Inspired by the absurd "Ireland's Greatest" list (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, nationalist and extremist people whose influence on Irish history has probably been negative. The top spot went to John Hume, which is fine, but the others in the top 5 were a dodgy gunman and communist (James Connolly), another dodgy gunman (Michael Collins) and two people of very limited long-term importance (Mary Robinson and Bono).
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 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.
Don't take the exact positions as gospel. After the top few, it was hard to put an order on the rest. I did my best, but could happily agree with other orderings. The real divide is between those on the list and those not on it.
|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.|
|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.|
|The Duke of Wellington||War, Politics||Defeated Napoleon. Saved Britain's flawed democracy. Also passed Catholic Emancipation, a major step forward in British democracy.|
|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.|
|George Boole||Mathematics||Boolean logic, fundamental to computer science.|
|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.|
|William Rowan Hamilton||Science||Hamiltonian mechanics in physics. Quaternions in mathematics.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.|
|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.)|
|Marquess of Lansdowne||War, Politics||As Prime Minister he ended Britain's war with America in 1783. Enabled American Independence.|
|Brendan Bracken||War, Politics||Winston Churchill's Minister of Information in WW2. Helped defeat Nazi Germany and Axis Japan.|
|John Henry Patterson||War, Politics||"Godfather" of the Israel Defense Forces.|
|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.)|
|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.|
|George Stokes||Science||Navier-Stokes equations in fluid dynamics. Stokes' theorem in mathematical physics.|
|John Bell||Science||Bell's Theorem in quantum physics.|
|Ernest Walton||Science||Split the atom.|
|George Johnstone Stoney||Science||Named the electron.|
|Jocelyn Bell Burnell||Astronomy||Discovered pulsars.|
|John Joly||Science||Estimating the age of the earth.|
|John Toland||Philosophy||Pioneer freethinker. Author of Christianity not Mysterious (1696).|
|Richard Cantillon||Economics||Author of one of the first works of economics c.1730. Has been described as the father of modern economics.|
|Johannes Scotus Eriugena||Philosophy||Part of the Carolingian Renaissance and the re-discovery of classical thought in 9th century Europe.|
|Robert Wood||Archaeology||Discovered the ancient ruins of Palmyra and Baalbek. Huge influence on architecture.|
|Sir John Bernard Burke||Genealogy||Editor of Burke's Peerage and related works. Probably the most important genealogist ever.|
|John Boyd Dunlop||Technology||The leading inventor of the pneumatic tyre.|
|Robert Halpin||Technology||Laid trans-Atlantic telegraph cable and other submarine telegraph cables worldwide. Helped wire the world.|
|John Philip Holland||Technology||A leading inventor of the submarine.|
|Fr. Nicholas Callan||Science||Induction coil.|
|Kathleen Lonsdale||Science||Properties of benzene.|
|John Tyndall||Science||Physics. The greenhouse effect.|
|Samuel Madden||Science fiction||Wrote one of the first science fiction works in 1733, imagining life in the 20th century.|
|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.|
|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.|
|John Hume||Politics||No.1||Same message as O'Connell and Parnell and Martin Luther King. In a democracy, struggle for civil rights peacefully, not using violence.|
|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.|
|Francis Hutcheson||Philosophy||Father of the Scottish Enlightenment.|
|Francis Beaufort||Science||Creator of the Beaufort scale for measuring wind force.|
|Maude Delap||Science||Life cycle of jellyfish.|
|Ernest Shackleton||Exploration||Exploration of Antarctica.|
|Tom Crean||Exploration||Exploration of Antarctica.|
|Robert O'Hara Burke||Exploration||Exploration of centre of Australia.|
The Duke of Wellington.