Tommy Barker revisits the one-time home of UCC maths professor George Boole as the 200th anniversary of his birth is celebrated.
When it comes to old and period homes, there’s a lot to be said for continuous ownership, or at least for continuous occupation.
This one-time Cork family home of George Boole – a Gothic confection in genteel suburban Ballintemple – is a shining example of continuity of care, and one of several Cork residences which the late mathematician and progenitor of our digital age is associated with.
One, by UCC’s campus on Grenville Place, opposite the North Mall, is a derelict wreck awaiting restoration with mathematical or at least engineering precision and repurposing (plus €600,000 for the first phase of works) to cement Cork’s (and UCC’s) stake on his genius.
It was in those lodgings at Grenville Place that in 1854 George Boole wrote An Investigation into the Laws of Thought, giving him a title as the father of the digital age, a finger pointing the way forward to today’s communication revolution.
As the first Professor of Mathematics at Queens College Cork (now UCC), Englishman George Boole had a variety of Cork homes, starting in his lodgings on Grenville Place, and ending up after several moves (Sunday’s Well, Castle Road, Blackrock…plus ca change, all still favoured haunts of the university elite when they can afford it) in Ballintemple’s Lichfield Cottage.
En route Boole encountered marriage, in 1855, to the 18-year old niece of another college don, and enjoyed several years in some comfort, in marital bliss and fatherhood with five daughters born in quick succession, and with servants, before ending his days in the winsome Lichfield Cottage.
A century and a half later, Lichfield once more has a more-than-coincidental UCC professorial link playing out, as it’s now family home to paediatrician and UCC professor Tony Ryan.
Lichfield Cottage is where the self-taught but born-educator George Boole passed his last days, 15 years after arriving in Ireland, and dying 19 days after catching a chill walking three miles from his home to the college campus, in the rain, after the Cork-Blackrock-Passage West train service left him down.
He dutifully continued lecturing in damp robes all that day, according to the now-received wisdom of his passing – and thereby proving every Irish Mammy’s assertion that “you’ll catch your death if you don’t change out of that wet gear”.
Boole was born in Lincoln in 1815 (thus this year’s anniversary celebrations and events); today, he’s one of a handful of names from Irish academia with global resonance in the scientific community, as well as having had his work impact on the day to day lives of billions, thanks to the digital era he facilitated – but never got to imagine in reality.
So, links between our modern wired-up times and his times are generally intangible, in the micro-chip and ether – except for Cork’s fortunate cases of physical surroundings like the college campus where he taught (the college repository of learning, the Boole Library, was named in his honour), and in his various southern Irish homes. One awaits salvation, the other seen here, is in utterly contrasting rude, good health.
Described as a cottage in the Strawberry Hill gothic style, Lichfield was Boole’s last home, (1862-1864), with his wife Mary, nee Everest, and their five remarkable, and ultimately high-achieving daughters.
The youngest Boole daughter Ethel Lilian (Voynich) wrote the anti-clerical novel The Gadfly which sold in the millions of copies in Russia and China, and she was born in this house, six months before her father’s demise.
The last time this Irish Examiner reporter visited Lichfield House was 20 years ago, as it came up for sale, being sold for then-owners the Harman family, and it was memorable for its originality, grace, Gothic tracery and ornate fascias, cobbled stable floor, even its exposed internal lath and plaster walls.
Even then it had a commemorative brass plaque on its front wall, put up in 1984, signalling its link to George Boole FRS, mathematician and logician, father of computer science.
Visiting again with Boole’s 200th anniversary in mind, the Examiner found itself sitting out in Lichfield Cottage’s leafy and luscious stone-walled back garden where George and Mary Boole had entertained and hosted Fr Matthew’s Blackrock Temperance Band, appropriately drinking coffee with social historian David Kenyon from Boole’s birthplace of Lincoln.
Kenyon admits Cork “is well ahead, Lincolnshire’s commemoration of Boole is all still in the future.”
Boole’s biographer Des McHale calls Lichfield Cottage “hallowed ground,” and today after considerable sensitive restoration (and a gardening find of an old mathematics dividers, which may or may not have been Boole’s) it’s home to UCC Prof Tony Ryan and his Nova Scotia-born wife Joanne and their reared family.
Their impression is that “it was a very happy and untroubled home for Boole”.
Professor Ryan draws on a personal link, recalling leaving Lichfield Cottage at 2am to care for a newborn baby girl in CUH’s neonatal intensive care.
The infant was at risk of seizures, but was successfully treated using a procedure called therapeutic hypothermia, (TH) with her brain being cooled down to 34 degrees, reducing brain injury and facilitating recovery.
Formula One driver Michael Schumacher was almost certainly treated with TH, after his skiing head injury, Professor Ryan notes, as apparently was George Boole himself – but with unsuccessful and ultimately fatal results.
George Boole’s wife Mary Everest, also a rigorous academic and intellectual, was a devotee of homeopathy (treating the illness with the cause) as espoused by its 19th century German advocate Samuel Hanneman.
She is understood to have wrapped her husband in damp sheets to treat his influenza as it turned into severe bronchopneumonia. “It was an interesting thought process, he got the right treatment, for the wrong condition,” suggests Prof Ryan wryly, at this distant remove.
George Boole died in Lichfield Cottage December 8, 1864, and a simple headstone stands at his final resting place at St Michael’s Cemetery, Blackrock, a kilometer from Lichfield Cottage, a home which celebrates a private life, and proudly recalls his world-altering mathematical achievements.
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