A family stand on a grassy mount, grazed by cattle, with the river Liffey flowing in the valley below. On the other side, Dublin stretches, look at 18th century Dublin, a low city dotted with steeples.

In the footsteps of Francis Hutcheson

Francis Hutcheson celebrated his 27th birthday in Dublin, 300 hundred years ago today, probably amid preparation for the upcoming academic year. The precise date on which he established his school in Dublin is unknown, but the 1719 Toleration Act was passed in the latter half of that year. The call to Francis Hutcheson from the Dublin Presbyterian ministers, lead by Boyse would hardly have been made before then, and Scott notes a pupil of Hutcheson arrived for his last year of study in Glasgow in 17221

It would have been the largest city he had ever been in, with a population of around 100,000. It was also the most religiously divided, split roughly three ways between the Established Church, Dissenters and Catholics2. It was not the Georgian city we know, but a city of medieval and baroque churches, the odd Tudor survival and a sea of gable-fronted houses, frequently with shops below, often referred to as Dutch Billies. The large engraving at the top of Brookings map, showing not only the distant gables but multiple windmills could be a view of a Dutch town if not for the Dublin mountains behind it. The featured image above shows a view from the Phoenix Park, showing how compact the city still was, concentrated on the south side of the Liffey, with the old medieval city at its core.

Detail of the Rocque map of Dublin, 1757. Hutcheson’s school, where he also lived, was established in the new suburbs north of the Liffey, on the corner of Dominic Street and Drumcondra Road according to a letter from William Drennan to his sister Martha McTier3. (The site is at the corner of the modern streets Dominic Street Lower and Dorset Street Upper, under the carpark for St Saviour’s Priory.) The area was not included in Brookings 1728 map, but is included in Rocques map of 17574, and the location is marked (a) on the section of it reproduced here. At the time it would have been “healthful and pleasant, being high and surrounded by open country , except upon the city side”5, and even as late as 1757 there were still fields around it. Point (b) is one of the few surviving buildings from the time, St Mary’s Church in whose graveyard Hutcheson was buried and where a plaque to Francis Hutcheson has been put up. Point (c) marks the location of the meeting house where Hutcheson’s grandfather Alexander was minister for a short time in the 1690s. At least one friend of the Rev Hutcheson, Joseph Boyse of Wood St, was still in Dublin in 1720 and this perhaps was the link that saw Hutcheson called to set up a school.

Besides those who remembered his grandfather, and a cousin of his father’s second wife married to a merchant, Hutcheson probably had few connections in the city. Given he was teaching for the first time, and teaching all the branches of university level study, he likely did not have time to miss them. The Latin primers on logic, metaphysics and moral philosophy printed under his name in the 1740s laid out courses very similar to what was taught in Glasgow when Hutcheson was there, and were probably composed for his Dublin students6. However Hutcheson had not been taught the Glasgow courses in logic and metaphysics, so he would have had to have covered them himself before teaching them (read more on Hutcheson’s education here).

The baroque red brick frontage of Trinity College Dublin in 1728
The frontage of Trinity College Dublin, from Brooking’s map of 1728.

Though Hutcheson was teaching at university level, he could not award degrees. Those seeking to be doctors, lawyers, ministers or others who had to have a degree would have to study their last year elsewhere, probably in Glasgow as Hutcheson had done. Trinity College in Dublin was effectively closed to them; to be conferred with a degree a student had to be a member of the Established Church (ie. the Church of Ireland). 

While many of Trinity College’s buildings date from the 18th century, most were built in the latter half of the century. It looked very different in Hutcheson’s time, built mostly in red brick with a baroque frontage (see image on left). The large tower behind the frontage belongs to the chapel tower, added by Narcissus Marsh. The new library (now the “Old Library”) was started in 1709. The university library was closed to non-students, which is why Narcissus Marsh opened Marsh’s Library, an institution open to all that Hutcheson would have been able to access.

18th century view of College Green, Dublin, looking down an unpaved Dame street lined with gable-fronted houses and shops.
A prospect of the Parliament House, in College Green, Dublin, by Joseph Tudor, 1753. Cropped. Europeana/Rijksmuseum, public domain.

If Hutcheson was to turn from the front of Trinity College to look down Dame Street, the view was also very different to what we see today. On the right in 1721 there was a brick wall surrounding Chichester House (probably much like the wall at the front left of the picture above) where the Irish Parliament sat. Old and unimpressive, it was demolished in 1729. It was replaced with the building that, after some later additions, is now the Bank of Ireland on College Green.  In the picture above from 1753, the domed roof of the original circular church of St Andrew can be seen over the houses to the left.  On the right on Dame Street itself stands the equestrian statue of William III.  Dame Street, lined with the gable-fronted houses known as “Dutch Billies”, many with shops on the ground floors, ran to Dublin Castle forming the backbone of what Michael Brown has called an axis of power: from the parliamentarians and Trinity fellows of College Green, past the centre of administration Dublin Castle (and the most fashionable coffee-shop, Lucas’s), down Cork Street to the Thosel (the merchants hall) and on to the cathedrals: Christchurch within the old walls and, following Patrick’s Street, St Patricks outside them7. (For more on Dublin coffeeshops and other Dublin institutions read more here.)

Turn right at the end of Dame St, however, and you plunged into the network of smaller streets, full of printers, taverns and lesser coffee-shops that lay between Dame Street and the river. This area centred on the Customs House, the most prominent building on the southern Liffey shore, where goods, including books and pamphlets, came in and where news and ideas arrived earliest. Blind Quay (now Exchange St) led to Essex Bridge (now the Grattan Bridge), the major crossing point to the suburbs developing on the north-side.

A view of the original 18th century Custom House, and Essex Bridge, viewed from the north side of the river
A prospect of the Custom House and Essex Bridge Dublin from north of the river (circa where the Millennium Bridge is today). Rijksmuseum, Public Domain. europeana.eu

Hutcheson’s life was almost certainly centred on the side streets: Marsh’s Library tucked away in the shadow of St Patricks, the meeting houses of Wood St and Eustace St, the bookshops (and coffee shops and taverns) in the streets between Dame Street and the quays. Crane Lane (which still survives) led to the crane beside the original Custom House and a coffee shop in Crampton Court was where deals between importers and merchants were made. Blind Quay (now Exchange St) led to Essex Bridge (now the Grattan Bridge), the major crossing point to the suburbs developing on the north-side. These were the streets where Molyneux’s Dublin Philosophical Society had met and where John Toland had briefly kept the coffee shops in an uproar.

It was perhaps through a meeting in these streets that Hutcheson came to meet Robert Molesworth. Molesworth was in London until the second half of 1722. On his return (probably circa August 1722) he received a letter from the students he had supported in Glasgow over their violated right to elect their rector. It was delivered by John Smith who was deeply involved in the campaign and had recently been expelled from the university. John Smith stayed in Dublin to write a pamphlet on how he and another student, James Arbuckle, had been wronged by the university (for more on this pamphlet and Smith’s career in Dublin see here). Arbuckle was also in Dublin and may well collaborated in writing the pamphlet8. It’s plausible that Francis Hutcheson was introduced by one or both to Robert Molesworth. A patron to John Toland, an advocate of republican theory and a friend of Shaftesbury, Molesworth introduced to them a world of new ideas.

This was the beginnings of the “Molesworth Circle”, a discussion group for these new ideas. The essays that came out of these discussions were edited by Arbuckle and printed, with the financial support of Molesworth, in Emerald Square just off Eustace St. Hutcheson later described the life of an unmarried intellectual with friends in Dublin, from tavern to bookshop and back 9

stay at the Walshe’s Head till 2 in the morning: saunter in Jack’s shop all day, among books, dine abroad and then to the Walshe’s Head again…

These discussions were also the seeds for Hutcheson’s first major work. Scott suggests that Hutcheson’s An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue was started towards the end of 1723 and completed in Spring or Summer, 1724.  It was then commented on by Molesworth and a new friend from the Molesworth Circle, Edward Synge. Hutcheson acknowledges their help in the preface of the second edition of the Enquiry (London, 1726)10

This book was printed by John Smith who had set up a printers and book sellers (“Jack’s shop”?) at the sign of the Philosophers Head, with William Smith, on Blind Quay. Not long after, William Smith left for the continent and William Bruce, cousin of Francis Hutcheson, took his place.

Just before the Inquiry was printed in 1725, Hutcheson married the cousin of his father’s second wife, now widowed: Mary Kennedy née Wilson. He probably moved to one of the Dutch Billies in the streets around St Mary’s.  This was likely the reason for the advent of another friend, Thomas Drennan, who lived in the school as mentioned above, and also taught there

Hutcheson was now settled in Dublin, a respected member of the Dissenting community, with a circle of friends interested in intellectual discussion. But things were changing. Molesworth died soon after the publishing of the Inquiry, on 22nd May 1725.  The book had been published anonymously, but came to the attention of Lord Carteret, the Lord Lieutenant who had arrived in Ireland the year before. (His most important task: to uncover the writer of the Drapier Letters.) Carteret admired the book, had enquiries made after the author, and the next edition was published with Hutcheson’s name. Having started on the outskirts, literally and figuratively, he was thrust into the heart of Dublin, with the Archbishop of Dublin as a patron and invited into Dublin Castle itself. 

Hutcheson was now firmly on the path that led to him becoming a well-known figure in the philosophy of his time, the mainstay of moral philosophy in Glasgow and the “Father of the Scottish Enlightenment”. Yet he still visited Dublin, hoping to retire there, and died of a fever on 8th August, 1746. 


A family stand on a grassy mount, grazed by cattle, with the river Liffey flowing in the valley below. On the other side, Dublin stretches, look at 18th century Dublin, a low city dotted with steeples.Featured Image: A prospect of the city of Dublin from the Magazine Hill in His Majesties Phoenix Park. Joseph Tudor, 1753. Europeana/Rijksmuseum, Public Domain.



  1. William Robert Scott (1900) Francis Hutcheson: His Life, Teaching and Position in the History of Philosophy Dublin: University Press, p. 23.
  2. Patrick Fagan (1991) “The Population of Dublin in the Eighteenth Century with Particular Reference to the Proportions of Protestants and Catholics” Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an Dá Chultúr, 6, 121-156. www.jstor.org/stable/30070912
  3. see also Scott (1900), p. 23n4
  4. John Rocque Survey of the city and suburbs of Dublin, with the division of the parishes reduc’d from the large plan in four sheets by John Rocque, chorographer to his Royal Highness the prince of Wales. Published according to act of Parliament 1757. Online at Bibliothèque nationale de France.
  5. Scott (1900), p. 23
  6. James Moore (2006) “Introduction” in James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (eds) Logic, Metaphysics, and the Natural Sociability of Mankind, transl. Michael Silverthorne, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund (online) .
  7. Michael Brown (2016) The Irish Enlightenment. Cambridge, MS: Harvard University Press, pp. 124-5.
  8. M. A. Stewart (1987) “John Smith and the Molesworth Circle” in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, Vol. 2, pp. 89-102.
  9. William Robert Scott (1900) Francis Hutcheson : his life, teaching and position in the history of philosophy, pp. 132-3
  10. Francis Hutcheson (1726/2004) An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, ed. Wolfgang Leidhold (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund), pp. xx-xxi. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2462#Hutcheson_1458_112
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