States of Mind: Science, Culture and the Irish Intellectual Revival, 1900-30

By Allen, Nicholas | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

States of Mind: Science, Culture and the Irish Intellectual Revival, 1900-30


Allen, Nicholas, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Recent studies of Irish science have begun to examine the discipline's cultural, historical, and social significance. Cogent examples include Peter Bowler and Nicholas Whyte's Science and Society in Ireland: The Social Context of Science and Technology in Ireland, 1800-1950, John Wilson Foster's Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History, and Nicholas Whyte's Science, Colonialism and Ireland. (1) None of these works however treats science as a discourse whose theories enabled the development of Irish controversy in the decolonizing moment. I will argue here that science was central to the Irish intellectual Revival from 1900 to 1930, a directing discipline whose terms, of evolution, electricity, and the atom, informed the logic of cultural debate.

We can see general evidence of the necessity of science to controversy in the public sphere in Irish periodicals, literary and otherwise, of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Every movement had a journal, every party a newspaper; Leopold Bloom, our Irish Everyman, sells advertising, his consciousness alive to the media that constitute his modern self. Science marked the terms of this polemical culture's discourse, the weekly Leader of 1901 exhibiting a range of wild Irish animals including the west-briton, or long-eared ape (anglohibernicus microcephalus), the sourface (anglohibernicus dyspepticus), the bigot (anglohibernicus intolerantissimus), the court jester (judex jucundus), the emmpee (stumporator omnipotens) and the dark brother (magnopofex timidus). (2) Science offered objective sanction to subjective argument. It supplied the terms of enquiry and report for cultural projects. In evolution--the development of which theory in Ireland is a central concern of this essay--it promised a pre dictable future for present ambitions. It even suggested the radical potential of unseen force, a world of dark made visible, of x-rays and atoms.

Science was, by the end of the nineteenth century, a popular, as well as scholarly, phenomenon. Darwin's great controversy promised to upset the long balance between man and god, divine intervention made redundant by natural selection. Loss of faith is the commonly understood result. But Darwin's work was revolutionary in what it offered as replacement: evolution, a theory of time, conditioned by local environments. Species variations arise from their response to habitat and experience. So Irish nationalists adopted evolution as evidence of their nation's unsuitability for union with Britain. The Leader, for example, observed that

economic science does not consist of a body of fixed and unchangeable dogmas like the propositions of Euclid. There are a few great principles that cover all cases, but in general its precepts vary from age to age and country to country. In every country they are in a state of slow but continuous evolution, and they are profoundly affected by the past history of its people, and by changes in its national life.

England is at one stage of evolution, we are at another. Each has different problems to solve, and must solve them by different means?

To the Leader, different means meant small-scale Irish industries based in local communities, an economic development that would avoid the social unrest that Britain experienced from militant unions of miners, railway men, and dockers throughout the early twentieth century. Miniature scale was the essence of social control, as the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society was aware. The co-operative movement recognized science as a progressive discourse through the Irish Homestead, a weekly journal edited by George Russell from 1905. Russell was a theosophist and radical nationalist with a vision of Ireland self-sufficient of British influence. The bible of theosophy was the Russian emigre H.P. Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine of 1888. Here again we find the shadow of science. The Secret Doctrine is a sprawling, often incoherent, account of the genesis of human religion, entire worlds contained within its pages, its occult history complete with theories of reincarnation and divination. …

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