William Molyneux

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Molyneux, William, patriot and philosopher, was born 17th April 1656, in New-row, Dublin. [His father, Samuel Molyneux, was a master gunner, and an officer in the Irish Exchequer. He had distinguished himself in the War of 1641-'52, and although offered the recordership of Dublin, clung with fondness to his own profession, making experiments in gunnery and the construction of cannon, at private butts of his own.] William entered Trinity College in April 1671, and having taken out his bachelor's degree, proceeded to London and entered at the Middle Temple in 1675.

While diligently studying law, his attention was also turned towards scientific pursuits. He returned to Dublin in 1678, and soon afterwards married Lucy Domville, daughter of the Irish Attorney-General. In 1683 was formed the Dublin Philosophical Association, the forerunner of the Royal Dublin Society and the Royal Irish Academy. Sir William Petty was president, and Molyneux acted as secretary. Its first meetings were held in a house on Cork-hill. He now became acquainted with some of the leading personages of the time, and through the Duke of Ormond's influence, was in 1684 appointed Engineer and Surveyor of the King's Buildings and Works. Next year he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Sent by the Government to survey fortresses on the coast of Flanders, he passed on to Holland and France, and in Paris became acquainted with Borelli, the famous mathematician. In 1686, soon after his return, he published an account of the telescope dial invented by himself. The following year he had the pleasure of reading advanced sheets of Newton's Principia, sent him by Halley. During the War of 1689-91 he resided at Chester, where he lost his wife. He there occupied himself in the composition of a work on dioptrics. On his return he was appointed one of the Commissioners of Forfeited Estates, with a salary of £500. But the task was suited neither to his tastes nor his feelings; he was indifferent about money, and soon resigned a laborious and highly invidious and unpopular office.

About this time he speaks of his well-selected library of 1,000 volumes, and of being visited by the Duke of Wurtemberg, General De Ginkell, and Scravamoer. Both in 1692 and 1695 he was elected member for the University of Dublin, which had conferred upon him the degree of LL.D. The laws passed for the destruction of Irish trade and commerce induced Molyneux to write the work that has since rendered his name conspicuous in Irish history: The Case of Ireland, being bound by Acts of Parliament made in England, Stated, published, with a dedication to the King, early in 1698. It maintained that Ireland and England were separate and independent kingdoms under the same sovereign — that Ireland was annexed, not conquered — "If the religion, lives, liberties, fortunes, and estates of the clergy, nobility, and gentry of Ireland may be disposed of without their privity or consent, what benefit have they of any laws, liberties, or privileges granted unto them by the crown of England? I am loth to give their condition an hard name; but I have no other notion of slavery but being bound by a law to which I do not consent... We have heard great outcries, and deservedly, on breaking the Edict of Nantes, and other stipulations; how far the breaking our constitution, which has been of five hundred years' standing, exceeds that, I leave the world to judge."

The work created a great sensation, was stigmatized as seditious and libellous by the English Parliament, and ordered to be burned by the common hangman. Shortly after its publication, he went to England to visit his friend and correspondent, John Locke. The fatigues of the journey brought on a severe attack of illness, and he died on the 11th October 1698, soon after reaching home, aged 42. He was buried in St. Audoen's Church, Dublin. Some interesting notes regarding his monument will be found in Notes and Queries, 3rd and 4th Series.

Locke, writing to his brother, said: "I have lost in your brother not only an ingenious and learned acquaintance, that all the world esteemed, but an intimate and sincere friend, whom I truly loved, and by whom I was truly loved." The highest tribute ever paid to his patriotism and genius was by Grattan, in his great speech in the Irish Parliament, on 16th April 1782. Harris's Ware enumerates fifteen works, 4 chiefly philosophical, from his pen. The most important, besides his Case of Ireland, were Six Metaphysical Meditations (Lond. and Dub. 1680), Sciothericum Telescopicum (Dub. 1686), and Dioptrica Nova (Lond. 1692). [His son Samuel, born in 1689, was secretary to George II. when Prince of Wales, and was afterwards Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the Privy-Council. He died childless in 1727.

Sources

110. Dublin, History of the City: John T. Gilbert. 3 vols. Dublin, 1854-'9.

196. Irishmen, Lives of Illustrious and Distinguished, Rev. James Wills, D.D. 6 vols. or 12 parts. Dublin, 1840-'7.

245. Moore, Thomas, Memoirs: Henry R.Montgomery. London, 1865.
Moore, Thomas, see Nos. 132, 307.

339. Ware, Sir James, Works: Walter Harris. 2 vols. Dublin, 1764.

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