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Prometheus's Fire: Abstracts

Chapter 13: The Dublin Mechanics Institute, 1834-1919

Jim Cooke

This chapter gives some additional background to the foundation of the Institutes in Scotland and England, and then goes in some detail into the Dublin experience, which commenced in 1824 with an inaugural meeting in the historic Tailors' Hall, a location associated with the United Irishmen.

A subsequent meeting in 1824 at the Shakespearean Gallery claimed as objective '...to introduce scientific information against the monopolising classical instruction of the schools..'. The Freeman's Journal commented that '..Ireland had her Goldsmith, her Burke and her Sheridan, but she had not an Arkwright, a Jameson or a Watt..'.

There was initially a strong input from the likes of the Duke of Leinster and Lords Charlemont, Cloncurry and Lansdowne, and Dr McCartney of TCD. Self-education by the artisan was the objective, and Rev Dionysus Lardner of TCD ran a series of popularising lectures on mechanical principles, including the steam engine, which were well attended.

The problem was however one of basic literacy; there was as yet no primary education. There also emerged hints of links with English radicalism and the Chartists, and this caused the upper-class patrons to desert, and the movement declined.

In 1837 however there was a re-start, associated with the patronage of Kane of the RDS and McCullagh the TCD mathematician; despite, or perhaps because of, the heady political atmosphere the membership grew rapidly to over 1000. The aspiration was to keep it non-political. All social classes were appealed to, and women were admitted. Classes, library and reading rooms were provided.

The 1840s were on the whole an active thriving period, and politics crept in via lectures given by John Mitchell and other Young Irelanders. A lecture by Rev Thaddeus O'Malley on March 28 1848 introduced the idea of the 'Workman's Bill of Rights' which was explicitly borrowed from the Chartists; this English radical movment included Irishmen such as Fergus O'Connor in its leadership.

This came to the notice of the Committee and steps were taken to de-politicise the Institute, though in practice its radical flavour remained, going through a period of sectarian controvery in the 1850s, despite the best efforts of James Haughton. Despite these rumblings the work of the Institute continued; there were anti-slavery lectures by US women; the Institute was used as the focus for the funeral of Terence Bellew McManus, the Young Irelander, in 1861, when Archbishop Cullen refused the Pro-Cathedral; from this event emerged the Fenian movement.

The radical flavour persisted; Frederick Engels lectured there in 1869, revising his initial hostility as expressed some decades earlier and noted in the previous chapter. The science educational role however declined; the Institute was more of a radical political club, a place for reading the papers and discussing politics.

Throughout the 1880s and 90s the Dublin local authorities began to take an interest in technical education; they built their own schools and declined the offer to take over the Institute building, which ended up as the Abbey Theatre in 1904. The Institute transferred to the premises of the Dublin Trades Council, where it remained until 1919, when it was wound up, and the remaing funds dedicated to a scholarship for the Dublin technical schools. Thus ended almost a century of association between technical education and radical politics. It would be of interest to contrast in more detail the perspectives as seen from Dublin and Belfast within Ireland, and from both with the English and Scottish perspectives. There is unfinished business here.

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