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Prometheus's Fire: Abstracts

Chapter 12: 'Treasures Open to the Wise': the Mechanics Institute of North- East Ulster

Seamus Duffy

The Mechanics Institutes movement originated in Glasgow in the 1790s, on the intitiative of a Dr John Anderson. The objective was to teach to artisans the scientific principles underlying their work. He was joined by George Birkbeck, who interacted constructively with instrument-making craftsmen, re-designing the courses to make them accessible to the mind-sets of working men.

Birkbeck moved to London in 1804, and the concept took shape, the basic ideas being embodied in a book by Lord Brougham, which became the manual of the movement. Radicals like Francis Place and William Cobbett were involved. Cobbett preached worker-management. The London University college founded by and named after Birkbeck remained a focus for radical thinking well into the present century, with JD Bernal and others.

The Irish took up this movement, but without the 'industrial revolution' flavour. There was a suggestion that the industrial revolution could be actually initiated in Ireland via the provision of a science-educated work-force; this however was at the time a wrong assumption, and in fact in most of the Irish Institutes the participation was middle-class and the atmosphere patronising.

In north-east Ulster however there was substantial working-class participation, and the radical flavour generated some theological controversy. The Northern Whig was an enthusiastic supporter; and there were indications of support from Presbyterian and Roman Catholic working people and their clergy, but the Church of Ireland authorities, including Romney Robinson the Armagh astronomer, also the Royal Schools, were opposed, smelling radical motivation, reinforced perhaps by the active support from James Haughton the Carlow Quaker industrialist, who was connected with the Mechanics Institute movement in Dublin.

The basic politicising force in Ireland at this time however was led by Daniel O'Connell and was oriented towards Catholic Emancipation and the Repeal of the Union; this attracted support from the emerging Catholic middle class. There were few if any echoes of the radical worker-led Chartist movement in England, which the Mechanics Institutes had fuelled, though not consistently.

Indeed, Frederick Engels, Karl Marx's colleague, was inclined to dismiss them as 'organs for the dissemination of the sciences useful to the bourgeoisie...to divert their minds from independent political activity..'. This view is perhaps confirmed by an episode in which the Downpatrick Mechanics Institute in 1853 hosted a Barrington Lecture on Political Economy by Dr Moffett of Queens College Galway.

The Barrington Lectures were set up initially in the 1840s for the express purpose of promoting Liberal free-trade laissez-faire economics all over Ireland, though this objective became moderated and radicalised early in the present century. However, where the management of the Institutes was in the hands of working people, they did become and remained a radicalising force for some decades in mid-century, especially in north-east Ulster, as a pioneering voluntary educational movement, at a time when the very idea of educating the working people was regarded by the Establishment with suspicion.

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