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


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Death of Robert Boyle, Philosopher & Writer

robert-boyleRobert Boyle, Anglo-Irish natural philosopher, theological writer, chemist, physicist, inventor and a preeminent figure of 17th-century intellectual culture, dies on December 31, 1691 in London.

Boyle is born on January 25, 1627 at Lismore Castle, in County Waterford. At age eight, he begins his formal education at Eton College, where his studious nature quickly becomes apparent. In 1639 he and his brother Francis embark on a grand tour of the continent together with their tutor Isaac Marcombes. In 1642, owing to the Irish rebellion, Francis returns home while Robert remains with his tutor in Geneva and pursues further studies.

Boyle returns to England in 1644, where he takes up residence at his hereditary estate of Stalbridge in Dorset. There he begins a literary career writing ethical and devotional tracts, some of which employ stylistic and rhetorical models drawn from French popular literature, especially romance writings. In 1649 he begins investigating nature via scientific experimentation. From 1647 until the mid-1650s, he remains in close contact with a group of natural philosophers and social reformers gathered around the intelligencer Samuel Hartlib. This group, the Hartlib Circle, includes several chemists who heighten his interest in experimental chemistry.

Boyle spends much of 1652–1654 in Ireland overseeing his hereditary lands and performing some anatomic dissections. In 1654 he is invited to Oxford, and he takes up residence at the university until 1668. In Oxford he is exposed to the latest developments in natural philosophy and becomes associated with a group of notable natural philosophers and physicians, including John Wilkins, Christopher Wren, and John Locke. These individuals, together with a few others, form the “Experimental Philosophy Club.” Much of Boyle’s best known work dates from this period.

In 1659 Boyle and Robert Hooke, the clever inventor and subsequent curator of experiments for the Royal Society, complete the construction of their famous air pump and use it to study pneumatics. Their resultant discoveries regarding air pressure and the vacuum appear in Boyle’s first scientific publication, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air and Its Effects (1660). Boyle and Hooke discover several physical characteristics of air, including its role in combustion, respiration, and the transmission of sound. One of their findings, published in 1662, later becomes known as “Boyle’s law.” This law expresses the inverse relationship that exists between the pressure and volume of a gas, and it is determined by measuring the volume occupied by a constant quantity of air when compressed by differing weights of mercury.

Among Boyle’s most influential writings are The Sceptical Chymist (1661), which assails the then-current Aristotelian and especially Paracelsian notions about the composition of matter and methods of chemical analysis, and the Origine of Formes and Qualities (1666), which uses chemical phenomena to support the corpuscularian hypothesis. He argues so strongly for the need of applying the principles and methods of chemistry to the study of the natural world and to medicine that he later gains the appellation of the “father of chemistry.”

Boyle is a devout and pious Anglican who keenly champions his faith. He sponsors educational and missionary activities and writes a number of theological treatises. He is deeply concerned about the widespread perception that irreligion and atheism are on the rise, and he strives to demonstrate ways in which science and religion are mutually supportive. For Boyle, studying nature as a product of God’s handiwork is an inherently religious duty. He argues that this method of study would, in return, illuminate God’s omnipresence and goodness, thereby enhancing a scientist’s understanding of the divine. The Christian Virtuoso (1690) summarizes these views and may be seen as a manifesto of his own life as the model of a Christian scientist.

In 1668 Boyle leaves Oxford and takes up residence with his sister Katherine Jones, Vicountess Ranelagh, in her house on Pall Mall in London. There he sets up an active laboratory, employs assistants, receives visitors, and publishes at least one book nearly every year. Living in London also provides him the opportunity to participate actively in the Royal Society.

Boyle is a genial man who achieves both national and international renown during his lifetime. He is offered the presidency of the Royal Society and the episcopacy but declines both. Throughout his adult life, he is sickly, suffering from weak eyes and hands, recurring illnesses, and one or more strokes. He dies at age 64 on December 31, 1691 after a short illness exacerbated by his grief over Katherine’s death a week earlier. He leaves his papers to the Royal Society and a bequest for establishing a series of lectures in defense of Christianity. These lectures, now known as the Boyle Lectures, continue to this day.


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Birth of Edward Martyn, Playwright & Activist

edward-martynEdward Martyn, Irish playwright and early republican political and cultural activist, is born in County Galway on January 30, 1859. He serves as the first president of Sinn Féin from 1905 to 1908.

Martyn is the elder son of John Martyn of Tullira Castle, Ardrahan and Annie Mary Josephine (née Smyth) of Masonbrook, Loughrea, both of County Galway. He is educated at Belvedere College, Dublin, and Wimbledon College, London, both Jesuit schools, after which he enters Christ Church, Oxford in 1877, but leaves without taking a degree in 1879. His only sibling, John, dies in 1883.

Martyn begins writing fiction and plays in the 1880s. While his own output is undistinguished, he acquires a well-earned reputation as a noted connoisseur of music, both European classical and Irish traditional. He is a fine musician in his own right, giving memorable performances for guests on an organ he has installed at Tullira. He uses his wealth to benefit Irish culture.

Martyn is reportedly pivotal in introducing William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory to each other in 1896. The three found the Irish Literary Theatre, for whom Martyn writes his best and most popular plays, The Heather Field and A Tale of a Town. He covers the costs of the company’s first three seasons, which proves crucial to establishing the company and the future of the Abbey Theatre. He later parts ways with Yeats and Gregory, something he later regrets, but remains on warm terms with Lady Gregory until the end of his life.

Martyn is a cousin and friend to George Moore (1852–1933). The two make frequent trips all over Europe, where Moore influences Martyn’s views on modern art, which result in the latter purchasing several works by Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Kitagawa Utamaro, all later donated to the National Gallery of Ireland. Moore does not share Martyn’s fenian ideas nor espousal of violent means to achieve national sovereignty. Their different political opinions eventually drive their friendship apart.

Martyn is descended from Richard Óge Martyn, a leading Irish Confederate, and Oliver Óge Martyn, a Jacobite who fights in the Williamite War in Ireland. Yet by his lifetime, the family are unionists. Martyn’s outlook begins to change in the 1880s after studying Irish history, as well as living through the events of the Irish Land War. He comes out as an Irish republican when he famously refuses to allow “God Save The Queen” to be sung after a dinner party at Tullira. By this stage he is involved with the political work of Maude Gonne and Arthur Griffith, and is a vocal opponent of the visit of Queen Victoria to Ireland in 1897. He also protests the visit by Edward VII in 1903, this time as chairman of the People’s Protection Committee. He is the first president of Sinn Féin from 1905 to 1908. In 1908 he resigns from the party and politics in general to concentrate on writing and his other activities.

He is on close personal terms with Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Pearse, and deeply mourns their executions in the aftermath of the Easter Rising. A parish hall and church that he founded at Labane, near Tullira, are burned by the Black and Tans. He supports the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921.

Martyn dies at Tullira on December 5, 1923 after years of ill health. Friends and family are shocked at a provision in his will that directs that his body be donated for the use of medical science and, after dissection, be buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. The Palestrina Choir sings at his graveside. He bequeaths his papers to the Carmelites of Clarendon Street in Dublin, who subsequently misplace and lose them. Portraits of Martyn exist by, among others, John Butler Yeats and Sarah Purser. On his death the senior line of the Martyn family dies out. His property is inherited by his cousins, the Smyths of Masonbrook and Lord Hemphill. Tullira is sold by the latter forty years later changing ownership several times since.