Fabulous Fossils

A small disused sandstone quarry near Ballyhale is world famous for its giant fossil ferns and primitive plants. When the fossils were discovered 150 years ago, nothing like them had been seen before and scientists came from abroad to visit this important site.

About 350,000,000 years ago, Kiltorcan was a green oasis in a sandy yellow desert. Enormous tree ferns grew around the shallow lake, also club mosses and horsetails. In the slow swampy streams, lived one of the first freshwater mussels, alongside primitive fish and crustaceans. There were no true trees then, no grass or flowers, no land animals are not much oxygen in the atmosphere. We know all this because that desert became a yellow sandstone, and the Oasis a green siltstone end, petrified within its layers, are the remains of the plants and animals that lived there. It is a perfect snapshot of what life was like then. James Flanagan (d. 1858) discovered the site in 1851 when he was mopping Kilkenny for the Geological Survey of Ireland. The fossils include a giant fern (Archaeopteris Hibernia), which grew to 20 meters tall; a mussel (Archanadon); primitive fish; and the earliest seed-bearing plant in this part of the world, Cyclostigma kiltorcense, which is named after the area. Flanagan returned in 1858 looking for more specimens, but suddenly took ill and died while staying in Ballyhale. Irish museums with samples of Kiltorcan fossils include Rothe House in Kilkenny, the Ulster Museum in Belfast and TCD’s Geology Museum.

A Philosopher of Vision

One of the great scientific philosophers of the 18th century, George Berkeley (1685-1753), was born at Castle Dysert near Thomastown. Berkeley’s most important contribution was on the nature of perception and existence and he influenced philosophers such as Kant, Locke and Descartes. He also engaged in a celebrated argument about Newton’s calculus and dividing by zero. Berkeley study divinity at TCD where, in an early experiment, he persuaded a friend to hang him until he was nearly senseless. In 1709, he published A New Theory of Vision that won him international praise. He left for England and the continent in 1713, returning for a while in 1724 as the Dean of Derry, and, in 1734, as Anglican Bishop of Cloyne in Cork.

Berkeley found the philosophical school of Immaterialism. The mind was for him the ultimate reality and he viewed even intangible ideas as part of the real world. He saw time as succession of ideas in a person’s mind, and his great principal was esse est percipi (‘to be is to be perceived’) put another way: things that cannot be perceived cannot exist. Berkeley believed his theories proved the existence of God, but his ideas were often controversial.

A debate raged between his Immaterialists and the opposing Materialists, who believed that anything that exists, including ideas, must have some physical basis or cause. Berkeley, criticised by some as illogical, fought back in A Discourse Addressed to an Infidel Mathematician (1734), arguing that Newton’s new calculus was also illogical: Newton’s technique involved dividing by infinitesimal amounts, but Berkeley argued that, since infinitesimals could not be perceived, they could not exist.

In the 1720s, despairing of the Old World’s decadence, Berkeley hopes for a new golden age in the Americas. He campaigned for a university there to educate colonist and native alike, and the government promised him £20,000. He moved his family to Rhode Island, but the money never arrived and, in 1731, they returned. Three years later, Berkeley move to Cloyne, where for 20 years he proved a charitable bishop, donating rent from the demense to help the poor. His last book, Sirirs (1744), advocates are drinking tar water – which he had seen used in America – as a panacea, and especially to treat dysentery. He died at Oxford and 1753.

The ‘Aerial Chariot’

The history of aviation is littered with the ruins of fanciful flying machines. One such was the ‘aerial chariot’ invented in 1856 by Kilkenny man Godwin Swifte (Viscount Carlingford and a descendent of Dean Jonathan Smith). He built his machine inside his home at Swifte’s Heath, just outside Kilkenny city. When finished, a hole had to be knocked in the dining room wall to let it out. Shaped like a boat on wheels, it had large wings and a screw propeller. Swifte persuaded the butler to pilot the machine its maiden voyage but, when the chariot was launched from the top of the house, it came heavily to earth. The butler apparently escaped with some broken bones. The patent for Swifte’s machine, and the remains of the rudder and a wheel, can be seen at the Rothe House Museum. The first successful Irish aeronaut was a balloonist, Richard Crosby, in 1785. In 1909, Harry Ferguson (of tractor fame) achieved the first successful powered flight in Ireland with his home-made plane. Rothe House also has artefacts relating to the local coal mines and culm bomb making.

Content with thanks to Mary Mulvihill from her book Ingenious Ireland; A county-by-count exploration of Irish mysteries and marvels