The Royal Dublin Society

From the Illustrated Dublin Journal, Volume 1, Number 36, May 10, 1862

"Nostri Plena Laboris."

"GREAT honour," says Arthur Young, writing in 1776, "is due to Ireland for having given birth to the 'Dublin Society,' which has the undisputed merit of being the father of all similar societies now existing in Europe. It was established in 1731, and owed its origin to one of the most patriotic individuals which any country has produced, Dr. Samuel Madan. For some years it was supported only by the voluntary subscriptions of members, forming a fund much under £1,000 per annum; yet was there such a liberality of sentiment in their conduct, so pure a love of the public interest apparent in all their transactions, as enabled them, with that small fund, to effect much greater things than they have done in later times, since Parliament has granted them regularly £10,000 a session."

Thus wrote, nearly a hundred years since, a talented and reliable observer, who was confessedly the originator of our modern system of agriculture, and, allowing his unbiassed testimony its full weight, a much higher antiquity is pleaded for the institution he so enthusiastically commends. A century before Arthur Young visited Ireland's Isle the Dublin Philosophical Society, or, as is was usually termed, "The Dublin Society," had been founded by the celebrated William Molyneux, who became its first secretary, and Sir William Petty first president. This association numbered among its members and contributors four, of the talented name of Molyneux, Robert Boyle, St. George Ash, William King, (who subscribes himself F.D.S., and sometimes S. (Socius) D.S.,) and many other ingenious men, who, in conjunction with Locke, Shaftesbury, and their associates on the British side of the channel, were then laying wide and deep the foundations of inductive science. To this society, in 1683, Marsh, then Bishop of Ferns, presented his curious treatise on "Sounds," one of those remarkable essays on the imponderables that cast the light of knowledge far into the future. This communication, as also others, subsequently appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society, with acknowledgment of the previous publication. The benevolent and judicious Madan, in 1731, renovated and extended the functions of the Dublin Society, with a view to more practical results; and accordingly in "the Proceedings" for 1764, before his death, it is entitled, "A complete repertory for practical knowledge." In 1749 a charter of incorporation was granted under the title, "The Dublin Society for promoting Husbandry and other Useful Arts in Ireland;" and, in 1820, the epithet "Royal" was affixed, on occasion of George IV. becoming patron of the institution.

Amid the accumulation of events and rapid lapse of time the sources of public benefits are often quite forgotten; and it may not be inappropriate to mention here that the culture of wheat in Ireland, as an article of export, was first extensively established under the advice and auspices of this society, encouraged by the opinions and statements of that patriarch of agriculture, Arthur Young. The observations of that sagacious inquirer on the public spirit, and self-reliance of this association in its earlier annals, are fairly applicable to its subsequent history up to this time, although the rather exaggerated contrast between expenditure of income and parliamentary grant does not equally apply to present circumstances. Indeed, public money was in those days sadly squandered and misapplied, and the unsound policy of "bounties" exercised a debilitaing influence on the enterprise and self dependence of the masses--so that no legitimate analogy can be here instituted for the purpose of inferring the inexpediency of that pecuniary aid, now afforded by an Imperial Parliament to increase the acknowledged usefulness of an institution, which, during so long a period, and amid the multitude of distinguished associations fashioned after its exemplar throughout Europe, has maintained a firm and consistent position a-head of the national development--beckoning onward, still onward, to each grade of progress in agriculture, manufactures, sciences, and arts in Ireland.

The present Royal Dublin Society House, in which, under one coverture, all the diversified business is transacted, was formerly the palatial town residence of the Dukes of Leinster, and was purchased in 1815 for the sum of £20,000, arising chiefly from the funds of the Society. The first grant to the society from the Irish Parliament, in 1761, was £2,000, which, with varying amounts, increased to £15,500, in 1800. The first grant from the Imperial Parliament, in 1801, was £11,071, and liberal aid was continued for several subsequent years, until, in 1854, it was ultimately diminished, in inverse proportion to extending usefulness and necessarily increasing expenditure, to the inadequate amount of £5,500--i. e., after deduction of £500 for the Zoological Gardens, in the Phoenix Park, which are not otherwise connected with the society. Besides this annual grant, however, occasional sums have been voted for completion of the several buildings and departments. The income of the society from all sources--the parliamentary grant, members' fees and subscriptions, and receipts of cattle shows--now amounts to nearly £8,000 per annum. There are over 1,200 members, and the number is increasing, though too slowly for production of any marked financial advantage. The total receipts for all purposes for the six years ending April, 1861, amounted in round numbers to £57,000, of which fully one-third was voluntary contribution, a liberal and fair proportion, according to the practice of sundry other public endowments. The Lord Lieutenant for the time being is president of the society (by custom), and the vice-presidents, with the other members of the council, the honorary secretaries, and the various committees, number together over 100, who give their time and talents gratuitously to conducting the general business of the institution, which, without enumerating committees for special and occasional matters and sub-committees, is thus officially classified:--1. Agriculture and Husbandry. 2. Botany and Horticulture. 3. Chemistry, applied to agriculture and rural economy. 4. Fine Arts. 5. Library. 6. Manufactures and Agricultural Museum. 7. Natural History, Geology, and Mineralogy. 8. Natural Philosophy and Mechanics. The chief departments to which attention is requested are--the Library, with Reading and Conversation Rooms, School and Galleries of Art, Museum of Natural History, Botanic gardens, Lectures, with Lecture Theatres and Laboratory, and Public Commercial Examinations, Monthly Evening Meetings during the Session for Scientific Discussion, and lastly, an Agricultural Museum, with two great Agricultural Exhibitions each year.

A few observations relative to the functions and requirements of these departments respectively are necessary. The Library contains thirty thousand volumes, one-fourth of which, inclusive of valuable Spanish and Italian books, and many tomes of costly illustrated literature, are stowed away in garrets under the rafters of the roof. There the noise of the city is muffled like the sound of a distant surf, and the book-worm may enjoy perfect solitude, without any intrusion, except of spiders, &c. Now, there are five large apartments on the library floor, only requiring fittings and the ordinary furniture to become available for a classified arrangement of this valuable collection, and an extended accommodation for readers, whether members or visiters--for the library is practically free to the public, the only introduction requisite being the entry of the name on the registry by a member, and members themselves claiming but one exclusive privilege--that of borrowing volumes. Indeed, it is a matter for mature consideration whether continuance of this privilege is compatible with the higher interests and objects of the establishment--the vexation and inconvenience of being debarred from reference, until too late for occasion, is too often experienced; and all books of satistical and scientific information, essential to acquisition and structure of systematic knowledge, ought not to be withdrawn even for a day. To draw a distinction between these and literature of a more evanescent character would prove difficult and unsatisfactory; and, in short, there will be no legitimate plea for continuance of the borrowing system when the proposed additional accommodation is supplied for readers of both sexes. Many ladies especially would be induced to take larger advantages of this valuable collection, in cultivation of literary and artistic pursuits, if suitable apartments were provided for their accommodation. One very large room, lately appropriated to the public, is already inconveniently crowded, chiefly by very young men, grateful to embrace the opportunities of acquiring useful knowledge to fit them for their existing or intended occupations in life. Valuable new publications are added to the library stock each year, such as are recommended by members, and have passed the approving sanction of the Library Committee; and the Members' Conversation-room is supplied with the principal scientific and literary serials of Europe and America. The Society's School of Art, traditionally famous for the painters and sculptors who were there taught the first principles of art, has been placed, since 1849, under the control and supervision of the Government Department of Science and Art of the Board of Trade, who have evinced much discrimination and care in the improvement of the school, the facility and cheapness of admission to which extend its diversified advantages to all diligent students of the poorer classes; but the master, though zealous and talented, is unable, with only one assistant, to compass all the divisions of instruction: and at least two additional instructors are essential for Moulding and Architecture, in order to eliminate the national taste, now displaying a prominent and decided leaning to Sculpture and the Constructive Art. For this a larger endowment would be necessary, and the school would be placed on a more satisfactory basis if its management was restored to the society, reserving only Government sanction in election of teachers. There is an honorary professorship of Artistic Anatomy attached to this department; but the addresses of the eminent professional gentleman who fills that office being only occasional, and not a sequential course, the results are as unprofitable as the impressions are transitory; and systematic instruction in the scientific portraiture of life would be more satisfactorily managed by inviting well-qualified persons to give from eight to twelve lectures on the subject during the month following each summer recess, for a certain fixed sum, with permission to publish same under approval of the "Fine Arts" Committee, but at the lecturer's pecuniary risk.

In the lawn of the institution is now being erected a building for a National Gallery, the idea of which sprang from the desire of the Irish people to commemorate the munificence of William Dargan in instituting on the society's premises the Great Exhibition of 1853, which was organized, and happily conducted to a prosperous issue, at the sole risk of that enterprising and high-spirited Irishman, who, notwithstanding a considerable excess of expenditure over receipts, has been really the gainer in the transaction by the triumphant success of his speculation in giving to the trade and manufactures of his country a development, impetus, and extension, the benefits of which are increasingly manifest in every branch of native industry. The President and Senior Vice-President of the Royal Dublin Society are constituted ex-officio two of the Governors of the National Gallery, intended to contain a choice col lection of the works of ancient and modern artists, with sculptures, engravings, drawings, and models. It is rumoured that the removal to this building of the public library usually termed "Marsh's Library" has been determined on, but it is difficult to credit such a sample of Vandalism even in Ireland. Of this grand old collection, in prime preservation, and admirably catalogued, fully seventeen thousand volumes exhibit dates of publication from the earliest period of printing up to the middle of the seventeenth century, and of the remaining 1,000 volumes only about 300 are modern books. Marsh purchased Stillingfleet's library at the decease of that learned prelate, and in 1694, being then Archbishop of Dublin, he presented his own and Stillingfleet's collections, as a free library, to the City of Dublin, founding the institution within the precinct of St. Patrick's Cathedral, now being restored to its ancient splendour at the cost of a distinguished citizen. To this united collection was added three thousand valuable works in 1745, the bequest of Bishop Sterne. The books and manuscripts are chiefly mediaeval in time and erudite in character, presenting a rare and curious collection of Patristic, Biblical, Historic, and Oriental literature, together with many volumes of Scandinavian and Celtic (or rather Hibernian) annals and antiquities, of especial interest just at this time, when the Archaeology of Northern Europe has in great part supplanted the classic studies of our forefathers. Archbishop Marsh was one of the few English in the 17th century who understood and appreciated our nation, and was honoured and esteemed in return; and his noble gift ought not to be transferred from its appointed and appropriate site, to become an appendage to a gallery of paintings, which should contain only a collection of works relating to subjects of pictorial illustration and art culture, as originally proposed by the commitee of the "Dargan Testimonial." The National Gallery of Ireland, when connected by a corridor with the schools of art, will afford many and diverse opportunities of improvement to the pupils, subject to the permissive arrangements of the governors of the former institution; but want of funds must necessarily defer these desirable results to a distant period. The Natural History Museum, containing one of the finest collections of minerals in the empire, besides valuable assortments in ornithology, conchology, and other divisions of Natural History, has long been in an unsatisfactory state of confusion and disarrangement for lack of money, the outlay on the new structure having already amounted to nearly £12,000, of which sum about one half was supplied by voluntary contribution; and the completion of furniture and fittings, together with compilation and publication of an expository catalogue, will probably require £4,000. Both the Museum and National Gallery might now have been in complete working order, ministering to the public instruction and amusement, had the mode and material of structure been less expensive. And, after all, what is the shell to the kernel? Bricks, with cut stone quoins and interfenestral pilasters in low relief, and without niches, would have cost one fourth less, and presented a light and sufficiently ornate front, while the present buildings are bald and heavy, and not even in accurate conformity with the style of the Society House, a handsome structure in its way, though sombre-looking from the moist and smoky atmosphere. However, the execution of the work is highly creditable, and the thick and massive walls are strong enough to last as long as the Mausoleum of Hadrian.

The Botanic Gardens of the Society, containing forty-three acres of a picturesquely diversified surface, watered by the beautiful stream of the Tolka, are situated in the Glasnevin suburb. These gardens are generally accessible during four days in the week, and have lately, by desire of the Government, been opened free to the public on Sundays, from 2 p. m. until sunset. That this privilege has been appreciated and not abused, is evidenced by the fact that Sunday visiters have hitherto averaged over five thousand, without a flower-stalk being broken. The department was undoubtedly organised for scientific and educational purposes, but in a certain sense the recreative falls fairly within the latter category; for, where the eye expatiates in freedom over the graceful forms and bright tints of plants and flowers, the mind becomes gradually imbued with their innumerable modifications of beauty and utility, and a germ of instruction is sown of deep and felicitous meaning, however vaguely apparent to superficial observers. Assuredly, there is "a possession in seeing," for all who will appreciate the bounteous gift; and who is so presumptuous as to doubt that the habits and tastes of many of our working people, as keenly sensitive to the impress of nature's loveliness as to that neighbourly kindness which freely grants them participation in the privileges of the wealthier classes, will be both improved and exalted by their visits to those beautiful gardens on the day of rest, when withdrawal from weekly toils and cares yields both zest and healthful occasion for a quiet evening walk? It may be emphatically affirmed that with the Sunday opening of the Botanic Gardens the last trace of seeming exclusiveness has disappeared; and this time-honoured society now declares, as well by constitution as practice, that it holds both property and privileges in a generous trust for the public benefit, ambitious only to increase its wealth in order to extend its usefulness. The Gardens have been much improved of late by means of successive Government grants, but a botanical museum is yet wanting.

The Educational Department of the Society also includes lectures from several professors, scientific papers, and discussions thereon, and the general commercial examinations. In 1854 the staff of professors was withdrawn from the exclusive control of the Society by the Government, which very wisely extended the scope of industrial instruction, by determining that courses of lectures should be delivered every session at "the Museum of Irish Industry," as well as in the Theatre of the Society, on the respective subjects of--Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Zoology, Geology, and Analytical and Practical Chemistry. However, a temporary exception was made in two instances--the society being permitted to retain two professors of mineralogy and of agriculture (or agricultural chemistry), at salaries of £150. Now it is earnestly pressed on the consideration of Government, whether it would not be most desirable to leave these two professors in permanence to the society, requiring them, besides lectures, to afford class or catechetical instruction, their departments being sufficiently distinct from the other professorships, and particularly calculated to promote the two principal objects of the society, as originally constituted, viz:--development of the agricultural and mineral resources of Ireland. The agricultural and mineralogical museums are large and well filled, and there is an admirably furnished laboratory, suitably situated for the purposes of both these departments; so that every facility exists for communicating instruction in the chemistry of soils, the mechanics of culture, and in the nature and utilization of native minerals. The duties of the Professor of Agriculture also might be usefully extended to the veterinary art, so far as delivery of lectures each session on the anatomy, physiology and pathology of the domesticated animals used for food or labour, and the present professor possesses the requisite information and scientific ability for such purpose; but to re-establish a veterinary hospital, with its adjuncts of forges, stables, and dissecting rooms, would, for many reasons, be most unadvisable. Veterinary surgery in Dublin is now reputably and efficiently represented, which was not the case in 1800, when the society brought over from England Thomas Peall and George Watts to conduct a veterinary hospital on their premises, and introduce that branch of the healing art into Ireland. That object effectively accomplished, the society closed its school as soon as educated and skilled practitioners appeared in the professional market; and it would be preferable, both in a provident and utilitarian point of view, to concentrate the means and energies of the Royal Dublin Society on its existing and more than sufficing engagements, than to extend its educational and financial liabilities, with more ambition than judgment, to any branch of employment not requiring its practical interference. If pecuniary resources increased, the first object ought to be the more adequate payment of officials and their assistants. The salary of the Professor of Agriculture, for instance, might be fairly doubled, excluding altogether the system of fees for purposes of income, though small fees from pupils may be advisable in every department to test the value placed on instruction, and constitute a fund for chemicals, instruments, specimens, and other necessary appliances. It would increase considerably the efficiency and attractiveness of the various branches of instruction to enable the scientific staff to take in rotation short continental tours during the recess, for the purpose of noting the condition and arrangement of foreign institutions, and their progress in science and arts; thus, bringing these acquisitions to bear on their subsequent teaching, and in improvement of their respective departments. This plan has been occasionally tried with marked success, but insufficient means prevent its being systematically adopted. The society has likewise established annual examinations for prizes and general certificates of merit in those branches of knowledge connected with ordinary business and commercial pursuits. This is a department of growing usefulness, and is conducted by a select board of twelve members, gentlemen of eminence in science and useful literature, or in business. Last year thirty-eight candidates presented themselves, and prizes and certificates were awarded to thirteen. This season the number will, probably, be doubled, and it is gratifying to add, that the advantage has been extended to female candidates.

A series of scientific evening meetings are held each month during the session, for exhibition and explanation of mechanical inventions, and reading, and discussion of scientific papers, that have passed the cui bono ordeal of a committee appointed for that purpose; original essays on any subject of scientifical or social importance are received, whether contributed by members or strangers, and a selection is published in the society's journal, which is forwarded (chiefly in exchange for British, Colonial, and Foreign serials) to all the leading scientific institutions of the world. Facility of access is given to these re-unions, by permitting members to purchase tickets of admission for others at six-pence each, which together with voluntary contributions from members helps to defray the cost of refreshments at the close of the discussions. The increasing number of intelligent and inquiring young men of every class in society who anxiously seek admission, is a notable proof of the benefit arising from the scientific evening meetings; and if they opened at seven instead of eight o'clock, and closed at nine, with conversazione until half-past ten o'clock, it would probably be found more advantageous for all comers who are in earnest in their pursuit of knowledge. Straitened finances and unfinished apartments have been pleaded for not establishing stated conversaziones, at least two in each year, to which ladies should be admissible; but "where there's a will there's a way." It has been done on two occasions in compliment to British scientific associations visiting Dublin; and the unfulfilled obligation lies to debit of the members of the Royal Dublin Society from their female fellow citizens, many of whom are accomplished in science, literature, and art, and capable of appreciating the pleasing instruction and social intercourse of such reunions. It has been suggested that the society's large and commodious apartments could be made more generally available for the meeting of other scientific associations, who might admit one or two of the society members, ex-officio, on their committees, and assent to the household rules of the establishment; but for various reasons, just now unnecessary to detail, it is not likely that the change would be deemed advantageous, except, perhaps, by the "Chemical Society" and "Natural History Society.''

The Agricultural Museum, formerly the stabling and granaries of Leinster House, is extensive and well suited for its diversified purposes, containing seeds, implements, models of agricultural buildings, specimens of fuel, of woods, etc., etc. This department might be rendered vastly more serviceable by publication of a catalogue, classifying and explicitly describing the numerous articles. One of the main objects enumerated in the charter of incorporation being the promotion of agriculture, two great agricultural shows each year, at the Easter and Christmas seasons, have been established, and are open to competitors from all parts of the United Kingdom, for cattle, poultry, farm produce, patent manures, and implements, and machinery having relation to household economics, as well as to agricultural processes, and the preparation of food. The exhibitions have no official connexion with those held by the Royal Agricultural Society of Ireland in each of the four provinces in annual rotation, and with increasing success, for furtherance of the same important object. To this department the Government grant is only £250, of which £150 goes for the salary of the Curator of the Agricultural Museum, who also fulfils the onerous duties of superintendent of these exhibitions, the annual cost of which, inclusive of prizes, has now risen to nearly £1,500, exceeding the total amount of receipts arising from exhibitors' entries, admission fees, and the Government grant by £70 and upwards. The society also have lately raised some £4,700 by voluntary contributions for an Agricultural Hall, and are now soliciting the aid and sanction of Government in order to purchase a contiguous lot of ground for a Show Yard, the lawn of the society, bounded by the main building, the Natural History Museum, the National Gallery, and on the fourth side open to Merrion-square, being unsuitable, and disfigured by the filth and debris of the exhibitions. This lawn ought manifestly be laid down in character with the choice bit of urban shrubbery in the opposite square. And with respect to establishing a Cattle Show Yard upon adjoining premises, any such project involves the expensive and most inexpedient postponement of inevitable ultimate arrangements, manifest to any mind of ordinary forecast; besides the additional ground is not sufficiently extensive for the purpose, though, from its convenient situation, contiguous to the Agricultural Museum and Hall, it would afford the requisite accommodation for machinery and implements, while the Hall might then be exclusively devoted to farm produce and horticultural as well as floricultural exhibitions. This plan also would admit of the Agricultural Hall being used during two months each year for a display of the progress of the art and manufactures of Ireland. The building is spacious and suitable in its structural proportions for that object, and the success of last year's exhibition justifies its stated repetition. A crowded cattle show with all its impedimenta, held twice a year in a situation between two of our aristocratic squares, in the handsomest quarter of a city rapidly progressing in architectural beauty and in the various appliances of social and aesthetic convenience is a positive nuisance, and will not be tolerated half a dozen years hence. 

Would it not be prudent to anticipate "the good time coming," and solicit the sanction and aid of parliament for temporary appropriation, during continuance of the cattle shows, of 4 acres of the Phoenix Park, adjoining the principal entrance? That situation, from its vicinity to the principal arteries of inland communication, would be the most convenient for Irish exhibitors, as well as also for British visiters and exhibiters, especially after construction of the proposed Metropolitan Railway, which is intended to link together all the railway approaches, encircling the suburban districts from the port of the Liffey and the North Docks to the southern harbour at Kingtown. To these sketchy memorials of this distinguished and time honoured association, a few closing observations may be added as to the requirements of its completer development and administration. It is only right and politic that an institution of such magnitude and social influence should be responsible to central control, with reservation of certain elective rights and privileges in interior management; and the expediency also is respectfully admitted of tightening the purse-strings of the government grant, should an indiscreet exercise of these privileges provoke public disapprobation; but no valid reason can be adduced why the annual grant should not be as liberal now, under the vastly increased demands of the progress of the country, (especially under the last decade,) as it was--say not even under a native parliament--but after the close of the great European wars, so late as 1817, when it was £10,000. In mooting this question, members and friends of the society do not pay sufficient regard to the altered social circumstances of Ireland, and are too much inclined to rest their hopes and dependence exclusively on the support of aristocratic and parliamentary interest. But the present generation has witnessed, with the decadence of many an ancient name, the uprise of a far greater number to influential position, founded upon force of character, experience, and wealth. Such constitute the advance party of all material progress, recruiting and energising the ranks of the aristocracy; and unprejudiced eyes must plainly see that property created by personal industry is the principal source whence flow the streams of beneficence and practical patriotism, not only in the British Islands but in every part of the empire. An institution so national in its objects, so efficient in its work, as the Royal Dublin Society, surely merits general support; and an appeal to the influential and wealthy of all classes would soon call forth pecuniary contributions sufficient in their amount and stipulated uses to fulfil the more immediate requirements in completion of buildings, furniture, and fixtures, as well as to convince any government by this practical expression of public opinion, that liberal expenditure in such matters is a wise economy on this side of the Channel as well as in England; and that it is both morally just and politically expedient to award the Royal Dublin Society an annual endowment somewhat more adequate to its long-tested and increasing capacity of usefulness in Ireland.

Books on the Royal Dublin Society:-
A History of the Royal Dublin Society by H. F. Berry
The Story of the Royal Dublin Society by Terence de Vere White
The Royal Dublin Society, 1815-45 by Kevin Bright