What is Life? Celebrating Erwin Schrödinger and the science collections in the Library of Trinity College Dublin

In 1943, Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961), Nobel-prize winning physicist and Director of Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), delivered three public lectures entitled What is Life? at Trinity College Dublin as the DIAS statutory lecture. The lectures were published as a book in 1944 and had an immediate and powerful impact on the development of molecular biology including inspiring the discovery of DNA.

To mark the anniversary, and to coincide with the major international conference ‘What is Life?’ Schrӧdinger at 75 – the Future of Biology, Archivist Estelle Gittins has collaborated with Professor Luke O’Neill, one of the conference organisers, to curate an exhibition now on show in the Old Library of Trinity College Dublin. The exhibition, and accompanying online exhibition, showcase some of the Library’s most significant scientific and mathematical collections.

At the outbreak of World War II, Schrӧdinger was invited to Dublin by President Éamon de Valera to become Director of the School of Theoretical Physics at Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, where he stayed until 1956. The exhibition examines what attracted him to Dublin; one of the reasons was the chance to walk in the footsteps of one of his heroes, Ireland’s most renowned scientist Sir William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865).

Hamilton made numerous advances in maths and science reflected in the vast collection of his papers held in the Library, but he is most famous for developing Quaternions, the mathematical notation for representing orientations and rotations of objects in three dimensions. Quaternions are essential for calculating orbital rotation in space flight; they are routinely employed by NASA, and are also relied upon by the computer gaming industry. The exhibition includes the tiny notebook containing Hamilton’s first scribbled recording of the Quaternion equation made as he walked by the Royal Canal at Broome Bridge in Dublin. The display also includes poetry and sketches that provide a glimpse of the private man as well as the genius. Schrödinger has been described as the scientific heir to Hamilton and made use of the Hamiltonian operator in his wave equation.

Whilst in Dublin, the sociable Schrödinger joined a circle of intellectuals sheltering in neutral Ireland including Irish physicists Shelia Power and Kathleen Lonsdale who had returned from Edinburgh and London respectively. The exhibition includes the papers of some of those friends and colleagues, including a first edition of What is life? inscribed by Schrödinger for his close friend and Trinity College Provost Albert McConnell (1903-1993). Schrödinger also spent time with fellow Nobel-prize winner, Ernest Walton (1903-1995). Walton, a Trinity graduate and lecturer, is most famous, (along with John Cockcroft), for the splitting of the atom in 1932, which constituted the physical demonstration of Einstein’s law E=mc. On display is Walton’s first communication of the breakthrough, an understated letter to his fiancée Freda Wilson confiding, ‘Cockcroft and I made what is in all probability a very important discovery in the lab … It opens up a whole new field of work which may go a long way towards elucidating the structure of the nucleus of the atom’. This is displayed alongside Walton’s Nobel medal. Ernest Walton very generously donated his scientific and personal papers to the Library in 1993.

The exhibition also looks at the important academic and cultural legacy of the What is life? lecture series including the 40th anniversary commemorations where an older Professor Walton met a younger Professor Hawking. There is also a selection of the literary and artistic works inspired by the notion of ‘Schrödinger as a Dubliner’ such as the musical Improbable Frequency produced by the Rough Magic Theatre Company, whose own archives were donated to the Library in 2017.

The conference Schrödinger at 75: the future of Biology will be streamed live on the website https://www.tcd.ie/biosciences/whatislife/

The exhibition What is Life? Celebrating Erwin Schrödinger and the science collections in the Library of Trinity College Dublin will be on display in the Long Room of the Old Library until 31 October and the online version can be accessed here http://www.tcd.ie/library/exhibitions/what-is-life/

Estelle Gittins

With thanks to Prof Luke O’Neill, Prof David Wilkins, Dr Jane Maxwell, Aisling Lockhart, Gillian Whelan, Greg Sheaf and Clodagh Neligan

Davitt Down Under

Michael Davitt, who was born in 1846 and died in 1906, was a radical Irish nationalist, social reformer and champion of the Irish diaspora of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Davitt’s papers are held in the Manuscripts’ Department of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. The photographs within the collection are in the process of being catalogued and digitised.

In 1895, Michael Davitt departed Dublin for a tour of Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii and the United States. 

Mining shacks in Tipperary Flat, Queensland, 1895

One of the aims of the tour was to re-connect with the Irish communities in Australia after Charles Stewart Parnell’s adulterous relationship with Kitty O’Shea became public knowledge and caused major damage to the Irish Parliamentary Party’s (IPP) reputation internationally.

Irish-Australians had been major financial contributors to Irish famine relief, the IPP and the Land League throughout the nineteenth century. Their support was essential for continuing the campaign towards Irish Home Rule in Westminster. Other reasons for the tour were personal; including Davitt’s need to make money for his family by lecturing in Australia and New Zealand.

MS 9477/4425 Telegraph from Mary to Michael Davitt, 1895

During Davitt’s journey to Australia, disaster struck his family in Ireland, when his six-year-old daughter Kathleen died suddenly from the flu. However, Davitt’s wife pressed him to continue his ‘mission’, in a telegram he received from Mary in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Following his wife’s advice, Davitt continued on his voyage to Australia. 

Following his tour of Australia and New Zealand, Davitt published Life and Progress in Australasia in 1897. His book focuses on the gold rush in Western Australia and particularly on the town of Coolgardie.

MS 9649/348 Crowd of men at a sale of mining lots in Coolgardie, 1895

 

Davitt describes Coolgardie as ‘full of the gold-seeking fever’, with miners from vastly different backgrounds. In his diary for Western Australia MS 9565 he lists these as ‘any number of men with University training, pressmen, politicians, barristers, lawyers…all here on same gold hunting purpose’. The independence of the miners from the Australian authorities is illustrated by his photographs of a fire on Bailey Street in Coolgardie, which he reports in his diary was caused by the burning of an effigy of the Mayor of the town. 

MS 9649/373 Group of Aboriginal Australians under a tree near Great Boulder, Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, 1895

 

 

Davitt includes an interview with Catholic bishop Matthew Gibney in his book. Gibney discusses the mistreatment of Aborigines, the privatisation of Aboriginal land and hunting grounds in Western Australia. In Life and Progress Davitt declares that ‘the white man’s law justifies him in stealing the black man’s country, his wife, and daughters whenever he wants them; but to take a sheep from this moral professor of the ten commandments is to earn the penalty of a bullet!’

Davitt, as a radical politician and writer from a famine emigrant, working class background, was an important figure to the Irish diaspora in Australia. Davitt’s family were part of the million people who emigrated from Ireland to England, the United States and Australia to escape starvation after the failure of the potato crop during the Irish Great Famine. His importance to the Irish diaspora is evident throughout the Davitt photographic collection as large welcoming committees were organised to from MS 9649/32 below, where Davitt is welcomed at the train station in Maryborough, Victoria, Australia.

Reception Committee for Davitt during his lecture tour of Australia
in Maryborough, Victoria, 1895

The online catalogue has now been updated and can be viewed here.

Dáire Rooney

Launch of first major Irish exhibition on Oscar Wilde ‘From Decadence to Despair’

The opening of the first major Irish exhibition on Oscar Wilde was marked by a public interview with actor and writer Rupert Everett on Thursday October 12, 2017 in Trinity College Dublin. The highly personal exhibition in Trinity’s Long Room, featuring letters, photographs, theatre programmes, books and memorabilia, maps out the Anglo-Irish playwright’s meteoric rise to fame and also his dramatic fall from grace.

Pictured at the launch actor Rupert Everett, curator Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin and Senator David Norris

Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress and glittering conversation, Oscar Wilde is one of the best known Irish personalities of the 19th century and was one of the great writers of the Victorian era. Besides literary accomplishments, Wilde became a figure of some notoriety for his lifestyle and involvement in the ‘art for art’s sake’ aesthetic movement as well as the circumstances of his imprisonment and early death.

Now Trinity College Dublin is celebrating one of its most famous alumni with an exhibition entitled ‘From Decadence to Despair’ in Trinity’s Long Room and an accompanying online exhibition. The exhibition opening takes place four days before Oscar Wilde’s birthday on October 16th. To mark the occasion a public interview with actor, writer and long-time Oscar Wilde fan Rupert Everett was conducted by Carlo Gébler, Adjunct Professor in Creative Writing at Trinity’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Irish Writing this evening in the Robert Emmet Theatre, Arts Building, Trinity at 6.30pm.

The 30 items in the ‘From Decadence to Despair’ exhibition are drawn from the Library’s  Oscar Wilde Collection, which is the only Wilde archive held in a public institution in Ireland. It is unique in its focus on the playwright’s downfall and exile years. The collection was acquired by Trinity in 2011 from Julia Rosenthal, a rare book dealer and life-long collector of Wildeana based in London.

Commenting on the significance of the exhibition Librarian and College Archivist, Helen Shenton said: “The Oscar Wilde Collection held here at the Library of Trinity College Dublin comprises items of great symbolic significance for Wilde’s biography. All the great Wilde biographers have made extensive use of the archive.  Now, with these new exhibitions, we are delighted to be able to bring this important collection to national and international audiences.”

Curator of the exhibition and Assistant Librarian at Trinity, Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin added: “Oscar Wilde’s life and work continues to captivate academics and the general public. Through this exhibition we hope to celebrate the extraordinary legacy of Oscar Wilde and to shed further light on his remarkable journey from his student days in Trinity right through to his downfall and the sad circumstances in which he found himself during those final years in exile.”

Photographs of the funeral of Thomas Ashe by Elsie Mahaffy

TCD MS 2074 f182r

Funerals of patriots have often proved to be pivotal moments in Irish history. The funeral of Thomas Ashe (1885-1917) is a particularly poignant case. In life he was a popular and cultured school teacher, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers  and leader of the 1916 Rising in Ashbourne, Co Meath. In death he came to epitomise the struggle and suffering of his generation for Ireland’s cause. He died aged 32 on 25 September 1917 in the Mater Hospital after incarceration in Mountjoy Prison, a hunger strike and botched force feeding. The tragic brutality of his death, coming after the protracted executions of the other 1916 leaders the year before, resulted in an upsurge of support for the republican movement.

TCD MS 2074 f182r

TCD MS 2074 f182r

The funeral on 30 September 1917 therefore presented an opportunity for a pageant of political propaganda along the lines of the funerals of O’Donovan Rossa and Parnell. It also provided a significant challenge for the Volunteers and other republican forces who had lost men and arms and were struggling for cohesive leadership. However, the opportunity was defiantly seized and a large funeral procession to Glasnevin cemetery was planned involving various republican forces along with the Dublin Fire Brigade and around 30,000 members of the public who had travelled from across Ireland to line the streets. City Hall was also seized from British forces for the lying in state. The graveside oration was delivered by the young Michael Collins who, after a volley of shots, took inspiration from Pearse’s oration at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa  and proclaimed ‘Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make above the grave of a dead Fenian’. A statement of intent for the years to follow.

One unlikely observer from the side-lines was Elsie Mahaffy, the daughter of Trinity College provost John Pentland Mahaffy, who kept a careful record of the 1916 Rising and aftermath, in a scrapbook which includes diary entries, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, photographs, postcards and other collected memorabilia.

TCD MS 2074 f179r

Whilst holding firmly to her unionist point of view (describing his death as ‘suicide’, and the procession as being ‘attended by thousands of armed rebels’) Elsie was clearly mesmerised by the press coverage of Ashe’s death and funeral. The type and amount of material she collected on the funeral in particular displays an awareness of this as a key event in the evolution of contemporary Irish politics. The most remarkable items are three photographs of the cortege and procession, which indicate that Elsie was sufficiently fascinated to join the crowds herself and to take the images as the procession passed her. We would welcome any further information on the location or participants in any of these photos.

The scrapbook also includes newspaper clippings detailing the funeral arrangements and order of procession, as well as numerous  clippings from after the event. In addition Mahaffy has also pasted in a memorial card and a copy of ‘Let me carry your cross for Ireland, Lord’ the poem written by Ashe in Lewes jail. She devotes a number of pages to a description of the circumstances of his death, the government reaction, his lying in state in City Hall, and the ‘huge funeral’.

TCD MS 2074 f179a

Whilst captivated by the tragic story and unfolding public reaction, we cannot know if this had any effect on her politics. However, she may have held the same view as General Sir Bryan Mahon, then head of British forces in Ireland, who commented that republican forces were now ‘exhibiting discipline to a degree which is perhaps the most dangerous sign of the times.’

A fuller account of Elsie Mahaffy’s scrapbook, written by Lucy McDiarmid, can be found on the Library’s 1916 digital resource ‘Changed Utterly’. The scrapbook has been digitised in its entirety and is available on the Library’s Digital Collections site.

Estelle Gittins

 

Frank Stephens – a life in photographs

TCD MS 10842/1/13 ‘Cottage. Aran Is/ Fish drying on roof/ September 1935’.
[Location on Inis Mór, Oileáin Árann]. Surplus fish were cleaned in fresh water, salted and then left on walls or thatched roofs to dry. The fish had to be retrieved every night, and also if there was a shower of rain, in order to dry them properly for storing.

Frank Stephens (1884-1948) was born in prosperous middle-class Orwell Park, Rathgar, Dublin, eldest son to solicitor Henry (Harry) Francis Colcough Stephens and his wife Annie Isabella Synge, sister of the playwright John Millington Synge. Both the Stephens and Synge families lived side by side until shortly before J M Synge’s death in 1909, a proximity that had a profound effect on Frank’s life and interests. From the age of six Frank was being tutored by his famous Uncle John on a range of subjects, among them natural history, archaeology, folklore and music. It was in the last decade of the nineteenth century that the development of small hand-held cameras changed the nature of photography making it more accessible and affordable but also allowing photographers to move away from posed compositions to more candid and natural images. J M Synge and his nephew, Frank Stephens, embraced this new portable technology as a means of recording the people and places they loved in an intimate and uncontrived way.

Frank spent his working life in education, teaching history and Irish, but he also found time to lecture on local history, antiquities and European history for the County Dublin Libraries Committee and various local history societies, deploying his 2000+ lantern slide collection to illustrate his talks. These slides are now being cleaned and rehoused by Trinity College Library conservator Clodagh Neligan prior to digitization.

Frank was one of the photographers who volunteered for the Irish Folklore Commission in 1939 recording the historic landscape of Poulaphouca in Co Wicklow and its farming community before the area was flooded to create a reservoir to supply water to Dublin city. His talents as a photographer were uniquely suited to such a project as he had a keen eye for the intrinsic beauty and honesty of simple things. His photographs celebrate the seemingly mundane aspects of everyday life: the homespun clothes of the Aran islanders, street traders selling their wares in Dublin, a woman and her spinning wheel in Co Wicklow, or a cottage interior in the west of Ireland.

An exhibition Frank Stephens – a life in photographs, co-curated by Felicity O’ Mahony (M&ARL) and Gillian Whelan (DRIS), will be on view in the Long Room, September 2017