Discoveries and Inventions

Ireland has a rich heritage of invention and discovery, of science and engineering. We have given the world countless discoveries and inventions, contributed to many scientific breakthroughs down the centuries, and played our part in the great human project to understand the world around us. Irish scientists deserve to be better known and celebrated at home and abroad, up there with our writers and artists, musicians and athletes.

You could say that science began in Ireland in Neolithic times, with the astronomers who built Newgrange, the oldest astronomical alignment in the world. But in truth, modern science came relatively late to Ireland in the late 1600s. This was because Ireland had no university until Trinity College Dublin began in 1592, and even then it took decades to become established.

There had been universities in England, Scotland and Europe for centuries, and repeated attempts to start a college in Dublin since at least 1311.

A wealthy few could study at European universities, but they were mostly physicians and herbalists. The absence of an Irish university until relatively late in European terms, inhibited the development of a culture of professional Irish scholars or academics, Irish professors, and Irish scientists

The first modern scientists in Ireland were arguably William and Thomas Molyneux, Dublin brothers who attended TCD in the late 1600s and eagerly embraced European ideas and the new emphasis on scientific experiments. 'Science' then was still 'natural philosophy', an amalgam of chemistry, physics, natural history, philosophy and even medicine.

William Molyneux helped start Ireland's first scientific institution, the Dublin Philosophical Society in 1683. Influenced by Francis Bacon, it was the country's first brush with Renaissance ideas: members assembled scientific instruments and books, planted a herb garden and conducted experiments. The prime mover was Sir William Petty, physician to Cromwell in Ireland, who had earlier helped to start the Royal Society in England. Britain's Royal Society survives, but these were troubled times in Ireland and Petty's Dublin Philosophical Society disbanded in 1708.

The foundations of Ireland's scientific infrastructure were laid in the 1700s with the founding of the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy. The Dublin Society (later the Royal Dublin Society, RDS), for "Improving Husbandry, Manufactures and Other Useful Arts and Sciences" was begun in 1731 by wealthy landowners interested in agricultural improvement. This was not science for science's sake, but science as a means to a utilitarian end, employed to improve farming, industry, manufacturing and mining.

Interest in original scientific research had to wait until 1785 and the start of the Royal Irish Academy to promote "science, polite literature and antiquities".

The great flowering of Irish science came in the 19th century, however, with the creation of professional scientific institutions such as the Ordnance and Geological Surveys, and especially the Queens' (later University) Colleges at Cork, Galway and Belfast in 1845, and in 1867 the Royal College of Science (amalgamated into University College Dublin in 1926). Scientists came from abroad to fill the newly created university positions.

Although amateurs still dominated natural history and astronomy, this was now the era of the professional scientist. Ireland was producing college-educated scientists and engineers, and increasingly there were jobs for them - in mining and chemical companies, for instance, in the countries of the expanding British Empire, where many engineers and doctors found work, and in organisations such as the GSI which had initially relied on foreign graduates.

In Irish politics, the 19th-century is a time of failure - failed rebellions and failure even to win Home Rule. But for science it was a time of success. Irish physicists in particular were to make outstanding contributions.

Public science lectures, books and encyclopaedias were popular. The British Association for the Advancement of Science brought its annual festival to Ireland on several occasions to great acclaim. Great industrial exhibitions were held, where public lectures were given and new devices and inventions displayed. And Irish inventions won awards at international exhibitions in London, Paris and elsewhere.

Science required education, and that meant money. Hence, most of those engaged in science then were from the wealthy upper class and the emerging well-to-do middle-class, and mostly these were from the Protestant tradition, with a few notable exceptions. Catholic access to education remained limited, and there was a strong antagonism between the emerging scientific establishment and the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland. Even in the late 1800s only 10% of Irish scientists were Catholic; the rest were mostly Anglo-Irish or British born.

Just as there were few women in business and industry then, there were also few women scientists, and most of those were amateur naturalists or astronomy writers. The Royal College of Science was unusual in admitting women students from its start in 1867 (ahead of Oxford and Cambridge University and Trinity College Dublin which did not open its doors to women until 1904).

The 20th century was less successful for Irish science than the 19th. The independent State did begin with a massive engineering project at Ardnacrusha, and there was some emphasis on the need to harness science and engineering to economic development. Ireland was primarily an agricultural economy though with little in the way of modern technological industry and in particular did not undertake much in the way of military research, unlike many other Western countries - in the US and UK during this period in contrast, 50% of government scientific research was funded by the military.

The Institute for Industrial Research and Standards (IIRS) was established in 1946, and an agricultural research institute in 1958. On the geological front, the 1960s and 70s were busy, as new survey techniques revealed that Ireland had rich resources, including substantial lead-zinc deposits and natural gas. But science in the universities was not actively fostered for the most part.

All that changed in the late 1990s with a new-found government commitment to boost Irish science and technology and research and innovation, aimed primarily at creating new high-tech industries in Ireland, and attracting high-tech overseas companies. Significant funding has been made available, primarily through Science Foundation Ireland. Many scientists who left Ireland during the dark days of the 1980s have returned, along with many graduates from abroad. It is a resurgence that hasn't been seen for over a century.

Meanwhile, modern scientific techniques are being used to investigate Ireland's history and prehistory: to survey the landscape at the Hill of Tara, to trace the geological origins of Ireland's Bronze Age gold hoards, and even to reveal how and when the Book of Kells was produced, and where the pigments came from.

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