A Brush with Fame – Frank McNally on William Rowan Hamilton, lockdown exercise, and alliterative bridges of the Royal Canal

An Irishman’s Diary

William Rowan Hamilton: a role model for good practice in the age of Covid

William Rowan Hamilton: a role model for good practice in the age of Covid

 

On top of being a mathematical genius, William Rowan Hamilton was a role model for good practice in the age of Covid. His epochal discovery of quaternions on this date (October 16th) in 1843 was made while he was taking daily exercise, outdoors, with one close family member (his wife). The walk was also confined to his immediate locality, Dunsink Observatory. 

It might not have fitted within the 2km radius imposed as part of the initial lockdown earlier this year. But it was comfortably inside the 5km range. It need hardly be added that Rowan Hamilton “followed the science” throughout his walk, except possibly at the end when, amid the outbreak of adrenalin and excitement, the science may have had to follow him for a bit.

It caught up with again famously at Broome Bridge, where he carved in stone the equation for a new kind of four-dimensional maths, used to this day on voyages to both outer and inner space: via actual rockets and the virtual-reality effects of films like The Matrix. Alas, the three-dimensional commemorative walk in Cabra cannot take place as usual this year, even with Covid Level-3’s allowance of exercise “pods”.When I did it myself a few years ago, the crowd wasn’t so much a pod as a shoal. So instead this year, the organisers are hosting a virtual walk at 2pm, broadcast online.

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The anniversary has reminded my regular correspondent Damien Maguire of a time when his daily commute from Maynooth into Dublin was brightened by the sight on the train station at Broom(e)bridge of the Irish translation “Droichead na Scuab”.

This was a pithy commentary on the fleeting nature of celebrity, because the bridge had been named originally not for an anonymous sweeping brush but for a man named Broome. 

Like others commemorated by Royal Canal bridges and locks, he was a director of the project. Unfortunately, like the canal itself, his immortalisation had fallen into disrepair by the 20th century, and an Irish placename translator swept him under the carpet of historical amnesia for a time.

He might have stayed there had a 1950s campaign to rename the bridge after Rowan Hamilton succeeded. The street names committee of Dublin Corporation declined to formalise the change but, in a Solomon-like judgment, ruled that locals were free to call it either name from then on.  And when the plaque commemorating the mathematician’s eureka moment was unveiled in 1958, The Irish Times, for one, declared it to be on the “William Rowan Hamilton Bridge”.

But old Broome had a powerful thing on his side: alliteration. Broome Bridge reasserted itself in time and even the Irish version of the station name now says “Droichead Broome”. For a Droichead na Scuab in Ireland now, according to Logainm.ie, you have to go to Co Cork, where, somewhat cryptically, that is the official translation of the village known in English as Ladysbridge.

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Adding to the joke of the sweeping brush, by the way – at least phonetically – is the fact that slighter further down the canal towards the city is a Binns Bridge. It too was named for a director of the project. And even though he also had alliteration on his side, he may be lucky not to have lost one one of his n’s in intervening centuries. The nearby canal bank, especially around the Brendan Behan statue, can be a magnet for late-night drinking. Bins are often much needed there.    

If Messrs Broome and Binns continue to be remembered via Dublin placenames, John Blaquiere – memorialised by yet another alliterative bridge – has not been so lucky.  Blaquiere Bridge was left high and dry, literally, when the part of the canal that used to run through Phibsborough to Broadstone was filled in.

A similar fate involving the original city terminus of the Grand Canal explains one of Dublin’s more mysterious jokes: why a south-inner-city suburb is named after a bridge in Venice. That’s because the Dublin Rialto Bridge, which gave its name to the area, used to be over a Grand Canal too until that was back-filled. 

Blaquiere Bridge, the only crossing of the Royal Canal on the way to Broadstone, continued to be a hump-backed feature of Phibsboro until the early 1930s, when this paper’s Irishman’s Diary complained about the obstruction it was causing traffic. I don’t know if the diarist could be said to have “taken the hump”, as the phrase goes, but it seems Dublin Corporation took it soon afterwards. The bridge is now a flat and forgotten section of North Circular Road.

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