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A Brief History of the Society - I

by James O'Connor

Written to commemorate the 60th anniversary

The largest rivers can have their origins in a tiny stream or an even more obscure source. So it was with our Society -- even though the analogy with a large river may not be entirely appropriate. It began with spasmodic letters to the Evening Mail, a Dublin evening paper which owed much of its popularity to its small advertisements and a whole page of letters to the editor. From time to time letters would appear asking questions such as "There is a very bright star in the west -- what is it?", "Are there any planets around now?", "Is the Earth round or flat?", etc. Usually a nom de plume was used even in replies but one man, Joseph MacDermott, always signed his full name with his address when he answered any letters and he soon became the Evening Mail expert on astronomy. The frequency of the letters prompted him to write in October, 1937, suggesting that an Astronomical Society be formed. Following is the text of his letter published on the 1st October 1937:

"Sir -- Earlier this year the ever interesting Evening Mail published a letter describing the efforts of a few enthusiasts to form an Amateur Astronomical Society. A number of interested persons replied, requesting fuller particulars, which, at the time, were posted to them. The summer obliged us to temporarily cease our efforts. We are now trying to reform our Society on a firmer basis. We propose to cultivate the study of the stars in a manner suited to "the man in the street", by the means of fortnightly meetings, plainly worded lantern lectures, and discussions. If feasible, the wonders of the heavens could be seen through a good telescope. The valuable Evening Mail has recently published letters on "The Age of the Earth" and "The Antquity of Man". The writers would possibly find in the membership of the proposed "Astronomical Society" a field for discussion and information, since geology is the younger sister of the oldest and noblest science, Astronomy. We invite everyone interested in the formation of a popular Dublin Astronomical Society, to a preliminary meeting at the Red Bank, D'Olier Street, front room, third floor, on Tuesday, October 5 at 8 p.m.

J. MacDermott. Late Associate Member British Astronomical Association (West Scotland Branch), Member Junior Astronomical Assoc. of England."

About 12 people attended the meeting at the Red Bank Restaurant on the appointed evening and after a discussion they put into being the Irish Astronomical Society. Mr MacDermott was appointed Honorary Lecturer. For a short time all went well. A room was rented at 5 South Lenister Street of 2/6d (15c) per meeting and the annual subscription was fixed at the same sum. At each meeting Mr MacDermott gave a talk on elementary astronomy and there was a break for tea and cakes. A plate was passed around for contributions, usually 6d (3c) towards the tea expenses. However, trouble arose when Mr MacDermott demanded a fee of 1 guinea per lecture -- a large sum in those days. This created a real problem for the infant Society but, as Mr MacDermott seemed to be the only person available with a good knowledge of astronomy, they did their best to keep him. A fee of ten shillings (63c) was offered but he rejected this and resigned from the Society. Thus, by a strange irony, the person whose initiative led to the formation of the Society was the first to leave it.

It looked then that the Society could not survive. But from the ranks of the Society arose a young man who, though rather reticent about his knowledge and ability, volunteered to try his hand at elementary lectures. His first efforts were well recieved; he made a marked impression and soon outshone his predecessor. He was Uinsionn S. Deiseach who continued to give lectures to the Society for a very long time and died just a few years ago at an advanced age. Mr Deiseach's first lecture was given on the 13th December 1937. His subject was "The Constellations". Mondays had even then become established as the regular meeting night.

Other persons prominent during these early years were Lorcan O hUiginn (Secretary up to 1944), Veronica Burns (Secretary for a short time until she was forced to resign due to a transfer to London), M.A. Magennis (Secretary 1944 to 1950), H.A. Haughton (Chairman up to 1950), Muiris Mac Ionnraic (who succeeded Mr Haughton as Chairman in 1950) and Mrs M. Jones (who was ViceChairman during the 1940's). Two of those mentioned, Mr Haughton and Mr Magennis, are commemorated in the medallion worn by the President at Society meetings.

Also prominent were two members who for a time shared the same office at the Electricity Supply Board and, by the same token, often shared the same yacht in trips up and down the Irish Sea. Both "William's" or "Bill's" they were William Farquharson and Willam R. Mackle. They were the first members of the Society to complete telescope mirrors sucessfully. They did this under the guidance and encouragement of the Secretary Mr Magennis, who did not, however, attempt a mirror himself. Bill Farquharson suceeded Mr Magennis as Secretary and held the post until his untimely death in 1959. Mr Mackle remained prominent in the Society for many years and is still a member.

The years of the Second World War (1939 - 1945) were difficult ones for the Society. The meeting room at the time was a 3 Burgh Quay over the former "Fun Palace", the rent being ten shillings (50p) per week. In 1942 Mr Deiseach got a severe bout of illness which prevented him from lecturing and as a result, attendances at meetings waned. Public transport was at a low ebb. If a meeting lasted beyond 9:15 it meant walking home because the last bus was at 9:30. Private motorised transport was non-existant due to wartime restrictions.

Still, as with most things, there were compensations. The black-outs of city lights brought a new awareness of the stars and the involvement of so many city persons in field manoeuvres and week-end camps had a similar effect. Some of the army training on direction finding may also have been helped by introducing a knowledge of the constellations and some of the bright stars. In a lecture given to the Society in 1968, Mr Mackle gave a graphic account of being out in a yacht in Dublin Bay one night during that period with Bill Farquharson. It was, he said, an amazing sight. There was an almost complete blackout of lighting due to the fear of air raids, despite the country's neutral status. Even the lighthouses were dimmed to a flicker. The night was clear and the stars shone bright in the black sky. So it seems, everything must be bought at a price! The benefits of modern living have been obtained, for city-dwellers, at least, at the cost of being unable any more the to view the glory of the night sky.

Twenty years ago, when writing for Orbit on the occasion of our 40th anniversary, I referred to some entries in the Society's first minute book (1937 - 1952). In view of the Society's large turnover of membership since that time, it may not be inappropriate to refer to some of these again.

First A.G.M.: the first A.G.M. was held in the (old) Jury's hotel, on Dame Street on 21st March 1938. The accounts presented there at (covering the period November 2nd to December 31st) showed a total income of 7 14s and 2d, made up of subscriptions 6 13s 0d and collections at meetings 1s 2d. Expenses were "Books and Circulars" -- 16s 1d; "Teas" -- 4s 3d;"Room and Attendence" -- 1 14s 6d; Total 2 14s 10d. The balance at hand was 4 19s 4d. An addendum to the accounts gives the information that "this sum to credit has been further increased by a net profit of 5 from the Society's first whist drive, held in the Metropole, Dublin on March 4th."

Access to Dunsink: Access to Dunsink in some form was a preoccupation of the new Society. At that time the Observatory was still attached to Trinty College but was virtually derelict. As early as 29th November 1937, the Secretary, Lorcan O hUiginn, was instructed to write to Trinity College asking for permission to visit the Observatory. On Feburary 5th 1940, Mr F J O' Connor, lecturer in astronomy in Trinity College, was quoted as telling the Chairman and Secretary when they visited him that "the instruments at Dunsink had been dismantled", "the library still at Dunsink was too technical for our use", and "astronomical lectures are available only to T.C.D. students". He added that "he knew of no persons interested in astronomy except Mr Lindsay, Armagh". There are occasional further references to Dunsink during the following years. On March 20th 1944, Mr Deiseach said that he believed that plans for its re-opening were far advanced. On November 25th 1944 members visited the Observatory during the daytime but "were unable to do any observational work".

Momentum for the re-opening of Dunsink continued to increase and it appears the prime mover was Dr Eric M. Lindsay, Director of Armagh Observatory. In September 1945, the Society wrote to the then Taoiseach, Eamon de Valera, who had a great personal interest in astronomy (especially the mathematical side), asking that the Society be afforded special facilities at the Observatory. From the reply it was noted "as evident that the purchase of Dunsink will be negotiated when the Institute for Advanced Studies form a School for Cosmic Physics". On the 1th September 1945, there is a cryptic note that "Dr Bruck takes over Dunsink Observatory on 1st October 1947". (This was ten years to the day from the publication of Mr MacDermott's letter in the Evening Mail.) Dr Bruck attended the Society's A.G.M. of the following year (held on 16th Feburary 1948) to give the following report on the progress towards re-opening:

"The reconstruction is slow because of the shortage of skilled labour. He still hoped that the 12" 'South' refractor would be ready by the end of the month. It was decided to have a Tower Telescope for Solar work. The old Ramsden Meridian Circle is being dismantled ... We hope to have the finest Solar spectrograph in Europe and also a spectrohelioscope."

The minutes of the early 1940's contain references to give due honour to the memory of William Rowan Hamilton, a former Director of Dunsink Observatory and the discoverer of quaternions, an important generalisation of the number concept. The centenary of the discovery was in 1943 and the Committee's wish was fulfilled when the centenary was commemorated nationally. Hamilton's head appeared on the 1/2d stamp for that year and this stamp was in all probability used for the the posting of the Society's bulletin, the predecessor of Orbit which began to be sent out the previous year. A reproduction of the Hamilton stamp may be found on page 138 of the March 1962 issue of Sky and Telescope.

Quaternions are a form of calculus relating to manipulations of the "imaginary" number (square root of -1). Persons interested in discovering a little more about their nature cannot do better than refer to p.86ff of the late Professor Patrick Wayman's book "Dunsink Observatory, 1785 - 1985".