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Mathematics and the Making of Modern Ireland: Trinity College Dublin from Cromwell to the Celtic Tiger

David Attis
Docent Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Robert W. Hayden
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Readers may well feel that mathematics in Ireland, particularly at Trinity College Dublin, is rather a specialized topic. In fact, we can regard this as a case study in the broader topic, the relationship between mathematics and the world outside of mathematics. It illustrates principles that apply to many other places and times. While there is little mathematics to be found here, we do learn much about the role mathematics has played in human society, in this case in a society that went through many changes in the time period covered.

Many MAA members will have taught a course in mathematics and society. Such courses often cover mathematics in the arts or in practical applications. There is little art to be found here, and applications play only a supporting role. The principal connections are to religion, politics, and philosophy. Part of the interest is in seeing another place and time where mathematics was considered highly relevant to philosophy and religion. They say travel is broadening, and that is so for travel by land or by literature, as well as travel through time.

The story here is very long and very complicated, but just to give an idea of the distance from our own time and place, an example might be in order. In one of the periods discussed, higher education was one of the means by which Anglican England subdued Catholic Ireland. Trinity then was closed to Catholics, which largely meant higher education was closed to Catholics. In a somewhat circular chain of reasoning, the educated class then used education as a sign of its superiority, and hence its right to rule its “inferiors.” As for the role of mathematics, it was central to education at Trinity not because it was useful, but because it was considered the best training in analytical thinking.

This is but the tip of the iceberg, and this book touches on many issues still alive today in one form or another, and still others that help us understand how we got to today. The author has done a tremendous amount of research and provides a 54-page bibliography. He exhibits a wealth of surprising interconnections between different parts of his tale. For example, the Jameson family of Irish whiskey fame supported Marconi’s work on wireless communication. Alas, the author was not as successful in pruning and organizing the results of his research, and the book rambles badly in places — sometimes to the point that one loses the main thread. Still, the type of analysis offered here is both valuable and rare, and this is as good a place to get it as you will find. Recommended for reading over a long break.

After a few years in industry, Robert W. Hayden ( taught mathematics at colleges and universities for 32 years and statistics for 20 years. In 2005 he retired from full-time classroom work. He now teaches statistics online at and does summer workshops for high school teachers of Advanced Placement Statistics. He contributed the chapter on evaluating introductory statistics textbooks to the MAA's Teaching Statistics.

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