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16 Oct

A Noble Woman: Lady Jane Wilde

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Jane-Wilde

wildeswomenGuest Post: Eleanor Fitzsimons
Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons is published today 16th October 2015. It is to be launched on Tues 20th October at 6.30pm in the Gutter Bookshop, Cows Lane, Dublin. In the book Eleanor Fitzsimons explores the central role women played in Oscar Wilde’s life and career, from his sister Isola, who tragically died young, to his accomplished wife Constance and a coterie of other free-thinking writers, actors and artists. The first female influence on Oscar is the subject of this post: his mother, the nationalist and feminist writer Lady Jane ‘Speranza’ Wilde.


When Lady Jane Wilde learned that her son Oscar’s latest play had the provisional title ‘A Good Woman’, she wrote to express her disapproval: Read More

15 Oct

Sailing to Utopia: Oscar Wilde on Altruism and Anarchism

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Gustave Dore. Dudley street, seven dials. Busy street scene with sets of shops which can be seen on the right. The shops are selling shoes which are lining up on the floor around the opening from under the ground. Children and their mothers are in front of them. This image was first published in 'London, a Pilgrimage' 1872, on p.158.

Seven Dials, by Gustav Dore (1872) Wikimedia, Public Domain

In Fortune Linsey McGoey asks Do today’s philanthropists hurt more than they help?. The article quotes Oscar Wilde:

In his essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” Oscar Wilde berated the tendency of benefactors to use their charity as a bulwark against redistributive demands.

“The best among the poor,” Wilde wrote, “are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so … Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it.”

Wilde’s essay covers much more ground than this, however, ranging from the purpose of living, the effects of contemporary capitalism, the possible results of mechanisation and the question McGoey cites as one of the biggest questions facing 19th-century philanthropy, the ironic possibility that “growing charity simply exacerbated economic inequality by thwarting demands for better wages and the right to unionize.”

To that question, Oscar Wilde gives an emphatic yes. Many people are truly concerned with poverty and are going as far as spoiling their lives in an attempt to relieve it. “But this is not a solution: it is an aggravation of the difficulty. The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” Just as slave owners who were kind made slavery seem less horrible and therefore encouraged it to persist, altruists perpetuate the system that creates poverty.
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10 Oct

Anti-Philosophy Mindset

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I would call it more an anti-philosophy mindset. People in general regard philosophy as being a bit airy-fairy, and about abstract things which, again, have nothing to do with the practical life of people.
Has it always been like that? The fact is that during the last few centuries most philosophers in Ireland have been Anglo-Irish. They felt they had the right to think freely about the world. They felt themselves part of the European scene, and the Catholics thought that the people who had the right to think freely about the world were Anglo-Irish and priests.
Since then, we have in universities quite a number of Catholic or post-Catholic philosophers, and they are simply ignored by the culture at large. If you look at the work of Irish philosophers — people like Richard Kearney, Philip Pettit, William Desmond — they are never noticed on the Irish scene, never reviewed, never discussed. So in that sense, Irish criticism is a very poor thing; it is confined to the real world, namely fiction.

Desmond Fennell, quoted in Unthinkable: Great Ideas for Now, by Joe Humphries, pp. 55-56 (available from Irish Times Books).

The book is based on the Unthinkable columns in the Irish Times, which started on World Philosophy Day 2013 “as a small gesture towards imagining a different future (p. 1). The column aims to gather great ideas from various thinkers to illustrate the range of alternative ways there are to looking at and approaching the world, a breadth (the Desmond Fennell quote would suggest) that is too often passed over in Ireland.

In tandem with the launch of the book, Joe Humphrys of Unthinkablechaired a debate asking “Are science and religion really in conflict?”. See this Irish Times page to read Joe’s summation in Socratic dialogue form, to hear the full debate or to listen to the Irish Times Off Topic podcast which includes a discussion involving me, Joe Humphreys, Hugh Linehan and Fionn Davenport on Philosophy and Irish Life.

The Unthinkable column continues weekly in the Irish Times.

04 Oct

God-Provoking Democrat: Archibald Hamilton Rowan

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god-provoking

God Provoking CoverGuest Post: Fergus Whelan

This is the address given by Fergus Whelan at the launch of his new book, God-Provoking Democrat: The Remarkable Life of Archibald Hamilton Rowanpublished by New Island Press. The launch was held at The Church, Dublin – originally St Mary’s Church of Ireland, where Hamilton Rowan is buried.


My subject Archibald Hamilton Rowan the United Irishman was conceived in Ireland but was born and grew up in England in wealth and privilege. His mother contrived to keep him out of Ireland. She feared that her son would develop passions there which might lead to his ruin. Her fears came close to being realised in the great tumult in Ireland at the close of the eighteenth century. Read More

16 Sep

Transition State

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There are (thank God!) four hundred thousand Irish children in the National Schools. A few years, and they will be the People of Ireland—the farmers of its lands, the conductors of its traffic, the adepts in its arts. How utterly unlike that Ireland will be to the Ireland of the Penal Laws, of the Volunteers, of the Union, or of the Emancipation?

Well may Carleton say that we are in a transition state. The knowledge, the customs, the superstitions, the hopes of the People are entirely changing. There is neither use nor reason in lamenting what we must infallibly lose. […]
Much may be saved—the Gaelic language and the music of the past may be handed uncorrupted to the future; but whatever may be the substitutes, the Fairies and the Banshees, the Poor Scholar and the Ribbonman, the Orange Lodge, the Illicit Still, and the Faction Fight, are vanishing into history, and unless this generation paints them no other will know what they were.

The Irish Peasantry by Thomas Davis, first published in The Nation 12 July, 1845 (online at UCC Celt)

This review of the work of William Carleton is positive, despite Carleton’s opposition to Davis’ politics. The piece displays Davis’ belief in education as a force for positive change, his focus on recording history and past culture and his desire to save what could be saved of that culture. This is of a piece with the new nationalism he espoused, influenced by Herder and German romanticism, which was cultural rather than constitutional. Language was central: “A people without a language of its own is only half a nation” (Davis, Our National Language).

It also shows Davis’ shortcomings as a prophet. Though his idea of nationality was inclusive, open to all that wanted to identify with it, his romantic nationalism arguably increased faction fighting rather than mitigating it.

31 Aug

The Poirot of Economics: William Robert Scott

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Composite of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith (c) Irish Philosophy (CC)

William Robert Scott’s academic reputation rests on his economic history, particularly his mammoth three-volume work, The Constitution and Finance of English, Scottish and Irish Joint-Stock Companies (1910-12). However, before and after that work, William Robert Scott wrote on the history of philosophy, particularly on Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith.

Scott was born in Omagh Co. Tyrone on 31st August 1868, to a family of millers and landowners descended from a Robert Scott (1698-1777) who settled in Ireland in the 1720s. Educated in Belfast and Rathfarnham in Dublin, Scott then studied in Trinity College Dublin, graduating BA (1889), MA (1891) and DLitt (1902). He was also a freelance teacher and writer in Dublin until his move to the University of St Andrews in Scotland.

There he became a Research Fellow, graduating DPhil (1900), acting as assistant to the Professor of Moral Philosophy (1896-1901) and as a lecturer in Political Economy (1899-1915). In 1915 he was appointed Adam Smith Professor of Political Economy in the University of Glasgow, remaining there until his death. Throughout his time in Scotland, Scott was also been involved in numerous committees. Made chairman of the mill in Omagh in 1897, he continued to supervise the family business in Tyrone. No wonder that on his death at University Gardens, Glasgow on 3rd April 1940, his university supervisor described Scott as “quite indefatigable”.

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24 Aug

Daniel O’Connell Summer School 28th and 29th August 2015, Cahersiveen and Derrynane Co. Kerry

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The Daniel O’Connell Heritage Summer School will be held on the 28th and 29th of August 2015. The overall purpose of the School will be to examine aspects of the historical career of Daniel O’Connell as well as to consider the challenges of modern Ireland.

The School will be held over two days in Cahersiveen and Derrynane. The School is free and open to all though needs support so voluntary contributions or becoming a Friend of the Daniel O’Connell Summer School would be appreciated.

The brochure (pdf) is here, the programme of events here. This piece in the Irish Independent mentions the Summer School.

17 Aug

Swift’s Crater

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A diagram showing the orbits of Mars' moons, Deimos and Phobos.

From Giberne’s “The story of the sun, moon, and stars” (1898) – Public Domain

On the 17th of August 1877, the search of American astronomer Asaph Hall was finally successful. He had doubted the conventional wisdom that Mars had no moon. Using the giant 26-inch refractor of the U. S. Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., he searched close to the planet and discovered not one but two moons, travelling so close to the surface of Mars that until now they were lost in the planet’s glare. These were named Phobos and Deimos (see more about the moons on the NASA website).

This discovery had been anticipated by a fictional research organisation. In 1726, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, describing Gulliver’s visit to Balnibarbi and to Lagado, the island that floats above it where its rulers live. The intelligentsia of Lagado, though unhealthily engrossed in their studies, are advanced in astronomy: Read More

13 Aug

Truth above all things: G. G. Stokes

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Sir George Gabriel Stokes, 1st Bt by George William De Saulles bronze medallion, 1899 NPG 2758 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir George Gabriel Stokes, 1st Bt
by George William De Saulles
bronze medallion, 1899 NPG 2758
© National Portrait Gallery, London

George Gabriel Stokes is one of three great mathematicians associated with Ireland in the 19th century. If Boole translated classical logic into algebra, while Rowan Hamilton used metaphysics as an inspiration for mathematics, Stokes took a third path. His mathematics was inspired by real life problems. As Lord Kelvin wrote in Stokes’ obituary, (memoirs, p. 317)

In pure mathematics he was recognised as a fruitful worker by the whole scientific world. But with Stokes, mathematics was the servant and assistant, not the master. His guiding star was natural philosophy. Sound, light, radiant heat, chemistry, were his fields of labour

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08 Aug

Hutcheson Day: Francis Hutcheson’s Thought

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In February 1726 readers of the Dublin Weekly Journal (price 3-half-pence) were seeing something unusual, although they didn’t know it: Francis Hutcheson being sarcastic. In an unusually biting three part essay he lambasted a book called Private Vice, Publick Benefits. In that book the Dutch writer Mandeville argued that vice is necessary to keep a prosperous economy.

Mandeville said morality is, in essence, self-denial and runs counter to our nature. We have to be tricked into self-denial by our rulers. If they are too successful, and greed, vanity and the desire for luxury are stamped out, commerce will fail, followed by the nation: “neither the Friendly Qualities …nor the real Virtues he is capable of acquiring by Reason and Self-Denial, are the Foundation of Society; but that what we call Evil in this World.”

Hutcheson agrees with none of it. He points out “income not spent in one way will be spent in another and if not wasted in luxury will be devoted to useful prudent purposes.” He underlines mockingly that even robbery is a benefit under Mandeville’s scheme since it keeps locksmiths employed. He wonders at Mandeville’s dogmatism – Mandeville would deny even God could create a naturally good man. By the third part he adopts simple ridicule: “He has probably been struck with some old Fanatick Sermon upon self-denial in his youth, and can never get it out of his head since.”

From a talk given on Francis Hutcheson Day (8th August( 2015 at the Guildhall, Saintfield, Co. Down. Full text available on academia.edu.

Further Reading

Storify for Hutcheson Day 2015.