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How does Irish Platonism speak across the island’s religious divide?

Looking back to the scholarship of pre-schism Irish intellectuals – both at home and on the Continent – this project will examine authors from both Protestant and Catholic traditions.


Platonism has long roots in Irish culture. From the very beginnings of Irish literature, the Platonic doctrines that were inherited from late antique authorities played a pivotal role, across genres, in the ongoing development of ideas. The most remarkable example of medieval Irish Platonism is famously the Periphyseon of the ninth-century theologian and philosopher, Eriugena, the influence of which was to be felt throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. Its relationship to the more implicit development of Platonism in Ireland itself remains unclear. Nevertheless, by the eleventh century, we find compositions demonstrating the kind of Platonism which has traditionally been associated with the School of Chartres in Ireland itself. Here, Scéla na esérgi, an anonymous sermon on the universal resurrection, is a notable example. Into the modern era, Platonism increasingly becomes a common language which is shared by Irish intellectuals of many different interests, political ideals and religious commitments. In this way it would come to have a decisive influence on the writings of such disparate figures as the Anglican bishop George Berkeley, the devout Catholic translator, Stephen MacKenna, the hermeticist poet, W. B. Yeats, and the post-religious philosopher, Iris Murdoch, to name a few. The potential of Platonism to transcend sectarian divides will be central to this project’s exploration of the part it has played in Ireland’s intellectual history.

Selected examples

  • George Berkeley’s final treatise, Siris (1744), is one of his most deeply Platonic works, influenced by Platonic philosophy, as well as ancient botany, chemistry, physics and medicine in promulgating the metaphors of the chain and the animal. The chain connects tar water, as a panacea, to God, while the animal represents the organic unity of the created universe. Most striking is the fusion of Platonist ideas with the general aim of promoting the Christian faith.
  • Neoplatonist and Christian interest intersect again in the much admired translation of Plotinus’ Enneads (1917 - 1930) by Stephen MacKenna, an Irish patriot and a devout Catholic. His translation is: ‘Do chum glóire Dé agus onóra na h-Éireann’ (‘Composed for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland’). The work was praised for its ‘deeply religious feeling’ by Oxford Classicist E. R. Dodds, himself an Irish nationalist of Protestant descent.
  • Iris Murdoch, a self-proclaimed Platonist, who lived most of her life in England, but identified strongly as Irish, was deeply influenced by Platonism throughout her career in her exploration of metaphysical moral philosophy and what constitutes good human behaviour. Best known in this context is The Sovereignty of Good (1970) but this project seeks to trace the influence of Plato more broadly across Murdoch’s academic and literary oeuvre.