Richard Kirwan

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

« Bishop Francis Kirwan | Index | Walter Blake Kirwan »

Kirwan, Richard, LL.D., an eminent chemist and geologist, was born in the County of Galway, early in the 18th century. He studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and at St. Omer's, his family intending him for the medical profession. The death of his brother put him in possession of an ample fortune, and he quitted college, became a Protestant, renounced the study of medicine, and devoted himself to science. In 1779 he settled in the neighbourhood of London, and read many papers before the Royal Society, gaining the Copley medal in 1781. In 1789 he returned to Ireland, was for some time President of the Royal Irish Academy, and became associated with most of the scientific societies of the metropolis, and intimate with all the leading literary men.

The following estimate of his scientific researches is taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica: "Though Kirwan devoted his whole life to scientific inquiry, and was contemporary with Cavendish, Lavoisier, Black, Scheele, Priestley, and the fathers of modern chemistry, he did not advance the boundaries of the science by any great discovery of his own. One of the earliest of his works was his Essay on Phlogiston and the Composition of Acids, in which he endeavoured to reconcile the old chemistry with modern discoveries... [The work was refuted by Lavoisier and other eminent French chemists.].. These refutations, though quite irrefragable, were so skilfully and courteously worded, that Kirwan, with a candour and liberality unfortunately too rare, abandoned phlogiston and adopted the theory of his opponents. In 1794 Kirwan published his Elements of Mineralogy, in 2 vols. 8vo., a work of great merit for its day, though now quite superseded.

His Geological Essays were less successful; but his Essay on the Analysis of Mineral Waters was useful, both for the number of analyses which it contained, and for the method of procedure which it inculcated. Kirwan was also the author of numerous papers in the Transactions of the Royal Society and of the Royal Irish Academy, on subjects connected with mineralogy and meteorology, as well as chemistry." He was an enthusiast concerning Irish music, and travelled with Mr. Bunting for the purpose of collecting old tunes. His latter years were devoted almost exclusively to theology. At his residence in Cavendish-row, Dublin, he was accustomed to receive his friends once a week, as he "reclined on a sofa, his hat on, a long screen behind him, and a blazing fire before him, no matter whether winter or the dog days." He remained covered even in courts of justice and at levees, and gave as a reason for never going to a place of worship the impossibility of removing his hat. He was singularly generous and unselfish as a landlord and a friend. He strenuously opposed the Union, and is said to have indignantly refused a baronetcy offered him by Lord Castlereagh if he would support the measure. He died in Dublin, 22nd June 1812. Portraits of him will be found in the Royal Dublin Society and Royal Irish Academy.

Sources

82. Cloncurry, Valentine, Lord: Personal Recollections. Dublin, 1849.

124. Encyclopaedia Britannica. London, 1860.

208. Lanigan, Dr., and Irish Wits and Worthies: William J. FitzPatrick, LL.D. Dublin, 1873.
Lanigan, Rev. John, see No. 119.

349. Worthies of Ireland, Biographical Dictionary of the: Richard Ryan. 2 vols. London, 1821. Wyse, Thomas, see No. 73.

« Bishop Francis Kirwan | Index | Walter Blake Kirwan »