Opinion: the Royal College of Science may have been evicted by the government in 1922, but the spirit of this progressive institution still lives on
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the closure of the Royal College of Science for Ireland. a progressive experiment in state-funded technical education that came to an abrupt end in the messy wake of Irish independence. The college opened its doors in St Stephen's Green, Dublin, on November 4th, 1867, offering students from Ireland and abroad advanced courses in physics, chemistry, mining, engineering, and other sciences.
Its establishment came after a long campaign for a higher scientific institution in Ireland led by the eminent chemist and educationalist, Sir Robert Kane. He was convinced that Ireland - even after the catastrophe of the Famine - was ripe for industrial development and resource extraction. In 1866, his lobbying helped persuade the British government to fund a scientific institution that would train generations of science teachers. Unfortunately, the college’s development was affected by the support given to it by government’s Science and Art Department based in South Kensington.
Because it was seen as a part of a centralised British science policy, the college staff had to work hard to sell the message of higher scientific education to the small section of the Irish middle class that could afford third-level education at the time. The difficulty of that sell is reflected in the low numbers of enrolments the college received for many years (total student numbers remained less than 100 until 1887), and by the fact that many of the people who did register to do its three-year diploma were English and Scottish scholarship students. This earned sneers from Irish nationalists, who wondered how science education was supposed to spread in Ireland if the locals did not enrol.
Yet there are many reasons to celebrate the college’s establishment. It was innovative in offering practical courses and laboratory experience in the physical sciences at a time when this was not a common feature of more established universities elsewhere in the British Isles. Its students were encouraged to participate in the industrial life of the city, and courses included visits to local manufacturers, gasworks and factories.
The college was also notably progressive in its hiring, giving opportunities to young and upwardly mobile professors to develop their reputations and advance their disciplines. Ramsay Traquair, for example, was 27 years old when he became professor of zoology in 1867; he left in 1873 to become the first keeper of Natural History at the Museum of Science and Art in Edinburgh. Another progressive element of the college was that it was open to women, many of whom went on to gain degrees from the Royal University of Ireland and the Royal College of Surgeons.
A new era for the college began in 1899, when the Dublin-based Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction took over the Irish institutions that had previously been run from South Kensington. It was reorganised along a polytechnic model, with agricultural and industrial service to the department itself prioritised.
Yet this reorganisation merely exacerbated long-term problems regarding space and facilities. It was a great relief to staff and students when, in the same year, a parliamentary committee recommended the construction of new buildings for both the college and the department on nearby Upper Merrion Street.
This magnificent complex, designed by renowned architect Sir Aston Webb (who also designed the facade of Buckingham Palace) and fitted with elevators and electricity, was officially opened by King George V in 1911. It was the last major public works investment of the British government in Ireland before independence.
Despite the fact that the college was at last beginning to thrive, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that its new home played a role in its sudden demise. During the First World War, the engineering workshops were manned night and day for the construction of war munitions, while other parts of the premises were used as medical supply depots. After the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in late 1921, the college found itself in the administrative nerve centre of the new Irish Free State regime since its buildings backed on to Leinster House.
In October 1922 – in the midst of the Civil war – the college buildings were officially closed, and parts of them were taken over by the provisional government for use as offices. This action was taken following military intelligence of a Republican bomb plot, allegedly confirmed by the discovery of a device. However, a staff-member claimed that this "was simply an aeroplane dynamo for demonstration purposes" and it is likely that ministers simply wanted to clear the buildings for their own use.
Staff and students were scattered to other locations, losing access to their laboratories and workshops. They doubted the military reasoning behind the closure and feared that it was a permanent eviction. British Pathé footage at the time shows over a hundred well-dressed and jovial men and women protesting in Dublin, flicking cigarette butts at each other and holding up signs reading: "We want Merrion St" and "We must get back to the College of Science".
A lobbying effort was launched to save the college. An article in Nature argued that its loss would be a "national calamity" for the new state. One commentator pointed to the "spirit of harmony" that always existed in a student body where northerner and southerner, Home Ruler and Unionist, co-mingled freely.
Despite this, the Free State's minister for education, Eoin MacNeill, was only too glad to use the political situation to establish his alma mater, University College Dublin, as the new nation’s pre-eminent scientific institution. The University Education Act of 1926 amalgamated the college with UCD, allowing its former premises on Upper Merrion Street to become Government Buildings, which houses several departments of the Irish government to this day.
Although 1922 marked a democratic revolution in Ireland, it is hard to avoid a sense of intellectual shrinkage in the decades after the closure of the Royal College of Science. The Royal Dublin Society was stripped of its scientific activities and began to concentrate on agricultural shows, while education policy was directed by a conservative-minded leadership with little regard for the long-term benefits of research and development.
Higher education in the sciences gradually recovered in Ireland later in the 20th century. Today, national and European funding streams support cutting-edge research, while students can avail of the Free Fees Initiative and take science subjects at third level in every corner of the island. The Royal College of Science may have been evicted by the government in 1922, but the spirit of this progressive and experimental institution still lives on in laboratories, lecture halls, and classrooms throughout the nation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ