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The two St Patricks

  • 14 March 2012

In 1940, Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera set up the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Based on the more famous foundation in Princeton New Jersey, it had two schools, corresponding to Dev's major academic interests: Celtic studies and mathematics.

The institute still exists, now with an added school, of astrophysics.

The first director of the school of mathematical physics was the Austrian genius Erwin Schrödinger. He had won the Nobel Prize in 1933 and was regarded as occupying the same lofty plane as Bohr, Heisenberg and Einstein. He was also unconventional, managing what Newt Gingrich failed to pull off, an open marriage: he turned up in Dublin in 1940 with his wife and his mistress and his mistress's daughter.

He was given a house in Clontarf where the older two were introduced as his wife and his housekeeper, thereby pre-empting any upset to the chaste sleep of the neighbourhood.

One of the results to which the Austrian has given his name is the thought experiment known as Schrödinger's cat, a scenario in quantum dynamics which allows for a cat to be alive and dead at the same time. Schrödinger was an agnostic and saw no place in mathematics for any kind of deity; a cat that was simultaneously alive and dead was okay, but no God.

The school of Celtic studies was led by Professor O'Rahilly, who was known at the time for his theory that the person we know as St Patrick is an amalgam of a number of holy men who lived more or less contemporaneously. This caused consternation in some quarters and considerable amusement in others.

One who saw the funny side was the writer Flann O'Brien. Wearing his hat as Myles na gCopaleen, he took a dim view of anything associated with his longwinded and obtuse prime minister. Given a free kick at the newly established institute he wrote in his Irish Times column that it was a great success, having so far proved that there was no God and two St Patricks.

(O'Rahilly was not pleased and the Institute took the newspaper to court for libel; they won the case and were awarded damages of £20, only half of which was ever paid.)

The two St Patricks theory is now regarded as respectably mainstream. The