Meath was central to the life of Irelands greatest
ever scientist, a man whose mathematical breakthroughs more
than 150 years ago have been utilised by space-age video-game
and movie software in the 21st century.
Hamilton spent his formative years in Trim, enjoying the
bliss of precocious early learning under the shadow of the
castle, where his character of an academic of historic proportions
But the county was central to the lowest points in his life
too, for he never fully recovered from a broken heart after
his lover, whom he met at Langford Estate in Summerhill
in his late teens, was married off to a clergyman, a rebuke
that would drag him into the depths of alcoholism in later
A programme of events scheduled to celebrate the 200th anniversary
of the mathematicians birth, Hamilton 2005, saw more
than 50 events take place nationwide over the past 12 months,
while the Government added to 2005 the unwieldy but no doubt
well-meaning moniker Hamilton Year: Celebrating Irish
In addition to his standing as a ground-breaking scientist,
Hamilton was appointed to the Andrews Professorship
of Astronomy and with it Astronomer Royal of Ireland
before he had even graduated from Trinity College,
was knighted by the British monarchy by the age of 30 and
numbered the famed English poet William Wordsworth among
Indeed, seemingly not wholly satisfied or preoccupied with
his work in science, he also saw himself as a bit of a sonneteer
and found few equals among his Irish contemporaries,
earning the prestigious Vice-Chancellor's Prize for English
verse during his time at the University of Dublin, an accolade
also claimed by such luminaries of the literary game as
John Todhunter and Oliver St John Gogarty in later years.
He sent some samples of his verse to Wordsworth but was
effectively told by his friend to stick to the day-job,
with the poet fearful that Hamiltons legacy in the
field of science would be diluted if he concentrated on
lyrical ballads rather than complex theorems.
It is his discovery of quaternions, while out for a walk
in 1843 Irelands very own Eureka! moment
that is regarded as his greatest gift to future generations
of scientists, mathematicians ... and Playstation-gamers.
Hamiltons stroll took him from his home at Dunsink
Observatory he was by now Royal Astronomer, a post
he would hold for the rest of his life along the
Royal Canal. In a moment of mental clarity, he devised the
formula for quaternions, a radical theory relating to complex
numbers and three-dimensional space, and scratched the immortal
equation, i2 = j2 = k2 = ijk = -1, into the stone of Broome
Bridge. (His discovery is celebrated on October 16th each
year by the NUI Maynooths Hamilton Walk, from Dunsink
Observatoty to Broome Bridge, and was attended in 2002 by
Murray Gell-Mann, the American winner of the Nobel Prize
for Physics in 1969.)
While the equation was regarded for many years as inapplicable
outside of applied mathematics, it has found its way, invidiously,
into the quotidian lives of people worldwide through its
use as a rotational tool in software behind computer games
such as the multi-million-selling Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
and smash hit movies like The Matrix.
Hamiltons promise was spotted early, and he was sent
from his home in north Dublin to live with his uncle, the
Reverend James Hamilton, curate of Trim.
He lived for that time at Talbot Castle, an old manor house
and formerly St Marys Abbey directly across the river
from Trim Castle which was rebuilt from ruins by Sir John
Talbot in the 15th century and was later acquired in the
18th century by Jonathan Swift, the author of the satirical
masterpiece Gullivers Travels and former Dean of Trinity
In the peaceful surrounds of the old manor house, Williams
budding genius was given the nourishment from which a stupendous
mind would burst forth.
A true child prodigy, he is held to have mastered Latin,
Greek and Hebrew by the age of five, and another few years
saw him fluent in 13 languages, ancient and modern, European
and Asian. Two anecdotes display his exceptional expertise
in linguistics: at the age of seven he passed an examination
in Hebrew conducted by a doctor of Trinity College, and
later, at the age of 14, he is said to have composed a letter
in the Persian tongue to Mirza Khan, the Ambassador of Persia,
during the dignitarys visit to Ireland in 1819.
While his uncle guided him in the art of languages, Hamilton
hungrily immersed himself in all strands of mathematical
teaching and theory from the age of 10, scorching his way
through the usual courses of applied and pure mathematics
over the next five years.
His status was growing an American mathematical prodigy,
Zerah Colburn, visiting Dublin to exhibit his astonishing
powers of calculation, was introduced to his contemporary,
and the pair engaged in battles of wits the like of which
must have confounded their small-minded elders.
The wonder is that Hamilton managed to avoid burning himself
out through the myriad achievements of his boyhood, but
such a mind was certain to make its mark in greater circles.
Having worked his way through the theses of Euclid and Newton,
his arrival as a mathematician of staggering standing was
assured when he submitted a paper to Dr Brinkley, then Bishop
of Cloyne and Astronomer Royal of Ireland, elucidating an
error spotted in the work of Pierre-Simon Laplace, the renowned
French scientist and mathematician.
The graph of Hamiltons achievements continued on its
starkly upward journey through his time at Trinity College,
and he was appointed Professor of Astronomy Astronomer Royal
of Ireland at the age of 21 before he had even graduated
while a knighthood followed on the recommendation
of the Lord Viceroy of Ireland, Lord Normanby, in 1835.
By then he had taken up residence at Dunsink, from where
he embarked on his famous walk in 1843, and where he would
live until his death, at the age of 60, in 1865.
Yet for all the highlights of an astonishing career, Hamiltons
life-story would not be complete without reference to his
periods of melancholy, of a lost love that pushed him to
the brink of suicide, and of an introspection that led to
alcoholism in his later years.
For Hamilton, though married to Helen Bayly, had never forgotten
his first love, Catherine Disney, whom he met at Langford
Estate in Summerhill in 1824.
Besotted with the girl, he was tied to his studies and was
unable to broach the subject of marriage, and Catherine
was soon married off to a clergyman 15 years her senior,
a development which broke Hamiltons heart.
He outlined his love for Catherine in several mournful poems,
his own loveless marriage turning unhappy, while the passing
of his friend Wordsworth, beloved sister Eliza, two uncles
and Trinity fellow James MacCullagh, also had a detrimental
impact on his mental state.
His melancholia saw him turn to alcohol as a means of escape,
a situation which grew steadily worse after correspondence
with Catherine Disney was recommenced. The pair met once
more, two weeks before her death, and Hamilton was consumed
While still suffering from a severe addiction to grape and
grain, he threw himself into his work, spending seven years
composing his final work, Elements on Quaternions, which
was published incomplete and posthumously after his death
from a severe case of gout.
His life of achievement extended right until his dying days,
for he was informed only a short time before his death that
he had been elected to the American National Academy of
Sciences, the first non-American to achieve that distinction.
His influence still being felt to this day, his legacy built
to last, Hamilton is considered without peer among Irish
scientists. And County Meath can lay claim to at least some
of his heritage.