effects of nature can be explained using the principles of matter and motion. The latter two he therefore groups together under the Corpuscular Philosophy. Boyle argues that the differences between Cartesians and Atomists are either purely metaphysical or of minor theoretical importance. One such difference was that the Cartesians argued for a plenum (an entirely “full” world with no gaps) while the atomists believed the world was particles in a vacuum. Boyle describes himself as a corpuscularian, avoiding the term atomist which had become strongly linked to atheism.

This essay was the subject of correspondence between Henry Oldenburg and Spinoza, with Boyle participating at second hand in certain of the letters. Spinoza explicitly disagreed on some points of Boyle’s, for example the existence of vacuum, and even Boyle’s attempt at broad agreement between Cartesians and atomists was problematic for his philosophy. For more on the correspondence and the differences in position of Spinoza and Boyle see:

Filip Buyse (2013) Boyle, Spinoza and the Hartlib Circle: The Correspondence Which Never Took Place (online)

Filip Buyse (2010) Spinoza and Robert Boyle’s Definition of Mechanical Philosophy, Historia Philosophica, 8:73-89. (Academia)

Also see:
Peter Millican (2009) Robert Boyle’s Corpuscularian Theory, YouTube.

21 Jan

Dorothy Moore: Building Networks in the Republic of Letters

A room of 17th century women in conversation

The digital humanities project Six Degrees of Francis Bacon is holding an add-a-thon on 23rd January 2016 aimed at increasing the number of women (Early Modern Britain, 1500-1700) included in the project (see the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon site here.) Participate in person or online. Further details here or on Twitter via @6Bacon.


In 1639 Johan van Beverwijck published his book On the Excellence of the Female Sex [1] which argued for the intellectual abilities of women. One of the examples included was Dorothy Moore [2]:

the widow of an English nobleman, not yet twenty-seven years of age, adorned with all the graces of body and soul. In a short time she learned Italian and French to such an extent that she could read works written in both languages and spoke French fluently. This encouraged her to study Latin, which she also mastered soon. Not stopping there, she embarked on the study of Hebrew, in which she progressed so far in a few months that she could read the Bible in that language. In addition she is so devout that, in between her studies, she sets aside a special time each day to spend piously, reading and meditating.

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20 Jan

Debating the ethics of 1916

A painting depicting the GPO on fire in 1916.

Dublin 1916 Painting
(c) KMAN999/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

2016 has started with a debate over the ethics of the 1916 Rising, primarily in the Irish Times. The first shot was fired by Patsy McGarry [1] who argued that the Rising was “an immoral and anti-democratic act organised by a minority within a minority, who, looking into their own souls, saw there what they deemed was right for the Irish people.” McGarry pointed to the messianic leanings of Pearse and the unilateral nature of the violence.

Diarmaid Ferriter wrote a reply [2] regarding Pearse’s self-image as a Christ-figure and pointing out its parallels in the 1966 (printed 1972) critique of Fr Francis Shaw [3]. But what of the suggestion that the Rising was immoral?

A piece from 2014 in the Unthinkable column had already featured an argument from James G Murphy that the Rising failed the “Just War” test, where to be justified wars must (have: “1) just cause, (2) competent authority, (3) comparative justice, (4) right intention, (5) reasonable prospect of success, (6) last resort, and (7) proportionality.” Murphy concluded: “Private individuals have no business or right to go to war. Leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising take note” [4]. Murphy extended the case in 2016, arguing that aspects of the commemoration are deeply problematic, setting the Rising up as the key moment in the establishment of the Irish State, without questioning its violence and divisiveness. He reiterates the key issue regarding the legitimacy of the Rising [5]: Read More