Love – An Exact Science?

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The path of true love rarely runs smoothly, and it seems not much has changed since 1824. William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), child prodigy, scientist, polymath and Astronomer Royal of Ireland, suffered badly in matters of the heart. Despite remarkable success in his professional life, his most noteworthy achievement being the discovery of Quaternions in 1843, (still used by computer experts today), he was much less fortunate in love. He met a young woman named Catherine Disney in 1824 while still an undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, fell head over heels in love, only to hear some months later that she was to marry a more suitable and established gentleman, and Hamilton was left feeling ‘darkly changed’.  On hearing she was betrothed to another, he indulged himself in a period of poetry writing lamenting the loss of his beloved and, although not worthy of any awards, the anguish reflected in his poem The Enthusiast is very real. He never recovered fully from losing Catherine.  Hamilton went on to marry Helen Bayly in 1833 and start a family but, because she was married to a disappointed romantic and constantly living in the shadow of Catherine Disney, the marriage was not a blissful union for Mrs Hamilton.

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Hamilton’s papers, one of the most important collections in Trinity College Library, can be consulted in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library (TCD MS 1492 and TCD MS 1493).

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Aisling Lockhart

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