The Royal College of Science for Ireland

From Modern Ireland: Its Vital Questions, Secret Societies, and Government, 1868

By 'An Ulsterman'

The Museum of Irish Industry, long a favourite resort of the studious in the Irish capital, exists no longer. Externally the building remains the same; internally, to judge by the plans, everything is changed. The halls where the public used to go after lecture to observe and learn, have been cut up into lecture-rooms, where they must consent to be taught in due and legal form. It remains to be seen how far the Irish public will approve the changes; at present all they can know of them is that a couple of Irish professors appointed pro tempore have been displaced to make room for two gentlemen from North Britain. News of Irish official business, however, is best known in London; and the rule holds good even when an Irish College of Science is in question. It will be useful to give the Irish public some idea of proceedings which closely concern them, and about which they are kept still in a state of ignorance.

The establishment of the Museum of Irish Industry was in some small degree an act of emancipation in science for the Catholics, as the Relief Act had been in politics. Before it took place Trinity College and the Royal Dublin Society monopolized scientific instruction, and allowed no science to pass which was not stamped with the test-oath. The exclusive character of the former institution is well known; that of the latter may be judged from the fact that, when "toleration" was most fashionable in Dublin, it blackballed the late Archbishop Murray, one of the mildest and gentlest of men, solely because he belonged to the Church of the nation. Naturally both institutions regarded the new establishment with dislike, not to say enmity. They fancied it had some elements of popularity; its director had written on "the Industrial Resources of Ireland," and was a Catholic. Clearly there was reason to distrust this Papal aggression on the field of Science. For with the emancipation of the popular intellect many new competitors must arise; and the former monopolists would no longer be allowed to divert from a nation's benefit the Pactolus of science which irrigated so profitably their privileged domains.

The director of the Museum, however, was not the dangerous antagonist they feared; and the institution, although it put them on their mettle, was cramped in its swaddling clothes, and impeded in its development. Nevertheless, they regarded it askance. Its existence made them uneasy; and they schemed to neutralize or destroy it. One plan was to annex it to the Dublin Society, whose especial fitness for popular esteem was shown in the last exploit that brought it prominently before Parliament and the public, namely, the resistance it opposed to the free opening of the Botanic Garden on Sundays. Linked to so Conservative a body, and brought under the control of a strictly Protestant directory of the Irish type, it was reasonably presumed that the efficiency of the Museum as a popular instructor would disappear. If this design could have been carried out as quietly as it was planned, and in part executed, the expectations of its promoters would no doubt have been justified. But when a Commission had been obtained in furtherance of the project, and when all was going on as surely and safely as posssible, the public took alarm and energetically protested against the scheme. The ambition of the reactionists having overleaped itself, they had the misfortune to see the plot result in a reorganization of the Museum of Irish Industry, now the Royal College of Science. They have, however, successfully exerted themselves to make it "safe" in the matter of appointments.

The organization of the new institution occupied the attention of the late Government, to whom is due all that is creditable in it. Under their auspices the plans were drawn out, and, although there was not sufficient elasticity in the formal provisions, it might have been secured in the practical working. But with the change of Government the chances of making the institution progressive and popular fell to zero. The Director of the Museum of Irish Industry, Sir Robert Kane, was a Catholic. It is not a desirable thing that scientific appointments should be mixed up with the question of religion; but in Ireland, unfortunately, this has long been the rule. Until recently every such appointment was sedulously given to members of the small, well-endowed Protestant minority; and it was but natural that the people at large should be of one mind with impartial statesmen as to the propriety of rectifying a rule so unjust and so invidious. Greek gifts have made the Irish people distrustful of the intentions of Governments; and if their confidence in educational matters was to be recovered, it was necessary to show plainly that there was no design to proselytize or act partially. Hence, if it had been really discovered that the Catholic Director of the Industrial Museum was unfit to be appointed to a similar position in the College of Science, a Government desirous of dealing fairly with the people would have appointed a Catholic successor, if a fit one was to be found.

A different course has been followed. Sir Robert Kane, to some extent the originator, and always the Director, of the Museum, was ungraciously relieved of all duties in connection with it, and then it was that the absurd allegation was officially made that the post of Director of a scientific institution was one for which a scientific man was specially unfit. What rendered him unsuited, it was urged, was that he probably knew one science better than the rest. Hence, ran the argument, the person best adapted to govern a College of Science is one who knows nothing of any science! At the same time, in direct contradiction to this theory, it was contemplated to vest power in a changeable head guilty of a knowledge of science; for one proposal was that each professor in the College should rule for a year as Dean, in rotation.

The consequence of this arrangement would have been that Sir Robert Kane having been evicted, and only one professor being a Catholic, the establishment would for nine years rank with Trinity College and the Dublin Society in having a Protestant head, whilst only every tenth year a Catholic would occupy the post. However, on remonstrance being made, it was thought best to reconsider the matter as far as Sir Robert Kane was concerned. He was deposed from his Directorship, but allowed to remain as permanent Dean at the salary of a low-classed clerk; and another gentleman was sought out to fill the position of Secretary to the College, which is virtually the Directorship under another name. On the theory of special fitness which has been already stated, we are bound to presume that the Secretary to the College of Science was chosen from the ranks of those who are ignorant of science. A nominee appears to have been discovered in the person of Mr. Sidney; and if his knowledge of science is as slight as the acquaintance which science, on this side of the channel, has with his name, it may certainly be concluded that he is a fit man. He is moreover an official lawyer; and he possesses also the qualification of being a Protestant.

The question of Irish education is how the State can make the path of knowledge easy and inviting to those who, though they constitute the great bulk of the population, have not a single recognized institution similar to Trinity College. It is quite clear that they cannot be induced to go to any establishment where they observe symptoms of a desire to exclude their learned co-religionists from positions of trust, or from professorial chairs. If the late Government had remained in power long enough to fill up the appointments, there is no doubt that these considerations would have bad their due weight. As it is, however, all the arrangements are of the ante-Emancipation type. Of the seven persons connected with the Industrial Museum as Director and Professors, two were Catholics.

In the Royal College of Science, one of these two has been reduced in grade, and not one of the new appointments has been given to a Catholic. Of the four chairs recently filled, a Catholic has been nominated to none; and the same rule will doubtless hold good with regard to those yet to be filled.* The consequence is that the institution, the chief reason for whose origin and existence has been that it differed from existing Dublin establishments in being unsectarian, begins to take a specially Protestant complexion. If Sir Robert Kane were removed from the merely nominal position he now holds, and the vacant chairs were filled up on the principle followed hitherto, instead of having but two Catholics in seven, as in the Museum, there would only be one in eleven in the Royal College of Science. It can scarcely be urged that fit Catholics are not now to be found to supply a proportion equal to that given when the Museum was founded. If such a plea were alleged, it would amount to a confession that the efforts of existing institutions to educate Catholics are a failure—an invincible argument in the hands of those who demand that the Catholic University should have means for granting its students legal degrees.

The Royal College of Science for Ireland has an imposing name, but in reality it is to be in abject dependence on South Kensington. Why this should be, or being should continue, is inscrutable. Trinity College, the Queen's Colleges, Maynooth, the Royal Dublin Society, all manage their own affairs, and why not the Royal College of Science ? This system of centralization creates discontent and disaffection, and works altogether badly. A short time ago the Lord Mayor of Dublin and others went to the Chief Secretary for Ireland as a deputation from the citizens on the purchase of the Exhibition building for an Irish Museum, and fervently denounced South Kensington and its centralizing tendencies. Nothing can be worse than the working of its system on Ireland, where it acts as a positive discouragement to science There were, for instance, certain Royal Scholarships and Exhibitions attached to the Irish Museum, as now to the College of Science. To qualify for one of them the Irish student must first hunt up "a certificated teacher;" and to obtain a certificate the poor teacher must travel all the way, say, from Cork or Connemara to South Kensington. This of course would of itself effectually obstruct any progress worth speaking of; and it displays quite a gratuitous perversity, for why require a certificate at all, unless, indeed, for obstructive purposes?

Suppose the student, however, has found a certificated teacher in one town, it may turn out that his teacher is unable to instruct him well in certain desirable branches, and thereupon commences a hunt for another certificated teacher. The student cannot avail himself of the aid even of a University Professor, however eminent, unless the Professor seeks a certificate from South Kensington. He must leave efficient and conveniently placed teachers behind him —for no prosperous and capable teacher would think of coming over to London for such a certificate—and must go from town to town, and perhaps come at last to South Kensington, on borrowed funds. Then again all the examination papers go from South Kensington to all the certificated teachers, if they have got up a class and committee; then they come back again to South Kensington in sealed envelopes; and then once more from South Kensington the award is sent out. The consequence of this cumbrous centralization is that out of the six persons who obtained the valuable prizes attached to the late Irish Museum, only two were Irish. Naturally the plan has created great discontent amongst the Irish youth desirous of competing for prizes of such value; they see stumbling-blocks, the most irritating and useless, put to meet them at every onward step, till the miracle is that any of them persevere in such a steeple-chase.

An Irish Department of Science should be formed and completed so as to make it a real centre for scientific education in Ireland; it should be made competent to examine for all the prizes attached to it; and the preposterous scheme of rejecting all knowledge unless from the bearers of South Kensington certificates should at once be abolished.

The scheme of instruction adopted for the College of Science is extensive. The course will spread over three years. In the first two the instruction will be general; in the third it will be specialized under the heads of Mining, Agriculture, Engineering, and Manufactures. During the first year the student will be taught Applied Mathematics, Physics, Descriptive Geometry, and Botany. During the second year he will be taught Applied Mathematics, Chemistry, Laboratory Practice, Zoology, Mechanical Drawing. It will be observed that the shrewd men of South Kensington have directed the new Professor of Botany to teach that science by omitting a most important and practical portion of it; for how is it possible to obtain a correct idea of physiological botany without a previous knowledge of chemistry? To profess to teach botany before chemistry is much the same as to profess to teach applied mathematics before the pupil knows his multiplication table. With respect to the teaching of mathematics in the new College we have a remarkable phenomenon. There is but one Professor, Mr Ball; but he and South Kensington have agreed on the following number and course of lectures:—

75 in Elementary Mathematics.

75 " Mechanics and Hydrostatics

75 " Higher Mathematics.

75 " Mathematical Physics.

75 " Theory of Structure, Mechanism and Machines

75 " Steam and the Prime Movers. He is to begin in November: when will he end? In the whole year, including Sundays and holidays, there are 365 days; and this Professor is to give his pupils 450 lectures! This is surely the first instance of steam-pressure applied to lecturing: of no man doing this can it be said "he lives;" only, "he lectures."


* Shortly after this article appeared, one Catholic obtained a chair. But this is nothing as a counterpoise, and the College has been, perhaps irretrievably, damaged. Two years ago 245 registered students attended scientific lectures in the building; this session, after all the flourish of trumpets, the number has shrunk to a miserable dozen. This dozen eight professors had to divide amongst them; and the attendance in consequence on the lectures ranged from zero in Zoology to four—the highest in any class. And come of these were in fact, paid to be present, being recipients of prizes entailing the necessity of attendance on lectures. The South Kensington authorities and the Conservatives have done their work thoroughly. Like the termites or white ants of Africa when attacking a piece of solid furniture, they have wrought silently and hiddenly, and persevered, leaving the exterior untouched, until nothing remains but a varnished shell filled with dust and ruin.