The philosopher’s Dublin

Gerald Flynn guides us on an alternative tour of Ireland’s capital city

Trinity College, Dublin

Trinity College, Dublin

While common or garden tourists may flock to music bars and ‘instant Irish Pubs’ in the Temple Bar district, any philosophical tour of Dublin must start within the walls of Trinity College in the heart of the city.

Start in the Front Square of the university off College Green. Near the elegant square of 17th and 18th century buildings is the Library Building, which attracts thousands of visitors keen to pay to see the 9th century Book of Kells illuminated manuscript and the impressive Long Room of the Old Library.

The ‘College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity’, to give its full, original title, was founded on the dissolved Augustinian Priory of All Hallows in 1592. It was granted its charter by Elizabeth I, initially catering for 200 students, and remains the only constituent college of the University of Dublin, though none of the original 16th century buildings remain.

Those who like idealism, of the immaterialist variety, may search out the ghost of George Berkeley. The famous bishop has puzzled many an undergraduate with his thesis that ‘things’ only exist as mental images and perceptions. Esse is percipi!

Berkeley came to Trinity as a bright teenager with abilities in mathematics and a good memory for perceptions and experiences. In his early 20s he developed his theories of vision and made a name for himself by finding some holes in John Locke’s “ideas of a triangle” in the Englishman’s recently publish work on human understanding.

As you look at the large trees on the well-manicured lawns you might recall the limerick teasing Berkeley’s ideas:

There was a young man who said ,‘God,
I find it exceedingly odd
That this tree I see
Should continue to be
When there is no one about in the Quad.’

Of course we all know that when Berkeley went for a nap, god was continuing to perceive the tree and keeping it in some form of existence. The current trees near the college’s famous campanile are not old enough for the good bishop to have seen them but, no doubt, god is still doing his or her best to keep them going.

This is the ground where Berkeley’s duo of Philonous (Berkeley) and Hylas (Locke) conducted the three dialogues “taking a turn in the garden” which he published in 1713, six years after he was elected a fellow of the college.

Now we turn our backs on academe and return to College Green, heading through the large wooden front doors and passing two statues as we leave Trinity: on our left is Oliver Goldsmith and on the right (appropriately) is Edmund Burke – both Trinity graduates.

Goldsmith, while now mainly known for his poems and plays, wrote the first memoir of Berkeley; he also crossed swords with Burke, who produced one of the earliest philosophical works on aesthetics in 1756 with his Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and the Sublime.

To your right are the imposing, rotund exterior and colonnade pillars of the former Irish House of Parliament, built in 1733, and the seat of the Irish houses of commons and of lords until the 1800 Act of Union. It is now a commercial bank but you can usually go in to see the best rooms. The previous house of parliament had met in Chichester House, on this same site, from 1661.

During the reign of William III and Mary, the Irish parliament took a dim view of the real bold-boy of Irish philosophy, John Toland. A bright young Donegal student, Toland is sometimes labelled the founder of ‘pantheism’ as he apparently coined the term. The members of parliament (confined to adherents of the official Church of Ireland) and their religious allies were scandalised when he published his Christianity not Mysterious, developing Spinoza’s thoughts to a more atheistic plane.

In 1697 the Parliament ordered the public hangman to burn his book and the idea seemed to be to hang Toland as well, if they could find him. But to quote the 1960s Dublin writer and pub philosopher, Brendan Behan: “If they’re going to sentence me in absentia they can bloody well execute me in absentia as well!”

Head along Dame Street, surrounded by tourists, towards Dublin Castle and Christchurch Cathedral. While visiting the cathedral and historical display of the city, the philosophical visitor may prefer a smaller, nearby Church of Ireland church called St Audeon’s. (This being Ireland, where 17th century religious rivalries are of recent memory, it should not be confused with the larger Roman Catholic St Audeon’s beside it.)

It is the only surviving medieval church in the city, and still used for weekly services. Entry is free and includes a good exhibition of its history. In the small churchyard there is a plaque to William Molyneux and his wife, who were buried there. The somewhat weathered white tablet on the north wall commemorates Molyneux, noting that he was a scientist “whom Locke was proud to call his friend”. Interested in optics, he was the originator of the eponymous ‘Molyneux problem’.

Briefly, this questions whether a person blind from birth, who could distinguish a cube from a sphere by touch, and then had her sight restored would be able to immediately distinguish both objects by sight alone. Molyneux, Locke (Human Understanding 2,9,8) and Berkeley (New Theory of Vision, 1709) all thought that she could. 20th century medical experiences suggest they were wrong.

On James’s Street we find the famous Guinness Brewery and its Storehouse visitor attraction. This combines a museum of the development of the heavy black beer popular with serious drinkers, a quality souvenir shop, and a rooftop bar with panoramic views of the city.

The entry price includes a token for a free pint of ‘the black stuff’. As you idle away some time over the pint it may be appropriate to take out a paperback edition of one of Ireland’s oddest authors – Flann O’Brien , alias Myles na gCopaleen, (real name Brian O’Nolan) – who brings metaphysics to a new comic level. A garrulous, quarrelsome ‘martyr to the drink’, he became a posthumous literary success since his death in 1966.

Or else you could (given it is not raining) enjoy a view of the city so accurately described from 16th June 1904 by James Joyce as Leopold Bloom made his Homeric peregrination of its faded grandeur in Ulysses. Joyce was well familiar with the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas to which he had been introduced by his Jesuit teachers and he was still reading Aristotle when he left his native city on his first trip to Paris.

As the tourists head back to the city-centre we divert to our left up James’s Street and cross the new tram lines heading for St Patrick’s Hospital. This was founded in 1745 as a humanitarian lunatic asylum from a bequest by Jonathan Swift, dean of the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral, and it continues to operate as a psychiatric hospital today.

Swift, best known for his Gulliver’s Travels, also wrote about political economy and philosophical issues. He had been a member of the board of governors of the infamous Bethlem (Bedlam) psychiatric asylum in London and wanted to establish a better hospital in Dublin “for the reception of aged lunaticks and other diseased persons”.

In February 1938 one of the hospital’s more memorable visitors was the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. He came, not as a patient, but as a curious onlooker who, at that time, was considering taking up medicine and was interested in psychiatric disorders. His former pupil and good friend from Cambridge, the genial Maurice Drury, had earlier returned to Dublin and was completing his medical studies, having been urged by Wittgenstein to become a medical doctor rather than a clergyman.

There is a good case that Wittgenstein might have been better suited as a patient rather than a psychiatrist in the hospital. In early 1948 Wittgenstein returned to Ireland and spent the summer months at Drury’s holiday cottage in Connemara on the west coast. The local farmers thought that he was as mad as a hatter and even stopped him walking on their land because they thought he would frighten their sheep.

Continue downhill along Steevens’ Lane towards the imposing Heuston rail station and cross the river Liffey at King’s Bridge before taking a right turn to face the Ashling Hotel. This was where Wittgenstein stayed through the winter of 1948/9 when it was called Ross’s Hotel, and a plaque near the entrance records his sojourn.

It was here that he completed parts of what later became his Philosophical Investigations; his pupil and admirer, Elizabeth Anscombe visited him there to discuss his thoughts on revising his notes. He often visited the nearby Zoological Gardens in the expansive Phoenix Park which, if the weather holds, is well worth a stroll.

Otherwise take the Luas tram from the nearby National Museum back into the city centre at O’Connell Street. The number 13 or 19 bus will take you three kilometres north to Glasnevin and the Botanical Gardens where admission is free. The restored large Palm House is a great example of Victorian iron and glass engineering. It was here that Wittgenstein, in failing health, used to come for the warmth and tranquillity. Another plaque noting this is on one of the steps where he often sat and read.

After walking the Botanical Gardens with its many squirrels, it is time to return to the city centre and become a typical, non-philosophical tourist sipping pints and seeking reasonable prices in what are relatively expensive restaurants.

Should a cat cross your path on your journey beware that it may actually be a descendent of one of Erwin Schrodinger’s pets. The Austrian physicist, who developed the famous ‘cat in a box’ thought experiment, lived in Dublin from 1940 where he helped establish the city’s Institute of Advanced Studies. He was head of its theoretical physics research school for 17 years during which he became an Irish citizen.

Gerald Flynn is a Dublin journalist who is reading Mental and Moral Science at Trinity College.

  1. Good read – makes me want to go back there and see how it’s changed. On thought though – Edmund Burke – I thought he went to Trinity – deserves s mention doesn’t he? Sublime and the Beautiful, Natural Society, Reflections on the Revolution in France, etc.

  2. Fascinating stuff. Is there any evidence that Wittgenstein met Schrodinger? Schrodinger was also Austrian and interested in philosophy, especially in his later years.

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