The Royal Irish Academy

Founded in 1785

The Royal Irish Academy was founded in May 1785 and in January of the following year the Academy was incorporated by Royal Charter by King George III. Its aim was:-
... to promote study in the sciences, humanities and social sciences in Ireland.
The first President of the Society was James Caulfeild, Earl of Charlemont. F S L Lyons writes:-
The Academy has remained at the centre of serious study of Irish civilisation ever since 1785, for although all sorts of more or less ephemeral societies sprung up with similar objectives, none of them competed with the Academy, which laid down standards of scholarship ... attracting continental as well as local scholars of the highest calibre.
In 1787 the Academy began publishing a journal when the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy appeared for the first time. Two years later Timothy Cunningham, who was a barrister of Gray's Inn, left the Academy £1000 with which the Cunningham medal was established. This was to be awarded to outstanding members of the Academy. At this time women could not be members of the Academy, but they could be elected to honorary membership. Mary Somerville was elected to honorary membership in 1834, and Caroline Herschel in 1837.

In 1836 a second publication began when the first volume of the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy appeared. The Proceedings have been published continuously from that date to the present day. In the year following the first publication of the Proceedings, Sir William Rowan Hamilton was elected as President of the Academy. On 16 October 1843 (a Monday) Hamilton was walking along the Royal Canal in Dublin with his wife to preside at a Council meeting of the Royal Irish Academy when the idea for the quaternions suddenly came to him:-
An electric circuit seemed to close, and a spark flashed forth.
He could not resist the impulse to carve the formulae for the quaternions in the stone of Brougham Bridge as he and his wife passed it. A plaque has been placed there to commemorate the place where inspiration struck. For his outstanding contributions, Hamilton was awarded the Academy's Cunningham medal in 1848.

On 5 July 1845, Thomas Davis wrote in The Nation:-
We think the public and the government disgraced by the slight support given to the Academy. We are not a little proud of the honour and strength given to our country by the science of MacCullagh, Hamilton and Lloyd.
At this time the Academy was housed in Navigation House, 114 Grafton Street, Dublin and was in receipt of a government grant of £300 per year. The Academy acquired new premises in 1851 and moved into Academy House at 19 Dawson Street, Dublin in the following year. At this time the premises was around 100 years old, so predates the foundation of the Academy itself.

By 1910 the membership (including honorary members) stood at 302. A few years later, in 1917, the Academy changed its rules to limit the number of new members to seven per year. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, membership of the Academy is roughly the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. After much consideration, women were admitted as members of the Academy from 1949. Among the three women elected in that year was Sheila Tinney, a mathematical physicist. Let us note a further mathematical connection in that in 1946 the Academy established a professorship of Mathematical logic and appointed Jan Lukasiewicz.

Among those who have been elected to honorary membership of the Academy we should mention William Thomson, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrodinger, Enrico Fermi, and Max Born. Current honorary members include Michael Atiyah and Cathleen Morawetz.

Visit the society website.

Last Updated August 2004