seamus dubhghaill

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


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Birth of The Reverend Edward Hincks

edward-hincksThe Reverend Edward Hincks, Anglo-Irish clergyman best remembered as an Assyriologist and one of the decipherers of Mesopotamian cuneiform, is born in Cork, County Cork on August 19, 1792. He is one of the three men known as the “holy trinity of cuneiform,” with Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson and Jules Oppert.

Hincks is the eldest son of the Rev. Thomas Dix Hincks, a distinguished Protestant minister, orientalist and naturalist. He is an elder brother of Sir Francis Hincks, a prominent Canadian politician who is also sometime Governor of Barbados, and William Hincks, the first Professor of Natural History at Queen’s College, Cork and afterwards University College, Toronto.

Hincks is educated at home by his father and at Midleton College before entering Trinity College Dublin. He is elected a Scholar of the College in 1810, and in 1812 wins the Gold Medal and Bishop Law‘s Prize for Mathematics. He is elected a Fellow of the College in 1813 and four years later takes his M.A. In 1819, following the death of Thomas Meredith, he is presented to the Rectory of Ardtrea in County Tyrone. Though Ardtrea is a valuable and highly prized Rectory, it is also isolated for a young bachelor and he resigns the position in 1826, taking up the Rectory in nearby Killyleagh, County Down, an office he holds for the remainder of his life.

The undemanding nature of his clerical duties leave him with more than enough time to pursue his interest in ancient languages. His first love is for the hieroglyphic writing of ancient Egypt. His greatest achievement is the decipherment of the ancient language and writing of Babylon and Assyria: Akkadian cuneiform.

Hincks deduces correctly that cuneiform writing had been invented by one of the earliest civilisations of Mesopotamia, who then bequeathed it to later states such as Babylon, Assyria and Elam. In 1848 he is awarded the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy for his achievements.

By 1850 Hincks comes to a number of important conclusions regarding the nature of Assyro-Babylonian cuneiform. He also discovers that cuneiform characters are “polyphonic,” by which he means that a single sign can have several different readings depending on the context in which it occurs. However, not everyone is convinced by the claims being made by the Irishman and his distinguished colleagues. Some philologists even suggest that they are simply inventing multiple readings of the signs to suit their own translations.

In 1857 the versatile English Orientalist William Henry Fox Talbot suggests that an undeciphered cuneiform text be given to several different Assyriologists to translate. If, working independently of one another, they come up with reasonably similar translations, it will surely dispel the doubts surrounding their claims.

As it happens, Talbot, Hincks, Rawlinson and Oppert, are in London in 1857. Edwin Norris, secretary of the Royal Asiatic Society, gives each of them a copy of a recently discovered inscription from the reign of the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser I. A jury of experts is impaneled to examine the resulting translations and assess their accuracy.

In all essential points the translations produced by the four scholars are found to be in close agreement with one another. There are of course some slight discrepancies. The inexperienced Talbot makes a number of mistakes, and Oppert’s translation contains a few doubtful passages due to his unfamiliarity with the English language. But Hincks’ and Rawlinson’s versions are virtually identical. The jury declares itself satisfied, and the decipherment of cuneiform is adjudged a fait accompli.

Hincks devotes the remaining years of his life to the study of cuneiform and makes further significant contributions to its decipherment. He dies at his rectory in Killyleagh on December 3, 1866 at the age of 74. He is survived by a wife and four daughters.

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Death of Robert John Kane, Chemist & Educator

robert-john-kaneSir Robert John Kane, chemist and educator, dies at the age of 80 in Dublin on February 16, 1890. In a distinguished career, he founds the Dublin Journal of Medical  & Chemical Science, is Vice-Chancellor of Royal University of Ireland and is director of the Museum of Irish Industry.

Kane is born at 48 Henry Street, Dublin on September 24, 1809 to John and Eleanor Kean (née Troy). His father is involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and flees for a time to France where he studies chemistry. Back in Dublin, Kean (now Kane) founds the Kane Company and manufactures sulfuric acid.

Kane studies chemistry at his father’s factory and attends lectures at the Royal Dublin Society as a teenager. He publishes his first paper in 1828, Observations on the existence of chlorine in the native peroxide of manganese, in the London Quarterly Journal of Science, Literature and Art. The following year, his description of the natural arsenide of manganese results in the compound being named Kaneite in his honour. He studies medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating in 1834 while working in the Meath Hospital. He is appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Apothecaries’ Hall, Dublin in 1831, which earns him the moniker of the “boy professor.” In the following year he participates in the founding of the Dublin Journal of Medical & Chemical Science.

On the strength of his book Elements of Practical Pharmacy, Kane is elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832. He studies acids, shows that hydrogen is electropositive, and proposes the existence of the ethyl radical. In 1836 he travels to Giessen in Germany to study organic chemistry with Justus von Liebig. In 1843 he is awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s Cunningham Medal for his work on the nature and constitution of compounds of ammonia.

Kane publishes a three-volume Elements of Chemistry in 1841–1844, and a detailed report on the Industrial Resources of Ireland. This includes the first assessment of the water power potential of the River Shannon, which is not realised until the 1920s at Ardnacrusha.

Kane becomes a political adviser on scientific and industrial matters. He serves on several commissions to enquire into the Great Irish Famine, along with Professors Lindley and Taylor, all more or less ineffective. His political and administrative work means that his contribution to chemistry ceases after about 1844.

Kane’s work on Irish industry leads to his being appointed director of the Museum of Irish Industry in Dublin in 1845. The Museum is a successor to the Museum of Economic Geology, and is housed at 51 St. Stephen’s Green.

Also in 1845 Kane becomes the first President of Queen’s College, Cork (now University College Cork). He does not spend a lot of time in Cork as he has work in Dublin, and his wife lives there. The science building on the campus is named in his honour. He is knighted in 1846.

In 1873 Kane takes up the post of National Commissioner for Education. He is elected president of the Royal Irish Academy in 1877, holding the role until 1882. In 1880 he is appointed the first chancellor of the newly created Royal University of Ireland. After a motion to admit women to the University, put forward by Prof. Samuel Haughton at Academic Council in Trinity College Dublin, March 10, 1880, Kane is appointed to a committee of ten men to look into the matter. He is opposed to the admission of women, and nothing is reported from the committee in the Council minutes for the next ten years.


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Birth of William Reeves, Bishop of Down, Connor & Dromore

bishop-william-reevesWilliam Reeves, Irish antiquarian and the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore from 1886 until his death, is born on March 16, 1815. He is the last private keeper of the Book of Armagh and at the time of his death is President of the Royal Irish Academy.

Reeves is born at Charleville, County Cork, the eldest child of Boles D’Arcy Reeves, an attorney, whose wife Mary is a daughter of Captain Jonathan Bruce Roberts, land agent to the Edmund Boyle, 8th Earl of Cork. This grandfather had fought at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, and Reeves is born at his house in Charleville.

From 1823, Reeves is educated at the school of John Browne in Leeson Street, Dublin, and after that at a school kept by the Rev. Edward Geoghegan. In October 1830, he enters Trinity College, Dublin, where he quickly gains a prize for Hebrew. In his third year, he becomes a scholar and goes on to graduate BA in 1835. He proceeds to read medicine, wins the Berkeley Medal, and graduates MB in 1837. His object in taking his second degree is that he intends to become a clergyman and to practice the medical profession among the poor of his parish.

In 1838, Reeves is appointed Master of the diocesan school in Ballymena, County Antrim, and is ordained a deacon of Hillsborough, County Down. The following year, he is ordained a priest of the Church of Ireland at Derry.

In 1844, Reeves rediscovers the lost site of Nendrum Monastery when he visits Mahee Island in Strangford Lough, County Down, searching for churches recorded in 1306, and recognises the remains of a round tower. By 1845, he is corresponding with the Irish scholar John O’Donovan, and an archive of their letters between 1845 and 1860 is preserved at University College, Dublin. In July 1845, Reeves visits London.

Reeves resides in Ballymena from 1841 to 1858, when he is appointed vicar of Lusk following the success of his edition of Adomnán‘s Life of Saint Columba (1857), for which the Royal Irish Academy awards him their Cunningham Medal in 1858. In 1853, he purchases from the Brownlow family the important 9th-century manuscript known as the Book of Armagh, paying three hundred pounds for it. He sells the book for the same sum to Archbishop Beresford, who has agreed to present it to Trinity College, Dublin.

In 1875 Reeves is appointed Dean of Armagh, a position he holds until 1886 when he is appointed as Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore. In 1891 he is elected as President of the Royal Irish Academy. As bishop, he resides at Conway House, Dunmurry, County Antrim, and signs his name “Wm. Down and Connor.”

William Reeves dies in Dublin on January 12, 1892, while still President of the Academy. At the time of his death, he is working on a diplomatic edition of the Book of Armagh, by then in the Trinity College Library. The work is completed by Dr. John Gwynn and published in 1913.


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Death of George Petrie, Painter & Musician

george-petrieGeorge Petrie, Irish painter, musician, antiquary and archaeologist of the Victorian era dies on January 17, 1866.

Petrie is born and grows up in Dublin, living at 21 Great Charles Street, just off Mountjoy Square. He is the son of the portrait and miniature painter James Petrie, a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, who had settled in Dublin. He is interested in art from an early age. He is sent to the Royal Dublin Society‘s schools, being educated as an artist, where he wins the silver medal in 1805 at the age of fourteen.

After an abortive trip to England in the company of Francis Danby and James Arthur O’Connor, both of whom are close friends of his, he returns to Ireland where he works mostly producing sketches for engravings for travel books including among others, George Newenham Wright‘s guides to Killarney, Wicklow and Dublin, Thomas Cromwell‘s Excursions through Ireland, and James Norris Brewer‘s Beauties of Ireland.

In the late 1820s and 1830s, Petrie significantly revitalises the Royal Irish Academy‘s antiquities committee. He is responsible for their acquisition of many important Irish manuscripts, including an autograph copy of the Annals of the Four Masters, as well as examples of insular metalwork, including the Cross of Cong. His writings on early Irish archaeology and architecture are of great significance, especially his essay on the Round Towers of Ireland, which appear in his 1845 book titled The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland. He is often called “the father of Irish archaeology.” His survey of the tombs at Carrowmore still informs study of the site today.

From 1833 to 1843 Petrie is employed by Thomas Frederick Colby and Thomas Larcom as head of the Topographical Department of the Irish Ordnance Survey. Amongst his staff are John O’Donovan, one of Ireland’s greatest ever scholars, and Eugene O’Curry. A prizewinning essay submitted to the Royal Irish Academy in 1834 on Irish military architecture is never published, but his seminal essay On the History and Antiquities of Tara Hill is published by the Academy in 1839. During this period Petrie is himself the editor of two popular antiquarian magazines, the Dublin Penny Journal and, later, the Irish Penny Journal.

Another major contribution of Petrie’s to Irish culture is the collection of Irish traditional airs and melodies which he records. William Stokes’s contemporary biography includes detailed accounts of Petrie’s working methods in his collecting of traditional music: “The song having been given, O’Curry wrote the Irish words, when Petrie’s work began. The singer recommenced, stopping at a signal from him at every two or three bars of the melody to permit the writing of the notes, and often repeating the passage until it was correctly taken down …”

As an artist, Petrie’s favourite medium is watercolour which, due to the prejudices of the age, is considered inferior to oil painting. Nonetheless, he can be considered as one of the finest Irish Romantic painters of his era. Some of his best work is in the collections of the National Gallery of Ireland, such as his watercolour painting Gougane Barra Lake with the Hermitage of St. Finbarr, County Cork (1831).

Petrie is awarded the Royal Irish Academy’s prestigious Cunningham Medal three times: firstly in 1831 for his essay on the round towers, secondly in 1834 for the now lost essay on Irish military architecture, and thirdly in 1839 for his essay on the antiquities of Tara Hill.

The closing years of Petrie’s life are devoted to the publication of a portion of his collection of Irish music. He dies at the age of 77 at Rathmines, Dublin, on January 17, 1866. He is buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery.


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Death of John O’Donovan, Irish Language Scholar

john-odonovanJohn O’Donovan, Irish language scholar, dies at his residence at 36 Upper Buckingham Street in Dublin on December 10, 1861.

O’Donovan is born in County Kilkenny on July 25, 1806 and is the fourth son of Edmond O’Donovan and Eleanor Hoberlin of Rochestown. His early career is likely inspired by his uncle, Parick O’Donovan. He works for antiquarian James Hardiman researching state papers and traditional sources at the Public Records Office. He also teaches Irish to Thomas Larcom for a short period in 1828 and works for Myles John O’Reilly, a collector of Irish manuscripts.

Following the death of Edward O’Reilly in August 1830, O’Donovan is recruited to the Topographical Department of the first Ordnance Survey Ireland under George Petrie in October 1830. Apart from a brief period in 1833, he works steadily for the Survey on place-name researches until 1842, unearthing and preserving many manuscripts. After that date, O’Donovan’s work with the Survey tails off, although he is called upon from time to time to undertake place-name research on a day-to-day basis. He researches maps and manuscripts at many libraries and archives in Ireland and England, with the intent to establish the correct origin of as many of Ireland’s 63,000 townland names as possible. His letters to Larcom are regarded as an important record of the ancient lore of Ireland for those counties he documents during his years of travel throughout much of Ireland.

By 1845, O’Donovan is corresponding with the younger scholar William Reeves, and much of their correspondence to 1860 survives.

O’Donovan becomes professor of Celtic Languages at Queen’s University Belfast, and is called to the Bar in 1847. His work on linguistics is recognised in 1848 by the Royal Irish Academy, who award him their prestigious Cunningham Medal. On the recommendation of German philologist Jacob Grimm, he is elected a corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Prussia in 1856.

Never in great health, he dies shortly after midnight on December 10, 1861 at his residence in Dublin. He is buried on December 13, 1861 in Glasnevin Cemetery, where his tombstone inscription has slightly incorrect dates of both birth and death.


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Death of Robert Mallet, the Father of Seismology

robert-malletRobert Mallet, geophysicist, civil engineer, and inventor who distinguishes himself in research on earthquakes and is sometimes called the Father of Seismology, dies on November 5, 1881.

Mallet is born in Dublin on June 3, 1810, the son of factory owner John Mallet. He is educated at Trinity College, Dublin, entering it at the age of 16 and graduating in science and mathematics in 1830 at the age of 20.

Following his graduation, he joins his father’s iron foundry business and helps build the firm into one of the most important engineering works in Ireland, supplying ironwork for railway companies, the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, and a swing bridge over the River Shannon at Athlone. He also helps manufacture the characteristic iron railings that surround Trinity College and which bear his family name at the base.

Mallet is elected to the Royal Irish Academy in 1832 at the early age of 22. He also enrolls in the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1835 which helps finance much of his research in seismology.

In 1838 he becomes a life member of the Royal Geological Society of Ireland, and serves as its President from 1846–1848. From 1848–1849 he constructs the Fastnet Rock lighthouse, southwest of Cape Clear.

On February 9, 1846 he presents to the Royal Irish Academy his paper On the Dynamics of Earthquakes, which is considered to be one of the foundations of modern seismology. He is also credited with coining the word “seismology” and other related words which he uses in his research. He also coins the term epicentre.

From 1852 to 1858, he is engaged in the preparation of his work, The Earthquake Catalogue of the British Association (1858), and carries out blasting experiments to determine the speed of seismic propagation in sand and solid rock.

On December 16, 1857, the area around Padula, Italy is devastated by the Great Neapolitan earthquake which causes 11,000 deaths. At the time it is the third largest known earthquake in the world and has been estimated to have been of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter Scale. Mallet, with letters of support from Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, petitions the Royal Society of London and receives a grant of £150 to go to Padula and record at first hand the devastation. The resulting report is presented to the Royal Society as the Report on the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857. It is a major scientific work and makes great use of the then new research tool of photography to record the devastation caused by the earthquake. In 1862, he publishes the Great Neapolitan Earthquake of 1857: The First Principles of Observational Seismology in two volumes. He brings forward evidence to show that the depth below the Earth’s surface, from where the impulse of the Neapolitan earthquake originated, is about 8–9 geographical miles.

One of Mallet’s papers is Volcanic Energy: an Attempt to develop its True Origin and Cosmical Relations, in which he seeks to show that volcanic heat may be attributed to the effects of crushing, contortion, and other disturbances in the crust of the earth. The disturbances leading to the formation of lines of fracture, more or less vertical, down which water would find its way, and if the temperature generated be sufficient volcanic eruptions of steam or lava would follow.

Mallet is elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1854, and in 1861 moves to London, where he becomes a consulting engineer and edits The Practical Mechanic’s Journal. He is awarded the Telford Medal by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1859, followed by the Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy for his research into the theory of earthquakes in 1862, and the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London in 1877, the Geological Society’s highest award.

Blind for the last seven years of his life, Robert Mallet dies at Stockwell, London, on November 5, 1881 and is buried at West Norwood Cemetery.