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The greatest Irish person ever

by Mark Humphrys

Inspired by the absurd "Ireland's Greatest" list (Oct 2010), I thought I would list my own greatest Irish people in history.

It is hard to express how stupid the "Ireland's Greatest" list is. It includes pop stars, actors, sports stars and other celebrities of the moment. Stephen Gately (a pop star), Phil Lynott (a pop star) and Adi Roche (the head of a small charity) are in the top 10 greatest people in Irish history!

The list includes many parochial, radical nationalist and extremist people whose influence on Irish history has probably been negative. The top 5 includes two more irrelevant people (Mary Robinson and Bono), a dodgy gunman and communist (James Connolly), and another dodgy gunman (Michael Collins).

The list included no scientists. In fact, it included no people who made factual intellectual contributions at all - no scientists, no mathematicians, no astronomers, no explorers, no philosophers, no historians. Irish history consists of a lot of violent nationalists and B-list celebrities according to this list. What a dumb lot it makes us out to be, compared with the soaring intellectual contributions made by those on the British list.

This page is my attempt to say that the Irish are not as stupid as "Ireland's Greatest" makes us out to be. Ireland too was part of the Western Enlightenment.

Edmund Burke.
From NPG.

My List

Here's my list of the greatest Irish people ever. I've tried to pick people who thought or achieved something universal - something good and important for all of humanity, not just for Ireland.

Rank Name Field Rank in "Ireland's Greatest" Why on my list
No. 1 greatest Irish person ever. Edmund Burke Politics   Warned that revolutions must lead to something better, not worse, than the old order they destroy. A point as relevant to Hamas and Al Qaeda as it was to communism in the 20th century. If only every revolutionary considered Burke's point, even for 5 minutes.
2. Robert Boyle Science   The father of chemistry. One of the founders of experimental science. Also a pioneer of the idea that diseases may have natural causes.
3. The Duke of Wellington War, Politics   Defeated Napoleon. Saved Britain's flawed democracy. Also passed Catholic Emancipation, a major step forward in British democracy.
4. Daniel O'Connell Politics Top 40.
Not in top 10.
His message was universal. All people, of all religions and all classes, have the right to be free and should have the right to vote and stand. Boring democracy, achieved peacefully, should be the goal of all humans. Violence should not be used against a democracy or flawed democracy.
5. George Boole Mathematics   Boolean logic, fundamental to computer science.
6. Samuel Beckett Literature   The most universal of Ireland's writers. His writing on the human condition without God will still be relevant in a thousand years.
7. William Rowan Hamilton Science   Hamiltonian mechanics in physics. Quaternions in mathematics.
8. William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin Science   Laws of thermodynamics in physics. The concept of absolute zero. The Kelvin unit of measurement is after him. Also helped develop transatlantic telegraph cable, the first major step in wiring the world.
9. Archbishop James Ussher Religion, History   Despite how silly 4004 BC looks now, the concept of trying to date the events in the Bible was a breakthrough, and led to sceptical and empirical analysis of the Bible, and ultimately deism and atheism.
10. Jonathan Swift Literature   Pioneer of western satire, irony, political humour, and the secret weapon that led to the West taking over the world - western self-criticism.
11. Lord Castlereagh War, Politics   Held together the European coalition that defeated Napoleon. Helped establish new European order in 1815, which enabled a century of relative peace from 1815 to 1914. Long-time supporter of Catholic Emancipation. (Though will never be forgiven in Ireland for Act of Union and suppression of 1798 rebellion.)
12. Marquess of Lansdowne War, Politics   As Prime Minister he ended Britain's war with America in 1783. Enabled American Independence.
13. Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener War   Defeated the Mahdist Islamist army of Sudan at the Battle of Omdurman. (I find the Boer War and the First World War far more morally ambiguous.)
14. Brendan Bracken War, Politics   Winston Churchill's Minister of Information in WW2. Helped defeat Nazi Germany and Axis Japan.
15. William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse Astronomy   Discovered many galaxies, including the first spiral galaxies. Discovered the spiral nature of the Whirlpool Galaxy and the Sunflower Galaxy and the Pinwheel Galaxy. Named the Crab Nebula.
16. George Stokes Science   Navier–Stokes equations in fluid dynamics. Stokes' theorem in mathematical physics.
17. John Bell Science   Bell's Theorem in quantum physics.
18. Ernest Walton Science   Split the atom.
19. George Johnstone Stoney Science   Named the electron.
20. Jocelyn Bell Burnell Astronomy   Discovered pulsars.
21. John Joly Science   Estimating the age of the earth.
22. Johannes Scotus Eriugena Philosophy   Part of the Carolingian Renaissance and the re-discovery of classical thought in 9th century Europe.
23. Sir John Bernard Burke Genealogy   Editor of Burke's Peerage and related works. Probably the most important genealogist ever.
24. Samuel Madden Science fiction   Wrote one of the first science fiction works in 1733, imagining life in the 20th century.
25. W.T. Cosgrave Politics   I disqualify the 1916-23 revolutionaries on the grounds that violence against a democracy is no model for the world. I disqualify most Irish nationalists because their issues are too parochial. But maybe W.T. Cosgrave has a more universal message for the world - that violent revolution can lead to boring parliamentary democracy. It doesn't have to lead to tyranny (though perhaps normally it does). W.T. Cosgrave is a model for the world of what to do after a revolution.
26. Charles Stewart Parnell Politics Top 40.
Not in top 10.
Same universal message as Daniel O'Connell. The end of the feudal land system, and the rights of the poor to progress too. A model of peaceful change within a flawed democracy. All people with grievances against democracies and flawed democracies should follow the example of O'Connell and Parnell.
27. Bishop Berkeley Philosophy   The relationship of objects to perceptions. Even if his ideas are flawed, the debate is still relevant today, in fields such as Cognitive Science and Artificial Intelligence.
28. Francis Hutcheson Philosophy   Father of the Scottish Enlightenment.
29. Francis Beaufort Science   Creator of the Beaufort scale for measuring wind force.
30. Robert Halpin Technology   Laid trans-Atlantic telegraph cable and other submarine telegraph cables worldwide. Helped wire the world.
31. John Philip Holland Technology   A leading inventor of the submarine.
32. Ernest Shackleton Exploration   Exploration of Antarctica.
33. Tom Crean Exploration   Exploration of Antarctica.
34. Robert O'Hara Burke Exploration   Exploration of centre of Australia.

Robert Boyle.
From here.

The Duke of Wellington.
From NPG.

Daniel O'Connell.
From LOC.

George Boole.
From here.


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