Science, politics and society in early nineteenth-century Ireland

The Reverend William Richardson

‘I love controversy’ claimed the Reverend William Richardson (1740-1820). Though a rural Irish rector, Richardson was a clerical polymath with wide-ranging interests in botany and geology who had international connections at the highest level. This book explores all the dimensions of Richardson’s extraordinary scientific career and assesses his interventions in Irish loyalist politics at the time of the 1798 rebellion. He was a prolific writer who contributed to the debate on the origin of basalt at the Giant’s Causeway, refuting claims that it was volcanic. His main project, however, was agricultural improvement. He argued that the adoption of, Irish fiorin grass, a plant which flourished on bog-land, would help reclaim wastelands throughout Britain and enable farmers to make hay in wintertime. Though considered mad for attempting to overturn the conventional wisdom of ‘making hay while the sun shines’ Richardson was supported by leading British scientists like Sir Humphry Davy and Sir Joseph Banks. In truth he sits at the intersection between provincial and metropolitan science and his overall historical importance, like his career, is diverse. His scientific empiricism meant that he offered an alternative voice to that of the loyalist propagandist, Sir Richard Musgrave. Even more significantly, in the aftermath of legislative union, Richardson recommended Irish agriculture to remedy Britain’s economic predicament during the ‘war of resources’ phase of the Napoleonic wars.

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