Thinker’s Curse – Frank McNally on John Toland, a controversial Donegal philosopher who died 300 years ago

An Irishman’s Diary

It may come as no surprise to learn that the term “West Britain” was first used in print by an Irish-speaking Donegal man. Less predictably, he did not intend it as a description of Dublin, or Leinster, or indeed as an insult of any kind.

In the world-view of John Toland, who died 300 years ago on Friday, it was a logical description of this island which, along with East Britain (England) and North Britain (Scotland), he was happy to consider part of a greater whole. He had abandoned Catholicism in his teens, adopted politics that were a mixture of republican and unionist, and for his radical philosophy inspired another novel term, apparently being the first person ever described as a "freethinker".

Unfortunately for Toland, his thinking – and his tendency towards “loudly proclaiming controversial views in coffee houses” – did not find much favour in any of the Britains during his lifetime.

He was more sympathetically received on mainland Europe, but spent his final years in impoverished obscurity in London.


A modern admirer summed up thus: “Two centuries earlier the establishment would have burned him as a heretic; two centuries later, it would have made him a professor or comparative religion in a California university. In the rational Protestant climate of early 18th-century Britain, he was merely ignored to death.”

Toland was born, probably as Seán Ó Tuathalláin, near the village of Clonmany, Inishowen, on the last day of November 1670. His parentage is obscure, but according to Jonathan Swift (one of his many critics) and others, he was the illegitimate son of a priest.

He is also thought to have had a bardic heritage and there was certainly some classical education in his background. Hence the names by which he claimed to have been baptised: Janus Junius, combining the two-faced Roman god of new beginnings and Junius Brutus, semi-mythical founder of the Roman republic.

A young man in a hurry, Toland converted to Presbyterianism aged 15. It was not necessarily a good career move in a year that saw the Catholic James II become king.

But the resultant sectarian strife was about to be resolved, for good or bad, by the time he completed a masters in Divinity, aged 19, in Edinburgh. He received his degree on June 30th, 1690, the day before the Battle of the Boyne.

For a while after that, in London, he was working on an Irish-English dictionary and on a thesis that Ireland had once been a colony of the Gauls. But his first and defining book, entitled "Christianity not mysterious", published in 1696 when he was 26, set the course for the rest of his life.

It argued that reason alone was sufficient for anyone to understand scripture, that there were no real mysteries in the Bible, and that any events presented as such must be just “cunningly devis’d fables”.

The book also included the observation that “Popery is nothing else but the Clergy’s assuming a right to think for the Laity”, and added that “a wise and good Man […] knows no Difference between Popish Infallibility and being oblig’d blindly to acquiesce in the Decisions of fallible Protestants.” For this and other things, it was considered heretical in England. Toland thought he might be better off in Dublin for a time. But back in Ireland, his book was censured by the House of Commons and burned by the public hangman. A warrant meanwhile went out for his arrest, which he somehow avoided.

In later years Toland was a frequent visitor to the continent, including Germany, the Netherlands, and Prague, where the Franciscans of the Irish College seem to have welcomed him as a scholar rather than religious outcast.

He wrote many other books and pamphlets, including a series of letters to the Queen of Prussia in which also coined the term “pantheist” to describe a belief that God is everything, and vice versa.

Of the politics of his native country, by contrast, he once commented: “Nothing shou’d be attempted that might bring about the possibility of a Union of civil interests between the Protestants and Papists, whose antipathies and animosities all sound Politicians will ever labour to keep alive.”

Toland’s financial misfortunes included living just long enough to lose whatever money he had in the South Sea Bubble. He died on March 11th, 1722, aged 51, “as he had lived, in great poverty, in the midst of his books, with his pen in his hand”. He had spent his last years in East Britain – Putney, London, to be exact.

But for his final work, he signed himself in Latin as “Janus Junius Eoganesius Cosmopoli”. It means “Janus Junius, native of Inishowen, Citizen of the World”.