American University system still honours
Who would you nominate as Kilkenny's greatest person? St
Canice? DJ Carey? Most school children will not have heard
of George Berkeley.
There is no plaque or a street name bearing his name in
the city of his birth and yet there is an international
society devoted to remembering him and studying his thoughts.
He is studied today in every philosophy department in every
university throughout the world.
A major conference about him will be held this year in Texas.
He is considered to be founding father of the American education
system. A university and town in America are called after
him. He is regarded as one of the giants of western thought.
This year is the 250th anniversary of his death.
Berkeley was born at Kilcreene near Kilkenny on the 12th
March 1685, although Dysart near Thomastown is also given
as his birth place.
At the age of eleven he enrolled in Kilkenny College. In
1700 at fifteen he entered Trinity College Dublin, and graduated
four years later with a B.A. degree.
He became a Fellow of the College in 1707, and was ordained
as a priest of the Protestant Church in 1710.
In 1724 he was appointed Dean of Derry, and became Bishop
of Cloyne Co. Cork ten years later. He served faithfully
in that position for eighteen years, refusing an offer of
the more prestigious Bishopric of Clogher, and retired in
He settled at Oxford with is wife and family, and died suddenly
on 14th January, 1753.
George Berkeley was a brilliant 18th century philosopher,
who shook the world with his theory of immaterialism.
This theory claims that everything around us in ultimately
immaterial - it is generated wholly by consciousness.
Stated bluntly and out of context, this sounds absurd, but
when its subtleties are correctly understand, it makes prefect
sense. It is also fully consistent with modern science.
Relativity theory and quantum physics have dissolved the
inert, material furniture of the world that John Locke and
Sir Isaac Newton held to be fundamental reality in the 17th
and 18th centuries.
Berkeley, in his penetrating insights, reached an understanding
of the world as observer dependent - a conclusion that modern
physics in only beginning to understand fully.
Westward the course of empire takes its way.
Berkeley wrote these words and inspired Americans both as
British colonists and later as citizens of a new nation.
He had a vision of the new world as offering the opportunity
to make a new start and that education would be the key.
He persuaded King George and the British parliment to grant
him a charter to establish a university in the new world.
In 1728 he sailed with his wife to America in the hope of
founding a university in Bermuda and converting the Indians.
He never reached Bermuda Instead, he settled in Newport,
Rhode Island,one of the few places in New England that was
hospitable to Anglicans.
There, his lively mind and sympathetic spirit of involved
him in a great variety of interest, though he stayed only
thirty three months.
In spite of his disappointment over the failure of the promised
funding for his university project , Berkeley never flagged
in his concern for the spiritual and intellectual life of
the new world.
He contributed generously to Harvard and when returning
to Ireland left his house and ninety six acres of farm to
The American university system has never forgotten his initiative
and his patronage and continue to honour him to this day.Returning
form America, Berkeley spent the next eighteen years as
Bishop of Cloyne in Co. Cork.
Here he saw Irelands economic woes at first hand and
did something about it. He built a spinning mill and gave
local employment. He wrote a book on the Irish economic
problem. Written in a question and answer style it challenged
the way Ireland was being managed.
He argued in favour of a national Irish bank ( none came
until 1783) and for more favourable treatment of Irelands
exports such as wool, flax and hemp. He argued that work
not land or money was the cure to Irelands ills.
In challenging our perception of our world, of ourselves,
of time and of space, Berkeleys ideas have a modern
and lasting relevance.
His ideas are worth studying especially in an age when our
perception of reality becomes more and more based on transmitted
images and sounds rather than a first experience of our
In this the year of his anniversary the city of his birth
is challenged to remember and honour one of its greatest
* John Hogan is Freedom of Information Co-ordinator with
the South Eastern Health Board, and is based at Kilcreene
Courtesy of the Kilkenny People and John Hogan