Networks of Science & Culture in 19th C Ireland

Networks of Science and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Funded by: IRCHSS(Irish Research Council the Humanities & Social Sciences).


Dr. Aileen FyfeProject Convenor
Dr. Elizabeth NeswaldPostdoctoral researcher
Ms. Juliana AdelmanPostgraduate researcher


This is a project run by Aileen Fyfe (NUI, Galway) with Peter Bowler and Iwan Morus (Queen's University, Belfast). It seeks to go beyond existing historiography in the history of science in Ireland, by focusing on popular science, rather than the learned science of TCD and the learned Dublin societies and is based at the Centre for the Study of Human Settlement & Historical Change. Its purpose is to find out who knew what about the sciences, and from whom, or what, did they find it out? This will involve examining museums, lectures, zoos, schools, periodicals and books, to investigate the cultural penetration of the sciences all over the island.

The project is funded by a Major Project Grant from the Irish Research Council for Humanities and Social Sciences. A post-doctoral fellow and a Ph.D. researcher began working on the project in November 2003. These researchers will be based in the Centre for the Study of Human Settlement and Historical Change at NUI, Galway..

An extract from the formal Project Statement follows:

This project will investigate the social and cultural networks of the sciences in nineteenth-century Ireland. As historians working on a variety of contexts and locations have shown, the nineteenth century was when the sciences became recognised disciplines and gained institutional foundations; their practitioners (newly labelled as 'scientists') were gradually granted significant cultural authority; and the sciences entered government policy due to their potential economic contribution. The nineteenth century was, therefore, the period in which the modern sciences with which we are familiar were born, and it can be expected to be a critical period in the history of science in Ireland. It was also the time when innovations in publishing, education and communication technologies transformed the way in which people outside the small circle of scientific elites, mostly based in Dublin, could learn about the sciences. As well as transforming the sciences, these changes transformed the way in which laypeople could experience or be involved with the sciences, particularly in the case of women and the working classes. This sophisticated work on nineteenth-century science and society has yet to be extensively emulated in Ireland, and this project aims to remedy that. Its particular emphases on the popularisation of the sciences, and the importance of studying physical objects in addition to printed or written texts will place the project at the forefront of international research in the history of science.

Most existing studies of Irish science are focused on individuals or on specific institutions. However, it is now generally accepted that the practice of science was shaped by its social context, and that science in turn had a significant impact upon society. This means that networks of communication become crucial to explaining what those influences were and how they worked. This project aims to uncover and map the scientific and cultural networks of nineteenth-century Ireland, and to link them into the better-known British, European and American networks. There will be many sorts of networks, often overlapping, but there are a few particular areas on which we will be focussing. One is the academic connections, which influence appointments in the university colleges, teaching methods, and the future destination of those students going on to further study. Another set of networks arises from the dependence of the sciences upon physical equipment, which had to be built and maintained, and collections of natural objects, which had to be found and classified. This involved an army of technicians, instrument makers, collectors and curators, who formed an almost invisible network on which science depended for research, for classroom teaching, and sometimes also for public demonstrations. A third group of networks are those involved in mediating the impact of science outside the laboratory, ranging from public lectures and exhibitions to the print media, but also including the extent to which graduates found jobs in which they could utilise their new knowledge, whether in local industry or in the Indian civil service.

Parts of these networks are already known, particularly those parts based in Dublin or around a few well-known figures. However, the apparent ubiquity of smaller local organisations, such as Mechanics' Institutes and natural history societies, indicates that the sciences were not confined to Dublin, and our task has to be to try to map out the inter-connections between these other organisations. Simultaneously, we have to try to place the Irish networks within an international context, which will certainly include Britain and may also include other parts of the world, particularly later in the nineteenth century. As well as placing the known practitioners of the sciences within wider social networks, the project examines the ways in which the general public could find out about the sciences, through books, periodicals, lectures and education systems. It also considers the impact that such information had upon belief systems and upon industrial and agricultural practice.