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Catholics, science and civic culture in Victorian Belfast

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast, BT7 1NN, UK. Email:
School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, Queen's University Belfast, BT7 1NN, UK. Email:


The connections between science and civic culture in the Victorian period have been extensively, and intensively, investigated over the past several decades. Limited attention, however, has been paid to Irish urban contexts. Roman Catholic attitudes towards science in the nineteenth century have also been neglected beyond a rather restricted set of thinkers and topics. This paper is offered as a contribution to addressing these lacunae, and examines in detail the complexities involved in Catholic engagement with science in Victorian Belfast. The political and civic geographies of Catholic involvement in scientific discussions in a divided town are uncovered through an examination of five episodes in the unfolding history of Belfast's intellectual culture. The paper stresses the importance of attending to the particularities of local politics and scientific debate for understanding the complex realities of Catholic appropriations of science in a period and urban context profoundly shaped by competing political and religious factions. It also reflects more generally on how the Belfast story supplements and challenges scholarship on the historical relations between Catholicism and science.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2014 

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1 See Thackray, Arnold, ‘Natural knowledge in cultural context: the Manchester model’, American Historical Review (1974) 79, pp. 672709CrossRefGoogle Scholar; essays in Inkster, Ian, Scientific Culture and Urbanisation in Industrialising Britain, London: Ashgate, 1998Google Scholar; and Elliott, Paul, ‘Origins of the creative class: provincial urban society, scientific culture and socio-political marginality in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Social History (2003) 28, pp. 361387Google Scholar.

2 Neve, Michael, ‘Science in a commercial city: Bristol 1820–1860’, in Inkster, Ian and Morrell, Jack (eds.), Metropolis and Province: Science and British Culture, 1780–1850, London: Hutchison, 1983, pp. 179204Google Scholar; Desmond, Adrian, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990Google Scholar; Secord, James A., Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001Google Scholar.

3 See, for example, Miskell, Louise, Intelligent Town: An Urban History of Swansea, 1780–1855, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2006Google Scholar; Finnegan, Diarmid A., Natural History Societies and Civic Culture in Victorian Scotland, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009Google Scholar.

4 Notable exceptions include Adelman, Juliana, Communities of Science in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009Google Scholar; essays in Adelman, Juliana and Agnew, Éadaoin (eds.), Science and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2010Google Scholar; Bayles, Ruth B., ‘The Belfast Natural History Society in the nineteenth century: a communication hub’, in Purdue, Olwen (ed.), Belfast: The Emerging City 1850–1914, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2012, pp. 105124Google Scholar, and Neswald, Elizabeth, ‘Science, sociability and the improvement of Ireland: the Galway Mechanic's Institute, 1826–51’, BJHS (2006) 39, pp. 503534Google Scholar.

5 For an overview of the relations between Catholics and science in Ireland see O'Leary, Don, Irish Catholicism and Science: From ‘Godless Colleges’ to the Celtic Tiger, Cork: Cork University Press, 2012Google Scholar. For additional perspectives see Jones, Greta, ‘Catholicism, nationalism and science’, Irish Review (1997) 20, pp. 4061Google Scholar; James H. Murphy, ‘The Irish-Catholics-in-science debate’, in Adelman and Agnew, op. cit. (4), pp. 127–135; and Whyte, Nicholas, Science, Colonialism and Ireland, Cork: Cork University Press, 1999, pp. 153161Google Scholar. The scholarship on the relations between science and Catholicism in the nineteenth century beyond Ireland has tended to focus on debates about human origins. See, for example, Artigas, Mariano, Glick, Thomas F. and Martínez, Rafael A. (eds.), Negotiating Darwin: The Vatican Confronts Evolution 1877–1902, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006Google Scholar; Astore, William J., ‘Gentle skeptics: American Catholic encounters with polygenism, geology and evolutionary theory, 1845–1875’, Catholic Historical Review (1996) 82, pp. 4076CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Gamble, John, Society and Manners in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland (ed. Suibhne, Breandán Mac), Dublin: Field Day, 2011, p. 268Google Scholar. Figures taken from Hepburn, Anthony C., A Past Apart: Studies in the History of Catholic Belfast, Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 1996, p. 4Google Scholar.

7 Dierig, Sven, Lachmund, Jens and Mendelsohn, J. Andrew, ‘Toward an urban history of science’, Osiris (2003) 18, pp. 119Google Scholar; Gieryn, Thomas F., ‘City as truth spot’, Social Studies of Science (2006) 38, pp. 538Google Scholar; Lafuente, Antonio and Saraiva, Tiago, ‘The urban scale of science and the enlargement of Madrid (1851–1936)’, Social Studies of Science (2004) 34, pp. 531569Google Scholar; Miskell, Louise, Meeting Places: Scientific Congresses and Urban Identity in Victorian Britain, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013Google Scholar.

8 Withers, Charles W.J., ‘Scale and the geographies of civic science’, in Livingstone, David N. and Withers, Charles W.J. (eds.), Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Science, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 117Google Scholar.

9 Belfast News-Letter, 7 January 1834.

10 On Roman Catholic patronage of natural philosophy see Heilbron, John, The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991Google Scholar. For works indicating the existence of chairs of natural philosophy at the three Irish seminaries mentioned above see Corish, Patrick J., Maynooth College, 1795–1995, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1995Google Scholar; McEvoy, John, Carlow College, 1793–1993, Carlow: St Patrick's College, 1993Google Scholar; Fearghail, Fearghus Ó, St Kieran's College, 1782–1982, Kilkenny: St Kiearn's College, 1982Google Scholar.

11 Atkinson, Norman J., Irish Education: A History of Educational Institutions, Dublin: Allan Figgis, 1969, p. 59Google Scholar.

12 Catholic Directory, Almanac and Registry for 1851, Dublin: W.J. Battersby, 1851, p. 256. As late as 1882 Bishop Dorrian, Denvir's successor, was claiming that the school had the ‘finest collection of instruments for the study of physical science in Ulster’. See Belfast Morning News, 24 July 1882.

13 The authors are grateful to Mr Gerry McNamee, archivist at the Down and Connor Diocesan Library (located in St Malachy's College), for providing access to these books.

14 O'Laverty, James, The Bishops of Down and Connor, Dublin: James Duffy & Co., 1895, p. 605Google Scholar.

15 Belfast Literary Society 1801–1901, Belfast: Linenhall Press, 1902, p. 96.

16 See, for example, ‘Chemico-Agricultural Society of Ulster’, Belfast News-Letter, 8 December 1855.

17 ‘The Victoria fete’, Belfast News-Letter, 10 September 1851. Denvir was a vice-patron of the fete, established to commemorate the visit of Queen Victoria to Belfast in August 1849.

18 ‘Annual meeting of the British Association: third day’, Belfast News-Letter, 6 September 1852. The same session included a paper by Henry Hennessy, librarian at Queen's College Cork and one of the few Catholics who participated in the Belfast meeting. The (then) Catholic Frederick M'Coy, for a short period professor of geology and mineralogy at Queen's College Belfast, was also involved in the meeting. M'Coy converted to Anglicanism shortly afterwards and moved to Australia in 1854. See Darragh, Thomas A., ‘Frederick McCoy: the Irish years’, Victorian Naturalist (2001) 118(5), pp. 160164Google Scholar.

19 Morus, Iwan R., Frankenstein's Children: Electricity, Exhibition and Experiment in Early-Nineteenth-Century London, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998, p. 3Google Scholar.

20 For detailed accounts of these criticisms see MacAuley, Ambrose, Patrick Dorrian, Bishop of Down and Connor, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1987, pp. 2664, 87–112Google Scholar; and Connolly, Sean J., ‘Paul Cullen's other capital: Belfast and the devotional revolution’, in Keogh, Dáire and McDonnell, Albert, Cardinal Paul Cullen and His World, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2011, pp. 289307Google Scholar.

21 See Porter's criticisms of Denvir in ‘Industrial National School’, Belfast News-Letter, 10 November 1855. Denvir's charges against the school are found in National School (Belfast), HC 1856 (88), LIII.

22 Report of Her Majesty's Commissioners appointed to inquire into the management and government of the College of Maynooth, HC 1854–55 (355), XXII, p. 53.

23 Suspicions that Irish priests and bishops harboured at least some aspects of Gallicanism was a live issue at the time. See Turner, Michael, ‘The French connection with Maynooth College, 1795–1855’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review (1981) 70, pp. 7887Google Scholar.

24 MacAuley, op. cit. (20), pp. 87 ff. See also Corish, Patrick J., ‘Irish College Rome: Kirby papers’, Archivium Hibernicum (1972) 30, pp. 29–115, 36Google Scholar.

25 On the uneasy civic harmony in Belfast at this time see Connolly, Sean J., ‘“Like an old cathedral city”: Belfast welcomes Queen Victoria, August 1849’, Urban History (2012) 39, pp. 571589Google Scholar.

26 Anon., ‘The Anglo-Saxon theory’, Freeman's Journal, 15 September 1852. McElheran's ‘address’ was not an official one and was not part of the proceedings of Section E (Geography and Ethnology).

27 Northern Whig, 14 September 1852.

28 We are grateful to Marianne Smith, college librarian, Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, for providing this information.

29 In different places, Knox and McElheran refer to each other as ‘friend’. See Knox, Robert, ‘New theory of race: Celt v. Saxon’, The Lancet (1857) 2, p. 343Google Scholar; and McElheran, John, ‘Comparative anatomy of human crania’, New York Journal of Medicine (1857) 2, pp. 99–101, 100Google Scholar.

30 See Richards, Evelleen, ‘The “moral anatomy” of Robert Knox: the interplay between biological and social thought in Victorian scientific naturalism’, Journal of the History of Biology (1989) 22, pp. 373436Google Scholar.

31 Hunt, James, ‘Knox on the Celtic race’, Anthropological Review (1868) 6, pp. 175–191, 186Google Scholar.

32 Hepburn, op. cit. (6), p. 1.

33 See McElheran's remarks in anon., ‘Escape of John Mitchel’, Freeman's Journal, 24 January 1854.

34 Hepburn, op. cit. (6), p. 1.

35 McElheran, John, Celt and Saxon, Belfast: R. & D. Read, 1852, p. 6Google Scholar.

36 On the racialism of The Times and ‘Celtic’ challenges to it see Young, Robert J.C., The Idea of English Ethnicity, Oxford: Blackwell, 2008, pp. 94139Google Scholar.

37 The Times, 9 January 1852, p. 4.

38 ‘The British Association in Belfast’, Belfast News-Letter, 6 September 1852.

39 ‘Why is the north more prosperous than the south’, Belfast News-Letter, 10 September 1852.

40 ‘Irish impudence’, The Times, 7 October 1852, p. 5.

41 ‘The Celt and the Saxon’, Freeman's Journal, 8 October 1852.

42 McElheran, op. cit. (35), p. 21.

43 McElheran, op. cit. (35), p. 17.

44 ‘St Patrick's Dinner in Belfast’, Belfast News-Letter, 21 March 1853.

45 ‘Patrick's day in Belfast’, Belfast News-Letter, 21 March 1853.

46 Anon., ‘Prospectus’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology (1853) 1, no pagination.

47 Hughes, Arthur J., Robert Shipboy MacAdam(1808–1895): His Life and Gaelic Proverb Collection, Belfast: Queen's University Institute of Irish Studies, 1998Google Scholar.

48 Bell, Charles, Essays on the Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression, London: J. Murray, 1824, pp. 153 ffGoogle Scholar. Charles Bell was professor of surgery at Edinburgh University when McElheran was a student in the city.

49 McElheran, John, ‘The fisherman of the Claddagh, at Galway’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology (1854) 2, pp. 160167Google Scholar.

50 For a fuller discussion of McElheran's career see Finnegan, Diarmid A., ‘Race, space and politics in mid-Victorian Ireland: the ethnologies of Abraham Hume and John McElheran’, Historical Geography 42 (2014)Google Scholar, forthcoming.

51 For more on Cahill see Finnegan, Diarmid A., ‘Daniel Willaim Cahill (1796– 1864) and the rhetorical geography of science and religion’, in Kember, Joe, Plunkett, Jill and Sullivan, John A. (eds.), Popular Exhibitions, Science and Showmanship, 1840–1910, London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012, pp. 97114Google Scholar.

52 ‘Dr. Cahill's lectures', Belfast News-Letter, 5 February 1855.

53 ‘Dr. Cahill's Scientific Lectures’, Banner of Ulster, 8 February 1855; ‘The Rev. Dr. Cahill’, Belfast News-Letter, 15 April 1856.

54 ‘Dr Cahill's lectures in Belfast’, Belfast News-Letter, 19 February 1855.

55 ‘The Rev. Dr. Cahill’, Belfast News-Letter, 15 April 1856.

56 ‘Dr Cahill's Scientific Attainments’, Belfast News-Letter, 16 April 1856.

57 ‘Doctor Cahill Challenged’, Belfast News-Letter, 24 April 1856.

58 ‘The Rev. William M'Ilwaine and Dr. Cahill’, Belfast News-Letter, 3 May 1856.

59 ‘Challenge to the Rev. Dr. Cahill’, Banner of Ulster, 26 April 1856.

60 ‘Dr. Cahill's Lectures’, Ulsterman, 18 April 1856; ‘Challenge and its answer’, Ulsterman, 25 April 1856. If audience figures cannot now be recovered it is safe to assume that Cahill attracted large crowds, as he did elsewhere. Cahill's remarkable popularity can be taken as one indication that there was a widespread appetite among educated Irish Catholics for science. For further discussion see Finnegan, op. cit. (51).

61 ‘The Working Classes Association’, Belfast News-Letter, 30 January 1858. This was the last notice in the paper of the association's activities. Three weeks later the association's name was changed to the People's Reading Room. Belfast News-Letter, 20 February 1858.

62 ‘Mr J.F. Maguire, MP in Belfast’, Belfast News-Letter, 2 February 1858.

63 ‘The destiny of the Irish nation’, Freeman's Journal, 16 January 1864.

64 For a detailed account of the institute see MacAuley, op. cit. (20), pp. 140–152.

65 Belfast News-Letter, 12 October 1858.

66 ‘Roman Catholic Institute Association’, Belfast News-Letter, 14 July 1859.

67 MacAuley, op. cit. (20), p. 150.

68 See Livingstone, David N., ‘Darwin in Belfast: the evolution debate’, in Foster, John W. (ed.), Nature in Ireland, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1997, pp. 387–408, 403405Google Scholar. For Presbyterian reaction, and its intellectual lineages, see Holmes, Andrew R., ‘Presbyterians and science in the north of Ireland before 1874’, BJHS (2008) 41, pp. 541565Google Scholar. On the response among the Roman Catholic hierarchy in Ireland see O'Leary, Don, Roman Catholicism and Modern Science: A History, New York: Continuum, 2006, pp. 3139Google Scholar. For commentary beyond Ireland see Lightman, Bernard, ‘Scientists as materialists in the periodical press: Tyndall's Belfast address’, in Cantor, Geoffrey and Shuttleworth, Sally (eds.), Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004, pp. 199237CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 Belfast Morning News, 20 August 1874.

70 Ulster Examiner, 15 August 1874.

71 ‘The “Belfast Guide” and the Roman Catholics’, Belfast News-Letter, 26 August 1874.

72 Ulster Examiner, 20 August, 1874.

73 See note 80 below.

74 It was not in the interests of those wishing to support Belfast's town council and leading civic institutions to openly criticize the president of the British Association.

75 Belfast Morning News, 20 August 1874.

76 Belfast Morning News, 21 August 1874.

77 It was widely acknowledged that the association, through discussions in the economic section, had played a part in resolving the dispute.

78 Ulster Examiner, 21 August 1874.

79 Ulster Examiner, 24 August 1874.

80 Barton, Ruth, ‘John Tyndall, pantheist: a rereading of the Belfast Address’, Osiris (1987) 3, pp. 111134Google Scholar, has argued that Tyndall's metaphysics is best described as a form of ‘lower pantheism’. We are interested here, however, in how Tyndall was interpreted by Catholic commentators.

81 Ulster Examiner, 27 August 1874.

82 See, for example, ‘Belfast Presbytery’, Belfast News-Letter, 3 September 1874. See also Watts, Robert, ‘On the hypothesis that animals are automata’, in Problems of Faith, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1875, pp. 57133Google Scholar.

83 Ulster Examiner, 27 August 1874.

84 Ulster Examiner, 29 August 1874.

85 Ulster Examiner, 16 September 1874.

86 Ulster Examiner, 8 December 1874.

87 On the pastoral address see O'Leary, op. cit. (5), pp. 28–32.

88 Cuming is listed among the founding directors of the Catholic Institute. See Magee, Jack, Bernard Hughes of Belfast, 1808–1878, Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation, 2001, pp. 131 ffGoogle Scholar.

89 Although he was enrolled at St Malachy's, Harkin took the anatomy and physiology exams at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. See Quarterly Journal of Education (1835) 10, p. 200. For further details of his training and career see British Medical Journal, 18 March 1882, p. 407.

90 Magee, Jack, ‘Anatomy of a Belfast surgeon: Sir Peter Reilly O'Connell (1860–1927)’, Breifne (2005) 41, pp. 2058Google Scholar.

91 Using the 1901 Census of Ireland, available online at, it is possible to identify the denominational affiliations of the club's members.

92 Ulster Examiner, 2 July 1874.

93 Twenty-Ninth Report of the Science and Art Department of the Committee of Council on Education, HC 1882, (3271), XXVI, p. 192. More needs to be done to determine the level of science teaching in Catholic schools and seminaries during the nineteenth century.

94 Royal Commission on University Education in Ireland. Appendix to Third Report, HC 1902, (1229), XXXII, p. 91.

95 We have not considered Catholic participation in Queen's College Belfast here in any detail largely because of our concern with science and civic culture outside the confines of state-adminstered institutions and because of our desire to look beyond national-level debates about education. On Queen's College Belfast and science see Adelman, op. cit. (4).

96 Royal Commission, Appendix, pp. 96–98.

97 ‘Our invisible friends and foes’, Belfast News-Letter, 22 January 1890.

98 ‘Great Unionist demonstration’, Belfast News-Letter, 29 January 1890. On the anti-Home Rule politics of leading Irish scientists in this and a later period see Jones, Greta, ‘Scientists against Home Rule’, in Boyce, D. George and O'Day, Alan (eds.), Defenders of the Union, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 188208.Google Scholar

99 Belfast Morning News, 29 January 1890.

100 Belfast Morning News, 30 January 1890. It was, in fact, Thomas Henry Huxley who had referred to his Protestant detractors ‘pigmies’.

101 Northern Whig, 2 January 1890.

102 See Livingstone, op. cit. (68), pp. 403–405.

103 For one interesting example, see Ciaran Toal, ‘Protestants, Catholics and masonic conspiracies: the British Association in Montreal’, Isis, forthcoming.