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.

The cautiousness of Irish society towards science has been noted before. In 2015 May Mulvihill wrote in the Irish Times suggesting the roots of this was to be found in the Celtic Revival, citing Yeats as an example of the rhetoric involved2:

As WB Yeats saw it in 1889, Ireland had a choice of “two cultures”: “There are two boats going to sea. In which shall we sail? There is the little boat of science. Every century a new little boat of science starts and is shipwrecked; and yet again another puts forth, gaily laughing at its predecessors. Then there is the great galleon of tradition, and on board it travel the great poets and dreamers of the past.”

Mulvihill suggested that with partition, this two-culture divide became entrenched, with Dublin becoming a town of poets and Belfast finding “poetry don’t drive many rivets”. Desmond Fennell has argued that this also extends to philosophy, with contemporary Irish philosophers being ignored.

This ties into issues of Irishness. Nineteenth century writers such as Matthew Arnold said the Celts naturally rejected “the despotism of facts”, an idea that seems to have been absorbed into Irish identity despite the number of philosophers and scientists that Ireland has produced. In fact, the earliest proto-scientific writing from Ireland was in the 7th century, and the greatest early medieval philosopher was an Irishman, Eriugena.

Others might argue that many scientists and philosophers of the past were “not really Irish” (tying back to the Anglo-Irish linkage noted above). In his History of Irish Thought, Thomas Duddy points out that Irish thought “cannot be characterized in imperially nationalist terms”3. The thought of a nation shaped by migration cannot be expected to have no influences from outside, nor to consist solely of thinkers that stay all their lives in Ireland. Duddy argues that the accidental will always be a key factor in the histories of dependent and colonial nations. Thus “accidental” Irishmen like Swift are still Irish, just like those who are “Irish-by-privilege”, like Robert Boyle and Katherine Jones 4:

[Boyle] therefore had a powerful vested interest in the land of Ireland, even if his orientation was towards English life and culture…Consciousness and orientaton aside, Boyle is for the best of reasons – that is material and historical reasons – indisputably an Irish thinker, and no apology will be made for his inclusion here.

To adopt what Duddy called “imperially nationalist terms” to define what was “truly Irish” means cutting away our past. To believe science and philosophy are not “truly Irish” pursuits worth celebrating means cutting away our future. To sail into the future, we need many different planks for our boat.

For more on the Summer School see this post.

Getting into character ahead of the 5th annual Robert Boyle Summer School in Lismore from June 23 to 26 were organisers, Eoin Gill (Robert Boyle) and Dr Sheila Donegan, Boyle's sister and collaborator, Katherine Jones. Pic David Clynch PhotographyFeatured Image: Getting into character ahead of the 5th annual Robert Boyle Summer School in Lismore from June 23 to 26 were organisers, Eoin Gill (Robert Boyle) and Dr Sheila Donegan, Boyle’s sister and collaborator, Katherine Jones.
Pic David Clynch Photography (cropped)


  1. Press Release: Science and Irish Identity theme for 5th Robert Boyle Summer School 23rd – 26th June 2016 in Lismore, Co Waterford
  2. Mary Mulvihill “If not for WB Yeats, Ireland might have been an island of saints and scientists”, Irish Times, 12 Mar 2015 (online)
  3. Thomas Duddy (2002) A History of Irish Thought, Routledge, p. xii
  4. Duddy (2002), p. xiii-xiv
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