Prometheus’s Fire: a History of Scientific and Technological Education in Ireland

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 4 (Winter 2001), Reviews, Volume 9

Norman McMillan
(Tyndall Publications, £24 pb, £42 hb)
ISBN 0952597403, pb/hb ISBN?

In his first encounter with Trinity College, Dublin, in 1971 the author was shown around the Physics Department, and in passing his attention was drawn to a heap of old notebooks, which he was told belonged to George Francis Fitzgerald, but it seemed no-one wanted them. There was no sense at the time that these might have been historically important. Gradually however, with the aid of Provost McConnell, Gordon Herries Davies, David Spearman and others, a sense of the need to conserve historical artefacts and documents relating to science became more widely appreciated. In this volume Norman McMillan has brought together a significant collection of papers on various aspects of the history of technical, technological and scientific education in Ireland.
J.G. Ryan traces the history of apprenticeship back five millennia, with the aid of the Talmud, Babylonian and Egyptian sources. There was parallel recognition of the process in Ireland under the Brehon Law, where craft skills were hereditary or passed on by fosterage. The author outlines the history of craft work in pre-Norman Irish society, explaining why it did not evolve towards a guild model. The guild system, as it evolved in medieval Europe from the eleventh century, came into Ireland with the Normans, and became established in the main towns, primarily Dublin, but on the basis of excluding the Irish; after the Reformation this was reinforced on a religious basis. As a consequence the Dublin guild system acted against the survival of native Irish craft culture, which declined into an underworld existence.
Juan José Pérez-Camacho, in ‘Late Renaissance Humanism and the Dublin Scientific Tradition (1592-1641)’, analyses the elite of the colonial culture concentrated in Trinity College: Ussher, Lydyat and Carpenter. Lydyat’s De Natura Coeli (1605) attacked the Aristotelian system, and supported Tycho Brahe. The Copernican system was slow to become generally accepted, but Carpenter and Ussher made the issues known to the Irish-based scientific community, with Ussher advocating the Keplerian heliocentric system. Another contribution to the understanding of early science in Ireland was the editing of the work of John Duns Scotus by Luke Wadding, at the Irish Franciscan College in Rome. The works of Duns Scotus, an early medieval supporter of the heliocentric system, were known to Ussher. This promising early linkage between Irish intellectuals, both native and colonial, and the European scientific renaissance was cut short in the 1640s, in the context of the European religious wars, which assumed catastrophic intensity in Ireland during the Cromwell period.
There follow three papers covering the links with Protestantism, the scientific societies, and the nineteenth-century reform movement; Church-State relations; and the Baconian theory of the state. The Tudor monarchy used Trinity College as a means of exiling intellectuals of the Puritan persuasion, perceived as a threat. There was a ‘Baconian’ movement in Ireland aimed at disseminating scientific knowledge among tradesmen and artisans which included the Dublin Society (1731), the Society of Arts (1754) and the Society of Improvers (1723). McMillan himself makes the case that Trinity has consistently played a pioneering role in the reform of university education in the United Kingdom as a whole. For example, in 1815 Bartholemew Lloyd introduced French mathematical notation, overthrowing what by then had become the ‘dead hand of Newton’, and risked being labelled as ‘subversive’ in the counter-revolutionary political climate of the time.
Richard Jarrell (York, Toronto) considers technical education in the core industrial nations of Europe and in the United States. Germany, a late arrival, leapfrogged Britain by central state initiatives aimed at producing an educated workforce, and industrial PhDs were the norm. Irish experience is interesting because it falls between that of the US and the colonies. Agriculture, as practised by the ‘improving landlords’ with the aid of the Royal Dublin Society, was the main channel for technical education, and this trend led to Plunkett and the Recess Committee at the end of the nineteenth century. The ‘Mechanics Institute’ societies in the Irish context were a false start; they made sense in Britain, keeping factory workers out of the pubs, but in Ireland they became middle-class clubs; they were a ‘borrowed concept in an inappropriate setting’.
Sean McCartain traces the rise of technical education in the context of the development of the fruits of the Recess Committee. In the background were the obstacles placed in the way of technical education by the dominant laissez-faire philosophy of government. It was opposition from the Liverpool Financial Reform Association which killed the Model Agricultural Schools. Most initiatives were therefore via private subscriptions, from people such as Bianconi in Clonmel and Crawford in Cork. A turning-point was the 1884 Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (aka Samuelson) which laid the basis for subsequent local government involvement, once this was established on a democratic basis in 1898. Education in the principles underlying a trade was distinguished from ‘learning a trade’, thus getting round the laissez-faire objectors. Important as this was, it was focused on England, and it took the 1895 Recess Committee, organised by Sir Horace Plunkett, to develop the political leverage which arose from Samuelson, citing for example the extraordinary discrepancy in the public money spent on science, art and technical instruction per head of population between England (over £3) and Ireland (one old penny). The Recess Committee, which met in Dublin’s Mansion House, produced a seminal report which led eventually to the setting up the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, with Plunkett in the lead. The author develops many interesting themes relating to home rule politics and religion in this context. The Recess Committee included Father Thomas Findlay, the co-operative activist priest, and Revd. Dr Kane, Grand Master of the Belfast Orange Lodge.
Other chapters cover the development of the Vocational Education Committee curricula and the emergence of the National Council for Education Awards, modern apprenticeship procedures, case studies of historic Mechanics Institute episodes, the development of the examination system under the influence of James Booth, agricultural education, early teacher trade unionism, the role of local government and central government. There is a chapter by Clive Williams on the Pestalozzi method in technical education (learning by doing); this, in the context of general and technical education, became established in England after 1822 thanks to the prior work of John Synge of Glanmore, the grandfather of J.M. Synge, by a convoluted route which is traced.
Patricia Phillips traces the history of the Queen’s Institute, Dublin (1861-1881), the first technical college for women in Europe. The problem of how to employ ‘gentlewomen’ had emerged in Britain as a consequence of the restrictive middle-class mores of the Victorian era—teaching and governessing were the only options. In England there was founded in 1859 the Society for the Promotion of Employment of Women; the author traces its English feminist and radical roots, and then makes the link into Ireland via the 1861 conference of the society, which took place in Dublin. The prime movers in the Irish initiative which followed were the Quaker Anne Jellicoe (founder of Alexandra College) and Barbara Corlett. The former was married to a mill-owner, whose attempts to educate and train the local girls in useful arts had fallen foul of the Catholic Church, and the latter was the daughter of a coach-spring manufacturer. They had to overcome the social barriers between perceived ‘gentility’ and work and this in the Irish environment proved to be more acute a problem than in England. Dublin was awash with impecunious gentlewomen, consequent on the numerous bankruptcies of estates due to the Famine.
Rather than attempting to invent ‘suitable’ occupations for distressed gentry, they decided to embark on a technical training centre for women, to teach the basic skills of industry and commerce. They got patronage from leading citizens and from royalty, and set up classes covering a wide range of skills, including telegraphy, photography and engraving. They got industrial sponsorship from the B and I Magnetic Telegraph Co.. Shortly after Anne Jellicoe took up her post with the nascent Alexandra College, leaving Barbara Corlett to run the show according to her lights, which were however somewhat restricted to the ‘decaying gentry’ market. Ms Corlett steered the curriculum away from the practical arts, towards things like French and music, considered more lady-like. In the 1880s an attempt was made to return to the original aims of the 1861 project by a group of influentials, and a new Association for the Training and Employment of Women was set up. The Provost of Trinity College participated, along with the great and the good. The initiative was subsumed into the overall Dublin technical education system, which was open to women from the outset.
This book deserves the attention of the increasing number of historians who are concerned with the cultural impact on their period of the state of the practical arts.

Roy Johnston


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568