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20 Sep

In Our Time: Annie Besant

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Melvyn Bragg and his guests; Lawrence Goldman (University of Oxford), David Stack (University of Reading) and Yasmin Khan (University of London); discuss the life of the prominent 19th-century social reformer Annie Besant (1 October, 1847 – 20 September 1933).

In 1893 Annie Besant wrote: “it has always been somewhat of a grievance to me that I was born in London, ‘within the sound of Bow Bells”, when three-quarters of my blood and all my heart are Irish”1.

This episode of In Our Time follows Besant’s life as an activist for women’s rights, birth control, Socialism, secularism, Irish Home Rule and better conditions for workers. It also covers her later involvement with theosophy, a belief system inspired by Eastern religions that also attracted thinkers like Eva Gore Booth, William Butler Yeats and George “AE” Russell, and with the Indian self-rule movement.

The BBC website page for the programme and the Radio 4 blog post on the programme,

14 Aug

Sophie Bryant advocating Boole’s Symbolic Language

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The value of a uniformization of notation was recognized by late-19th and early-20th centuries logicians, who not only remarked the wide variety of definitions and symbolizations for the most basic elements of logic, but complained about the confusing proliferation of notation systems. Venn divided the 33 forms into seven different general types. The authors whose notations are considered range from Leibniz to Boole and Hamilton, and from Charles Pierce and his students to Frege.[…] In 1888 Sophie Willock Bryant (1850-1922), in her article “On the Nature and Functions of a Complete Symbolic Language” – not unnaturally then – complained of the existence of too many competing logical notations and systems, and she advocated a return to Boole’s original system.

I. H. Anellis (2014) “Pierce’s Role in the History of Logic: Lingua Universalis and Calculus Ratiocinator” in Arnold Koslow and Arthur Buchsbaum (eds.) The Road to Universal Logic: Festschrift for the 50th Birthday of Jean-Yves Béziau, Volume 2, pp. 135-170.
Quote from p. 147.

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26 Jul

Three Act Comedy: George Bernard Shaw.

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“You cannot have power for good without having power for evil too. Even mother’s milk nourishes murderers as well as heroes” – George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara.

The first act of George Bernard Shaw’s life started at 33 Synge Street, Dublin on 26th July 1856. Brought up in an outwardly orthodox but unconventional Irish Protestant family, he later declared he was “a freethinker before I knew how to think.” He left Ireland for London aged nineteen and remained there for the rest of his life, though was still concerned with Irish politics. (Iris Murdoch’s novel The Red and the Green mentions his writing circulating in Dublin in 1916.) After decades writing he finally achieved success as a playwright in the 1900s 1

Shaw has been called “one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived”2. He wrote extensively on diverse areas in religion, philosophy, politics, economics, culture and society.
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22 May

From Ireland to Manchester: Eva Gore-Booth and women’s labour

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Some vague Utopia?

In his poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markievicz”, Yeats called the work of Eva Gore-Booth a dream “of some vague Utopia”. It was, in fact, part of a wider campaign for the rights of working class people and for women that had been happening in Ireland for twenty years and in England, Wales and Scotland for longer.

In January 1907 James Larkin came to Belfast to act as general organiser for the National Union of Dock Labourers. He had previously been an organiser for the union in Liverpool, Preston and Glasgow and his aim was to unionise the unskilled workers of Belfast. That Summer he led the dockworkers in a strike to campaign for the right to organise and join trades unions, and for the rights of working class people. The strike grew into a movement, with women among the early participants. A thousand women walked out of Gallahers Tobaco in solidarity with seven co-workers sacked for attending a lunchtime meeting organised by Larkin. The strike spread to carters, coal heavers, boilermakers and most surprisingly of all, the Royal Irish Constabulary in Belfast. The Independent Orange Order even collected donations for the strikers on 12 July 19071.
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14 Apr

The Young King

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‘The land is free,’ said the young King,
‘and thou art no man’s slave.’

‘In war,’ answered the weaver, ‘the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor.
We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil.
We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn, and our own board is empty.
We have chains, though no eye beholds them;
and are slaves, though men call us free.’

Oscar Wilde (1894/1987) “The Young King” in The Works of Oscar Wilde London:Galley Press, pp. 224–233. Quote from p. 227. Available on UCC Celt.
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10 Apr

A Slip of Poetry on an Economic Tree: the National Being

Page, with writing showing through from the other side, on which is sketched a female figure, bent and walking with one arm ut, surrounded by a halo of fire, and a smaller sketch of a seated girl.
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The 150th anniversary of the birth of George Russell (on 10 April 1867 in Lurgan) comes at an appropriate time. The major focus of Russell’s life was on developing Ireland, materially and culturally. A poet, he seemed an unlikely choice as organizer for the newly established co-operative movement in Ireland in 1897. Yet his indefatigable work vindicated Horace Plunkett’s choice.

In 1916, Russell dedicated his new book The National Being: Some Thoughts on an Irish Polity to Plunkett1:

A good many years ago you grafted a slip of poetry on your economic tree. I do not know if you expected a hybrid. This essay may not be economics in your sense of the word. It certainly is not poetry in my sense…In my philosophy of life, we are all responsible for the results of our actions and their effects on others. This book is a consequence of your grafting operation, and so I dedicate it to you.

This book comes closest to bringing together Russell’s myriad interests reflected in his various friendships: Yeats’ mysticism, Plunkett’s concern for the rural population, Connolly’s fight for the urban labourer and Bryant’s argument for a unified Irish identity. The bulk of the book deals with the practical problems that a new Irish state needs to solve.
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26 Mar

The Circle Expanding

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At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world. In each of these stages a standard is formed, different from that of the preceding stage, but in each case the same tendency is recognised as virtue.

W. E. H. Lecky (1869) A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne 2nd edition, Vol. 1, London: Longmans, p. 103).

Lecky on the development of morality (with echoes of Edmund Burke).

06 Feb

Catholic Modernist: George Tyrrell

George Tyrrell
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In a previous post I argued against the idea that there were no Irish theological thinkers of note. Another example is the 19th and 20th century thinker George Tyrrell, whose ideas were received very differently by the Catholic Church. He was dismissed from the Society of Jesus in 1906 due to his modernist ideas.

George Tyrrell was born on 6 February 1861 at 91 Dorset St, Dublin. Born into an impoverished Church of Ireland family, he converted to Roman Catholicism in London aged eighteen and entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1880. He took his first vows in 1882, and studied philosophy in Stonyhurst College and theology in St Beuno’s College in North Wales (following in the footsteps of Gerard Manley Hopkins a decade earlier). He was ordained in 18911.
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25 Oct

John Todhunter’s Theory of the Beautiful

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In Todhunter’s Theory of the Beautiful (1872), beauty is infinite loveliness, which we apprehend both by reason and by the enthusiasm of love. The recognition of beauty as being such depends on taste; there can be no criterion for it. The only approach to a definition is found in culture. (What culture is, is not defined.) Intrinsically, art that which affects us through lines, colours, sounds, or words is not the product of blind forces, but of reasonable ones, working, with mutual helpfulness, towards a reasonable aim. Beauty is the reconciliation of contradictions.

From What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude, New York : Funk & Wagnalls (1904), p. 35. (archive.org).
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