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New Hibernia Review 10.3 (2006) 24-42

Phrenology in Nineteenth-Century Ireland
Enda Leaney
National University of Ireland, Galway

As the discipline of the history of science in Ireland has evolved, scholars have become increasingly concerned with the role science played in civic society. One consequence of this new concern has been an historiographical movement away from histories of elite scientific institutions and the biographies of eminent Irish men and women of science, and toward more thematic discussions of how the Irish public engaged with science on an educational, cultural, and recreational level. 1 The nineteenth century has proven to be an especially attractive ground for such investigations. It was an era when a public culture of science was created in many European countries, as scientists demanded a greater role in educational, economic, and social issues. 2 Ireland was no different; by the mid-nineteenth century, science was fully integrated into the cultural life of Irish polite society. 3 Recently, there has been a greater appreciation of the polymathic tenor of culture in Victorian Ireland, which has recognized the importance [End Page 24] of scientific knowledge—or at least, an affectation toward it—as a cultural signifier of sophistication and modernity. 4 The cult of science was fetishized by such extravagant public celebrations of science as the British Association for the Advancement of Science's (BAAS) visits to Cork, Dublin, and Belfast and the Dublin International Exhibition of 1853. 5

The creation of a public culture of science was predicated on a number of conditions. Two of the most important were the creation of venues for scientific audiences, and the simultaneous creation of a corps of scientific lecturers and demonstrators to entertain them. The rapid expansion of literary and scientific societies throughout rural and urban Ireland in the early decades of the century, which in turn attracted itinerant lecturers from the elite metropolitan scientific societies of Britain and Ireland, helped to fulfil these conditions. 6 Periodicals dedicated to the diffusion of useful knowledge included the Dublin Penny Journal, the Belfast Monthly Magazine, the Dublin Literary Journal and Select Family Advertiser, and the Kilrush Magazine and Monthly Journal of Literature and Useful Information, and expanded the audience for science beyond the restricted constituencies of the specialist societies. 7 By the mid-nineteenth century, scientific lectures, exhibitions, and conversaziones were commonplace throughout rural Ireland. 8

However, most scholarly examinations of the social and cultural role of science in Irish civic society has been restricted to the orthodox sciences. Irish scholars have neglected such marginal sciences as phrenology and mesmerism. Though such pursuits would necessarily be omitted from normative or celebratory [End Page 25] accounts of the history of science or medicine, it remains a fact—well noted by British historians of science—that phrenology was much more than a nineteenth-century parlor entertainment practiced by charlatans and embraced by dilettantes. Phrenology was undoubtedly the most popular science in nineteenth-century Britain. As such, it was a significant medium for popularizing naturalistic accounts of both nature and society. Phrenology had widespread appeal across a road spectrum of British society, from gutter-press radicals to the "chattering classes" of St. John's Wood. 9

As the organization of science in nineteenth-century Ireland largely mirrored British trends, it is unsurprising that phrenology would find advocates in Ireland. Examining the role of phrenology in Irish society is therefore especially useful in helping us delineate the creation of a public culture of science in Irish civic society—for the crucial reason that phrenology was deemed an unorthodox pursuit. The arbiters of scientific orthodoxy in Ireland, such as Trinity College Dublin, the Royal Dublin Society, and, after 1853, the department of science and art, dismissed the legitimacy of phrenology and thereby ensured that it remained a marginal pursuit. Denied a forum in the most powerful and respectable arenas for the public dissemination of scientific culture in Ireland, phrenology was taken up by a private, scientific subculture.

Without the patronage of the scientific establishment, phrenology relied upon the public energies of private citizens to expand...


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