A mystic dream of 4 in Armagh

19 October 2018

On 16 October – unofficially Broome’s Day – William Rowan Hamilton’s discovery of quaternion algebra is commemorated with a walk from Dunsink Observatory to Broome Bridge.

A Mystic Dream of 4

In this 175th anniversary year there was an additional event in Armagh, supported by The Institute of Physics in Ireland. This took the form of a quasi-theatrical performance based on Iggy McGovern’s poetic biography of Hamilton, a sonnet sequence titled A Mystic Dream of 4.

The poet and four actors shared the stage at the city’s Market Place Theatre. Kevin McEneaney and Margery Quinn of Armagh Theatre Group, combined with Karen Kirby and Josh Cuddy of Bardic Theatre, read 16 of the 64 sonnets, following extended introductions by the author and supplemented by visual images. The event was directed by Sean Falloon of Bardic Theatre.

The choice of sonnets reflected Hamilton’s many connections with Armagh. Firstly, following his appointment to the chair of Astronomy at Trinity College (while still technically an undergraduate), Hamilton took a crash course in observational astronomy with Thomas Romney Robinson at Armagh Observatory. Hamilton commented that he found Armagh “much more highly cultivated than any other provincial town”.

Secondly, the woman he fell in love with as a student, Catherine Disney, had family connections in Armagh. Catherine was forced to marry an older man and the young lovers’ were briefly re-united seven years later in the Observatory. Hamilton contrived to damage the eyepiece of the telescope in his heightened emotional state.

A third connection was Lady Pamela Campbell, the daughter of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. A sometime resident of Armagh, Lady Pamela was a close confidante of Hamilton, particularly in relation to the Catherine Disney affair.

From stars to star-crossed lovers, from quaternions to quantum physics, from poetry to politics, Hamilton’s life in science and in the arts continues to inspire across the centuries.



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