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16 Oct

The discovery of quaternions

If I may be allowed to speak of myself in connexion with the subject, I might do so in a way which would bring you in, by referring to an ante-quaternionic time, when you were a mere child […] Every morning in the early part of the above-cited month [ October, 1843], on my coming down to breakfast, your (then) little brother William Edwin, and yourself, used to ask me, “Well, Papa, can you multiply triplets”? Whereto I was always obliged to reply, with a sad shake of the head: “No, I can only add and subtract them.”


But on the 16th day of the same month – which happened to be a Monday, and a Council day of the Royal Irish Academy – I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me, along the Royal Canal, to which she had perhaps driven; and although she talked with me now and then, yet an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance. An electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth, the herald (as I foresaw, immediately) of many long years to come of definitely directed thought and work, by myself if spared, and at all events on the part of others, if I should even be allowed to live long enough distinctly to communicate the discovery. Nor could I resist the impulse – unphilosophical as it may have been – to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula with the symbols, ijk; namely,
i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1
which contains the Solution of the Problem, but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away.

Letter dated August 5, 1865 from Sir W. R. Hamilton to Rev. Archibald H. Hamilton.

The classic account of the discover of quaternions. Hamilton also notes in this letter that the Council Books of the Academy record that he had obtained leave to read a paper on quaternions, which reading took place on the 13th November 1843.

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22 May

Lyric Feature: A Radical Life

A Radical Life from Lyric Feature on RTE Lyric FM

A documentary, presented by Susan Manly, on the life and work of Maria Edgeworth made for the 170th anniversary of her death . For more on the documentary and Maria Edgeworth see this article from RTE.

13 Dec

Cooke against the radicals

Statue of Henry Cooke against bare tree branches

The statue of Henry Cooke (who died on 13th December 1868) stands in Belfast with its back to the “Inst”, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. Its pose can be seen as a symbol of his determined conflict with the liberal (and, he feared, religiously unorthodox) school [1]. 

A non-denominational establishment founded in 1810 by William Drennan, the Belfast Academical Institution served as both a school and a university. Cooke alleged it was a “seminary of Arianism”, due to the presence of prominent anti-Trinitarians and Unitarians such as William Bruce Jr (chair of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, nephew of William Bruce the printer) and Henry Montgomery (chair of English) [2]

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24 Nov

Science must take her path & Theology hers: Mary Boole’s questions to Darwin

Do you consider the holding of your Theory of Natural Selection, in its fullest & most unreserved sense, to be inconsistent,—I do not say with any particular scheme of Theological doctrine,—but with the following belief, viz:

That knowledge is given to man by the direct Inspiration of the Spirit of God.

That God is a personal and Infinitely good Being.

That the effect of the action of the Spirit of God on the brain of man is especially a moral effect.

And that each individual man has, within certain limits, a power of choice as to how far he will yield to his hereditary animal impulses, and how far he will rather follow the guidance of the Spirit Who is educating him into a power of resisting those impulses in obedience to moral motives.

The reason why I ask you is this. My own impression has always been,—not only that your theory was quite compatible with the faith to which I have just tried to give expression,—but that your books afforded me a clue which would guide me in applying that faith to the solution of certain complicated psychological problems which it was of practical importance to me, as a mother, to solve. I felt that you had supplied one of the missing links,—not to say the missing link,—between the facts of Science & the promises of religion. Every year’s experience tends to deepen in me that impression.

But I have lately read remarks, on the probable bearing of your theory on religious & moral questions, which have perplexed & pained me sorely. I know that the persons who make such remarks must be cleverer & wiser than myself. I cannot feel sure that they are mistaken unless you will tell me so. And I think,—I cannot know for certain, but I think,—that, if I were an author, I would rather that the humblest student of my works should apply to me directly in a difficulty than that she should puzzle too long over adverse & probably mistaken or thoughtless criticisms.

At the same time I feel that you have a perfect right to refuse to answer such questions as I have asked you. Science must take her path & Theology hers, and they will meet when & where & how God pleases, & you are in no sense responsible for it, if the meeting-point should be still very far off.

Letter from Mary Everest Boole, dated 13th December 1886, addressed to Charles Darwin (online at The Darwin Project).
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06 Aug

The most famous thing O’Connell said…and Wellington didn’t

Daniel O'Connell and the Duke of Wellington, both dressed as Irish chieftains, argue about Repeal.

Daniel O’Connell had a gift with words. Many of his aphorisms have been passed down to us: “The altar of liberty totters when it is cemented only with blood”1 or “Gentlemen, you may soon have the alternative to live as slaves or die as free men”2  But surely his best known aphorism is this (and its many variants): “being born in a stable does not make a man a horse”.

Wait! Isn’t that a quote from Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington? It’s commonly thought to be so, but when it appears in recent biographies it is often with a caveat. For example, though Gregor Dallas simply reports the remark (as an example of Wellington rejecting his homeland)3, Gordon Corrigan calls the remark “apocryphal” 4 and Richard Holmes qualifies his account of how “he was to deny his Irishness” with a cautious “(so it was said)”5 Why the caution?
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09 Jul

Edmund Burke: Constructing the Father of Conservativism

Conservatism is a disposition, not a political doctrine. It is difficult to avoid this implication in statements such as that of Robert Michels (in 1930, as quoted by Richard Bourke) “The Bolsheviks of today are as conservative as the Tsarists of yesterday”. As Bourke points out, “one conserves relative to opposing positions that seem to bring about unwelcome change”1

But if this is the case, why and when did Edmund Burke come to be associated with conservative thought in general, and the British Conservative Party in particular? This happened, as Emily Jones has shown, much later than many would think.

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, Burke was admired more by liberals than by conservatives. Whigs knew him as the man who provided the party manual, the Thoughts on the cause of the present discontents (1770), but also as the man who split the party. The Tories approved of his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) but were deeply aware of his Whig status. “His political legacy was thus divided between Whig exaltation of earlier texts, and Tory adulation of Reflections.” 2

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20 Jun

Children in Prison

It is the Prison Board, with the system that it carries out, that is the primary source of the cruelty that is exercised on a child in prison. The people who uphold the system have excellent intentions. Those who carry it out are humane in intention also. Responsibility is shifted on to the disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right.
The present treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not understanding the peculiar psychology of a child’s nature. A child cannot understand a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realise what society is. With grown up people it is, of course, the reverse. Those of us who are either in prison, or have been sent there, can understand, and do understand, what that collective force called society means, and whatever we may think of its methods or claims, we can force ourselves to accept it.[…]

A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But the contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison system — of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the lonely cell, the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison Commissioners, the mode of discipline as it is termed, of the life.

Oscar Wilde (1898) Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life London: Murdoch & Co., pp.

The entire letter was reproduced in Slate (2018) “Should We Be Putting Migrant Children in Detention Centers? Let’s Ask Oscar Wilde!” Slate [16 June 2018].

20 Apr

AE against Conscription

“Conscription for Ireland – A warning to England” – a pamphlet reprint of a letter against conscription by AE (George Russell). Held in UCD Special Collections.

This A4 page leaflet was published by the Mansion House Conference. The text consists of a letter written by George Russell to The Manchester Guardian, printed in the issue of May 11th 1918. This copy is held in UCD Special Collections.
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01 Jan

“My accomplished friend”: the life and philosophy of Maria Edgeworth

Maria Edgeworth was born at Black Bourton, Oxfordshire, 250 years ago on 1 January 1768. She was the eldest daughter and third child of the inventor Richard Lovell Edgeworth and his first wife, Anna Maria Elers. Maria Edgeworth’s mother died when she was six and her father remarried the following year.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth had inherited both an estate in Mastrim, Co. Longford and an neglectful attitude to it. He spent little time there until 1782, when the entire family removed there. The move was partially prompted by the views of the English midlands industrialists and philanthropists with whom he associated (he was a Benthamite and a friend of many members of the Lunar society including Erasmus Darwin, James Watt, and Josiah Wedgewood). This was also constitutionally an interesting time: there was an ongoing demand in Ireland for parliamentary reform, and Grattan’s Parliament was established the following year.

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25 Oct

Character of the Invisible

What if the beautiful itself be the expression of something behind this material world, some character of the Invisible of which the visible is the revelation?

John Todhunter (1872) The Theory of the Beautiful, p. 17. Quoted in Jane Elizabeth Wright (2002) “Todhunter, John” in Thomas Duddy (ed) The Dictionary of Irish Philosophers, Thoemmes, pp. 329-30.

Todhunter’s idealist aesthetics saw the beautiful as an expression of the “Kosmical Order”, of which the Sublime was another expression. The essence of beauty for Todhunter was harmony, and the emotion produced by it was love.