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14 Jul

The Tree of Liberty

A stone bearing the image of a tree and the "United Irishmen Catechism"

Monument to the 1798 Rebellion, Maynooth.
(c) Irish Philosophy

What is that in your hand?
It is a branch.
Of what?
Of the tree of liberty.
Where did it first grow?
In America.
Where does it bloom?
In France.
Where did the seeds fall?
In Ireland.

The philosophical background of the French Revolution (up to 1799) was to be found in Montesquieu, Rousseau and Locke. Rousseau and Locke were already popular in Ireland, with the United Irishman Edward Fitzgerald educated along principles laid out by the two philosophers. William Drennan, who first formulated the idea of the United Irishmen, was a great admirer of Rousseau.

In 1789, the month before the Bastille fell, a Whig Club was founded in Dublin, and in the following year in Belfast. These Whig Clubs held commemorations of the Fall of the Bastille in 1791, the same year Thomas Paine wrote his Rights of Man in answer to Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, Wolfe Tone published his An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland and the United Irishmen was founded (chronology, A concise history of Ireland (1909).

There were further commemorations of Bastille Day in 1792, and in France that November Edward Fitzgerald renounced his title. France acted as inspiration for the revolt of 1798, both politically and philosophically, and (Wolfe Tone hoped) as a source of support. Ultimately it ushered in over half a century of civil insurrection in Ireland, Europe and around the world.

A last Irish link – one of the seven prisoners in the Bastille the day it fell was Irish: Chevalier James F.X. Whyte, born in Dublin in 1730.

(Images of the French Revolution here and here)

13 Jun

The world is a vision, the state is a tree

In Gaelic literature we have something that the English-speaking countries have never possessed – a great folk literature. We have in Berkeley and in Burke a philosophy on which it is possible to base the whole life of a nation. That, too, is something which England, great as she is in modern scientific thought and every kind of literature, has not, I think. The modern Irish intellect was born more than two hundred years ago when Berkeley defined in three or four sentences the mechanical philosophy of Newton, Locke, and Hobbes, the philosophy of England in his day, and I think of English up to our day, and wrote after each, “We Irish do not hold with this”, or some like sentence. Feed the immature imagination upon that old folk life, and the mature intellect upon Berkeley and the great modern idealist philosophy created by his influence, upon Burke who restored to political thought its sense of history, and Ireland is reborn, potent, armed and wise. Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries.

Speech to Irish Literary Society, 30 Nov. 1925; in The senate speeches of W. B. Yeats, Donald R. Pearce (eds), p.171-72.

A forerunner to his celebration of the 18th century philosophers in his poetry. This outlines the intellectual tradition he wished to resuscitate, which would feed the Irish intellect as the old Gaelic tales would feed the Irish imagination.

09 Jun

Flavour of Gaelic Origin

There is a strong flavour of his Gaelic origin in Eriugena’s thought, an unmistakable dash of that Gaelic love of enterprise, fearlessness of consequences, and joy in conflict which can find a field in philosophy and literature as well as in deeds of war and difficult feats of self-devotion. As a thinker he follows without hesitation the lead of reason, not fearing that the end of philosophy could be any other thantruth, though charges of heresy and the thunders of the Church abound. The quality of the race which have made many of its difficulties are yet the qualities which make individual Irishmen, and will yet make the Irish nation great.

Irish mathematician and writer Sophie Bryant in Celtic Ireland, p. 57 (archive.org).

05 Jun

The Cause of Ireland is the Cause of Labour: James Connolly

James Connolly Statue, Liberty Hall, Dublin (c) William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

James Connolly Statue, Liberty Hall, Dublin
(c) William Murphy/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

James Connolly was born in Edinburgh to Irish immigrant parents on 5th June 1868. Joining the British Army at 14, he first set foot in Ireland as a member of the Royal Scots Regiment, stationed first in Cork and then in Dublin. When his regiment returned to England in 1889 he deserted and returned to Scotland where in 1890 he married Lillie Reynolds, who he had met in Dublin. He became involved with left-wing politics in Scotland, moving to Dublin in 1896 to take up a job as paid organiser of the Dublin Socialist Club. He disbanded the Club and reorganised it as the Irish Socialist Republican Party. He founded the radical newspaper Worker’s Republic in 1888. An extended lecture tour in the US starting 1902 saw him become involved with the US Socialist Party and the “Wobblies” (Industrial Workers of the World). He returned to Dublin in 1910, becoming national organiser for the Socialist Party of Ireland, and moved to Belfast to organise the newly founded Irish Transport and General Workers Union, ITGWU1.
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16 May

Delinquents of India

Burke, leading the prosecution, railed against the way the returned company “nabobs” (or “nobs”, both corruptions of the Urdu word “Nawab”) were buying parliamentary influence, not just by bribing MPs to vote for their interests, but by corruptly using their Indian plunder to bribe their way into parliamentary office: “To-day the Commons of Great Britain prosecutes the delinquents of India,” thundered Burke, referring to the returned nabobs. “Tomorrow these delinquents of India may be the Commons of Great Britain.”

Burke thus correctly identified what remains today one of the great anxieties of modern liberal democracies: the ability of a ruthless corporation corruptly to buy a legislature. And just as corporations now recruit retired politicians in order to exploit their establishment contacts and use their influence, so did the East India Company.

From “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders” by  in The Guardian. Burke’s battle against the East India Company and the impeachment of Hastings was counted as one of Burke’s greatest deeds by reformers such as Mary Leadbeater.

08 May

Borne to Dialectics

Ireland may claim the distinction of having produced three philosophers, each of whom formed an epoch in the history of thought. Johannes Scotus Eriugena, the founder of the Scholastic system—— Hutcheson, the father of the modern School of Speculative Philosophy in Scotland—— and Berkeley, the first who explicitly maintained a Theory of Absolute Idealism—— were all men of Irish birth, and were marked, in a greater or less degree, by the peculiar characteristics of Irish genius.

It has frequently been observed that the genius of the Irish people is naturally borne to dialectics. The author of Hudibras, indeed, selects ‘the Wild Irish’ as the types of that mystic learning and occult philosophy that he ridicules in Ralpho. Nor was this the mere fancy of the poet. As early as the time of Charles the Bold, the contemporary chronicler speaks of the multitude of philosophers, who, like Scotus, crossed the sea from Ireland. At a later period, Bayle speaks of the Hiberians as renouned for able logicians and metaphysicians; and Stewart describes them as distinguished in all the Continental Universities for their proficiency in the scholastic logic. And the facts justify the statement […]

The Irish logician, in fact, was as ubiquitous as the Irish soldier of fortune.

The opening sentences of The veil of Isis: a series of essays on idealism (1872) by Thomas E. Webb (1885 edition available on archive.org). As well as the (Catholic) scholastics, Webb goes on to praise Trinity College Dublin and those associated with it such as Berkeley, Browne, Burke, King and Dodwell, and closes with a nod to Lecky. Born in Cornwall on 8th May 1821, he clearly became a strong advocate of both Trinity College Dublin and Irish philosophy.

Hudibras is a mock heroic poem on the Civil War by Samuel Butler. Charles the Bold is probably a typo for Charles the Bald, Bayle was a 17th century French philosopher and Stewart probably the Scottish philosopher Dugald Stewart.

29 Apr

Root and STEM

Taming the Electric Fluids (c) PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Taming the Electric Fluids
(c) PhotoAtelier/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

In the general consciousness, philosophy is more associated with the arts than with science. The nesting of philosophy under “literature” in the Oxford Reference timeline tool is one example. In the case of Irish philosophy it’s understandable given great writers such as Swift, Wilde and Yeats fit into the category of Irish philosopher. But Irish philosophy (as all philosophy) also includes people who are interested in the natural world, mathematics and technology.

AE wrote in 1925 (Irish Statesman): “Ireland has not only the unique Gaelic tradition, but it has also given birth, if it accepts all of its children, to many men who have influenced European culture and science, Berkeley, Swift, Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Moore, Hamilton, Kelvin, Tyndall, Shaw, Yeats, Synge and many others of international repute.” Four of those names unequivocally played a role in the history of STEM. Three of those were also philosophers.
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10 Apr

Mysticism and Better Business: George William Russell (AE)

St. John Ervine’s play Changing Winds (1917) includes the following line: ‘Was there any one on earth less like the typical Ulsterman than George Russell, who preached mysticism and better business?” Russell’s story seems a radical divide between two aspects: the ‘strayed angel’ (as W. B. Yeats’ sisters nicknamed him): artist, poet, spiritualist, visionary and the practical man: agricultural economist, organiser of the Irish co-operative movement, journalist and newspaper editor.

Born on 10th April 1867 at William Street, Lurgan, Co. Armagh, Russell lived there until 1878 when the whole family moved to Dublin. Russell spent every second summer in Armagh and on a visit in 1883 began to experience supernatural visions which continued into adult life, affecting both his art and his sense of self. His artistic talents had been clear from a young age and he took classes at the Metropolitan School of Art where he came to know the poet William Butler Yeats around 1883. Yeats wrote a pen portrait of him about this time.
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28 Mar

Labour by Mutual Co-operation

But, equal security established, the right of every adult rational being, male or female, to free labour, entire use of its products, and voluntary exchanges, being established; a new question presents itself. Is there no mode of human labour consistent with security – whose paramount importance even to production has been demonstrated [in the Inquiry]- but that of individual competition? May not a mode of labour be found, consistent with security, and still more productive of happiness, than labour by individual competition? […] Nay more, may there not be found a mode of labour consistent with security, which will not only obviate the evils of individual competition, but which will afford its peculiar benefits – abundant production and development of all the faculties – to a greater, an incalculably greater extent, than the best arrangements of individual competition could afford?

No mode of labour can produce preponderant good, which does not respect the natural laws of distribution, “free labour, entire use of its products and voluntary exchanges”, or the principle of equal security regarding wealth.


Such a mode of labour has been proposed. It has been called the system of labour by mutual co-operation; and its object and effect are to produce perfect voluntary equality of enjoyment of all the fruits of united labour.

From chapter V of An inquiry into the principles of the distribution of wealth most conducive to human happiness; applied to the newly proposed system of voluntary equality of wealth (1824) by William Thompson (available on archive.org). This book (along with the Appeal) is regarded as his greatest work.

This crucial chapter is the point where Thompson accepts that his construction of an economic system based on classical liberalism does not fulfil the utilitarian goal of achieving the greatest happiness. The chapter also outlines the various laws which create and perpetuate inequalities (including inheritance.)

“For Thompson, the science of happiness is concerned with the functions of society and social institutions broadly understood, and how these affect individual happiness.” (Mark Kaswan in Happiness, Democracy and the Cooperative Movement: The Radical Utilitarianism of William Thompson).

26 Mar

Irish Kantians: Found in Translation

The Irish interest in Kant spans back to Dr J. A. O’Keeffe, whose 1795 Essay on the Progress of Human Understanding included a description of Kant’s conception of the aims of philosophy. We know little of O’Keeffe but we do know that he attended lectures in Leipzig given by Friedrich Gottlob Born, who was translating Kant into Latin. O’Keeffe’s radical leanings were manifest in the book, adding to heated English debate on Kant in 1796, and increasing the association of Kant with radical ideas in the English mind.

O’Keeffe had translated sections of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in discussing it, but the first full translation was by the Scot John Richardson in 1797, and attracted little notice. By 1819 Kant was better known in England, and Richardson published additional translations with limited impact. Mahaffy (1878, p. 207) argues for Sir William Hamilton (not the Irish mathematician), along with Semple’s translations, as the driving force in the 1830s for the study of Kant in Britain, and certainly Scottish translators and commentators were active from the late 1830s on.

Despite interest in Kant by Irish individuals such as William Rowan Hamilton (introduced to Kant in the early 1830s by Samuel Coleridge), systematic academic interest did not emerge until the 1860s. Maffahy gives an account of the birth of the Kantian school in Trinity:
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