Charles O’Shaughnessy’s rebuttal of Darwin

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2009), Volume 17

Charles O’Shaughnessy (left)—posted a copy of his Darwin confounded inscribed, ‘Presented by the Author’…to ‘Doctor Darwin’ on 15 February 1876.

Charles O’Shaughnessy (left)—posted a copy of his Darwin confounded inscribed, ‘Presented by the Author’…to ‘Doctor Darwin’ on 15 February 1876.

professional and educated classes
Charles O’Shaughnessy (1826/7–1911?) was a Kilfinane (Co. Limerick) draper with a taste for the polemical, as this stanza from one of his advertising jingles suggests. He was a prolific pamphleteer on a wide variety of subjects. The pamphlets were available post-free and came with the confident guarantee that ‘No money is required until a cure is effected, and without medicine’. A common thread that runs through all of O’Shaughnessy’s extant publications, despite their topical breadth, is a profound disdain for the professional and educated classes. In Every man his own doctor (1876) he begins by attacking the ‘ignorance of misguided professional gentlemen’, launching into a Socratic dialogue that ‘proves’ that fresh air, coupled with a staunch religious faith, can overcome almost all illnesses, and concludes by recommending that the afflicted ‘seek the law of nature rather than the art of man’. In his O’Shaughnessy’s discoveries for the prevention and cure of all kinds of farm stock and crops (1876) he also commences with a declaration that ‘It will be my duty to make [his arguments] as plain as possible, and to avoid all nonsensical phrases as used by “professors”’. He argues persistently that by observation and empirical research (he informs the reader that he takes his horse and cart around the country) he can penetrate the obscure and meaningless cant of the self-professed experts. Common sense, as he understands it, is the foundation on which to build knowledge, and there is little doubt that he considers himself as an iconoclastic vanguard: ‘It is now pretty well known that I am changing the state of recognised science and philosophy, and also astronomy: and it will be evident to any man of education and common sense that I have made enemies of a good many: but I disregard all for the public good’.
Unfortunately, his theories do not engender much confidence: potato blight, he reveals, was caused by rain, and he argues that ‘Foot-and-mouth disease is cured in a cow by giving her half a pint of whiskey or gin, and give her nothing to eat till her tongue cleans’. Nonetheless, O’Shaughnessy claims that his cure for foot-and-mouth disease provoked an enthusiastic international response: ‘Letters were heaping in to me, thanking me for the remedy, from Scotland and England. The government began to see that there was “a screw loose” in all the nonsense of “contagion”.’ Further, the medical world was also allegedly on the edge of its seat: ‘Newspaper editors, and every organ of the medical department as well as the veterinary, were set in motion, for they heard that I was to publish works on the diseases of man’.
Domestic and rural issues did not consume him entirely, nor was his disdain reserved for experts in those spheres. Perhaps his most ambitious efforts were those that ventured into the scientific realm, in particular his O’Shaughnessy’s proof that we do not go round the Sun and Darwin confounded, both published in 1876.

The former pamphlet, written in epistolary style and addressed to Rupert (his cat, described in family lore as a ‘feline Rasputin’), begins, somewhat ironically given his next pamphlet, by recounting the apocryphal story of Galileo’s confutation of Aristotelian ideas of gravity. O’Shaughnessy finds inspiration in the story of a man who stood up to ‘the assembled wisdom of the universities, revered for age and science—venerable, dignified, united and commanding’ (his italics). O’Shaughnessy’s argument is driven by a combination of perverse logic and intense personal faith. To prove that the Sun is at the ‘beck and call of the Earth’ he writes matter-of-factly, ‘Wherever cultivation is, the sun must adapt itself to the necessary vegetation there, even though it is on the highest mountain’. O’Shaughnessy provides the sine qua non to his argument by citing the apparently irrefutable evidence of Genesis as ‘very good authority’.

The descent of man referred to as ‘Darwin’s Monkey’
O’Shaughnessy’s insistence on the pre-eminence of the Earth and Scripture provided him with an obvious subject for his next pamphlet. Charles Darwin, the evolutionary biologist, had recently published his two-volume The descent of man in 1871. While his sequel to On the origin of species (1859) was considered to have been, as the Oxford Dictionary for National Biography puts it, ‘written with a maturity and depth of learning that marked Darwin’s status as an élite gentleman of science’, O’Shaughnessy was not to be impressed. After completing O’Shaughnessy’s proof in December 1875, he sat at his writing desk and penned a jubilant missive (right) to the unsuspecting Englishman, ‘completely confut[ing]’ the two-volume work.

Charles O’Shaughnessy’s 1876 letter to Charles Darwin, ‘completely confut[ing]’ The descent of man (1871), sequel to On the origin of species (1859). There is no record that Darwin responded. (TEXT BELOW)

Charles O’Shaughnessy’s 1876 letter to Charles Darwin, ‘completely confut[ing]’ The descent of man (1871), sequel to On the origin of species (1859). There is no record that Darwin responded. (TEXT BELOW)

Darwin confounded appeared shortly afterwards, and O’Shaughnessy duly posted a copy—‘Presented by the Author’ . . . to Doctor Darwin’—on 15 February 1876. Again, it was written in epistolary form, addressed to Rupert, and begins in typical bombastic style, referring to The descent of man as ‘Darwin’s Monkey’. O’Shaughnessy’s methodology was to take a quotation from the book and heap ridicule upon it. He sighs, ‘Like all the other professors that I have confounded, [Darwin] bases his theory on a hypothesis’. Many of Darwin’s arguments and analogies are not contested in the tract, merely held up as self-evident absurdities. For example, to Darwin’s analogy of a dog growling at a parasol moved by the wind for man’s invention of religion, O’Shaughnessy sniffs, ‘You now see the good of having a sensible dog to tell a man how we got our religion’. Darwin’s inability to predict the next evolutionary step and his occasional use of the word ‘probably’ are pounced upon by the Kilfinane pamphleteer: ‘Don’t you see the whole thing is only guess work’.

The essay continues in like manner, with O’Shaughnessy arguing that Darwin cannot deny the existence of an omnipotent power moving the heavens, that he has failed to show where the Earth has come from, that he has not shown where the ‘produce’ of an earth as old as he claims it is might be found, and interpolating his account with gleeful jibes at Darwin’s dog and parasol. He concludes thoughtfully: ‘We know that there is an infinity of space, and that there is a stop there to our understanding. We know there is an eternity of time, and that there is another stop there to our understanding.’

Sir, I am happy to inform you that I have completely confuted your work on the ‘Descent of Man’. Indeed I have heard a deal about it since it was printed but I am happy for the good of society and for the good of yourself that I will leave no doubt in any man’s mind but that your work is the most absurd production I ever had the pain of reading.
You do not unfairly deal with a single thing but with God almighty and because you have not the spirit of Him within you you know not His works nor His goodness.
You must have heard that I am the discoverer of the potato blight, the foot-and-mouth disease, consumption, and etceteras, that I have promulgated that the earth does not go round the sun, that there is no such law as gravitation nor perturbation nor centrifugal nor centripetal nor evolution (your hobby) nor that man has no temporal knowledge but by observation and that chiefly came through the brute creation so far you and I agree.
I am sure from the style of your work that it was your real conviction, but it is a source of pleasure to me even at the loss of your name as an author to be the medium of converting you from such an erroneous track and opposed to a good God that has done more for you than you would do for an ape. What change you will feel when a hope of a happy life in the kingdom of God will be inspired in your mind.
My pamphlet will appear in the early part of April and I will have the pleasure of sending you one at an early opportunity simultaneously with a copy to each of the professors of science.
I have the honour to be sir,
Yours faithfully,
Charles O’Shaughnessy
Kilfinane, January 10th 1876

John Tyndall’s ‘Belfast Address’, 1874

There is, unsurprisingly, no record that Darwin responded to the feisty Limerick man. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss O’Shaughnessy as an eccentric fanatic. Although livelier than many of his contemporaries, O’Shaughnessy’s thinking is concerned with marrying an empirical approach with religious faith, as seen by his insistence on observation leading to knowledge. This was precisely the issue at the heart of much metropolitan academic discourse in post-Darwin Ireland, particularly after the infamous ‘Belfast Address’ delivered by John Tyndall in 1874 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which sparked the proliferation of interest in the subject. The address was provoked by the refusal of the Catholic hierarchy to include physical science on its syllabus at the Catholic University of Dublin. A scientific evangelist, Tyndall’s lecture rewrote the history of western thought from a scientific perspective and rejected the interference of religion in scientific thought: ‘We claim, and we shall wrest from theology, the entire domain of cosmological theory’. Tyndall’s lecture disrupted the uneasy détente that had existed between religion and science since Darwin’s Origin of species and his Descent of man.Tyndall’s address provoked a flurry of denunciatory pamphlets from both Protestant and Catholic communities. Indeed, just after O’Shaughnessy’s letter, the Revd Professor Samuel Haughton—later president of the Royal Irish Academy (1886–91)—delivered a lecture at Trinity College, Dublin. The Freeman’s Journal reported on 6 March 1876 that he ‘briefly touched upon the false theory of Darwin, which he said would, of course, pass away altogether. The idea of the philosopher would remain and be of use in stimulating research, but he counselled all who made such researches their aim or study never to forget the Divine origin of all things.’ Clearly, then, there were individuals—albeit the ‘professors’ he scorned—from the Protestant community equally hostile to stark Darwinism as were Catholics such as O’Shaughnessy. In a way, Tyndall’s address caused more consternation amongst Protestants; Catholics, on the other hand, saw it as just the most recent skirmish in a long campaign of vilification. According to an 1871 article in the Dublin Review (vol. 17), ‘The Catholic knows with certainty of faith two things—first that the Church will always be in danger, and next that she will never be overthrown’.

Charles O’Shaughnessy’s Darwin confounded—‘Presented by the Author’ . . . to ‘Doctor Darwin’ on 15 February 1876.

Charles O’Shaughnessy’s Darwin confounded—‘Presented by the Author’ . . . to ‘Doctor Darwin’ on 15 February 1876.

A war of ideas that pervaded every part of Ireland
Charles O’Shaughnessy shared this opinion. And, as a dismissive reference in a front-page notice (promising to resolve the health of the nation) in the Irish Times of 13 October 1877 demonstrates, O’Shaughnessy was aware of Tyndall. Weary of the nonsense spouted by men of learning, he advocated a return to first principles, knowledge through observation. Content to exempt his own religious beliefs from such stipulations, he saw no conflict between his faith and his determination to act as a moral and intellectual beacon for those weaker men who were cowed by institutional knowledge:

‘I am happy to tell you that I have arguments at my fingers’ ends for future letters, that will put Mr Darwin at foot of the steeple that he capped, never to rise his head again, any more than many of the professors that we hear very little of now and it is no loss to morality.’

The importance of the question to O’Shaughnessy is perhaps most evident in the pricing of his nascent pamphlet business advertised in the Irish Times on 23 February 1876, just after he completed Darwin confounded. Most of the pamphlets were priced at between 21 and 45 shillings (and his tract Married woman—which was informed by his two marriages and ten children—was valued at the quite incredible price of 100 shillings!). At the other end of the pricing spectrum, Darwin confounded was available at the bargain price of 6d, suggesting a desire to make it available to as many people as possible and thus promote the democratisation of knowledge. His letter to Charles Darwin, read in context, is an intriguing window into how the war of ideas over the reconciliation of scientific method, represented by the theory of evolution, and religion pervaded every part of Ireland, beyond Belfast and Dublin, even as far as a draper’s shop in Kilfinane, Co. Limerick. HI

David O’Shaughnessy is a Junior Research Fellow in English at Linacre College, University of Oxford. He would like to thank Charlie, Kate and Dermot O’Shaughnessy and Donal Murphy for their help in researching this article.

Further reading:
Darwin Correspondence Project at Cambridge University (
T. Duddy, The Irish response to Darwinism (Bristol, 2003).
J. Wilson Foster, ‘Darwin in Ireland: John Tyndall and the Irish Churches’, in Recoveries: neglected episodes in Irish cultural history 1860–1912 (Dublin, 2002).


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