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Origins of the Department

Economics has a long lineage at Trinity College. The Chair of Political Economy was established in 1832, making it one of the oldest chairs of political economy in these islands. There had been earlier attempts to introduce economics into the university's curriculum. In 1729 Thomas Prior recommended in A List of Absentees of Ireland (1729) that a chair be established to facilitate the study of trade, trade being used at the time as a synonym for what would later be termed economics. Samuel Madden, in his Memoirs (1733), did likewise. George Berkeley, a graduate of the university, raised a wide variety of economic issues in The Querist (1735-7). Prior, Madden and Berkeley concerned with the problem of Ireland's poverty, were instrumental in the establishment and development of the Dublin Society, later to be called the Royal Dublin Society. The Society was widely praised by the Physiocrats who regarded it as a model for France to follow. Though Edmund Burke indicted economists in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), as part of a group (along with sophisters and calculators) that was extinguishing the glory of Europe, Adam Smith had earlier said of him that in the area of economics Burke was "the only man who, without communication, thought on these topics exactly as he did."

Over one hundred years were to elapse after Prior's earlier recommendation before the Whately Professorship in Political Economy was established. This Chair was funded by the newly appointed Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, the recent holder of the Drummond Professorship of Political Economy at Oxford. Whately believed in the proselytising force, not only of religion, but also of economics, remarking "next to sound religion, sound Political Economy was the most essential to the well-being of society." He also wrote that "perhaps the sort of thing wanted most now for children and the poor, is some plain instructions in Political Economy"!

The Dublin School

Whatever about his motives for establishing the Chair Whately's innovatory measure acted as the catalyst for the development of what has been termed, by Professor R D C Black, the 'Dublin School'. This group comprised the first four holders of the Chair - Mountifort Longfield, Isaac Butt, J A Lawson and W Neilson Hancock, economists included by Schumpeter in the group of "men who wrote above their time". Following on from these the Whately Chair would later be graced by John Elliot Cairnes and Francis Bastable.

The initial regulations governing the Whately Professorship stipulated that its tenure was limited to five years and that the holder would print and present at least one lecture each year. The latter stipulation encouraged the young Whately professors, many of whom would later become lawyers and judges, to publish their lectures. This resulted in the first holder of the Chair, Mountifort Longfield, publishing his Lectures on Political Economy Delivered in Trinity and Michaelmas Terms, 1833 (1834).

In this work, Longfield's exposition of diminishing degrees of intensity of demand laid the foundation stones for marginal utility theory a couple of decades prior to its more formal presentation by Jevons, Menger and Walras. At the time the remarkable element in the 'Dublin School's' approach was their movement away from the labour or cost-of-production theories of value towards a subjective theory of value.

Subsequent Whately Professors

The appointment of John Elliot Cairnes to the Chair in 1856 resulted in the publication of The Character and Logical Method of Political Economy (1857), classified as one of "the best statements of verificationist methodology of the English school." In this book based on his Whately lectures Cairnes, according to R D C Black "stressed the neutrality of economic science, emphasized the value of the deductive method and characterized the subject as a hypothetical science "asserting, not what will take place, but what would or what tends to take place" (The New Palgrave, I, p. 311).

Earlier, in 1852, the remarkable John Kells Ingram was instrumental in having political economy, along with modern history and jurisprudence, shifted into the English literature moderatorship. Ingram, while never teaching economics (he was successively Professor of Oratory, English Literature and Greek), was responsible for one of the first histories of economic thought in English, A History of Political Economy (1888), a work which had a considerable success being translated into many languages. He was one of the leading exponents of the historical method and believed that "the study of the economic phenomena of society ... [should] be systematically combined with that of other aspects of social existence." Among his students was Francis Ysidro Edgeworth who specialised in classics while at Trinity College. In 1873 Ingram's experiment with the English moderatorship was abandoned and a new moderatorship combining political economy with history and political science was established.

The appointment of Charles F Bastable as professor led to a change in the tenure terms associated with the Whately Chair. Bastable contracted for a life tenure and occupied the Chair for the next fifty years. The longevity of his tenure did not prevent Bastable from making some notable contributions to economics in The Theory of International Trade (1887), The Commerce of Nations (1891) and Public Finance (1892). These books were frequently re-edited with Edgeworth classifying The Theory of International Trade as the "best manual on the most difficult part of economics". Continuing in this tradition a more recent holder of the Whately Chair, Professor W J L Ryan, wrote the widely- read Price Theory. This book, first established in 1958, has gone through a number of editions and is still in print. The current holder of the Chair is Professor Philip Richard Lane.

Trinity economists, both holders of the Chair and those educated at the College (notable post-war graduates include R D C Black and Frank Brechling) have made significant contributions to, inter alia, value theory, distribution theory, international trade theory and economic methodology. The tradition, both oral and written, is a strong one. One trusts it will continue into the next millennium.

Further Reading

  • R D C Black, "Trinity College Dublin, and the theory of value, 1832-1863", Economica, 12, 1945.
  • T A Boylan and T P Foley, Political Economy and Colonial Ireland, London, Routledge, 1992.
  • L S Moss, Mountifort Longfield: Ireland's First Professor of Political Economy, Ottawa, Illinois, 1976.
  • A E Murphy (ed), Economists and the Irish Economy, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 1984

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