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24 Oct

What Kind of Nation (Once Again)?

Thomas Osbourne Davis Wikicommons (Public Domain)

Thomas Osborne Davis
Wikicommons (Public Domain)

Thomas Osborne Davis was born two hundred years ago in Mallow Co. Cork on 24 October 1814 (the date is disputed – some say the 14th October). He is best known as a poet (see here), with one of his most famous songs being “A Nation Once Again” (version by the Dubliners here).

Later writers have argued for Davis as more than a poet and writer, however. T. W. Rolleston (in the introduction to The prose writings of Thomas Davis) goes as far as to cite Davis as the mingling of two streams in Irish thought: Swift’s defence from enemies without and Berkeley’s encouragement of improvements by the Irish people themselves. Davis did not write systematically or academically, but he did succeed in his self-set task as populariser. He set out a vision of Ireland that proved influential. Not only were his works (mostly written for newspapers) collected and republished, but he was invoked by Padraig Pearse and Arthur Griffith, and cited as inspiration by Fenian John O’Leary. Most directly, he influenced the group around him, who had joined O’Connell’s Repeal Movement with him in 1841 and who were christened by a reporter “Young Ireland”.
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21 Oct

Why Study…James Ussher

Why Study…James Ussher with Professor Alan Ford, University of Nottingham.

Ussher (1581-1656) is now principally remembered for just one thing: giving the date of the creation as 4004 B.C. (on “the entrance of the night preceding the twenty third day of Octob[er]”). The chronology from which this date comes has become a foundational text of creationists; as Prof Alan Ford writes

It is a neat irony that one of Ussher’s greatest works of scholarship, the summation of a lifetime’s investigation of biblical chronology, which combined the latest scientific and astronomical discoveries of his day with the profoundest scriptural and historical research, should now be upheld by those who reject the consensus of contemporary biblical and scientific studies.

Stephen J. Gould argued that, while obviously wrong, “I shall be defending Ussher’s chronology as an honourable effort for its time and arguing that our usual ridicule only records a lamentable small-mindedness based on mistaken use of present criteria to judge a distant and different past.” Those adopting and those dismissing Ussher both tend to break the rule that the context in which a philosopher worked should not be ignored; another irony is that Ussher did the same when exploring the history of the early Christian Church in Ireland, as the video explains.

16 Oct

“Old Luke Wadding…said Welcome”

Oil painting of Luke Wadding by Carlo Maratta held in the National Gallery of Ireland (public domain)

Oil painting of Luke Wadding by Carlo Maratta held in the National Gallery of Ireland (public domain)

He was born in Waterford and became a great scholar. He died in the 17th century after spending most of his adult life abroad. Religion was central to his life. Some of his work is still used today. However, unlike Robert Boyle, to whom this description could also apply, Luke Wadding has been almost forgotten.

In the 16th and 17th century, scholasticism saw a second flowering. The works of Thomas Aquinas were studied by scholars of the Dominican and Carmelite orders. The Franciscans tended to study the work of Franciscan Duns Scotus, with the school proper emerging as Scotus’ works were collected and edited in the 16th century. The Jesuits drew from both, the philosopher Suárez being the most influential example (Suarezianism was effectively another school). There was variation within this broad outline: an individual philosopher in any of these schools might draw on many philosophers. Corkman John Punch for example was primarily a Scotist scholar but also drew on Ockham and Aquinas.

This was the world Luke Wadding moved in. Born eleventh in a family of fourteen, he was named for “Luke” after the feastday on the 18th October two days after his birth. His mother was related to the archbishop of Armagh, his brother Ambrose became a Jesuit as did cousins Peter and Michael Wadding, and another cousin Richard became an Augustinian. Little surprise then that Luke Wadding entered a seminary in Portugal in 1604 after studying in Kilkenny College. He joined the Franciscan order and was ordained in 1613. That was the start of a long and illustrious career: professor in Salamanca, theologian in Rome, founder of the Irish College of St Isidore in Rome (1625), rector of the college, founder of the Ludovisian College for Irish secular priests, Procurator of the Franciscans at Rome, 1630-34, and Vice-Commissary of the order from 1645-48.
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16 Oct

Quaternion Bridge

The quaternion plaque on Broombridge © Cliff Bilbrey on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The quaternion plaque on Broombridge
© Cliff Bilbrey on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This plaque commemorates the discovery of the quaternion formula (i2=j2=k2=ijk=-1) by Sir William Rowan Hamilton on 16th October 1843, as he walked along the canal from Dunsink on his way to a meeting in Dublin. Without paper to hand he scratched the formula into one of the bridge’s stones.

There is a commemorative Hamilton Walk organised by the Maynooth University Maths department every year. There is also a virtual version here.

For a Storify of Hamilton Day 2015 and the 25th Hamilton Walk, click here.

16 Oct

The Only Thing Worse Than Being Talked About…

Statue of Oscar Wilde, Merrion Sq, Dublin © Eoin Gardiner on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Oscar Wilde, Merrion Sq, Dublin
© Eoin Gardiner on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

…is not being talked about. Here is a roundup of links for Oscar Wilde’s 160th birthday.

With the release of a new play The Trials of Oscar Wilde the Independent asked Is Oscar Wilde’s reputation due for another reassessment? One of the authors is Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandchild.

An Oscar Wilde photograph from Ashford Castle is to go to auction, while a photograph of Harry Bushell, who may be been the fellow prisoner Wilde mentioned in letters, has been in the papers today. The photograph is just one item turned up by Prof Peter Stoneley, University of Reading, which will form part of a new exhibition, Oscar Wilde and Reading Gaol.
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03 Oct

Tyranny and Government

A democratic republic cannot be permanently maintained in any country, unless there prevail amongst the people much public spirit and intelligence; and even if it be maintained, civic virtues of the highest kind are required to prevent the existence of evils incidental to the abuse of power. In the republics of ancient Greece, oppression was practised by the dominant majority of the multitude, with as much recklessness as has ever been exhibited by the caprice of imperial tyranny. The republic of Rome was never free from faction.
[…]
These observations are made, not for the purpose of reconciling the reader to the maintenance of tyranny in any form; not for the purpose of deterring him from seeking the greatest possible perfectibility in political institutions; but in order to prevent him from being misled by mere names, and in order to convince him that much of evil must be expected under even the most perfect form of government that can be devised.”

From Principles of Government, Or Meditations in Exile, by William Smith O’Brien (p. 126, American Edition, 1857).

27 Sep

Aesthetics, Art and Wittgenstein: the life and work of Cyril Barrett

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland (WikiCommons)

Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ, National Gallery of Ireland (WikiCommons)

Much of Wittgenstein’s writing was, at one remove, about aesthetics: questions of meaning, perception and emergence of sense. Yet there was little available explicitly about his aesthetics until notes from his lectures given by him in 1938 were collected and published in 1966 as Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology, and Religious Belief (Hagberg, SEP). The notes, taken by students Rush Rhees, Yorick Smythies, and James Taylor, together with notes on conversations about Freud and lectures on religious belief were edited by Cyril Barrett. Given the protective attitude Wittgenstein’s students had to his work and legacy, this was not a trivial task and the volume is probably his most enduring contribution to philosophy (eg see The Herald, The Times (paywall)).

What might surprise some is that this work was done by an Irish Jesuit. Born on 9th May 1925 in Dublin, Cyril Barrett graduated from UCD in 1947 with a first in Latin and History. Barrett entered the Society of Jesus in 1942 and was ordained in 1956. After teaching in various institutions he became one of the two founding members of the philosophy department in Warwick University in 1965, where he stayed until his retirement as reader in philosophy in 1992. After retirement he was a tutor in Oxford. He kept writing up to his last days in Milltown Dublin, where he died on 30th December 2003.

As well as Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Conversations, in 1990 Barrett published a commentary on Wittgenstein’s works, Wittgenstein on Ethics and Religious Belief. In this he argued that questions of value (ethics and religious belief) were of prime importance to Wittgenstein, and “intimately interwoven” in his thought.
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25 Sep

Catholic Scholasticism in Marsh’s Library

Title page from "Collegii Salmanticensis ... theologicus Angelici Doctoris Diui Thomae complectens", 1637 © Marsh's Library (CC)

Title page from “Collegii Salmanticensis … theologicus Angelici Doctoris Diui Thomae complectens”, 1637
© Marsh’s Library (CC)

This book, Collegii Salmanticensis … theologicus Angelici Doctoris Diui Thomae complectens published in Madrid in 1637, is a collection of commentaries on the theology of the “Angelic Doctor”, Thomas Aquinas.  It was originally owned by Narcissus Marsh and is now part of the Marsh’s Library collection. The first Irish Colleges were set up with the support of Irish Jesuit priest James Archer in Salamanca (where this book was written) and Madrid (where it was printed) during the late 16th century.

18 Sep

The Great Scottish Debate: Duns Scotus and Eriugena

Stained glass depicting monks battling demons

Debates over national dividing lines can get heated. Consider the 17th century discussions over the two philosophers John Duns Scotus and John Scottus Eriugena.

In 1620, a book by the bishop of Ossory David RotheBrigida thaumaturga, was published in Paris. It was on the surface an account of the life of St Brigid of Kildare, but that life is used as a metaphor by Rothe for the medieval mission of the Irish to Europe and of the mission of clergy to Ireland (a Catholic country under Protestant rule). The latter required financial security for Irish seminary students, which was their due (according to Rothe) given the huge contribution the Irish had made to France in the past, scholastically and religiously, including the work of John Scottus Eriugena.

Not the type of thing that would have the writer called a “devil”, one might think, but that was not all Rothe wrote. The work also targets Scottish scholar Thomas Dempster who claimed a large number of Irish saints and scholars for Scotland. As the historian Liam Chambers points out, this claim undermined Rothe’s argument for French aid for the Irish and left the Irish Counter-Reformation without native saints. Roth systematically rebutts Dempster’s claims, even going so far as to say all described as “Scotia” or Scots in the Middle Ages are Irish.
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02 Sep

Old Library, New Name: Russell Library, Maynooth University

St Joseph's House, Maynooth © Bart Busschots on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

St Joseph’s House, St Patrick’s College, Maynooth
© Bart Busschots on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Maynooth University is the new name for the third-level institution located in the North Kildare town. Though formally established as an autonomous university in 1997, the university’s history stems from the establishment of the Royal College of St. Patrick on 5th June 1795 by Act of Parliament. Maynooth University has its origins in the seminary set up on the Duke of Leinster’s lands in 1795, St. Patrick’s College. It was intended “for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion” and, one assumes, in the hope of stemming ideas coming from Revolutionary France.

The seminary was first housed in the house built by the Duke’s steward, John Stoyte, with the lay students in Riverside House (until 1814. Lay students were not admitted again until 1966). Stoyte House was extended soon after by architect Michael Stapleton by adding two symmetrical wings, each with an archway to the grounds beyond (the Long Corridor). The other two sides of the square were completed in 1809 (New House) and 1824 (Humanity House/Dunboyne House), in a similar style to Stoyte House.
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