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Science and Nation

Shane McCorristine


The Royal College of Science for Ireland, 1867-1926: Exhibition at the Humanities Institute of Ireland, opening December 17th1

George Moore described the Dublin of 1882 as a pitiful city haunted by the spectre of murder and cultural decline, where the recently embellished St Stephen’s Green “looked like a school-treat set out for the entertainment of charity children”.2 Yet, while it may have been wishful thinking to describe it as the second city of the British Empire, late Victorian and Edwardian Dublin was no backwater in terms of scientific culture. All of the major cultural institutions and gentlemen’s clubs were within ten minutes walk of each other and one professor wrote: “Of all British cities there is probably none – except London and Edinburgh – where a student of science enjoys so many privileges and advantages as in that of Dublin.”3

Although Irish industrial output was in a near-constant state of decline from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, Dublin at the turn of the century was the home of some significant state-of-the-art technical industries, such as the Guinness Brewery and Sir Howard Grubbs’s works at Rathmines. The correspondence of George Francis FitzGerald, recently digitised by the Royal Dublin Society, demonstrates the rich intellectual network that could be maintained by a Dublin-based physicist. Another excellent example of the advanced state of Irish science is the fact that the physicists John Joly and William Fletcher Barrett were separately lecturing on their own X-rays only two months after Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen published his paper “On a New Kind of Rays” in December 1895.4 Finally, although Irish achievements in astronomy were closely interlinked with the dominance of the Protestant Ascendancy, the general literacy regarding astronomy in Irish public discourse at the turn of the century can be seen from Agnes Mary Clerke’s popular books to the hyper-scientism of the Ithaca episode in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Indeed, facing the very park which Moore lambasted was a science college which lasted for almost five decades and went about its business educating generations of engineers, chemists, surveyors, teachers, and other professionals. How quietly this institution functioned may be ascertained by the contemporary complaint of its physics professor, Barrett, that even some people living at St Stephen’s Green were unaware of its existence.5 Aside from some brief overviews6, the history and work of the Royal College of Science for Ireland (1867-1926) has not received the attention it deserves, perhaps as a result of the general neglect of the history of science in Ireland until recent times. With the aim of redressing this situation, the Irish Virtual Research Library and Archive has, in co-operation with the Humanities Institute of Ireland at University College, Dublin, funded a research project entitled Reconstructing Irish Science, which is retrieving part of the library of the RCSI, long held in storage in UCD. As the researcher on this project, I have here taken the opportunity to re-evaluate a scientific institution that is in danger of being perceived as peripheral.

The foundation of the RCSI in 1867 arose from intensive lobbying for a higher scientific institution in Ireland led by the eminent chemist, physician, and educationalist Sir Robert Kane. Kane was one of the greatest Irish minds of the Victorian era and his major treatise The Industrial Resources of Ireland (1844) outlined the possibilities for major economic development in Ireland. Kane wrote that:


the constitution of the rocks and soil of Ireland, its extent of ores and fuel, its supply of water, its extent of lakes and rivers, its harbours, all fitted it for industry in agriculture, in manufactures, and in commerce, in a degree, which, although not entitling it, like England, to grasp at the commercial and manufacturing sceptre of the world, would certainly enable it to be the source of employment and comfort to its own people.7


Yet ideas of a great national industrial rejuvenation were always unrealistic so long as Ireland was part of an economic system in which native industries had to compete on unfavourable terms within a broader imperial network. Meanwhile the catastrophe of the Famine greatly retarded any planning on a national scale for a generation and most of the industries Kane earmarked for further development actually continued to decline during the late nineteenth century.8

Kane began to busy himself with spreading the philosophy of scientific and industrial education in Ireland. The Museum of Irish Industry, which grew out of the Museum of Economic Geology, was an exhibiting and scientific institution established by him in 1847 at 51, St Stephen’s Green (now the premises of the Office of Public Works).9 Kane was well-connected with the mandarins of Dublin Castle and tenaciously widened the scope of the museum into that of a non-sectarian technical institute with an annual grant of £4,000. Part of the grant went towards salaries for professors of chemistry, geology, physics, zoology, and botany who taught courses to large numbers of the Dublin artisan and middle classes. As Kane put it:


We have two classes, both in this country [England] and in Ireland, that may be included under the head of industrial classes; we have the artizan class, and we have the class of employers of labour. I think it is particularly in Ireland of great importance that both classes should be educated, and especially that the middle class employers of labour should receive an education that would enable them to direct that labour in the most effective manner.10


In addition to its educational role, the museum harboured priceless collections of minerals, ores, textiles, ceramics, and paleontological specimens which attracted thousands of visitors each year, one of whom, the future Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, tried to gain entry at 5am, to the great surprise of the housekeeper.11

Following a period of aggressive lobbying from the Royal Dublin Society, which was hostile to the museum, a parliamentary commission was established to look into the provision of scientific instruction in Dublin. The commission, which included Lord Rosse, John Tyndall, Thomas H Huxley, and William B Carpenter among its members, recommended the transformation of the museum into the RCSI and extended its number of professorships. Its aim was “to supply, as far as practicable, a complete course of instruction in science applicable to the Industrial Arts, especially those which may be classed broadly under mining, agriculture, engineering, and manufactures, and to aid in the instruction of teachers for the local schools of science”12. The link between science teaching and the intentions of the RCSI was confirmed by the fact that the qualification by examination to teach science subjects was dispensed with in the case of RCSI associates; and in the case of non-associates a certificate of the college was recognised as qualifying a science teacher.13

Alongside the stated aim of training science teachers, the RCSI also gestured towards a future status as a general higher level technical school, or even a kind of polytechnic on the French model. This was a period when the spread of science was held to be crucial to the progress of the modern nation and The Irish Times supported the idea of the RCSI as “the nucleus of a great University of Technical Education, whose mission it will be to guide and stimulate manufacturing industry, the development of which would go far to solve our agrarian questions, and give peace, and hopefulness, and material ease to the population”14. Professorships were established in physics, chemistry, applied chemistry, geology, applied mathematics and mechanics, botany, zoology, agriculture, descriptive geometry and engineering, and mining and metallurgy.

As a later professor wrote: “Thus was launched the first comprehensive attempt made in the United Kingdom by the British Government to give State-aided higher scientific and technical instruction. Our college was in fact, at its foundation, in advance of any other school of science in the kingdom.”15 While grandiose hopes for the RCSI were voiced now and again, essentially its administrators were realistic regarding outcomes. Kane was concerned to diffuse an intellectual spirit and taste for science among all sectors of society and had no doubt that this would to some extent support Irish industries and manufactures. Others, usually non-nationalists, pointed towards increased employment opportunities within the Empire:


The less outlet there is for talent in Ireland, the greater, in our opinion, is the reason for retaining the present imperial system, by which students throughout the kingdom are examined together. It affords an Imperial competition; success in it – and we see that Irish students are successful – not only carries far greater weight and prestige than in any simply Irish competition, but it opens to the successful student a far wider field. What, for instance, supposing there were a training school for art teachers in Dublin, would become of the teachers trained there? A promising student now comes to London, and we have it on record that many of them afterwards find employment in England and Scotland.16


The RCSI had to compete with Trinity College, Dublin and the Queen’s Colleges for its students, and it was acknowledged by many that the lack of a liberal arts element in the RCSI course system was a major disadvantage. The administrators attempted to counter this by introducing special language and literature lectures during some sessions. Indeed, in 1868 John Ruskin came to deliver an important lecture that was later published as Mystery of Life and its Arts. The RCSI was also somewhat limited by the fact that it did not have the power to grant degrees, instead offering a Diploma (A.R.C.Sc.I) to associate students who registered for a three-year course which covered general education in the first two years and laboratory work in the third year. Many of these associates were English and Scots who had won scholarships and exhibitions to study at the RCSI.

Later in its history, the college began to offer a fellowship (F.R.C.Sc.I) to associates who had undertaken some original research or submitted a thesis. It also offered day courses, which were attended by many fee-paying students from TCD, the Catholic University, and later University College, Dublin. The college prided itself on the fact that it offered practical courses in the physical and natural sciences when this was not a common feature of universities in Great Britain and Ireland. Students were encouraged to participate in the industrial life of the city and there were many visits organised to local manufacturing works such as the Dartry Dye Works, the Dublin Tar Company, the Mining Company of Ireland and the Alliance and Dublin Consumers Gas Company.

Cormac Ó Gráda has recently shown the late Victorian and Edwardian period to be one of significant immigration to Ireland, a point not always remembered given the prevalence of emigration throughout much of modern Irish history. Significantly, the sector Ó Gráda discusses, Jewish Litvak immigrants, called their destination “England-Ireland”, a salient reminder that Ireland was perceived by newcomers to be a part of a wider community.17 Dublin possessed many of the advantages and charms of a small city and, to use the language of economics, had many “pull” factors influencing the immigration of scientific professionals. While the mathematician George Boole may have evinced a sense of isolation at Queen’s College, Cork, there was little sense of professional distance between scientific elites in Dublin and their colleagues in Cambridge and London. This was especially so in the case of the RCSI, which tended to attract a large number of young and upwardly mobile English candidates to its chairs. For example, Ramsay Traquair, who was twenty-seven when he became professor of zoology at the RCSI in 1867, left in 1873 to become the first keeper of natural history at the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh and AC Haddon, later a renowned Cambridge anthropologist, became professor of zoology in 1880 at the age of twenty-five. Yet for English academics working in Dublin, maintaining an intellectual network in England was very demanding. Haddon’s biographer summarised his schedule for two months in 1900:

On January 9 he took the Irish night mail to Dublin. Lectures, Museum demonstrations, lantern shows, dinners, exhibitions of pictures, Council Meetings and College exams fill up the days before catching the Irish mail back again on February 3. In the following week he had a slight attack of fever and had to cut several engagements. February 15 was ‘a terrible day’ with snowstorms and also with toothache. February 16 was spent in measuring Borneo skulls and a visit to the dentist. The next four days he was kept indoors with an abscess in his jaw, but had to start off again by the Irish night mail on February 22, giving a lecture to the Folklore Society in London on his way. He lectured to the Royal Dublin Society on Borneo on the 23rd; went to the Irish Literary Theatre (then quite new) and returned by the mail on the 24th.18


William Fletcher Barrett, who became professor of experimental physics in 1873, was one of these flexible young professors, and from the early 1880s lived with his mother, sister, and two live-in servants – a cook and a housemaid – in a residence at 6, De Vesci Terrace, Kingstown. Although Barrett is better known today as one of the founders of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882 and as an investigator into the phenomena of telepathy and dowsing, in his time he was an extremely important figure in the scientific and intellectual culture of Dublin. The decade in which Barrett came to Dublin was a revolutionary one for the teaching of physics, and for any young scientist the 1870s offered great scope for innovation in the provision of scientific education. The key trends which brought about the transformation of physics teaching in this decade were first the clamour for practical education in a laboratory, and second the provision to attain accurate measurement in physical experiments. In both cases Barrett and the RCSI were central actors in the establishment of physics teaching in modern Ireland.


The perception in the aftermath of the international exhibition of 1867 was that Britain was lagging behind Germany and France in its provision of technical education. The South Kensington bureaucracy envied the great leap German science had made in the establishment of advanced laboratories in its universities and institutes and decided to facilitate a new approach to the teaching of science in Great Britain and Ireland. Traditionally, the physics professor demonstrated experiments to his class in a lecture format, inculcating rote-learning and choosing only the best students to assist him in a small private laboratory which had little to distinguish it from a chemical laboratory. In 1855 William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) initiated the age of the modern physics laboratory with the establishment of his laboratory in “an old wine-cellar, part of an old professor’s house” at the University of Glasgow.19 A mere thirty years later the laboratory revolution was complete, with commentators on both sides of the Atlantic announcing that no modern university of repute was complete without a suite of modern purpose-built laboratories catering for the physical sciences.

Barrett was imbued with the “enlightened” philosophy of practical physics teaching as propounded at South Kensington from 1871. His public-spirited nature suited the RCSI project, a central plank of which was to be the creation of a class of professional science teachers who would extend scientific culture throughout the school system. Following the 1867 exhibition, there had been calls for a radical extension of science education, especially among the middle class, and a transformation in how it was to be taught to prospective teachers was a central plank in this progressive project. In his time at the Royal School of Naval Architecture Barrett had come under the influence of Frederick Guthrie (Royal School of Mines) and George Carey Foster (University College, London), and together they developed an approach to train the new generation of science teachers attending physics and chemistry courses. Bemoaning the lack of standard textbooks in physics and chemistry, and the costly nature of apparatus, Barrett, Guthrie, and Foster proposed to teach students how to make simple apparatus and then to show them how to use it in a practical context. For Barrett, no doubt one of the attractions of the RCSI as a new institution funded by the South Kensington was the opportunity to implement the philosophy of practical physics in a purpose-built physics laboratory.

As a professor of Experimental Physics (by no means an established designation in British physics at this stage), Barrett personified this orientation towards hands-on instruction. The lesson of the failure of the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1858 had convinced scientific educationalists of the need for absolute precision and accuracy in electrical measurements, yet one critic complained that by 1875 “there were not half-a-dozen people in Great Britain who had experimented with electricity”.20 Barrett was convinced of the wider intellectual benefits associated with teaching measurement physics as a “means of education” rather than a “vehicle of instruction”.21

Barrett defined practical physics as “the personal investigation with measurement of the mechanical laws of matter and energy”22, and to that end his systematic physics course was dominated by simple exercises in measurements of length, time, volume, heights, force, and so on. In preparation for the establishment of his own physics laboratory, he visited the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge in the summer of 1875, where he was shown around by James Clerk Maxwell, and when it opened in the autumn of 1875, the RCSI could boast the best physics laboratory in Ireland, although a later report mentioned that the vibration of tram-traffic around St Stephen’s Green “often had the tendency to interfere with the adjustment of scientific instruments”.23 Barrett was given an assistant and became comfortable in the role of proselytiser for the experimentalist and measurement practices that were sweeping physics. According to the statistics relating to attendance at the RCSI, his courses were among the most popular, especially the evening courses, which tended to attract the artisan classes.

Among his scientific colleagues in Ireland, Barrett was perhaps the most civic-minded, associating himself with a variety of progressive causes that brought him into contact with intellectuals, nationalists, and suffragists. He was a prominent lobbyist for the extension of education for women from 1870s and also for female suffrage from the 1880s. Putting his beliefs into practice, from the time of his appointment to Dublin, Barrett was involved in the Queen’s Institute, a centre for female education on Molesworth Street which was patronised by the Dublin social elite. In contrast to the conservative policies of TCD and the Catholic University, the RCSI, following the liberal line of the Museum of Irish Industry, allowed women to attend lectures and sit examinations on an equal footing with their male colleagues (although they were not eligible for scholarships for some time). Barrett was especially pro-active in this regard, and from 1874 he facilitated the attendance of women at his physics courses: among the first to enter were Alice Stopford Green (the nationalist historian), Louisa Digges la Touche (afterwards principal of Alexandra College), and Miss J L’Estrange (wife of George Coffey).24

Under the banner term of “natural philosophy”, British physics was influenced by French approaches in the early nineteenth century which required a thorough grounding in mathematical theory. The well-known Irish aptitude for mathematics is one important reason why the study of physics prospered in Ireland during the Victorian period. Indeed, the statistics on Irish interest in mathematics and physics in comparison with other subjects are quite remarkable. At a prize-giving ceremony in 1867, the Louth MP Chichester Fortescue declared: “The success of the Irish students is certainly remarkable when we look at the population and the scanty manufactures of which we boast. In elementary mathematics examination in 1866, the total number is 634, of which number Ireland 393 or 3-5ths of the whole. In higher mathematics there were 33 first class prizes, of which 25 came to Ireland. (Loud cheers.) The prizes given of the usual character were 1,000 in number in experimental physics, of which Ireland claimed one half.”25 In giving evidence to a parliamentary commission in 1883, Barrett noted of physics, “it seems to be a subject for which the Irish people have a special aptitude”. Reinforcing his point, he listed the number of Irish students studying mathematics and physics alongside those of another subject: in 1880 geometrical drawing had 17,494 students from England and Wales, 2,229 from Scotland, and 292 from Ireland; in mathematics there were 11,081 from England and Wales, 3,050 from Scotland, and 2,738 from Ireland; in physics there were 15,401 from England and Wales, 1,477 from Scotland, and 3,212 from Ireland.26

Yet it was not long before Barrett’s South Kensington ethos brought him into conflict with a colleague in an affair that has to rank high among the most inglorious of academic disputes. In 1878 Robert Galloway, professor of chemistry, was abruptly dismissed from his post at the RCSI, where he had lectured since 1856 (under the then Museum of Irish Industry). The apparent reason for the trouble was that Galloway did not get on with the porters who, according to him, obstructed his work. Galloway was undoubtedly a querulous man, and he brought the issue to South Kensington, who in turn established a board to examine it, on which Barrett sat. Galloway did not participate in this inquiry, perceiving Barrett as being biased, but the porter Martin gave evidence of Galloway’s vexatious character and threats to ruin them. Galloway was not popular among his colleagues, and no doubt Barrett jumped at the opportunity to get rid of him. However, Galloway refused to go quietly, first releasing a pamphlet which publicised his grievances and then taking Barrett to court for libellous comments about the length and quality of his lectures.27

Galloway alleged that a clique of professors and porters, led by Barrett, set up a system of obstruction against him, including boring holes in doors to set up “a most extraordinary system of espionage”.28 Galloway marshalled a list of students and ex-students who testified to his use of illustrations and his proper time-keeping. Counsel for Barrett expressed outrage at the ungentlemanly and false allegations that his client was “a pimp and a spy” and argued that the holes had been there before Barrett came to Dublin and merely allowed one to know if a lecture had finished yet. The jury ruled that Barrett’s comments about Galloway’s lectures were delivered without malice and that Barrett’s evidence did not result in Galloway’s dismissal.29 Turf wars over the lack of space and facilities in scientific institutions were very common during the period, and this could have been the root cause of this dispute, for, according to Galloway, Barrett had previously accused him of letting chemical fumes destroy some of his physical apparatus.30

Academic disputes aside, for Barrett and the other professors at the RCSI, the challenge was to attract significant numbers of middle class students who would study science in preference to the liberal professions, which offered easier routes to a domestic career and superior social status. Professor of chemistry Walter N Hartley complained that Dublin was thronged with medical and law students while Barrett commented on the general perception in Dublin that “it is degrading to enter anything which smacks of trade or handiwork, and great sacrifices are made to put children to college where they will get what is called a profession. Hence Dublin is full of young barristers, clerks, and others of that class.”31

One of the most cutting criticisms of the RCSI in the Second Report of the Royal Commissioners on Technical Instruction (1884) was that the good work of the college was simply not getting through to the public, especially among the middle classes, who sometimes preferred to employ private tutors to teach their children science rather than enrol them in an RCSI course. One way that the college was urged to draw more attention to itself was through advertisements in the newspapers. Heeding this advice, every September the RCSI would launch an advertising blitz in a huge number of Irish and British newspapers and journals, with a short prospectus announcing the range of courses available and the professors who taught them. Mention was made of the scholarships available to be won with, for instance, in the 1890s four royal scholarships offered, which would entitle second year students to two years’ free education and £50 per annum. In the autumn of 1889, over fifty ads were placed in publications as varied as The Builder, The Electrician, The Mining Journal, The Academy, Irish Catholic, Nature, and Nation at roughly 6d per line.32

The numbers of students who actually attended the RCSI was a constant problem for college administrators. In the first few decades the institution was pilloried for the extremely low number of students enrolled: reports showed that the number of students in attendance remained below a hundred until 1887. The college administrators painted this in the best light possible, arguing that a professor-student ratio of 7.2 compared favourably with other scientific institutions in Europe. As to the popular reluctance to enrol, this was put down to a “backward” general education system which was ill-suited to scientific training and the limited and diminishing number of industries in Ireland where one might find employment.33 From the 1890s the problem was the converse: student numbers began to steadily increase, probably due to advances in general education and the establishment of the Royal University from 1880. This increased attendance at the RCSI highlighted the limited size of the building – which was basically a town house – and caused severe overcrowding and inconvenience to staff and students. A correspondence book of Hartley’s held in the UCD archives gives a vivid insight into the day-to-day stresses of running a chemical laboratory in what were far from optimal conditions.

In his letters to JP O’Reilly, professor of mining and secretary of the RCSI, Hartley wrote a litany of complaints that verged from the shocking to the comical. In November 1887 he complained that someone entered his private room and meddled with his chemical apparatus; in February 1888 he wrote of how the porters frequently admitted strangers into the laboratories who had no business “beyond begging or touting”:

Two or three weeks since a very unfortunate and impudent German Swindler who stated that he knew he was admitted[.] As he had no card and would not tell his business I declined to see him. Yesterday a woman with a book to sell came at the busiest hour[,] insisted upon seeing me and sent in word that Professor Barrett had sent her which was not true.


In the same month he complained of the lack of cleanliness in the college; in March 1888 he complained about the volumes of smoke passing up the staircase due to students smoking in the basement; in April 1888 the laboratory was full to overflowing; in June 1888, a door draught blew poisonous fumes in the faces of those at work; in October 1888 the cord lines to the draught chambers were not strong enough and “a lady-student was as nearly as possible guillotined by the rapid descent of the sash”; in January 1890 the ventilation system was still defective and due to the smell of sulphuretted hydrogen the atmosphere was now poisonous (in the same month Hartley was granted sick leave due to the fumes); in August 1890 officers from Dublin Corporation cut off the water without informing him: “Such action I am informed is illegal, it is also very inconvenient to us and at times highly dangerous. On a former occasion they caused a serious explosion which just escaped being disastrous”; in October 1891, even though the ceiling had been replastered, Hartley complained that chunks of plaster have been “raining” down lately.

The reminiscences of F Maurice Sexton reveal some interesting anecdotes about life in the RCSI in the 1870s from the perspective of the student body. What struck Sexton most was the severe punctuality of its staff: “At 10 o’clock precisely a red line was drawn in the attendance book. The consequence of signing below this line was that the defaulting student had to appear before the secretary.” For a first offence the student faced a severe warning; for a second a fine of 2s 6d was imposed; while for a third offence the student was suspended and referred to South Kensington for further discipline. Although Sexton was unaware of anyone committing a third offence, this strict system did cause “ructions” among the student body and on one occasion they set up a subscription of a penny each to pay the fine of a latecomer.35

In many ways, the RCSI project was a victim of the significant level of support given to it by South Kensington. Because the college was seen as an institution formed by a centralised bureaucracy in London as part of a wider British science policy, the staff encountered major problems in selling the message of higher scientific education among nationalists in Dublin. Barrett was aware “of a most unreasonable and unreasoning prejudice against South Kensington” in Ireland, while the Dean reported that “national feeling does interfere with us. The fact of our being under the Government does prejudice us; it is blind, but the fact is the prejudice does exist.”36 In the 1880s Haddon’s wife reported distinct anti-British feeling in Dublin and debated with other professors and their wives about the possibility of civil war breaking out. Haddon himself was affected by the constant attacks on the RCSI in the press and reported that satisfaction was expressed among the students when news reached Dublin of the fall of Khartoum and the fate of General Gordon.37 While the popular association between higher science and unionism in Dublin was something which liberal educationalists, Home Rulers, and Sinn Féin nationalists attempted to refute, it is debatable whether this perception had been dented by the time of Independence.

Following the Agriculture and Technical Instruction (Ireland) Act of 1899, the new Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction took over the Irish institutions that had previously been run from South Kensington. DATI was a Dublin-based department administered by the progressive unionist Sir Horace Plunkett, and as may be surmised from its title, was committed to patronising local technical and agricultural schools and, as part of Plunkett’s own philosophy, supporting the co-operative movement. This transformation in state policy inaugurated the second era of the RCSI: the number of staff and students rose; the teacher-training element of the college was emphasised; the faculty of mining was abolished and the faculty of agriculture revitalised; students from the Royal Veterinary College were given courses in chemistry, botany, and zoology; there was a huge increase in the number of engineering students; courses were extended to four years and the college as a whole was reorganised along a polytechnic model, with agricultural and industrial service to DATI prioritised.38

These changes removed the fundamental argument of some nationalists opposed to the RCSI: that it was an institution managed exclusively from South Kensington with no local control and of little actual use to Ireland. Yet this reorganisation merely exacerbated long-term problems regarding space and facilities, and it was a great relief to staff and students when in 1899 a parliamentary committee recommended the construction of new buildings for the RCSI and DATI on Upper Merrion Street. This splendid building complex (now Government Buildings) was officially opened by King George V in 1911 and was the last major public works investment of the British government in Ireland.

Much like the overcrowded UCD of the early 1960s, the RCSI was becoming increasingly confident of its place in Irish society just as plans were being made to move to new and more up-to-date premises. During the interregnum period there was an upsurge in new associations, societies and sporting clubs within the college. The student union was reorganised in 1903 with new vigour and its annual conversazione was used as an opportunity to connect with the citizenry of Dublin. On these occasions the rooms and laboratories of the college were thrown open to inspection, with lectures and demonstrations of scientific processes, such as the X-ray, entertaining the visitors. The Royal Irish Constabulary band supplied the music while flags were lent by Dublin Castle and decorative plants by the Royal Botanic Gardens.

By 1906 there was a rugby football club, hockey club, hurling club, engineering society, philosophical society, agricultural debating society and chemical association. Annual past students’ dinners were held from 1904 on St Patrick’s Day in a restaurant in Holborn, London and were attended by alumni, members of staff, and well-wishers. In 1906 a student journal entitled The Lynx was founded which, although short-lived, reflected many of the concerns of the student body and tracked the dramatic changes that the RCSI was going through in the run-up to the move to Merrion Street.

In the opening issue, the editor of The Lynx declared: “We hope to turn a lynx-like eye upon all the shortcomings of those awe-inspiring individuals who come under the general heading of the ‘authorities’. It has been said that no institution is really flourishing that has no grievances, and if there is any truth in this statement then the Royal College of Science for Ireland is entitled to a place at the front rank of scientific colleges.”39 One area of contention for students were the social consequences of the increasing orientation towards agricultural studies following the establishment of DATI. In June 1907 it was reported that at a meeting of the agricultural society there was a vigorous debate regarding the sociability or unsociability of agricultural students: “Some speakers stated that their faculty was the most sociable in the College, others flatly denied it.”40 In the same month the engineering society, whose members felt increasingly alienated from the student body following a fire which destroyed their laboratory, complained that the college was “being gradually overwhelmed in the development of the Agricultural interest”41

Evidence of the increasing tension between the Celtic Revival and notions of civic science can be seen in a short parable published in The Lynx entitled “The Evolution of a Chemist. A Study in Psychology”. In this piece a member of the Dublin Metropolitan Police is on patrol with the poetry of Yeats and Celtic legends swirling around his head. Seeing the RCSI at Stephen’s Green he experiences an epiphany: “‘College of Science’ – Science – Matter – Berkeley – Dalton. He staggered a few paces and fell limply on the College steps. The contact with that Royal road to learning stirred his being to the very atom. Every jelly mass quivered – shook – moved. A moment more and the reaction had gone to a finish. Denis M’Carthy, Dublin Metropolitan Policeman, true Celt, minor poet, rose to his feet a Chemist”.42 The message of the parable seems to be that science in Ireland is to be understood as a vital modernising force that can dispel the Celtic Twilight of obscurantist romantics.

Despite the fact that the RCSI was at last beginning to thrive, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that its new buildings, designed by Sir Aston Webb and fitted with elevators and electricity, played a definite role in its sudden demise. The college was now located in the heart of Dublin’s political and cultural zone and there was no end of jealous bodies eager to use its facilities. During World War I the engineering workshops were manned night and day in the construction of war munitions, while other parts of the college were used as medical supply depots. As the War of Independence came to a conclusion, the college found itself in the administrative nerve centre of the new regime. The buildings were used for a meeting of the short-lived Parliament of Southern Ireland in January 1922 and in October of that year, in the midst of civil war, the college was officially closed and part of it taken over by the Free State government for use as offices. The authorities were informed that this action was taken following military intelligence of a bomb plot, allegedly confirmed by the discovery of a device.

Staff and students were united in their opposition to the decision, which resulted in classes being moved to locations all over the city, and the loss of access to the laboratories and workshops. They doubted the military reasoning behind the closure and feared that it would not be temporary. They also strenuously resisted attempts to have them sent to UCD to continue their courses: Prof Felix Hackett complained that students should not be “moved about like chattels”. Furthermore, it was claimed by one member of staff that the so-called bomb discovered “was simply an aeroplane dynamo for demonstration purposes”43

There was a certain amount of justifiable paranoia in the air: in January 1923 Senator Yeats had an armed guard outside his house on Merrion Square while another senator, Oliver St John Gogarty, was kidnapped by irregulars in the same month. Public buildings were of course targeted by Anti-Treaty forces and the RCSI backed onto Leinster House, where the Dáil now met, having negotiated the withdrawal of the RDS. Military officials would have remembered that the engineering workshops had been utilised night and day from June 1915 to January 1919 in producing war munitions. Also, and with the “aeroplane dynamo” in mind, the government may perhaps have got wind of a republican plot to steal an aeroplane from Baldonnel and bomb Leinster House.44 But despite some legitimate political reasoning, the closure of the RCSI was evidence of a definite shift in educational policy which in the long term would favour UCD and the NUI.

A huge lobbying effort was launched to save the college, and its supporters pointed to the benefits that it would offer the new regime. It was fitted with research laboratories that were valued at £250,000 and could not be replicated elsewhere; the “Royal” prefix was dropped from its name; Nature argued that its loss would be a “national calamity” for the new state45; one commentator pointed to the “spirit of harmony” that always existed in a student body where North and South, Home Ruler and Unionist commingled freely;46 the Seanad passed a motion supporting its reopening as soon as possible. Speaking in the Dáil, the Minister for Agriculture, Patrick Hogan, argued that there were a great many anomalies associated with the RCSI and that there was a duplication of courses between it and UCD and that rationalisation was needed. Furthermore, he declined to say that the RCSI would ever be re-opened, only “reconstructed”47.

During all this uncertainty the college sounded out the sympathetic board of TCD regarding a scheme to enable RCSI students to complete their courses and graduate at the University of Dublin.48 Opponents of the closure picked up on the fact that Hogan did not even consider this possibility, instead insisting that UCD would be the rightful home for RCSI students. Examining the Dáil and Seanad debates regarding the closure it is clear that Hogan and the Minister for Education, Eoin MacNeill, were only too glad to use the political situation to establish UCD as the pre-eminent scientific institution in the state. The University Education (Agriculture and Dairy Science) Act was passed in June 1926 and the RCSI was amalgamated with UCD, adding staff, students, and much-needed facilities to the faculties of agriculture, engineering and architecture, and science. In October of that year Minister for Finance Ernest Blythe officially handed over the keys of the RCSI to the UCD president, Denis Coffey. The UCD school of engineering continued to function at Merrion Street until 1989, when it was one of the last outposts to be evacuated to the Belfield Campus.

As a postscript, the issue of the RCSI arose one last time in the Dáil in October 1990 when Taoiseach Charles Haughey gave the then Fine Gael leader, Alan Dukes, a history of the buildings following criticisms of his government’s lavish expenditure on a new suite of offices in Government Buildings. Mr Haughey argued: “The present accommodation of the Taoiseach’s office is not satisfactory. I would describe it as a bit of a rabbit warren.” Deputy Pat Rabbitte “took offence” at this description; Deputy Alan Shatter claimed Mr Haughey “obviously has illusions of grandeur”; Dr FitzGerald asked: “How much has the House been deprived of by this decision?”; Mr Haughey replied: “None. Go and meddle in the presidential election.”49

There was a huge variety of career paths for RCSI alumni; lecturers and teachers in science colleges, technical schools and national schools; geologists on the geological surveys; civil and electrical engineers; DATI staff; civil servants throughout the empire; industrial chemists; mining and mineralogical workers; physicians; veterinarians; county surveyors. The Patent Office in London was particularly noted for the number of old RCSI students who worked there.50 As part of a wider network of metropolitan scientific professionalism, the RCSI project made eminent sense. Mary Daly argues that education in nineteenth century Ireland was viewed in a utilitarian manner, as a “passport to employment, a help towards emigration or a means of advancing social status”51, and when looked at in this manner the RCSI was always going to have limited success in terms of actual scientific progress in Irish society. Yet judging whether the RCSI was a “success” in its time is a very difficult thing to do.

Unlike the Museum of Irish Industry, which was greatly admired in Dublin for its popular lectures, the RCSI never established strong enough roots in Irish society, particularly among the Catholic-nationalist middle class who could afford to send their children to third level education. It must be remembered that its establishment was due to a combination of sustained lobbying from social and scientific elites for specialised higher education in Ireland and the diffusion of a metropolitan science policy from South Kensington. There was an onus on administrators and policy-makers to create a desire for the type of scientific education that the other Irish colleges could not provide. There was also an expectation that there would be a medium-term demand for technicians and industrial professionals in Ireland. Looked at from a contemporary academic perspective, which posits (sometimes tenuous) connections between economic development and the number of students participating in third and fourth level education, a project like the RCSI could only ever excel in an industrialising nation or, like Denmark, a nation willing or able to consistently modernise its agricultural sector. When engineering and agricultural studies were finally integrated into the needs of the nation under DATI, the unstable political situation from 1913 onwards affected short-term gains.

The closure of the RCSI was never going to affect policy-makers and leaders in the Free State. The new men of nationalist Ireland in the early twentieth century tended to be teachers, clerks, civil servants, farmers, and professionals from the liberal arts or medical sciences. The growth of UCD and the NUI symbolised the emergence of an independent Ireland confident in its ability to provide third level education to its citizens. Yet it is hard to avoid the palpable sense of intellectual shrinkage that occurred in Irish society following the establishment of the Free State: Tom Garvin has written at length about the philistinism and “anti-modernist” streak of the new regime.52 TCD went into sleep-mode for a generation as it sought to adjust to the new realities, the RDS was stripped of its scientific activities and began to concentrate solely on agricultural shows and education policy was directed by a conservative-minded leadership with little regard for the long-term benefits of research and development. The consequences of this were an economically and scientifically underdeveloped nation which accelerated the pre-existing brain-drain and reinforced progressive unionist prejudices regarding the antipathetic relationship between science, modernity, and the Irish Catholic Church. It was up to solitary intellectuals like Sean O’Faolain to question the dominance of a single cultural nationalist narrative: “The romantic illusion, fostered by the Celtic Twilight, that the West of Ireland, with its red petticoats and bawneens, is for some reason more Irish than Guinness’ Brewery or Dwyer's Sunbeam-Wolsey factory, has no longer any basis whatever.”53

The recent rise of interest in the history of Irish science is something which should be maintained if historians and scientists alike are to get a clearer picture of Ireland’s distinguished place in modern science. One way of approaching this is to celebrate the RCSI library as tangible evidence of a thriving scientific culture. When the RCSI was amalgamated into UCD its library, which in 1876 was estimated to consist of some 6,000 volumes54, became part of the science library. With the transfer of science to Belfield this library was gradually broken up as parts were sent to various departments and storage facilities, with rare and archival material going to Special Collections and UCD Archives. As part of the Reconstructing Irish Science project I have been examining what remains of the RCSI library held in storage in UCD with the dual aims of integrating it with what we know of the development of the RCSI and of offering the faculty of science a salient reminder of its origins. It is hoped that the Humanities Institute of Ireland exhibition, the accompanying online exhibition on the IVRLA website, and the partial reconstruction of the RCSI library, will generate a renewed interest in the history of science in twenty-first century UCD.


[1] This research is funded through the Irish Virtual Research Library and Archive (IVRLA), a component of the UCD Humanities Institute of Ireland, which is funded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) through the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI). See www.ucd.ie/ivrla for further details.

[2] G. Moore, A Drama in Muslin: A Realistic Novel, (7th ed. London, 1887), p. 158.

[3] E. Hull, Reminiscences of a Strenuous life, (London, 1910), p. 32.

[4] J. R. Nudds, ‘John Joly; Brilliant Polymath’, in J.R. Nudds et al eds., Science in Ireland, 1800-1930: Tradition and Reform: Proceedings of an International Symposium held at Trinity College, Dublin, March, 1988, (Dublin, 1988), p. 168; Forty-fourth Report of the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, with appendix, (1897), p. 430.

[5] Second Report of the Royal Commissioners on Technical Instruction. Vol.IV. Evidence, &c. relating to Ireland, (1884), p. 73.

[6] W.F. Barrett, An Historical Sketch of the Royal College of Science. From its Foundation to the Year 1900, (Dublin, 1907); The College of Science for Ireland: Its Origin and Development, with notes on similar institutions in other countries, and a bibliography of the work published by the staff and students (1900-1923), (Dublin, 1923); B.B. Kelham, ‘The Royal College of Science for Ireland (1867-1926)’, Studies 61, (Aut. 1967), pp. 297-309; N. Whyte, Science, Colonialism and Ireland, (Cork, 1999).

[7] R. Kane, The Industrial Resources of Ireland, (Dublin, 1844), pp. 407-408.

[8] See C. Ó Gráda, Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780-1939, (Oxford, 1994); M. E. Daly, Social and Economic History of Ireland since 1800, (Dublin, 1981).

[9] For the Museum of Irish Industry see C. Cullen, ‘The Museum of Irish Industry, Robert Kane and Education for all in the Dublin of the 1850s and 1860s’, History of Education 38:1, (2009), pp. 99-113; P. Keating, ‘Sir Robert Kane and Industrial Education at the Museum of Irish Industry and Queen’s College, Cork’, (M.Ed, UCD, 1979).

[10] Report from the Select Committee on Scientific Institutions (Dublin) ect., (1864), p. 70.

[11] Hull, Reminiscences, p. 64.

[12] College of Science (Dublin), &c. Copies of the report of the commission on the College of Science, Dublin ect., (1867), p. 2.

[13] UCD Archives, RCSI/254.

[14] Editorial, Irish Times, Jan. 24, 1870.

[15] Barrett, An Historical Sketch, p. 7.

[16] Report from the Commission on the Science and Art Department in Ireland, together with the minutes of evidence, appendix, and index, (1869), p. xxxii.

[17] C. Ó Gráda, Jewish Ireland in the age of Joyce: A Socioeconomic History, (Princeton, New Jersey, and Oxford, 2006), p. 16.

[18] A. Hingston Quiggin, Haddon the Head Hunter: A Short Sketch of the Life of A.C. Haddon, (Cambridge, 1942), p. 113.

[19] W. Thomson, ‘Scientific Laboratories’, Nature 31, (Nov. 1884-Apr. 1885), p. 411.

[20] R. Sviedrys, ‘The Rise of the Physics Laboratories in Britain’, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 7, (1976), p. 412; J. Perry, ‘Prof. William Edward Ayrton, F.R.S.’ [obit], Nature 79, (Nov. 1908-Feb. 1909), p. 74.

[21] W.F. Barrett, ‘Practical Physics’, Nature 11, (Nov. 1874-Apr. 1875), p. 282.

[22] W.F. Barrett and W. Brown, Practical Physics: An Introductory Handbook for the Physical Laboratory, (London, 1892), p. 3.

[23] ‘Royal College of Science and the Royal Hibernian Academy’, Irish Times, 11 Jul. 1903.

[24] Barrett, An Historical Sketch, p. 9.

[25] ‘Science and Art Department. – Interesting Proceedings at Dundalk’, Irish Times, 30 Sept. 1867.

[26] Second Report of the Royal Commissioners, p. 72.

[27] [R. Galloway], On the Dismissal of Robert Galloway, M.R.I.A., F.C.S., ect., from the Professorships of Chemistry in the Royal College of Science for Ireland ect., (Dublin, 1879).

[28] ‘The Royal College of Science’, Irish Times, 21 Apr. 1880.

[29] ‘The Royal College of Science’, Irish Times, 22 Apr. 1880.

[30] On the Dismissal of Robert Galloway, p. 7, ff.

[31] Second Report of the Royal Commissioners, pp. 68-69.

[32] UCDA, RCSI/253.

[33] Thirty-second Report of the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, with appendix, (1885), p. 268.

[34] UCDA, RCSI/128.

[35] The Lynx: A Magazine Scientific, Literary and Collegiate 1:2, (Mar., 1907), p. 90.

[36] Second Report of the Royal Commissioners, p. 73.

[37] Quiggin, Haddon the Head Hunter, p. 57.

[38] Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction for Ireland. First Annual General Report of the Department, 1900-1901, (1902), pp. 292-295.

[39] The Lynx: A Magazine Scientific, Literary and Collegiate 1:1, (Jun., 1906), pp. 1-2.

[40] The Lynx: A Magazine Scientific, Literary and Collegiate 1:3, (Jun., 1907), p. 106.

[41] Ibid, p. 127.

[42] ‘Mims’, ‘The Evolution of a Chemist. A Study in Psychology’, The Lynx: A Magazine Scientific, Literary and Collegiate 1:1, (Jun., 1906), p. 21.

[43] ‘Science Students’ Difficulty’, Irish Times, Oct. 18, 1922.

[44] See C.S. Andrews, Dublin Made Me, (Dublin, 2001), pp. 255-256.

[45] ‘The Royal College of Science’, Nature 110, (Jul.-Dec., 1922), p. 816.

[46] ‘College of Science for Ireland’, Irish Independent, Oct.19, 1922.

[47] ‘Ceisteanna – Questions. – Closing of the College of Science’, Dáil Éireann Debates 1, 18. Oct, 1922, 1653-1655.

[48] ‘Trinity College and the College of Science’, Irish Times, Nov. 1, 1922.

[49] ‘Ceisteanna – Questions. Oral Answers. – College of Science Complex Refurbishment’, Dáil Éireann, Debates 402, 24. Oct, 1990, 64-69.

[50] Barrett, An Historical Sketch, p. 10.

[51] Daly, Social and Economic History of Ireland, p. 125.

[52] T. Garvin, Preventing the Future: Why Was Ireland so Poor for so Long?, (Dublin, 2004), p. 4.

[53] S. Ó Faoláin, ‘Silent Ireland’, The Bell 6:6, (Sept., 1943), p. 460.

[54] Twenty-third Report of the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, with appendix, (1876), p. 483.

Shane McCorristine was a doctoral scholar at the Humanities Institute of Ireland, University College, Dublin and was awarded a PhD in history in 2007. He also has an MA in cultural history from UCD. His research focused on ideas about ghost-seeing in Victorian and Edwardian culture and his monograph, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-seeing in England, c.1750-1920, is forthcoming in 2010 with Cambridge University Press. His current research interests include the history of science, children’s literature, and the history of Arctic exploration.