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6-10-2015, 15:32

Dublin Philosophical Society

Established in 1683, the Dublin Philosophical Society copied the Royal Society in London and other recently established scientific groups in Oxford and Edinburgh. It owed much to the enthusiasm of two young members of Dublin University, the brothers William (16561698) and Thomas Molyneux (1661-1733), and drew in others from the university, including some senior to the Molyneuxs. It attested to the spread into Ireland of interest in scientific and technological speculation, and raised hopes that its discoveries might correct apparent Irish backwardness.

Earlier efforts had been made to inquire systematically into the natural resources of Ireland, to chart improvements, and to identify how further improvements could best be achieved. These had been pursued during the Cromwellian interregnum of the 1650s, when the island looked receptive to change, but official backing was meager and more urgent matters intervened. Yet at least one pioneer of the 1650s, Sir William Petty, survived into the 1680s. Continuities between the earlier endeavors and the Dublin Society were suggested when Petty was installed as the society's president. Furthermore, much of the underlying philosophy and many of the practical schemes harked back to the earlier project. Indeed, Petty drew up rules for the infant society, stressing experiment and personal observation rather than dependence on tradition. In addition, he insisted that "the rules of number, weight, and measure" were to be strenuously applied to its inquiries. What had changed since the 1650s, enabling the society to take on a solid existence, was the presence of a larger interested group. It had also become easier to link up with similar organizations in Britain and continental Europe.

Much of the thinking behind the society derived from Francis Bacon (1561-1626), who had advocated an empirical and experimental approach to the natural world. Importance was attached to the collection of information about phenomena and resources across Ireland. To this end William Molyneux solicited informants in each county to supply accounts. Once these were collected and published, it was hoped that the problems of agricultural and commercial underdevelopment could be effectively addressed. The material sent to Molyneux varied greatly in length, detail, and quality. It was not published, so the immediate impact of these researches was negligible. In the absence of a national survey that would publicize its activities and intentions, the society contented itself with correspondence with interested parties in Ireland, Britain, and further afield.

In this way, it was hoped, useful innovations could be introduced into Ireland. The members met in Dublin, where they conducted experiments and discussed these and other scientific matters, intending through collaboration to advance knowledge with useful applications.

Membership of the society was concentrated among graduates and fellows of Trinity College in Dublin and the officials and professionals of Protestant Dublin. Its first meeting on 28 January 1684 was attended by fourteen people; of these, nine were associated with Dublin University. As with the Royal Society of London, fashion and a wish for diversion encouraged participation. Interest was often transitory, making it difficult for the directors to sustain the society. Even before enthusiasm for the meetings waned, political events conspired to halt its operations. The mounting unease among the Protestants of Dublin as the Catholic takeover under James II and Tyrconnell, lord deputy from 168 7, gathered pace removed many active members. However, its meetings were merely suspended, not abandoned. After 1690, once the Protestant interest reestablished itself more securely, the society soon revived. Optimism arising from the conclusive defeat of the Catholics (in 1690 to 1691) and the desire to make good the perceived deficiencies of previous generations of Protestants in Ireland favored ventures of collective improvement such as those advocated by the society. It was, moreover, a program which, for all its practical applications and material benefits, was inseparable from religious ideologies. The proper use of the natural world, first by understanding and surveying it and then by exploiting it for the common good, was enjoined on active Christians. Indeed, a fuller comprehension of creation amounted to a form of worship, in which the power of God was at once perceived and acknowledged. In this mood clergymen of the Protestant Church of Ireland were prominent in the society, and some pursued theological exercises that paralleled their work for the society itself.

In April 1693 the revived society attracted fresh faces. Its base was still in Trinity College, but it was joined by important civil administrators such as Sir Cyril Wyche and Sir Richard Cox. Once more, efforts were directed toward a comprehensive description of the surface and history of the island. Despite its enlarged membership, the Philosophical Society depended— dangerously as it proved—on the direction of the Molyneuxs. With William Molyneux preoccupied with public affairs (he was both a barrister and an MP), the society declined. His premature death in 1698 seemed to signal an end to the organization. However, his son Samuel Molyneux, while an undergraduate at Trinity College, reanimated the society in 1707. He was helped by a new generation interested in this type of collective activity and by the patronage of the current viceroy, Lord Pembroke. But this phase lasted only a year. Even more than its two predecessors, this incarnation of the society relied on the energies of a Molyneux, and Samuel Molyneux's were soon diverted into making a career for himself.

If concrete achievements were few, the Dublin Philosophical Society represented an important stage between the more diffuse work of Petty and his associates in the 1650s and the sustained activity of the Dublin Society, set up in 1731 and incorporated by royal charter in 1733. There were continuities between these groups in their agenda, especially in the eagerness to collect and disseminate information. All subscribed to an optimistic view that Ireland's potential was great, but would be realized only when it had been properly mapped and its resources identified and quantified. All accepted a duty to use the materials at hand for the benefit of the entire population, which thereby might be delivered from famine, idleness, ignorance, and poverty, though sometimes members were naive in assuming that methods of cultivation and manufacture successfully adopted elsewhere could be introduced profitably into Ireland. Almost a quarter of the recorded discussions of the Dublin Philosophical Society centered on medical inquiries. These had local and practical applications, and may have improved the training of physicians in the capital. Much of the time, though, the society functioned essentially as a club for a circle of privileged Protestants, and amusement as much as betterment—ethical or material—resulted. Also, if the remit of the group did not tie it to any particular confession, it nevertheless failed to become a place where Protestants and Catholic virtuosi mingled. Only one Catholic, Mark Baggot, was admitted to the circle, and he took little part in the proceedings. Essentially a Protestant monopoly from the start, it also tended to celebrate the achievements of the Protestant interest in Ireland, crediting it alone with most of the cultural and material advances of the seventeenth century. In this it looked forward to its successors, the Dublin Society and the Physico-Historical Society of the 1740s. Nevertheless, the Philosophical Society did encourage closer and more systematic study of the natural and civil histories of Ireland. It also helped to popularize such endeavors among the propertied and professionals of Protestant Ireland. Moreover, through its questionnaires and inquiries it connected provincials with what was happening in the capital, and (more generally) linked Ireland with the wider world of educated speculation and experiment.

SEE ALSO Boyle, Robert; Molyneux, William; Petty, Sir William; Trinity College