William Fletcher Barrett, Spiritualism, and Psychical Research in Edwardian Dublin

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W.F. Barrett and Psychical Research in Ireland

While the clash between science, spiritualism, and psychical research in Victorian England may be a familiar one to historians, the fact that William Fletcher Barrett was a central figure in the scientific world of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century Ireland has, until quite recently, been largely ignored. There is no biography of Barrett (although see Mollan 2007; Gauld 2004; Inglis 1988-89) and despite living, working, and researching in Ireland from 1873 to 1916, he is primarily known today only in connection with the Society for Psychical Research, a predominantly Cambridge and London-based group which he helped to found. This does an enormous disservice to Barrett's professional and personal integration in Irish society as--ipsis Hiberniis Hiberniores--a scientist, educationalist, populariser of physics, psychical researcher, and lobbyist for various domestic reform movements.

The son of a Congregationalist minister, Barrett attended Old Trafford Grammar School before studying chemistry and physics at the Royal College of Chemistry, London. From 1863 until 1867 he worked at the Royal Institution, London, where he was an assistant to the Irish-born John Tyndall and came under the guidance of the great Thomas Huxley and Michael Faraday (Noakes 2004). In a research context where subjects such as a "fourth state of matter" (Crookes 1879) and a "fourth dimension" (Zollner 1880) were being investigated by physicists, it is no surprise that prominent scientists engaged in significant amounts of 'boundary work', seeking to exclude what was considered illegitimate and deviant from scientific investigation. Indeed, each of Barrett's mentors at the Royal Institution had developed entrenched anti-spiritualist attitudes in reaction to the spread of table-turning and spiritualism in mid-Victorian Britain. However, it was the visit of an Irishman named John Wilson to the laboratory of the Royal Institution that inspired Barrett's interest in such matters and connected him with a new intellectual network in Ireland which discounted the scientific naturalist boundaries between science and psychical research.

After a disagreement with Tyndall, Barrett left the Royal Institution in 1866 to teach science at the International College, London, and then went on to lecture on physics at the Royal School of Naval Architecture (1869-73) at South Kensington. By this stage Barrett had commenced his important research into the phenomenon of sensitive flames, and in 1868 he came to Dublin to lecture at the Royal Dublin Society to a "crowded" and "highly fashionable" assemblage which included Sir Robert and Lady Kane. According to an enthusiastic report in the Irish Times, Barrett told his audience of the unity of a universe that was "ringing with noiseless music", and conducted many experiments and demonstrations of this effect. He then went on to talk about:

complex bodies which are capable of being thrown into an abnormal state, and when in that condition were sensitive to the slightest stimuli if of the proper kind. This he believed to be the foundation for whatever truth there might be in the science of homeopathy and the still more startling facts of mesmerism ("Royal Dublin Society").

For a couple of years in the early 1870s Barrett spent his vacations with John Wilson, who owned an estate at Daramona, Streete, Co. Westmeath. Wilson was an enthusiast for advanced astronomical physics and with his young son William Edward Wilson (later a Fellow of the Royal Society), had commissioned a reflector telescope from the famous Grubb's Works in Rathmines, a suburb of Dublin. At this stage the whole area of animal magnetism and mesmerism still had an aura of pseudo-science about it, despite the widespread use of mesmerism as a therapeutic and palliative tool among mid-Victorian physicians and surgeons (Winter 1998). Ireland was no exception: a Dublin Mesmeric Association existed briefly in the 1850s and a Trinity College Dublin mathematician named Hill H. …