The greatest scientific minds of the Rising
Of the major figures in the rebellion, Éamon de Valera would have the greatest impact on Irish research
Joseph Mary Plunkett was considered a wireless expert
The 1916 Easter Rising is thought of as a revolution led by writers and artists. How about the Irish scientists, engineers and medics of the time? To what extent did they figure in the Rising, and how did those involved influence the development of the sciences in the Ireland that emerged?
A major engineering preoccupation of the time was wireless telegraphy. Joseph Mary Plunkett was considered a wireless expert, and in the run-up to Easter 1916 worked on wireless plans with a group that also included Rory O’Connor as engineering adviser. On Holy Thursday he sent a group to Kerry to gain control of a wireless station, but after taking a wrong turn they drove into the sea and three occupants of the car drowned.
During the Rising, on the orders of Plunkett, a group took control of the wireless school on the corner of O’Connell Street and Abbey Street. The aim was to get news of the Rising to the outside world, in particular the US.
A lot of work was needed to restore the apparatus to working order but eventually, with the building coming under heavy fire, news of the Rising was transmitted on a commercial wavelength, in the hope that a ship would receive the messages.
Three decades later the Irish consul-general in New York was asked to investigate whether these messages had ever reached the US. His inquiries found no evidence that they had.
DressingsRoyal College of Science for Irelanddressings
Kathleen Lynn, another pioneering Irish female doctor, was chief medical officer to the Irish Citizen Army. She was stationed at City Hall during the Rising and took over command of the garrison when its commander was shot. Like Ella Webb and many other female doctors of the time, she went on to work on the treatment of sick children. She founded St Ultan’s hospital for infants, which is associated in particular with the introduction of the BCG vaccine to Ireland.
Of the major figures in the Rising, Eamon de Valera had the greatest impact on Irish science. De Valera had a lifelong love of mathematics, and his son described how he read the work of William Rowan Hamilton with “a disciple’s zeal”. He used a Venn diagram to portray his proposed “external association” following the truce in 1921, with only the British crown common to Britain and Ireland.
Another Nobel laureate, Ernest Walton, pointed out to de Valera in 1957 the cost of not investing in experimental science. From Attis again: “Investing in science, Walton claimed, could put Ireland on the leading edge in a handful of scientific areas with important economic consequences. He pointed to the recent development of transistors. ‘There is no basic reason why they should not first have been manufactured here. However, there was no possibility of this happening for no research was being done in this country on semiconductors.’”
Walton’s argument still resonates. As the weekend’s commemorations invite us to remember and reimagine, it is interesting to reflect also on Irish science, engineering and medicine over the course of the past century, and to consider what direction they should take in the future.
Orla Feely is vice-president of research, innovation and impact at UCD