seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Birth of John Toland, Philosopher & Freethinker

john-tolandJohn Toland, Irish rationalist philosopher and freethinker, and occasional satirist, is born in Ardagh on the Inishowen peninsula, a predominantly Catholic and Irish-speaking region in northwestern Ireland, on November 30, 1670. He writes numerous books and pamphlets on political philosophy and philosophy of religion which are early expressions of the philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment.

Very little is known of Toland’s early life. His parents are unknown. He later writes that he had been baptised Janus Junius, a play on his name that recalls both the Roman two-faced god Janus and Lucius Junius Brutus, reputed founder of the Roman Republic. According to his biographer, Pierre des Maizeaux, he adopts the name John as a schoolboy with the encouragement of his school teacher.

Having formally converted from Catholicism to Protestantism at the age of 16, Toland gets a scholarship to study theology at the University of Glasgow. In 1690, at age 19, the University of Edinburgh confers a master’s degree on him. He then gets a scholarship to spend two years studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and subsequently nearly two years at the University of Oxford in England (1694–95). The Leiden scholarship is provided by wealthy English Dissenters who hope Toland will go on to become a minister for Dissenters.

In Toland’s first and best known book, Christianity not Mysterious (1696), he argues that the divine revelation of the Bible contains no true mysteries. Rather, all the dogmas of the faith can be understood and demonstrated by properly trained reason from natural principles. For this argument he is prosecuted by a grand jury in London. As he is a subject of the Kingdom of Ireland, members of the Parliament of Ireland propose that he should be burned at the stake. In his absence three copies of the book are burned by the public hangman in Dublin as the content is contrary to the core doctrines of the Church of Ireland. Toland bitterly compares the Protestant legislators to “Popish Inquisitors who performed that Execution on the Book, when they could not seize the Author, whom they had destined to the Flames.”

After his departure from Oxford, Toland resides in London for most of the rest of his life, but is also a somewhat frequent visitor to Continental Europe, particularly Germany and the Netherlands. He lives on the Continent from 1707 to 1710.

John Toland dies in Putney on March 10, 1722. Just before he dies, he composes his own epitaph: “He was an assertor of liberty, a lover of all sorts of learning … but no man’s follower or dependent. Nor could frowns or fortune bend him to decline from the ways he had chosen.” The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica says of him that at his death in London at age 51 “he died… as he had lived, in great poverty, in the midst of his books, with his pen in his hand.”

Very shortly after his death a lengthy biography of Toland is written by Pierre des Maizeaux.

(Pictured: The only known image of John Toland)

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Death of William Smith O’Brien, Young Ireland Leader

william-smith-obrienWilliam Smith O’Brien, Irish nationalist Member of Parliament (MP) and leader of the Young Ireland movement, dies in Bangor, Gwynedd, Wales on June 18, 1864.

Born in Dromoland, Newmarket-on-Fergus, County Clare, O’Brien is the second son of Sir Edward O’Brien, 4th Baronet, of Dromoland Castle. His mother is Charlotte Smith, whose father owns a property called Cahirmoyle in County Limerick. He takes the additional surname Smith, his mother’s maiden name, upon inheriting the property. He lives at Cahermoyle House, a mile from Ardagh, County Limerick. He is a descendant of the eleventh century Ard Rí (High King of Ireland), Brian Boru. He receives an upper-class English education at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge. Subsequently, he studies law at King’s Inns in Dublin and Lincoln’s Inn in London.

From April 1828 to 1831 O’Brien is Conservative MP for Ennis. He becomes MP for Limerick County in 1835, holding his seat in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom until 1849.

Although a Protestant country-gentleman, O’Brien supports Catholic emancipation while remaining a supporter of British-Irish union. In 1843, in protest against the imprisonment of Daniel O’Connell, he joins O’Connell’s anti-union Repeal Association.

Three years later, O’Brien withdraws the Young Irelanders from the association. In January 1847, with Thomas Francis Meagher, he founds the Irish Confederation, although he continues to preach reconciliation until O’Connell’s death in May 1847. He is active in seeking relief from the hardships of the famine. In March 1848, he speaks out in favour of a National Guard and tries to incite a national rebellion. He is tried for sedition on May 15, 1848 but is not convicted.

On July 29, 1848, O’Brien and other Young Irelanders lead landlords and tenants in a rising in three counties, with an almost bloodless battle against police at Ballingarry, County Tipperary. In O’Brien’s subsequent trial, the jury finds him guilty of high treason. He is sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Petitions for clemency are signed by 70,000 people in Ireland and 10,000 people in England. In Dublin on June 5, 1849, the sentences of O’Brien and other members of the Irish Confederation are commuted to transportation for life to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania in present-day Australia).

O’Brien attempts to escape from Maria Island off Tasmania, but is betrayed by the captain of the schooner hired for the escape. He is sent to Port Arthur where he meets up with John Mitchel.

O’Brien is a founding member of the Ossianic Society, which is founded in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day 1853, whose aim is to further the interests of the Irish language and to publish and translate literature relating to the Fianna. He writes to his son Edward from Van Diemen’s Land, urging him to learn the Irish language. He himself studies the language and uses an Irish-language Bible, and presents to the Royal Irish Academy Irish-language manuscripts he has collected.

In 1854, after five years in Tasmania, O’Brien is released on the condition he never returns to Ireland. He settles in Brussels. In May 1856, he is granted an unconditional pardon and returns to Ireland that July. He contributes to the Nation newspaper, but plays no further part in politics.

In 1864 he visits England and Wales, with the view of rallying his failing health, but no improvement takes place and he dies at Bangor, in Wales on June 16, 1864.

A statue of William Smith O’Brien stands in O’Connell Street, Dublin. Sculpted in Portland limestone, it is designed by Thomas Farrell and erected in D’Olier Street, Dublin, in 1870. It is moved to its present position in 1929.