The Royal College of Science for Ireland

In the early years of the nineteenth century, scientific research and teaching in Ireland were conducted in a variety of institutions. These included scientific societies such as the Royal Dublin Society (RDS), Royal Irish Academy, Royal Cork Institution and the Belfast Natural History Society, the medical schools and Ireland’s only university at the time, the University of Dublin. Public lectures on scientific subjects were given throughout Ireland by the leading scientists of the day, reflecting and stimulating a growing popular interest in science within the country. This interest was encouraged by regular exhibitions of Irish industry, organised by the RDS from 1834, and especially the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853, organised by the society at its headquarters on Leinster Lawn and visited by over a million people.

Irish scientists such as Robert Kane (1809-1890), who saw science and industrial education as the best way to improve the economy of Ireland and the living standards of its people, encouraged this popular interest. Kane was director of the Museum of Irish Industry in Dublin and its associated Government School of Science (opened in 1854), intended to provide education in applied science ‘such as chemistry applied to the arts, or metallurgy or geology applied to mining, or any other department of science applied to the arts’. Kane ensured that, at the Museum, ‘the rivalries of creeds and parties [would] find no admission’, and from the beginning women attended the courses on offer there and competed in examinations and for prizes on the same footing as men.

In 1867 the Museum of Irish Industry became the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScI) at 51 St Stephen’s Green. The new college was more formal and academic than its predecessor but the Museum’s approach to science education, linking classroom and laboratory teaching, continued in the new college. Kane was appointed as dean, with a staff consisting of professors of physics, chemistry, applied chemistry, geology, applied mathematics, botany, zoology, agriculture, engineering and mining and metallurgy. The professors of the college were eminent in their respective fields of science and, despite their heavy teaching loads and the limited facilities in the building, continued their scientific writing and research at the college. They contributed to scientific initiatives in Ireland, and many of them travelled widely in pursuit of scientific knowledge.

The qualification offered at the college, an Associateship of the Royal College of Science for Ireland (ARCScI), was awarded on completion of three years of study to successful students. Although the number of students who completed this qualification was disappointingly small, the option of taking one or more courses as occasional students proved far more popular. As in the Museum of Irish Industry, courses were open to all, and women students attended the college from the beginning. By the 1880s about one sixth of the students were women.

The twentieth century brought changes to the Ireland in which the college professors researched and taught. The political and cultural environment changed rapidly with the development of a new style of Irish nationalism. In 1900 responsibility for the college was transferred from London to a new Irish department, the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction (DATI), headed by Sir Horace Plunkett with a mission to promote economic and technical development. The curriculum was revised, new subjects were introduced, fellowships were established and a new building was approved. Student numbers increased, but not to the extent anticipated, possibly due to the establishment of the National University of Ireland in 1908 with University College Dublin as a constituent college.

Above: Robert John Kane (1809–1890)

Above: Great Industrial Exhibition, Leinster Lawn, Dublin, 1853