Blind Lanes, Stables and Circus Clowns — through the Glass Darkly

While in the Thomas Street Area of Dublin recently, I visited the Augustinian Church of John’s Lane to view the beautiful Harry Clarke windows, and gazed at the afternoon light came darkly to light this wonderful narrative in glass. The church is built on the site of the medieval hospital, erected by Aelred the Palmer, a Norman living in Dublin, after a safe home-coming from an arduous pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He founded a monastery of Crossed Friars under the Rule of St. Augustine who would also manage the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem. The monastery was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and stood just outside the city walls, and so was known as St. John’s church without Newgate. It was in this vicinity that the Molyneux family had their Dublin residence.

In 1316 Edward Bruce marched towards Dublin at the head of his army, with the intention of besieging the city. The Dublin citizens, to prevent any danger from his approach, by common consent set fire to Thomas Street, but the flames laid hold of St. John’s church and burned it to the ground, together with all the nearby suburbs.

At the start of the 18th century an Augustinian Prior rented for their use as a chapel a stable on the western side of St. John’s Tower, a surviving fragment of the Hospital. Circa 1740, on the site of part of the Hospital, they erected a small church 60 feet (18.3 m) by 24 feet (7.3 m), which was considerably extended 40 years later. In 1860 they decided to build a new church. Construction on the modern church was commenced at Easter 1862 under the leadership of Fr. Martin Crane, but it took 33 years to complete. One factor was that the foreman and many of the workmen were Fenians, who got into trouble with the authorities in 1865 and afterwards — for this reason the church was nicknamed “The Fenian Church”. Building of the new church was begun when many of the senior citizens of the congregation could still vividly recall the events of 1798 and the trial of Robert Emmet in 1803 and his execution, just up the street. Many of them had lived through the dreadful times of the Great Famine.

Standing in the Sun

Later, across the street, I happened to see a white horse standing in the sun, down Molyneux Lane which runs to the right of and parallel with Vickers Street. The horse is owned by Mark who has four other horses stabled here. On the wall in the stable is a photograph of the former owner (of many years) pictured in the uniform of a Cavalry man, on Duty at Dublin Castle, before Irish Independence — A long continuum of horse lovers in Dublin. Molyneux Lane recalls the famous Molyneux family of Dublin  of whom William and Thomas were most famous. They had considerable property in this area. Given this and the lovely church building of John’s Lane, facing Molyneux Lane, where the blind organist, Dal McNulty played for many years, my mind turned to matters equestrian and to blindness and the associations of these with this part of old Dublin.

In 1815 The Molyneux Asylum for Blind Females (1815-2015) was founded in the house of Sir Thomas Molyneux in Peter Street Dublin. This house had previously been let to the Famous equestrian circus man, Philip Astley, in the grounds of which he conducted his famous theatre — the origins of circus in Ireland.

The Molyneux family had made great contributions to Irish science and letters and their connection with blindness, whether personally or professionally, is unusual, to say the least. Sir William Molyneux (1656-98), patriot and philosopher, was the founder of The Dublin Philosophical Society in 1684 after the model of The Royal Society (London). Its first President was Sir William Petty of The Down Survey of Ireland fame (himself vision-impaired). William Molyneux too was famous for his political treatise ‘The Case of Ireland being bound by Acts of Parliament in England Stated’. He had been incensed by the suppression of the Irish wool trade by the English parliament when he wrote this treatise, published in 1698 and condemned as seditious and burned at Tyburn by the public hangman — it became the text-book of the American Independence pioneers. Like many of the Molyneux family, he was highly interested in optics and in the psychology of sight. He married Lucy, daughter of Sir William Domville in 1678. ‘In November, a few months after their wedding, she took ill when leaving morning service at Christ Church Cathedral. By December she found her eyes were affected and by January 1679 she was blind. On three different occasions William took her to London and other English cities to consult the best eye specialists, but the condition was untreatable’.

William is, perhaps, best known for his ‘Molyneux Problem’ which is still debated by philosophers today. The problem in question (which he addressed [though not initially] to the English philosopher John Locke) is, ‘if a man is born blind and learns to distinguish a sphere and a cube using his sense of touch; and then is granted sight, could he recognize the two shapes using vision?’ The Molyneux problem was first proposed to John Locke by William Molyneux in a letter dated from Dublin. March 2nd 1692/3 (as was the style of dating the early months of the year before the change from the Julian to the Gregorian Calendar in  September, 1752 as a result of the Calendar Act of 1751).

He was writing in answer to Locke’s letter of January 20th. Molyneux had been ill and had not answered immediately on receipt of this letter: “Yours of jan. 20 came to my hands just as I lay down on a bed of sickness, being a severe cholick, that held me nigh fives weeks, and brought me very weak”; He was only now returning to health. His reading matter had been Locke’s Essay concerning  humane understanding (sic). He had parsed this minutely, page by page, and in this long letter addresses  many of the issues raised in the Essay, offering his agreement or proposing a different view to some of them.

The “Molyneux problem” arises in the course of his deliberations in this way, when Molyneux says: “Pag. 96. Sect. 9. you assert, what I conceive is an error in fact, viz. That a man’s eye can distinguish a second of a circle, wherof its self is the centre. Whereas ’tis certain, that few men’s eyes can distinguish less than 30 seconds, and most not under a minute, or 60 seconds, as is manifest from what Mr. Hook lays down in his animadversions on the first part of helvelii machina caelestis”. Having given his view, Molyneux moves on to discuss and caution Locke on a possible misreading of his ideas on The “existence of all things without us (except only for God) is bad for our senses’. Here, Molyneux gives his sense of the meaning and states: “This to me, seems your sense,  yet perhaps every reader  may not so readily conceive it; and therefore, possibly you may think this passage pag. 341. worth your father consideration and addition. I will conclude my tedious lines with a jocose problem, that upon discourse with several concerning your book and Notions I have proposed to divers very ingenious men, and could hardly ever meet with one, that, at first dash, would give me the answer to it, which I think true; till by hearing my reasons they are convinced. ’Tis this:
“Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a spere (suppose) of ivory, nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell when he felt one and t’other, which is the cube, which is the sphere. Suppose then, the cube and the sphere placed on  a table, and the blind man to be made to see; query whether  by his sight, before he touch’d them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube, I answer, not; for tho’ he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch; yet he has not yet attain’d the experience, that what affects my touch, so or so, must affect my sight so or so;  or that a protuberant angle in the cube that press’d his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube. But of this enough: perhaps you may find place in your Essay, wherein you may not think it amiss, to say something of this problem”. … I am,
Worthy Sir,
Will. Molyneux.

This is the earliest philosophical notion in the psychology of sight. It has remained a fundamental question argued over from its inception. We know from Molyneux’s letter that he had put this problem in circulation long before he addressed it to Locke. Locke however, did address this ‘Problem’ in a later edition of the Essay,  in Chapter IX: Of Perception,
8. Sensations often changed by the judgment.
he states: To which purpose I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this”. Here Locke restates the ‘Problem’, and continues “I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt. This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to consider how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, or help from them”.

William’s only surviving son Samuel succeeded to his father’s estates (20 in all, from Kerry to Armagh) except the family seat, Castle Dillon in Armagh. He married Elizabeth Capel, the eldest sister of the 2nd Earl of Essex in 1717 and died on April 13th at the age of 38, leaving no issue. His uncle Thomas, who had been his guardian, inherited the family estates. Thomas (1661-1733) was born on April 14th 1661 in Dublin probably near Ormond Gate, at the end of Cook Street, where it adjoins Bridge Street. He entered Trinity College Dublin at the age of 15 and became a doctor with an M.A. and M.B. in 1683, at the age of 22. Following further study in Britain and Europe he practiced medicine in Chester in 1690 but returned to Dublin in 1692 and was elected a Fellow of the Irish College of Physicians. He was appointed the first State Physician and also Physician General to the Army in Ireland. In 1701 he made an inquiry into the outbreak of virulent ophthalmia, an eye disease, in some of the midland counties of Ireland, particularly in Westmeath.

In this inquiry we learn that ‘a strange affection of the eyes raged in the parish of Castletowndelvin in the county of Westmeath in 1701. From the effect produced and the members who were attacked, together with the time of year at which the attack was most violent, we have little doubt in our minds that it was some virulent inflammatory epidemic, some form of ophthalmia and not improbably that known under the name of Egyptian. Dr. Molyneux proposed a list of queries to John Hill, curate of Castledawson in the County of Westmeath, concerning the extraordinary distemper which took away the sight of many in that parish. This set of questions forms a most important statistical document, as the name of each person is given, their age, sex and the exact effect on the sight, whether total loss of vision in one or both eyes and the whole number who were affected’.7 He was one of the original trustees of Dr. Steeven’s Charitable Hospital in Dublin (where many of the Irish pioneers of ophthalmology — such as Jacob and Wilde began their careers). From 1717-33 he was Professor of Medicine at TCD and became the first Baronet in 1730. He married (perhaps his second marriage) Catherine Howard in 1694, a daughter of Ralph Howard, at that time Regius Professor of ‘Physic’ at Dublin. They had four sons and eight daughters and he died in 1733 at the age of 72.

Sir Thomas erected the mansion which was to become the Molyneux Asylum in Peter Street in 1711. Its modillion cornice and central pediment was a new departure, in architectural style, from the gable-type house common in Dublin at that period. Sir Thomas Molyneux inherited the site of Molyneux House through the Domville connection — he had been living in Peter Street from 1698. The Domville family owned a sizeable plot of land in the Bride Street-Peter Street area and it was Sir William Domville Knt., of ‘Bride’s Street, who opened this (Peter) street from Bride’s-street to Whitefriars’-street soon after the erection of St. Peter’s new Church in Aungier’s-street. The ground through which it runs was part of the Commons of St. Patrick’s (Cathedral) Church, and was leased to him on the 19th of March 1660, by the Dean and Chapter, for the term of 60 years’. The Domville family still owned many houses in Peter Street up to July 1874, when ‘the estate in fee-simple of the Domville family (Peter-street and environs) came to be sold in the Landed Estates Court’. The tenants’ interest in portions of this property, numbers 24, 25 and 26 Peter Street, which was held on lease for ever under the Domville family, subject to an annual head-rent of £15, had been acquired in 1858 for the erection of the Adelaide Hospital (which had first been established at 43 Bride Street in 1839).

On the death of Sir Thomas in 1733 the house was left to his widow Catherine. It later passed to his second son Sir Capel Molyneux who moved to Merrion Square in 1778. He leased the Peter Street mansion to William Lane and later portion of it to Philip Astley the equestrian. Astley, a native of Newcastle-under-Lyme, had left his trade of cabinet-maker and enlisted as a dragoon, serving under General Elliott at the battles of Emsdorff and Friedburgh. He rose to the rank of sergeant-major. On his discharge he opened an equestrain exhibition at Lambeth, London. He subsequently travelled all over England and finally opened a wooden theatre, with roofed seats and an open ring, at Westminster. This was gradually improved and enlarged and in 1781 it was thrown open for evening performances. Two years later he obtained a licence from the London authorities and named his theatre The Royal Grove. He took his company of performers on tour throughout England and, encouraged by the reception, crossed over to Ireland and opened his amphitheatre in the rear gardens of Molyneux House. Letters Patent were granted by the Privy Council on March 8th 1788, authorising the performance of “the several feats and entertainments of horsemanship, musical pieces, dancing, tumbling, and pantomime of what nature or sort whatever”. Thus giving rise to the tradition of circus in Ireland and elsewhere in Great Britain. Astley also performed  in a theatre beside the School for the Indigent Blind, St. Georges Fields London — The Royal Surrey Theatre.

Astley’s Dublin amphitheatre was opened on January 13th 1789. The entrance to the pit and gallery was from Bride Street. The affluent patrons entered their boxes by way of the main house which he also used as his residence. Astley was described as ‘a man of violent temper,  peremptory of speech and rude of manner’ but he appears to have pleased the Dublin populace. It is likely that the Irish Reel Peter Street, still played today by traditional musicians, came with Astley from Northhumbria where it was known as  The ‘Blanchland Races’ — its playing in Ireland originated at this venue. In January, 1794, ‘a Dublin Journal, referring to the expiration of Astley’s patent says: “Places of this kind tend to the refinement of morals of the lower classes of mankind, and are not less necessary to the instruction of the younger branches of families, the chiefest object of our care. As Harlequinade in Ireland is so great a favourite with the town, it is with no small degree of regret that we announce its last appearance”.

With business badly effected by the post Act of Union slump in Dublin, in 1805 the Peter Street establishment fell into the hands of Charles and Thomas Dibdin, who had been connected with Astley for some time in Dublin and in London (at the Surrey Theatre (1816), the successor to the Royal Circus built by Charles Dibdin at the cost of £15,000; this was an amphitheatre near the Obelisk in Blackfriars Road, which opened in 1782. It was here that the equestrian drama, made famous by Philip Astley, actually started). In 1809 Astley left for London, selling out for £6,000 to a Scot, Henry Erskine Johnstone. This Scottish ‘Roscius’, a famous actor, obtained possession of the house ‘heretofore occupied by Sir Capel Molyneux, with the theatre, and all other buildings and improvements, and with all such machinery, scenery, wardrobe, and all other implements and substances”.  Johnstone opened it as the Royal Hibernian Theatre in November of that year. He fell into debt and absconded in 1812 with judgements against him for the debts. The information in this blog is from My forthcoming: History of Blindness in Irish Society.

Captions for the pictures below:

  1. Mark’s horse standing in the sun in Molyneux Lane, and
  2. The beautiful Harry Clarke window in the Augustinian church, Thomas Street.

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