Published in Issue 4 (July/August 2022), Letters, Volume 30

Nineteenth-century Maynooth scientist Revd Nicholas Callan, a significant scientific innovator.

Sir,—In relation to your recent article on the nineteenth-century Maynooth scientist Revd Nicholas Callan (HI 30.1, Jan./Feb. 2022), your readers may be interested in a reference to him which I recently encountered while researching the nineteenth-century Church of Ireland polemicist Revd John Duncan Craig.

In Real pictures of clerical life in Ireland (London, 2nd edition, 1900; first published 1875), chapter 50, ‘The Night Mail’, Craig gives a (possibly fictionalised) description of encountering on a train a recently ordained Catholic priest who believes that his superior Maynooth education guarantees him victory in any religious controversy but is soon put to flight by Craig’s apposite quotations from the New Testament and the Confession of St Patrick. On p. 246 the priest is represented as speaking as follows:

‘Did ye ever hear tell—arrah, I suppose ye did; sure all the worruld heard of Rev James Callen [sic], D.D., whose fame is so great in science, one of our professors. Well, sir, one day the Duke of — and his daughters came to see the college, and Professor Callen was asked to show them some of the wonders of electricity. The experiment was the decapitation of a turkey, and then the applying the wires, and the Duke looked on and saw the dead turkey beginning to strut about when the electricity was applied; but one of the Duke’s daughters was looking at something else the whole time, and when the applause had ceased, and the Duke said to her, “Did ye see that, my dear?” “What was it?” said she; “make him repeat the experiment, please.” “Repeat the experiment!” said the ould Professor. “Why, thin, how aisy you say it; and do ye think ’tis quite so aisy to pay four shillings for a turkey to have its head chopped off? Repeat the experiment indeed!” and with great indignation he turned away, and the Duke had to say something or other to apologize for her ladyship’s inadvertent observation, but there were no more experiments tried that day in his laboratory.’

It was a fairly common experiment to cause a dead bird or animal to move by galvanising its muscles with electricity, but Craig’s clear intention is to present Callan as no more than an uncouth freak-show proprietor, entirely undeserving of any scientific repute. Whatever may be thought of Craig’s low opinion of nineteenth-century Maynooth education, it was unfortunate that he should have chosen to advance it by ridiculing such a significant scientific innovator.—Yours etc.,

Dictionary of Irish Biography


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