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08 Dec

“Pious opinion”: the Irish Franciscans and the Immaculate Conception

Fresco of Virgo Immaculata (Mary, the Immaculate Conception) from St. Isidore's (Irish) College Rome

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, possibly the most misunderstood feast in the Roman Catholic calendar. It celebrates the conception of Mary (the conception of Jesus is the feast of the Annunciation, celebrated on the 25th March.) Why “Immaculate”? In 1854 Pope Pius IX pronounced that Mary “in the first instance of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace granted by God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved exempt from all stain of original sin”1.

This dogma was debated long before the 19th century. Irish involvement in the debate means that this is also a highly appropriate day to look at the group of scholars who disprove the theory that Ireland produced no influential religious thinkers2. (James Ussher can be cited as another 17th century counter-example.)

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26 Jun

Correcting Lucretius: Dúngal and Carolingian Cosmology

King and Court Astronomer

In January 1417 a man called Poggio Bracciolini pulled a book from a shelf in a German monastic library. The text was De Rerum Natura, a long poem written by the Roman Lucretius in the 1st century BC outlining the tenets of Epicureanism. Much has been written about that event and its effect on the Renaissance, even suggesting it was central in creating modernity1. The story of the text before it was found is less well known.

De Rerum Natura was a poem written in the 1st century BC outlining the tenets of Epicureanism, a philosophical school founded by Epicurus (c. 341-c. 271 BC)2. Epicureanism grew to be one of the major philosophical schools, declining in popularity from the 2nd century on. The oldest manuscripts of the poem that survive are held in the library of Universiteit Leiden: Voss. Lat. F. 30, from the early 9th century nicknamed O and Voss. Lat. Q. 94, nicknamed Q3.

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18 Jun

Robert Boyle, Irish Identity and Science

This year’s 5th Annual Robert Boyle Summer School which runs from June 23 2016 explores ‘Science and Irish Identity’. Organiser Eoin Gill argues that in Ireland, scientific achievements are less celebrated than literary ones. Gill says that1:

It is not unusual for people to talk openly about Yeats and Joyce and their significance in our history and culture. Science has been squeezed out, and some suggest it is because many of our leading scientists were Anglo-Irish and science therefore was seen as an Anglo-Irish pursuit and spurned by the Free State. Others claim that the Catholic Church was wary of science and some even suggest that Catholics themselves leaned more towards superstition than rational inquiry.

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17 May

Robert Boyle Summer School, Lismore Co. Waterford, 23rd – 26th June 2016

The Robert Boyle Summer School 2016 (an event aimed at all interested in exploring different aspects of culture) will explore Science and Irish Identity. See details of the programme here on robertboyle.ie. Book tickets via Eventbrite.

From robertboyle.ie:

Ireland’s literary and musical achievements are well acknowledged home and abroad and celebrated in many successful and long established summer schools. The Robert Boyle Summer School was established to explore the place of science in our heritage and culture and the 2016 School will address the theme “Science and Irish Identity”. This theme will resonate with the commemorations of the 1916 Rising and the Battle of the Somme and the school will take place in between these events from 23-26 June. The theme presents the opportunity to explore different Irish Identities not in terms of conflict but in their involvement in and attitudes towards science.

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17 Mar

Literacy and Learning in Ireland before and after Patrick

National Heritage Park, Wexford (c) Irish Philosophy

National Heritage Park, Wexford. (c) Irish Philosophy

There are two myths about early medieval Ireland. One is that it was an ignorant, isolated place. The other is that without Ireland, civilisation would have been lost.

Pollen evidence suggests a growing population in the Ireland of the third and fourth centuries, with agricultural expansion and forest clearance taking place after a previous decline. The landscape was dominated by pastureland, intermingled with scrubby woodland and mixed farming, with few large areas of forest1.

This was a rural society, broken up into túatha and kingdoms. However it was not isolated from the world. Tacitus tells us in the first century AD Roman traders knew the major routes to, and harbours in, Ireland. Imports included wine and fine cloth. There were also Roman-Irish contacts via Romano-British slaves in Ireland and Irish settlements in Wales2. In Wales as well as in Ireland itself we find evidence of the first Irish writing, Ogham.

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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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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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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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04 Jan

“Too Gentle a Soul”: James Ussher

A historian, a scholar and a key figure in the religious debates of the 16th century, Ussher was born in Dublin (either on Nicholas St[1] or 57 High St[2] across from the old Christchurch Synod Hall) on the 4th January 1581 and baptised in the Church of Ireland St Nicholas Within. He was born into a prosperous merchant family, but one that was torn by the religious divisions of the time. Most of the Usshers conformed to the Church of Ireland, notably Henry Ussher, Church of Ireland archbishop of Armagh from 1595 to 1613, who played an important role in the creation of Trinity College, Dublin in 1592. His mother remained Catholic; her brother was the famous historian Richard Stanyhurst (1547-1618), in later life a Jesuit priest [3].

James Ussher was one of the first to attend Trinity College Dublin, gaining his BA c. 1597 and MA in 1601. He was ordained by his uncle Henry Ussher in December 1601 and in 1602 took his first trip of many to England, in search of books for Trinity College Library. During his trips to London he made many antiquarian connections with figures such as Henry Savile and John Seldon. He graduated in Divinity in 1607, immediately becoming Professor of Theological Controversies. In 1613 he married Phoebe Challoner, daughter of the vice-provost of Trinity Luke Challoner, and published his first work, Gravissimae Quaestionis, de Christianarum ecclesiarum, in occidentis praesertim partibus, ab apostolicis temporibus, ad nostram usque aetatem, continua successione & statu, historica explicatio (London, 1613). This work gave an account of medieval heretical groups drawing on original sources; however it also had the polemical purpose of tracing the rise of the Anti-Christ in Roman Catholic church, and the identification of groups such as the Cathars as proto-protestants[4].

Ussher graduated DD in 1614 and became vice-chancellor of Trinity in 1615. He is also credited with playing a large part in the creation of the Church of Ireland’s first full Confession of Faith. These articles were an advance on the 39 Articles on which they were based, they allowed more accommodation of puritan ideas than the equivalent in the Church of England (for example, allowing more leeway on the question of bishops) and did not require subscription. Ussher became Bishop of Meath and Clonmacnoise in 1621 and finally was appointed Archbishop of Armagh by James I of England in 1625[5]. It should be noted that of the twenty-five bishops James I placed in the Church of Ireland in his lifetime, Ussher was the only one born in Ireland and educated at Trinity [6]

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