Land of saints, scholars, engineers and innovators

18 Jul 2016

Moulded by the hands of Irish monks, Skellig Michael on Ireland's storm-battered Atlantic coast. The fragile history of the world owes much to Irish engineering prowess

Ireland’s heritage isn’t just tin whistles, tap-dancing and Guinness. The story of Ireland’s role in science and discovery needs more prominence, writes John Kennedy.

Growing up in Ireland, it isn’t hard to stumble across history. It’s everywhere, poignant as much as it is beautiful.

As a teenager, my favourite time to go running was early in the morning and, from one vantage point in my home town of Trim, you could witness various ages and centuries of history as the sun rose and mist boiled above the Boyne river.

‘People didn’t think of the Irish as great engineers and, as a country, you have allowed yourself to be painted into the corner as artists and writers. But you are so much more’

Future Human

In the distance, you could see a 19th-century column dedicated to the Duke of Wellington, victor at Waterloo and a local MP for the town. The adroit figure used to hold a sword but apparently a Black and Tan on the rampage during the War of Independence was a crack shot with a rifle and relieved the Iron Duke of his weapon. Pan right and your gaze is interrupted by the ruins of King John’s Castle, reputed to be one of the largest Norman strongholds still standing in Europe. Right again and across the river are the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, known locally as the Yellow Steeple, because of the hue it takes on in sunlight, and immediately right from this vantage point is Newtown Abbey. Shout at it from the right angle – from the Echo Gate – and you’ll be rewarded with a satisfactory echo.

Nestled between your view of the giant Norman castle and the Yellow Steeple is Talbot’s Castle – a manor house that belonged to a noble defeated by Joan of Arc and immortalised by Shakespeare in Henry IV, but which at one point was also the residence of Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. It subsequently became a school where the future Duke of Wellington and Sir William Rowan Hamilton were educated.

Hamilton was an Irish physicist, astronomer and mathematician who made important contributions to classical mechanics, optics, and algebra. He is best known for one of the earliest acts of graffiti in Irish history, scrawling the formula for quaternions on Broom Bridge. Quaternions are the mathematical formulae that drive most of the graphics in today’s video games and movies.

No childhood in County Meath is complete without the inevitable trek to the famous Navan Shopping Centre, immortalised by the comedian Tommy Tiernan. While most will still remember it for its long-gone maze, where frazzled parents used to deposit bored kids, I remember it best for a nearby exhibition on the work of Sir Francis Beaufort. My imagination was stirred by the precise, golden mathematical instruments encased alongside dramatic world maps and images of ships adrift in stormy oceans.

Beaufort, who was born in Navan in 1774, devised the Beaufort wind force scale, an empirical measure that relates wind speed to observed conditions at sea or on land.

The only evidence I found remaining of Beaufort’s connection with Navan was recently driving by a plaque on a modern residential property outside the town, noting that he was born there.

Hidden histories and perfect storms

OK, I am a nerd. I love history, and my internet growing up was a set of encyclopedias that rested above the family TV.

You could say Ireland’s history is the history of Europe and the world down through the ages. But when you consider the history and contribution of scientific figures like Hamilton and Beaufort, they were sadly lacking in whatever version of history the powers that be decided for us growing up. Mine was a Christian Brothers School, so you can guess it was fairly nationalistic.

Often, it was my own curiosity that led me to want to know more about individuals like Hamilton and Beaufort.

There were others. Figures like the Third Earl of Rosse, William Parsons, who designed and built the largest telescope in the world in the 1840s at Birr in Offaly, discovering the spiral nature of some of the great galaxies, was a late discovery, made only thanks to efforts of people to preserve this history in physical form.

Not many people know this, but the Earl’s son, Charles Parsons, went on to invent the steam turbine, as well as optical equipment for searchlights and telescopes.

Like most people, I was ignorant of the legacy of George Boole – the first Professor of Mathematics at UCC, whose algebra became the foundation of modern computer science – until his bicentenary was marked with great fanfair by UCC last year.

It was only while talking at the recent Inspirefest 2016 with Irish Internet Association CEO Joan Mulvihill that I heard of Eileen Gray for the first time. Gray, an Irishwoman, was one of the leading members of the modern design movement. She was renowned in France during the early decades of the 20th Century as a designer of lacquer furniture and interiors. She then began to experiment with architectural forms in the late 1920s. One of her best-known legacies was the adjustable chrome table and the non-conformist chair.

Why hadn’t I heard of her before?

By recognising our past can we shape our future

All of these thoughts flooded into my mind as I sat talking with Al Gillespie at the Royal Valentia Hotel in Knight’s Town on Valentia Island on Friday. Gillespie, an environmental lawyer and Professor of Law at Waikato University in New Zealand, along with Stephanie Buffum, wife of Cyrus Field IV, great-great-great-grandson of the man who brought the first trans-Atlantic cable ashore at Valentia Island, ignited a movement to gain the island World Heritage Site status.

Their application is gaining ground and, next year, could be included on a tentative list in the hands of the Irish Government.

This cable, which became active in 1866, made that corner of Ireland the birthplace of globalisation and made Valentia Island the world’s Silicon Valley until it was overtaken by satellite communications in 1966.

Once again, the power of cable is returning and entrepreneurs are even looking at running fibre cables across the North Pole and down through Ireland, Portugal, and Africa to better connect the world.

It was ironic that a simple Skype conversation between Gillespie in New Zealand and Buffum across the Pacific, where she lived on an island off the US northwest coast, has led to Ireland being within a hair’s breadth of having Valentia Island awarded World Heritage Status.

When we Irish think of World Heritage status, we think of the Skellig Islands – the scene for the latest Star Wars movies – or Newgrange in Meath, where more than 4,000 years ago, long before Stonehenge or the Pyramids, people managed to build something with such mathematical precision that on one day only, every year, light floods one of its chambers during the winter solstice.

Indeed we have only two World Heritage Sites out of the 1,000 registered across Europe, according to Gillespie.

Gillespie says Ireland has been remiss in targeting opportunities for World Heritage status. He points out that not only have we failed to secure this status for the myriad historical monuments that dominate our landscape, but we are missing an obvious economic trick that other countries have been astute enough to make an industry out of. Three industrial sites in Germany alone with World Heritage status attract 1m visitors a year.

We believe, as a country, that we missed the industrial revolution, but it was our ancestors that made the industrial revolution possible everywhere and for everyone else.

And Valentia Island’s role in cementing the communications revolution of the 19th century must not be overlooked or forgotten.

“10 years ago, my father-in-law, Patrick Breen, a former school teacher, asked me to think more deeply about Irish history, which tends to be all about saints, famines, and wars. And while all of that is important, we are ignoring the scientific and industrial history of Ireland,” said Gillespie.

“By all means, celebrate the Celtic heritage, the rich cultural heritage that you celebrate very well in terms of music and writing. But you are ignoring the heritage of people who were great workers and thinkers.

“People didn’t think of the Irish as great engineers and, as a country, you have allowed yourself to be painted into the corner as artists and writers. But you are so much more.

“Before there was Silicon Valley, there was Valentia Island, where educated people did specialised work and these workers need to be commemorated.”

After Gillespie had left and I jabbed tentatively at my computer keyboard, I looked out the window at the harbour in Knight’s Town where playfully kids pushed each other into the sea from a floating dock. I tried to imagine in my mind’s eye the world’s biggest ship of the day, The Great Eastern, steaming magistically into port, trailing a giant armoured steel cable 1,686 nautical miles behind her in her wake.

He is right. We need to bring this scientific, engineering and industrial heritage to life, and inspire future generations of scientists, engineers and innovators. We have a rich culture that includes science alongside music, poetry and the other aspects of our national identity.

But the good news is that this is changing already. The Science Gallery in Dublin is doing amazing work in bringing the magic of science to life. Born in Cork five years ago, the CoderDojo movement – perhaps not unlike the seafaring monks of the Brendan Voyage of the sixth century – is spreading learning around coding across the world (with 800 dojos and counting in 60 countries worldwide).

Science, learning and engineering, as much as music, pubs and literature, are intrinsic to the Irish national identity. Our tourism industry, in particular, needs to note this.

As Gillespie points out, the dominant tourist of the 21st century won’t be American. They will be more than likely a Chinese person, who identifies more with smartphones and entrepreneurialism than just tin whistles and Aran sweaters. And we need to be ready for them.

Why, then, must it take a man on an island in New Zealand talking through the miracle of Skype with a woman on an island off Washington state to lead the charge in recognising a rocky outcrop on Ireland’s south-western coast as a World Heritage site?

We owe this to ourselves, too.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years