The Prospects and Duty of Irishmen in Reference to the Acquisition of Useful Knowledge

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Volume 1, Number 45, May 4, 1833

CAN it be an enthusiast's dream, that a better day is dawning upon this long-distracted country? Is IRELAND ever to remain THE LAND OF IRE, the region of the storm and the whirlwind, the homestead of strife and contention? Or are peace and concord about to re-establish their reign, and bring with them the blessings which follow wherever their influence is felt?

It may be a dream that Ireland is undergoing such a change--yet we will indulge it. It may be an illusion that the storm is passing away, that its violence and fury have been checked, that the light of intellect is beginning to stream over the land, that our countrymen are about to vindicate their characters as a rational and intelligent people in the face of the nations of the earth. It may be a dream that men of all parties are drawing nearer to each other, that strong political prejudices are melting away, that party feeling is merging into a desire for national improvement, and national union. It may be all poetry, it may be all romance--yet what we wish for, we most willingly believe. Oh, that our feeble accents could be heard echoing along every valley of this green and fertile land! People of Ireland! we would appeal to you. Are ye ignorant of the worth of knowledge, or deficient in zeal for its acquisition? No! But peculiar circumstances have interfered with your best interests-- the glorious principle of universal CHARITY has not presided over the literature of the country. Yet that nation will not ascend to the higher region of intellectual being, which knows no literature but what is subservient to strife and division, whose authorship drags religion from her holy seclusion, and disturbs her calm serenity by the shouting of hostile war-cries. Never, never, will the charities of social life abound, nor the inalienable right of freedom of thought, and word, and action, prevail, until the humanising influence of the arts and sciences is felt over the entire community, until men learn to think freely and to differ with good-will, until the voice of reason can charm the power of prejudice, until men's minds are in some measure isolated, so that a look of jealousy or a touch of suspicion will not run electrically through the mass, until religious and political considerations are assigned their proper station, and philosophy is rescued from its bondage to sectarianism.

When the questions which divide classes of men are felt by them to be vitally important, affecting their equality and rights in this world, and their existence as immortal beings in the next, and when there is a fierce struggle between the rival parties, each striving for the mastership, then every minor subject connected with the arts, with literature, and with science, is merged into the greater and paramount matters of debate, or they receive a chromatic glow, deceptive and illusory. But when the storm is high, when the winds are whistling wildly, will the sweet and plaintive tones of music be heard in the gale--when men's passions are roused, will the quiet and gentle accents of peace find their way to the heart? No! there must be calmness, there must be repose, the feeling of exasperation must have passed away, the sense of inferiority and superiority must be subdued, ere the attention will be given to the more abstract considerations of intellectual life : but when the causes of exacerbation are removing, when men, whose opinions had rendered them individually repulsive, are drawing near, and perceiving that each possess human hearts and human sympathies, when the power of prejudice is gradually, though slowly, melting away, is there not glorious hope of a resurrection of genius and of taste, a dawning of a better day, when the hurricane of passion will have abated, and the gentler feelings of humanity rejoice in the light and warmth of the morning sun?

Ireland stands precisely in such a position. Britain is free, in a great measure, from the causes which obstruct the progress of literature in this country, and therefore is she proceeding with majestic step. Public taste and knowledge are rapidly improving and widely extending; and an inhabitant of England or Scotland, unacquainted with the manifold springs of bitterness which have flowed so long in Ireland, forms strange and distorted ideas of the genius and disposition of the inhabitants of an island not untruly characterised as being "blessed by God, and cursed by man." It would be the fondness of folly to affirm that the acerbities of strife are softened down, and that all classes already hail each other with affectionate joy. It would be an affectation to say that at our approach all classes, however jealous at other times and on other subjects, receive us with unhesitating cordiality, and that in our Journal the eagle eye of party has never detected a pictorial illustration to mean more than met the view, or a traitorous phrase which did not contain beneath it a lurking poison--no! we cannot breathe so freely yet in Ireland. But that we have done much-- VERY MUCH--to effectuate so great a good, it is our right and our privilege to say, nor will the dread of the imputation of egotism deter us from affirming it on all proper occasions, for there are times when reiterated declarations of purity of motive indicates not personal vanity but earnestness of purpose. And our very hearts are set on the delightful though frequently thankless and ungracious task of clearing away the rank weeds which pester our fields of literature; we desire to spread a table at which all may sit down; to draw towards a common platform those who differ, and teach our countrymen that there are enjoyments which they can participate together, and intellectual treasures which they can mutually share.

Let us then be thankful that at least--THE GOOD WORK is BEGUN! And in pointing out the duty of Irishmen in reference to the acquisition of useful knowledge at this era in the history of the literature of the country, we wish to set ourselves right with the readers of the Journal respecting some observations in the former paper in No. 41, which seemed to depreciate Classical Learning. No man of any intelligence will depreciate the study of the classics--no man who knows that the English language is itself an olla podrida compounded from the Greek, Latin, French, Teutonic, Celtic, &c. would deliberately be contented with the stream, when he might ascend to the fountains from which it was supplied. But we were addressing that great body whose first and principal object in life is to make provision for their daily wants--those whose lot is, as it were, marked out, and who have a far better prospect of making themselves respectable IN their different professions than of rising OUT of them and above them. It is to be deplored that the foolish reverence which in Ireland is thrown about the character of "the Poor Scholar" has tended, in a great measure, to exclude useful knowledge from the minds of the people, by substituting in its place a love for unmeaning verbiage. With what delight do the peasantry assemble to hear two village schoolmasters "sack" and "bog" each other! On these occasions the most egregious pedantry is frequently substituted for true learning, and frivolous disputations inflate the mind, but cannot substantially fill it. What have carpenters or masons to do with the classics? Teach them mechanical philosophy--teach them how to estimate the strength of timber, of walls, of arches--show them that there are certain fixed principles on which they can go to work--and thus give them the power of rising in their own professions. Why is there such a reproach yet lying upon the handicraft-work and practical ingenuity of Irishmen? How comes it that if an intelligent engineer, or a practical chemist, or an experienced agriculturist, are wanted for responsible situations, they are rarely to be found amongst the bulk of the people, and have, consequently, to be imported? Take Dublin, for an instance, and we will venture fearlessly to assert, that nine-tenths of the young men who belong to the mechanical departments are ignorant of the simplest details of science. Ask any one of them to give you a rude idea of the working of the steam engine--of the nature of colours--of the refraction of light--of the laws which regulate the motions of fluids--and the truth of the assertion will be borne out. There are intelligent mechanics in Dublin, and we are proud to acknowledge it: but they are comparatively few in number. We wish to stimulate their brethren to imitate their laudable example, to seize on the opportunities which the diffusion of knowledge now present, and by becoming acquainted with the principles of science, become more skilful, expert, and useful in their different arts, and instead of working by rote, learn to work by rule, and thus so elevate the character of their respective professions, that journeymen smiths, carpenters, masons, dyers, bleachers, &c. &c. may no longer be mere agents in the hands of builders, engineers, and chemists, but intelligent workmen who comprehend what they are about, and feel an interest in having it creditably finished.

But not only would the acquisition of the principles of natural philosophy be useful to the mechanics and artizans of Ireland, but the great mass of those who may be supposed a grade above them would reap positive benefit by the study. In the metropolis, and the other large towns, there are a numerous body of respectable young men, employed as shopkeepers, clerks, &c. who, to their shame be it spoken, are more versed in the little arts of imitative gentility than in the manly and noble details of science. Yet these very individuals live by the extended trade and commerce which the improvements in the arts and sciences have created--improvements suggested by the new and varied applications of the mechanic powers, and the results of chemical combinations. We call upon this class to set the example in forming associations for the spread of useful knowledge--for nothing would give us greater pleasure than to see what we have often seen in the sister country, a numerous assemblage of intelligent men, the smith from the forge, the carpenter from his bench, and the shopkeeper from the counter, night after night listening patiently and attentively to a course of lectures on chemical and mechanical philosophy. The Royal Dublin Society have done a good deal in this way without much success or encouragement. Whatever may be the cause, let it not be attributed to the genius and disposition of the people.

We are thus appealing to the self-interests of the working class in urging them to the acquisition of useful and beneficial knowledge. It is not merely the pleasure, but the actual profit which will accrue, that ought to excite them. It is for their own sake as men, for their country's reputation as a nation, that they ought to be persuaded. Out upon the infatuation, or rather the depravity, which spends its leisure time in dissipation, stupefying the brain, and fevering the blood--a dissipation which fetters the wretched mechanic with a poverty that galls, and withers, and curses his prospects and hopes! Away with the bigotry which would prevent mm of different religious persuasions from meeting together to acquire the truths of philosophy! Ah! how little, since the world began, has the voice of reason prevailed over the power of prejudice! But we do not despair, either for Ireland, or the world. Let the scorner laugh--mind will yet triumph, knowledge will walk abroad, and though there may be fitful intervals of light and darkness, though the sun of intellect, like the sun in the heavens, may seem to set on one hemisphere, while it is rising on the other, yet science and literature must and will obtain dominion, and mankind at large rise from savage and semi-barbarous conditions, and take their proper station as enlightened and intelligent beings. What a glorious thought! Man has been progressing painfully and slowly for several thousand years. Many of his motions have been retrograde--fire, and sword have defaced some of his fairest memorials, and the crafty tyrant or the subtle chief has led human beings in troops, to ravage the earth, to spoil its verdure and its beauty, habituating them to blood and rapine, and unhinging civil society, while out of its disorganization have arisen systems and forms of government which have too often not contributed to the happiness of the race. But the elements of order seem to be forming new combinations. There may be doubt and hesitation in many minds as to the probable result: but he whose mental vision can pierce the surrounding atmosphere, sees in every new development and every fresh change, cause for rejoicing, and looks forward to the hour when every waste on the surface of the globe shall be peopled with rational and intelligent creatures--when the arts shall flourish on the burning plains of Africa, and literature gladden the Pacific isles--when genius shall wave its magic wand, and silvery-toned eloquence utter its inspiring sounds--when peace, with its olive branch, shall preside at the feast of reason, and men know no other discord than that freedom which consists in agreeing to differ.

Now, if any man will say, that the design and drift of this paper is to set a value upon mere literature far above the more sacred duties which devolve on man in reference to his Creator, we tell him that he is altogether mistaken. All we wish to do, is to vindicate for literature her claim to that toleration which is her undoubted privilege, to shield her from the intrusion of ideas which have their own peculiar place, to free her from connexion with the irritable spirit of party. A union of literary feeling and sentiment is the great desideratum in Ireland : our countrymen have too long hunted in packs. Let them banish the unsocial spirit--let them no longer shut their eyes and their ears to the sights and the sounds around--for "Nature never did betray the heart that loved her." What! no interest, no pleasure, no excitement, in the earth, in the ocean, in the sky? We cannot believe it; there is a desire, an eager desire, in the minds of all classes of our countrymen, for useful and improving knowledge; and in contributing our humble aid to bring about the new era which is opening on the literature of Ireland, we will rest satisfied in the consciousness of having honestly done our duty.