For the biographer, nothing can beat a physical visit to places significant to the subject. Even if much of the environment may have changed, there is still a sense of connection with the formative geography and spaces of the time.
The village of Leighlinbridge, birthplace of John Tyndall c.1822, straddles the River Barrow, a few miles downstream from the country town of Carlow. I visited both in November 2016. Tyndall spent much of his boyhood around here. The bridge over the Barrow has been an important communication route, and Tyndall is not the only significant figure to have emerged from the village. Cardinal Patrick Moran, Archbishop of Sydney, was born here a few years after Tyndall.
Though there may be more houses now, motor vehicles ply the roads, and farming practices have changed, the river and the wider features of the landscape are broadly as then. Mount Leinster still sits in the distance. Duckett’s Grove, home of one of the local landowners Tyndall knew, may be a ruin, but it is there. Stuart’s Lodge on the edge of the village, home to Elizabeth Steuart with whom Tyndall corresponded for 50 years, is intact and inhabited. Only by visiting can one readily appreciate that the little crossroad village of Nurney, where the Tyndall family lived for a while, sits on gentle slopes above the Barrow valley.
I was welcomed by staff of the Carlow County Museum and Carlow County Library, and by others who know the local history of Tyndall and the area. To take in the sights, I made the pilgrimage to the school at Ballinabranagh, where the Protestant Tyndall was taught by the Catholic John Conwill, and then to Old Leighlin and Tyndall’s father’s grave. And in Carlow still stands the courthouse in which Tyndall argued his case to be offered the contract to survey the county in 1844—unsuccessfully.
What has changed in a significant way is the political situation. In Tyndall’s time, all of Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom, following the Act of Union of 1800. Tension between Protestants and Catholics was endemic, and Tyndall’s Protestant heritage never left him. In later life he was a vociferous and visible opponent of Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule. He did not live to see the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 or the Republic of Ireland in 1949. That Republican and Catholic feeling in the Carlow area, and perhaps in the Republic as a whole, led to a negative attitude towards the recognition of Tyndall’s significance and Irish origins. After all, he had married the niece of the then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, representing the occupying British power, in 1876. But times change, and memories fade. There is a Tyndall National Institute now in Cork.
As someone thoroughly connected with Europeans, and the product of a German University, we can only imagine what Tyndall would make of Brexit, and its potential implications for the structure of Ireland as a whole.