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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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19 Nov

The “Incomparable Lady Ranelagh”

Detail from the Boyle Momument, St Patrick's Cathedral (c) Chiara Ogan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Detail from the Boyle Momument, St Patrick’s Cathedral
(c) Chiara Ogan/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“UNESCO puts philosophy forward as a force for individual and collective emancipation”, as their statement for World Philosophy Day 2015 states. Historically, many have been locked out from philosophy due to their class or gender, and only had access to philosophical discussion through family or informal networks. One such was Katherine Jones, née Boyle.

Katherine Boyle was born 400 years ago this year, on the 22nd March, 1615 in Youghal. Her father, Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, saw no point in education for daughters beyond fitting them for the marriage market. It’s been suggested that Katherine obtained her education when she was sent at the age of nine and a half to live with the family of her prospective husband, Sapcott Beaumont. When she was thirteen Beaumont’s father died and the marriage contract fell through. After two years at home in Ireland she was married off to Arthur Jones, heir to Viscount Ranelagh in 1630 when she was fifteen.
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23 Oct

James Ussher: Academic Modernity

Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, intellectually the most imposing figure of this early period, combined moderate religious Calvinism and academic modernity in a manner more typical of the contemporary Dissenter than of bishops of the established church. He gave financial assistance to Samuel Hartlib, who as well as being publisher of Petty’s Advice, acted as a one-man clearing-house for advanced ideas in education, religion and the sciences. In 1641 he paid the publishing costs of Arnold and Gerard Boate’s Philosophia Naturalis (Dublin, 1641), being in agreement with the book’s strongly anti-Aristotelian tone. When in 1640 Dr Prideaux expressed fears over some of John Dury’s pansophist writings […], his friend Constantine Adams, ‘to shade off this needlesse fear,…did instance unto him in the ArchB. of Armach’. […]

But Ussher himself was no scientist, and knew relatively little of the New Learning’s techniques and justification. His correspondence with the English mathematician Henry Briggs and with the astronomer John Bainbridge was concerned largely with the help the new science could provide for his own historical and chronological studies. […] Nonetheless Ussher’s interest in science did lead him to acquire some of the manuscripts belonging to John Dee, Edward Wright and John Bainbridge.

From K. Theodore Hoppen (1970) The Common Scientist in the the Seventeenth Century: A study of the Dublin Philosophical Society 1683-1708, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 11-12.

To put the printing of the Philosophia Naturalis into perspective, of the 93 books printed in Dublin between 1626 and 1650, it was the only one dealing with science (even taking the widest possible sense of the term.) The Boates are cited by Robert Boyle in his Origin of forms and Qualities alongside Lucretius, Bacon and Gassendi as excellent authors who are opposed to Aristotelian ideas.

I’m intrigued by James Ussher, patron of the New Learning, but I haven’t as yet found any more on this side of him in relation to science. This from Renaissance Mathematicus, In defence of the indefensible, explains how the work of Ussher and others like him laid the foundation of both modern history and archaeology.

16 Jun

Farback, pitchblack centuries: Joyce amid the Franciscans

St Francis, from St Bonaventura's "Life" of the saint (1597) (c) Marshs Library (cc)

St Francis, from St Bonaventura’s “Life” of the saint (1597)
(c) Marshs Library (cc)

Running since October 2014, the exhibition James Joyce: Apocalypse and Exile is open on Bloomsday and beyond, to September 2015.

The exhibition explores Joyce’s connection to Marsh’s Library (he read there in October 1902), the references to Marsh’s Library and to books he read there in his writings, and his interest in the Franciscan tradition. The latter includes a connection to the Irish Colleges, specifically those of the Irish Franciscans.
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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).

30 May

Robert Boyle Summer School, Lismore Co. Waterford, 25th-28th June, 2015

The Robert Boyle Summer School takes place this year (2015) from June 25th-28th in Lismore Heritage Town, Co Waterford.

This summer school will attract people interested in exploring different aspects of culture. It is not a “scientific conference” but will be of special interest to scientists, engineers, technologists, along with historians, educators and anyone with an interest in the progress of human thought. It will also be accessible to those with no scientific background. As well as talks and discussions, there will be a costumed recreation of Boyle’s most famous experiments, a guided tour of the castle gardens, a visit to St. Carthage’s Cathedral, a chance to enjoy the historic and beautiful Blackwater Valley.

Come and join people with wide interests for a fun interesting break in this beautiful heritage town.

Take advantage of special Early Bird offer of €50 for all talks until June 1st

See the programme at www.robertboyle.ie

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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28 Apr

Honest, Noble and Most Ancient

Toland testimonial

The text of a testimonial given by the Franciscans of Prague to John Toland, taken from A collection of several pieces of Mr. John Toland (1726) edited by Pierre Desmaizeaux after Toland’s death in 1722 (on Google Books). This testifies that John Toland came from a honest, noble and most ancient family from the Innisowen peninsula. There were many rumours about Toland’s background, including that he was the illegitimate son of a priest.

John Toland visited the Irish College in Prague in 1708 and met Francis O’Devlin (the second signatory above), renowned for his work in the Irish language. The college itself was founded in 1629. Its first superior was Patrick Fleming, mentioned previously in connection with the Irish colleges in Leuven and Rome. He, along with fellow-Irishman Matthew Hoar, was killed on 7 November 1631 by Calvinist peasants while fleeing a threatened attack on Prague in the Thirty Years War.

More on the Irish College in Prague is in the Irish Times today (Andy Pollak, 28th April 2015). Surprisingly the College library contained a work by Toland: his edition of the works of English republican James Harrington Oceania.

The latin text of the testimonial:

Infra scripti testamur Dom. Joannem Toland ortum esse ex honesta, nobili & antiquissma Familia, quae per plures centenos annos, ut Regni Historia mostrant memoria, in Peninsula Hiberniae Enis-Oën dicta, prope urbem Londino-Deri in Ultonia, perduravit. In cujus rei firmiorem fidem, nos ex eadum Patria oriundi propriis manibus subscripsimus, Pragae in Bohemia, hac die 2 Jan. 1708.

31 Mar

Cautious Cartesian: Thomas Gowan

Descartes and Ars Sciendi (edit of  public domain image, Wikimedia)

Descartes and Ars Sciendi
(edit of public domain image, Wikimedia)

While there were few Cartesians in England, there is evidence for Descartes’ philosophy having an important influence in 17th century England (Lamprecht). There is little similar evidence in 17th century Ireland before William Molyneux’s early (possibly the first) translation of Descartes’ Mediations into English in 1680. Even on the continent where the “new philosophy” was freely circulated it seems Irish adopters of Cartesianism were few.

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30 Mar

A brief history of Irish Colleges in the 17th century

Gaelic script reading "Coláisde na nGaedheal" (Irish College) on the gates of the Pontifical Irish College, Ro

A four-part series on The Irish Colleges is currently (March 2015) being shown on BBC2 NI. For those who have access to the BBC iPlayer, it is also available there.

1592 was a pivotal year for Irish philosophy, the year it split along sectarian lines. In that year after decades of wrangling the University of Dublin was founded, along with its first (and only) college, Trinity College Dublin. However it was open only to those who accepted Elizabeth I as the head of the Church. Oxford and Cambridge were already effectively closed to Irish Catholics since graduands had to swear the Oath of Supremacy. This was only part of laws aimed at stamping out Catholicism in the kingdoms she ruled. In 1592 on a visit to Oxford, which was still a hotbed of Catholicism, Elizabeth I made clear in a speech that the requirement for the oath would not be relaxed.
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