Monday 15 August 2022

Through a Glass Darkly: The Archive and the Imperfect Portrait of a Man

In this blog post, Hannah Kempel, a student on UCD's MA in History of Welfare & Medicine in Society, reflects on her personal responses to archival material relating to Dr Neil John Blayney (1874-1919) donated to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Heritage Centre.

There’s a certain intimacy to archival documents, one that I’m not sure that I fully grasped before taking up this project. I had never really interacted with archival documents as part of a collection before. What little experience I had was in individual documents, either provided to me by professors or in database searches. The experience of interacting with a single archival collection is markedly different: deeper, more intimate, and more emotional.

We don’t always consider the emotional element of interacting with archives, but that has been my strongest response to this collection. Emotion in historical practice is controversial but useful. While some academics may believe it to be unnecessary or improper for historians, it can help us to move past our gut reactions and preconceived notions and draw out new understandings.[1] Beyond its use to the historian, empathy can also provide a way for us to engage more ethically with our sources.[2] We can treat our subjects as people with their own voices, not objects.[3]

This particular collection, the Neil John Blayney Collection at the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) Heritage Centre archives, only concerns one man: the eponymous Neil John Blayney. Far from being the calm and objective historian, I had many different feelings while sifting through Blayney’s documents: humour, annoyance, admiration. I was quite surprised by the depth of what I felt. My strong emotional response inspired me to dig deeper into Blayney’s experiences and motivations and provided me with a richer and wider experience.


Dr Blayney, date unknown. Used
with permission from the RCPI Heritage Centre.

Dr Neil John Blayney was born in 1874 to a merchant family, the sixth of seven children.[4] He studied Greek, Latin, and English at the Royal University of Ireland, medicine at the Catholic University, and began practising as a doctor in 1897.[5] He would serve in a variety of roles as a surgeon during his life: from ship’s surgeon on a cargo and passenger ship [6] to resident surgeon at the Queen’s County Infirmary [7] to Medical Officer to the Maryborough Barracks during the First World War.[8] He married Eily Meehan in 1916 and had a daughter named Mary ten months later.[9] His son Andrew was born in 1918.[10] Blayney died in 1919.[11]

These are the barest of facts of Blayney’s life. They read more as a resumé than a biography and tell you little to nothing about what kind of man Blayney actually was. There is so much more to Blayney’s life, as there is for any person’s life, than the bare facts. Neil J. Brennan, Blayney’s grandson, took Blayney’s documents and pulled a much more colourful portrait of the man in his book Opening Dusty Boxes: The Life of a County Surgeon in Edwardian Ireland. His Blayney is an individualist who involved himself in politics and enjoyed playing football. He learned about these aspects and more from photographs, news articles, letters, and the inferences that he could make from what documents survived.[12]

Constructing Dr Blayney

How do you pull the person from the papers? There are almost one hundred items of Blayney’s in the Neil John Blayney Collection at the RCPI Heritage Centre. This collection consists of five categories of documents: those relating to his medical career, his personal life, his service in the First World War, medical records, and supplementary material collected by Neil J. Brennan.[13] At first glance this may seem rather comprehensive, but can one hundred items really encapsulate a person’s life? Twenty-six of those items are professional references.[14] Over a quarter of Blayney’s documents are written about him in a very specific professional context. What does that have to say, if anything, about who Blayney was?

In the book An Eye for Eternity Mark McKenna tells the story of Manning Clark, a famous Australian historian, and his wife Dymphna. Beyond telling the story of an influential man and his oft-overlooked wife, McKenna also digs deep into Clark’s self-conscious shaping of his own legacy through meticulous editing and choosing of his own documents. The sheer amount of records and the meticulous detail with which he documented and deliberately chose them indicate a great deal of effort was involved in Clark’s creation of his archival legacy.[15]

The question of what makes it into an archive and what does not can be quite fascinating. This can be a matter of policy, of concrete guidelines that lead to documents’ inclusion or exclusion from archives. For example, the RCPI Heritage Centre has a specific collection policy that is used to determine whether or not it will accept a donation, restricting its content to materials related to the history of medicine in Ireland.[16] The National Archives of Ireland goes one step further. Its policy is based on the National Archives Act of 1986.[17] What can or cannot be included in that archive is a matter of law.

Personal collections are somewhat different. An archive may choose to acquire them or not, but their creation is much more intimate and subjective than a collection created due to policy or law. Personal collections reflect the decisions and motivations of their creators. Manning Clark created his archival collection through a great deal of effort and time. He involved his family, especially his wife, in its creation.[18] Mark McKenna sees this management, which is interwoven into Clark’s biography, as Clark’s way of creating a second life for himself.[19]

Self-management and Self-reflection

The case of Manning Clark is in many ways an extreme example of managing one’s legacy. Clark was a historian who made his life’s work out of digging through papers in archives. He would have had a much wider understanding of the ways that personal documents can change and shape a legacy than Neil John Blayney, a county surgeon, might have had. This doesn’t mean that Blayney did not have a hand in creating his own archival collection.

Blayney’s collection has had a very different life than that of Manning Clark’s. By the time Clark created his collection and sent his documents to the Australian National Archive he was already a celebrity in Australia. He seems to have very explicitly desired to be written about in the future. He even left notes to future biographers in his diary.[20] Clark was desperate to be remembered. The Blayney collection’s path has been more circuitous. It was kept in the Blayney family’s possession, not as an archival collection used for research but as a set of “very dusty boxes” passed down to Dr Neil J. Brennan who donated it to the RCPI Heritage Centre.[21]

It doesn’t seem that Blayney ever planned for his documents to form a legacy for himself- at least not in the way Clark envisioned. Given that he died of a stroke at the age of 44 he likely didn’t foresee the end of his life any time soon, not like Clark’s anticipation in his old age.[22] This is not a collection borne out of a lifetime of study and management. We can then look at Blayney’s papers as a reflection of the documents he wanted to keep for himself, not for posterity.

What, then, did Blayney choose to keep for himself? Personal correspondence, handwritten notes, class notes, bills, letters of reference. Perfectly ordinary documents, the kind that anyone might have, that nevertheless reveal a life. Blayney’s papers reveal some of the twists and turns of his life and grant an insight into the practicalities of life as a doctor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In diving into these documents one can reveal not just an example of the life of a middle-class county surgeon but the life of Neil John Blayney. 

“Regarding Our Last Correspondence” 

The Irish Automobile Club premises, present day. Source: The
National Inventory of Architectural Heritage.

One particularly interesting chapter of Blayney’s life concerns a series of correspondences between him and the Irish Automobile Club over the course of 1915.[23] A patriot, Blayney loaned his car to the Club for use in the transfer of wounded soldiers.[24] Unfortunately for both him and the Club, the car would soon break down and a dispute would ensue over the cost of the repairs. It’s a fascinating look into a personal dispute and proof of the old saying “no good deed goes unpunished”.

Blayney’s collection only contains the responses from the Club and a mechanic. He does not seem to have kept drafts of his letters in this case despite keeping other drafts.[25] As such we can only read the responses to whatever he wrote. The Club’s responses, mostly written by H.J. Clayton, appear more and more exasperated with whatever Blayney wrote them. The relationship between Blayney and the Club does not seem to have ended very amicably.

I bring up this case because it offers such an interesting glimpse into Blayney’s personality, yet Blayney’s own words are lost to us. The set of letters tell a particular narrative. The first letter profusely thanks Blayney for his contribution.[26] The next few letters give some details on the car’s breakdown within a month of the previous donation and discuss the Club’s inability to pay for repairs.[27] This begins a year-long dispute over who should pay for the car repairs.

This is a compelling sub-series for me. The letters, one-sided as they may be, tell a story of frustration on both ends. Blayney as viewed through Clayton’s letters seems frustrated with the Club for damaging his car, asking him to pay for repairs, and taking a long time in fixing the car. The Club, on the other hand, appears frustrated with Blayney for not paying and then leaving his car in their garage for a long time while the dispute was going on. There’s a certain sense of mundaneness in the letters, of a fairly common sort of argument over who should pay for something, even occurring as they did in the middle of a large international conflict. It’s such a human moment.

I had a very personal reaction to these letters when I first read them. James Lowry discusses this “affective response”, which he argues that users of archival material can employ in order to better “bear witness” to the people and events they are studying.[28] As I bore witness to this episode of Blayney’s life, I didn’t like what I saw. The letters in my experience of them do not paint Blayney in a very positive light. I found myself getting annoyed with him as I read the responses from the Automobile Club. Without Blayney’s own words to speak for himself, I could only view him through the words of an organization that he was in conflict with.

There is an archival concept called imagined records.[29] These are records that may have, could have, or we want to exist, but that we can’t find. We ascribe a lot of significance to these imagined records and we feel their loss. Imagined records can be incredibly personal for the person imagining them – creating their own affective response.[30] I’ve seen examples ranging from the medical records of a stillborn child to the records of colonised nations that were lost during decolonisation.[31] Compared to such painful events, some missing letters about car repairs may seem rather trite. Why compare them to much more important cases? Small instances can be used to conceptualise the wider problem – that archives can very rarely tell the whole story.

I can imagine the letters that Blayney sent. There are drafts of other letters and notes that he wrote in the collection.[32] From these I can piece out his writing style, his handwriting. I can guess some of the things that he wrote to the Club from Clayton’s responses. For example, Blayney seems to have wanted to know the details of exactly what parts of his car were worked on. There are several letters responding to his questions.[33]

I can’t know exactly what he said, however, and herein lies the trap. When I read the letters I felt annoyed at his imagined slights against the writers. Did that annoyance make me imagine his letters as more aggressive, more petulant than they might have been? Did I project my own experiences with similar disputes onto Blayney? This too I can’t know because I can’t read his letters. I can only imagine what might have been.

Mrs Blayney’s Medical Reports

Another item in the collection that fascinates me is Item 44. It’s a set of nurses’ reports from the first of November, 1918 to the thirtieth of the same month.[34] Mrs Blayney became sick and was admitted to the hospital late in her second pregnancy. A month later she gave birth prematurely to her son.[35] Blayney kept the nurses’ reports on his wife’s health in his personal records.

A nurse’s reports from the collection. Used with
permission from the RCPI Heritage Centre.

The reports detail Eily’s diet, her temperature, her medications, and even her urine. The majority of each page is bare, with only a few markings indicating what the nurses did. The last few pages are even blank but for some reason Blayney kept them anyway.[36] What does this say about Blayney, that he kept these records?

As a doctor, these records would make more sense to Blayney than to a layperson. These records could have had more value to him than someone who is not a doctor. But being able to read and understand a set of records is not the whole story. If Blayney had kept every set of medical records that he could get his hands on, the collection would be much larger than it is.

Blayney was not a meticulous record-keeper like Manning Clark. This means that there are fewer of Blayney’s documents that we can study, but conversely that also lends more weight to the documents that he chose to keep. If Clark’s collection is intentional and vast, Blayney’s is serendipitous and specific. His records seem to be confined to important documentation like income tax returns, professional papers, and items of personal interest. In which category would Blayney place the nurses’ records?

What were these thirty-three pages to Blayney? Important documentation relating to a family medical emergency? Perhaps, but likely not thought of in the way that he viewed an income tax return or furniture invoice. Something related to his profession as a doctor? Another document is a register of examination notes, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that he could have had a similar interest in keeping his wife’s nursing records.[37] However, Eily went to a different hospital than Queen’s County Infirmary, where he worked at the time.[38] These nurses’ reports would have had no direct bearing on his career. Blayney’s medical speciality also seem to have been tuberculosis, not what seems to have been pneumonia or influenza.[39] Or were these simply papers describing a difficult time in his wife’s life, made worse by the premature birth of his son shortly after her release?[40]

We can’t know for sure but we can guess. Perhaps we can see this as another very human moment. Blayney kept the details of Eily’s treatment in what was likely a very difficult time in both of their lives. Blayney seems to have cared about his wife, enough to push past his mother’s disapproval for their union.[41] It would make sense for him to be invested in her wellbeing. His exact motivations are not clear, but with this document we can approach a sense of the care that he felt for his wife and son.

This document is compelling for the questions that it raises. The archive can provide us with tantalising clues but rarely a smoking gun. Handed the concrete evidence of one man’s life I can only feel the weight of what is missing from Blayney’s records. Julia Laite wrote that “friendship… is so often missing from the historical record.”[42] Interpersonal relationships are often hard to pin down in the records we leave behind. We may be given clues but concrete proof eludes us.


While I’ve spent a good deal of words on what is missing from this collection, I’d like to spend a few more on what can be found. This collection is full of insights into the life of an average doctor in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Blayney’s papers were kept within his family’s hands for almost one hundred years before they were donated to the RCPI.[43] A lot can happen in one hundred years to a box of papers. Neil J. Brennan attributes the wealth of material still available to his mother and grandmother being “inveterate hoarders” and a great deal of thanks should be given to them for maintaining these documents.[44] I’ve spent a lot of time attributing quirks in the collection to Blayney’s choices, but Eily and Mary, Dr Blayney’s wife and daughter, deserve credit for their roles as family archivists. It is through their efforts that we now can study Dr Blayney’s life.

This collection is fascinating for its serendipity, both in what documents Blayney chose to keep and in its journey to the RCPI archival collections. The documents were far more likely to be destroyed or lost than to make their way into a traditional archival collection. Through this collection and other collections like it, we can see as if through a glass darkly aspects of the ordinary past that are so often forgotten. 

Hannah Kempel 

Hannah Kempel is a student on UCD's MA in History of Welfare and Medicine in Society

1. Katie Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’, Rethinking History 22, no. 4 (2018), pp. 459-473.

2. Michelle Caswell and Marika Cifor, ‘From Human Rights to Feminist Ethics: Radical Empathy in the Archives’, Archivaria, 81 (2016), pp. 23-43.

3. Barclay, ‘Falling in love with the dead’.

4. Neil J. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes (Ireland, 2019), pp. 1.

5. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 4-5.

6. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 18.

7. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 28.

8. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 53.

9. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 61.

10. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 62.

11. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 62.

12. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. viii.

13. Caiomhe Rehill and Harriet Wheelock, ‘Neil John Blayney Papers’, RCPI Heritage Centre, pp. 1-30, accessed online,, 3 December 2021.

14. RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 61-73, 75, 76, 78-88.

15. Mark McKenna, An Eye For Eternity (Carlton, 2011), pp. 32-33.

16., accessed 3 December 2021.

17. ‘Acquisition Policy 2018-2022’,  An Chartlann Náisiúnta | National Archives, pp. 1-16, accessed online,, 3 December 2021.

18. McKenna, An Eye For Eternity, pp. 32.

19. McKenna, An Eye For Eternity, pp. 553.

20. McKenna, An Eye For Eternity, pp. 32.

21. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. viii.

22. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 62; McKenna, An Eye For Eternity, pp. 553.

23. RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 45-57.

24. RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 45.

25. RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 13, 14, 90.

26. RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 45.

27. RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 46-47.

28. James Lowry, ‘Radical empathy, the imaginary and affect in (post)colonial records: how to break out of international stalemates on displaced archives’, Archival Science, 19 (2016), pp. 193.

29. Anne J. Gilliland and Michelle Caswell, ‘Records and their imaginaries: imagining the impossible, making possible the imagined’, Archival Science, 16 (2015), pp. 53-75.

30. Gilliland and Caswell, ‘Records and their imaginaries’; Lowry, ‘Radical empathy, the imaginary and affect in (post)colonial records’.

31. Gilliland and Caswell,  ‘Records and their imaginaries’; Lowry, ‘Radical empathy, the imaginary and affect in (post)colonial records’.

32. RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 13, 14, 90.

33. RCPI Blayney Collection, Items 56, 57.

34. RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 44.

35. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 62.

36. RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 44.

37. RCPI Blayney Collection, Item 97.

38. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 35.

39. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 36-7; Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 62.

40. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 62.

41. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. 60.

42. Julia Laite, ‘The Emmet’s Inch: Small History in a Digital Age’, Journal of Social History 53, no. 4 (2020), pp. 963-989.

43. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. ix.

44. Brennan, Opening Dusty Boxes, pp. viii.


The Eminent and Amiable Doctor Mills

In this blog post, Fiona Slevin, a PhD candidate at UCD's School of History, explores the career of Dr Thomas Mills ([1773]-1830) using archival material donated to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland's Heritage Centre.

In the late summer of 1830, Dr Thomas Mills of Dublin travelled to Paris with his wife Augusta and sister Kitty. Despite concerns about Thomas’ health, the trio enjoyed a stimulating time meeting friends and seeing the sites of Paris. They stayed at the centrally-located Hôtel des Îsles Britanniques, beside Place Vendôme and Jardin des Tuileries, and the two women experienced the delights of shopping at the vast and glittering Palais Royale. Thomas was more keen to attend political talks and consult with fellow medics. In a letter to his brother back in Dublin,[1] Thomas wrote that he ‘had the good fortune’ to hear General Lafayette, Lafitte and Dupin – all radical, libertarian leaders of the Paris Revolution that had taken place only five weeks earlier.[2]

Who was this Thomas Mills whose ‘heart was pleased’[3] to hear the leading liberal, republican thought-leaders of Paris? There are huge gaps in what we know of the man, and much of the information we have on Mills is drawn from his public profile as a physician. However, we get glimpses of his personal life and private thoughts in a series of letters he wrote from the Armagh and Down countryside, mostly in summer 1805. The letters provide insight into Mills’ personal values and political beliefs as well as presenting acute observations of the lives of people of County Down. The letters are now held in the Royal College of Physicians archive, as part of the Kirkpatrick Collection.[4]

Thomas Mills, Physician ([1773]-1830)

Figure 1 Portrait of Thomas Mills by Martin
Cregan 1788-1870, Royal College of Physicians
of Ireland Ref 1850.3, reproduced under
Creative Commons Licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Thomas Mills was born c.1773 into a large and relatively affluent Irish medical family.[5] Like many Irish physicians, Mills chose to study at Edinburgh University, where the education system was seen as high quality, liberal and innovative; as importantly, it was less expensive than  its English and continental counterparts.[6] Of the 152 Irish men who graduated in medicine in the 1790s, 103 had studied in Edinburgh, and only 17 in Dublin.[7] After graduating as a doctor of Medicine in 1797, Mills returned to Dublin and in 1803, gained his licence to practice with the King and Queen's College of Physicians in Ireland.[8] He became one of six physicians at a new Fever Hospital and House of Recovery in Cork Street, that opened on 14 May 1804 to provide relief for the ‘sick poor’ of Dublin.[9] He stayed less than a year. By March 1805, he had departed for County Down, and in May he tendered his resignation.[10] His reasons for resigning are unclear, though he did so after a ‘long and violent struggle with my feelings’.[11] He may have clashed with his hospital colleagues over his approach to medicine, since he was alone in his strong advocacy of blood-letting and the use of leeches as a treatment for fever., where he typically took between four and six ounces on three or four consecutive days[12] Mills was also a strong proponent of the theory that there was only one kind of fever which could take different forms depending on the organ or part of the body that was affected. Thus, he believed that diseases ranging from typhus, scarlet fever, influenza, diphtheria and measles, were all manifestations of a single disease that could be caused or exacerbated by poor diet or bad air. Mills himself was in poor health, and he may have wanted to escape the miasma of smog and dirt of Dublin. Either way, he spent from March to September 1805 in the countryside of Down and Armagh. He lived mostly in the village of Loughbrickland, near Banbridge, but many of his letters were written from Tartaraghan, some 18 miles from Loughbrickland, where he and his sisters stayed a month with their brother, Richard who was a curate there. He spent much of the summer trying to eat, sleep and exercise well to induce recovery.[13]

Radical thinking

At Loughbrickland, Mills came face-to-face with the realities of the political situation, and its impact on religious tensions, poverty and local landlord-tenant relations. The village was in the heart of the countryside and populated by some 600 people,[14] which he described as being mostly Presbyterian, with some Catholics and Protestants.[15] This is important since Mills arrived there soon after the Irish rebellion of 1798, and the Act of Union (1801), which abolished the Irish parliament and helped build momentum behind the cause of Catholic Emancipation. Both events created upheaval and pervaded the thinking of disparate parts of the population. Although large numbers of Irish people fought with the British against Napoleon, there was much support for France, particularly amongst those who had sympathised with the American revolution in the 1780s. This latter group included certain classes of Catholics, city dwellers and especially, Ulster Presbyterians.[16] Mills was amongst this cohort, and his views had been sharpened during his time at Edinburgh.

Edinburgh at the time was not just a place to study medicine. Through the 1790s, it was a breeding ground for radical and novel thinking, and the university was a centre for a specifically Scottish type of Enlightenment thinking that promoted rationalism, humanism and empiricism.[17] The ideas of Thomas Paine and his Rights of Man (co-written with General Lafayette), were widely circulated and discussed, and many new radical societies emerged that sought political and religious reform. Later in the decade – just as Mills was graduating – societies of United Scotsmen emerged that aligned with the United Irishmen.[18] It is highly likely that Mills was familiar with Irish radical contemporaries like Thomas Drennan who graduated from Edinburgh medical school twenty-one years before Mills. In Dublin from the 1790s, Drennan was active in the Volunteer movement and the fight for an independent, reformed Irish parliament, and was a key leader in the Dublin Society of United Irishmen.[19] We know that Mills admired Dr Alexander Crawford of Lisburn, since he called on him to attend his mother in May 1805.[20] Dr Crawford was well known and had an extensive medical practice; he was also a radical and active Volunteer in 1793/4, was implicated in activities with the French in 1794, and was arrested with other United Irishmen in 1796.[21]

Loughbrickland realities

Figure 2: The Quack Doctor by John Boyne, dated 1746-1800.  The drawing by a County 
Down artist, shows a ‘quack’ doctor with local people; ‘quack’ doctors competed with 
physicians like Thomas Mills in an unregulated, emerging market. © The Trustees of the 
British Museum. Museum Number 1890,0512.13, reproduced under Creative Commons 
Licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The young Thomas Mills absorbed these radical, new ideals and they underpinned his perspective and observations on Loughbrickland. With its mix of religions, Loughbrickland was exactly the type of area that experienced repercussions from the 1798 Rebellion, which in many areas led to a decline in interaction and good feeling between Catholics and their neighbours.[22] In July 1805, he wrote ‘religion has a powerful influence on our civil and political opinions’, and observed ‘with regret’ that the longstanding animosity between all classes of Catholics and Protestants had erupted into open disputes. ‘The flame is only smothered’, he wrote, and very little would make the flames ‘blaze forth’.[23] He bewails the ‘depraved’ men who sought to make religion ‘an engine of government’, for the ‘vilest and most base’ reasons.[24] Yet he was not truly a radical, at least in the Edinburgh style: while he sought reform, he believed that religion was fundamental to human development, and could not be easily laid aside.[25]

There are also elements of Lamarckian thinking in Mills’ letters. Lamarck’s theory posits that a person’s characteristics could be acquired by behaviour,[26] and passed through to the next generation. The more radical thinkers, including a number of medics at Edinburgh University, supported this,[27] and threads can be seen in Mills’ writing. Mills wrote that he saw a ‘great number of patients’ with asthma and consumption. Consistent with his views on fever, he discounts lack of fuel, poor clothing, ‘mode of living’ and the weather as causes. Rather, he attributes the illnesses partly to ‘the intemperance and debauchery of our forefathers’, and cites ‘constant inter-marriage of families’ and a ‘long abstinence from animal feed and other nourishing diet’ as contributing factors.[28] However, Mills was not a true Lamarckian, in that he was not an atheist or anti-Religion; [29] on the contrary, he frequently mentions the value of religious thinking and instruction as essential to morality, wisdom and happiness. He could be seen to be Lamarckian in that he believed that people could, through their own exertions, advance their position and power.[30]

Figure 3: Print by William Hincks, ‘Taken on the spot in the County of Downe, 
Representing Spinning, Reeling with the Clock Reel, and Boiling the Yarn’, 
Plate VI of The Linen Manufactory of Ireland, 1791. This scene may reflect 
what Thomas Mills perceived when he wrote of the industriousness of the women 
of County Down, with their sewing, spinning, weaving and knitting.
Museum number 1877,0113.375, © The Trustees of the British 
Museum, reproduced under Creative Commons Licence.

Many of Mills’ letters focus on the work habits and productivity of the people of Tartaraghan and Loughbrickland. He noted the highly-cultivated fields and neat, clean and comfortable looking cabins and he admired the work ethic of farmers who supplemented their farm income by weaving.[31] He also admired the capability and industriousness of women who worked at sewing, spinning, weaving and knitting, and engaged in making hay, digging potatoes, pulling flax and reaping the harvest.[32] He was realistic enough to realise that poor families, no matter how hard they worked, could often not earn enough to ‘provide themselves with the necessities, much less the comforts of life’.[33] Mills’ letters reflect a deep awareness of the unequal distribution of wealth between the land-owning and the tenant classes. He acknowledges that the wealth of people like himself, living ‘in the lap of luxury and pleasure’, depended on the very existence of a discontented tenantry, asking if it should be surprising that ‘such men become rebels’.[34] He even anticipates the potential of a French-style revolution if this is not addressed. He writes, ‘We will not discover, I fear, our real interest, ‘till fatal experience teach it to us - ‘till we taste a little of those sorrows that we have made others feel’.[35]

Overall, Mills' settles on education and virtue as the best response to poverty and bigotry:[36] a fairer, more equitable country could be built if young people were taught to be ‘good citizens’, to ‘admire virtue and despise vice, and to be frugal, industrious and sober’.[37] He lauds the local people for sending their children to school,[38] and conversely, considers the potential for ‘despotism and slavery’ if property-owners are not well-educated.[39] He goes so far as to call for a law to prohibit any man ‘unacquainted with the Principles of Liberty’ from owning Property.[40] In many ways, Mills appears less a radical and liberal than an Improver, focusing on relieving poverty and achieving social and moral transformation through economic growth, education, and application of rational, Enlightenment principals.[41]

Building a career

By September 1805, Mills had gained ‘health and strength’, and anticipated returning to Dublin.[42] Unfortunately, we do not know when Mills did settle back in the city. He got married at a relatively advanced age[43] in 1814 to the 31 year old Augusta Sophia Hamill.[44] Little about the couple’s personal life is known, except that they lived for a time at the family home (possibly with Michael Mills) at 41 Dominick Street, Dublin, and by 1829, had moved a street away to 38 Granby Row. As a physician, Mills is recorded as treating patients in Dublin by the mid-1810s. He is not listed in the 1809 annual report of Cork Street hospital,[45] though he may have returned to it in subsequent years, since he wrote a paper in 1813 based on case studies from there.[46] In one noteworthy intervention, he was called as a witness to the declaration of a miracle by the Catholic Diocese of Dublin. Mills had been treating Mrs Mary Stuart, a religious sister in Ranelagh Convent, Dublin in 1823 for four years prior to her ‘miraculous’ recovery.[47] Mills cannot have liked the newspaper coverage, and especially the mockery the miracle declaration attracted from Protestant clergy and other physicians. That incident notwithstanding, Mills kept close to the Dublin medical fraternity and set out to establish his position, with the hope of rising to the ‘head of my profession’.[48] Some of the ambition that his brother Michael observed in him at the start of his career remained,[49] and Thomas took only a short time to achieve the wealth and ‘higher rank in society’ that he sought.[50] Mills published a series of papers and case studies over the years, including essays on blood-letting, typhus, and on various diseases of the liver, brain and other organs.[51] By 1824, Mills had consolidated his position as a physician in Dublin. Mills’ ambition saw him elected as joint vice-President and President of the Association of Members of the King and Queen’s College of Physician of Ireland in 1821,[52] and 1823[53] respectively. While he clearly enjoyed some support from his medical colleagues within the College, Mills never became President or Vice-President of the College itself.

To Paris

Twenty-five years after his letters from Armagh and Down, Mills travelled to France to alleviate his declining health.[54] He may have gone to seek a change of air, to recover from overwork and ‘exertion of the intellectual faculties’, or for something more serious.[55] In his letter of 3 September 1830, Mills writes that he consulted with Dr Crawford – ‘a kind friend’ – who advised him to go on to Nice. He followed the advice, but died there two months later, on 6 November 1830. He was 57. The Belfast Newsletter noted the death of this eminent and distinguished physician who had made an extraordinary contribution to his profession. Mills, it said, had been an ‘amiable and interesting companion, and a generous friend’, and his death was ‘a source of deep affliction’ to a wide circle of friends and colleagues.[56] After his death, Augusta Sophia continued to reside at their home at 15 Rutland Square East for at least the next five years;[57] in 1838, she married Dr William Turner at Malvern Wells in Worcestershire.


While the letters represent a limited source, it seems reasonable to conclude that Thomas Mills was a radical in his mind, a liberal in his heart, and a pragmatist in his practice. His observations of country life are acute and interspersed with the enlightenment ideas and radical principles he honed at Edinburgh University, but his absorption of these principles and ideals was selective, particularly in relation to his belief in the value of religion. That he was sincere in his desire to address the plight of the poor is evidenced by his taking a position at the Cork Street hospital, and his letters are infused with sympathy and some empathy for the poor of County Down. He was not extremist enough to be overtly public with his views; nor did his radical ideals supersede his position in society or role as a physician, as in the case of people like Drennan or Crawford. Nor, it turns out, was Mills’ espoused ambition enough to see him rise to the very top of his profession as he had wished. The Belfast Newsletter may have been correct in remembering him as an eminent physician and amiable companion, whose ‘qualifications, both of head and heart, were of no ordinary description’.[58]

The letters of Dr Thomas Mills are held in the archives of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland Heritage Centre, and are part of the Thomas Percy Claude Kirkpatrick Archive, also known as the Dr Kirkpatrick collection.

Fiona Slevin

Fiona Slevin is a PhD Candidate at UCD's School of History. 

[1] Thomas Mills, 3 September 1830, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/26.

[2] The French Revolution of 1830 took place between 26-29 July 1830, and resulted in the abdication of Charles X; the king was replaced with a constitutional monarchy with Louis Philippe on the throne. Lafayette was leader of the opposition and had been a hero of the American Revolution of the late 1770s; he co-wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, and was an outspoken advocate of religious toleration and the abolition of the slave trade. Lafitte was also a member of the Chamber of Deputies and led the development of finance and banking post-revolution. Dupin (likely Dupin the Elder), was a magistrate, eminent advocate, and President of the Chamber of Deputies for eight sessions.

[3] Thomas Mills, 3 September 1830, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/26.

[4] ‘Letters from Thomas Mills TPCK/6/3/5, in the Thomas Percy Claude Kirkpatrick Archive’, n.d., The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland Heritage Centre.

[5] Harriet Wheelock, ‘My Dear Mich …’, RCPI Heritage Centre Blog, June 13, 2011; available from; accessed 21 September 2021.

[6] ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, British Council, July 2016; available from; accessed 9 December 2021.

[7] Laurence Brockliss, ‘Medicine, Religion and Social Mobility in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland’, in Ireland and Medicine in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, eds. James Kelly and Fiona Clark (London, 2016), p 77.

[8] Harriet Wheelock, ‘My Dear Mich …’, RCPI Heritage Centre Blog, June 13, 2011; available from; accessed 21 September 2021.

[9] ‘Cork Street Fever Hospital and House of Recovery’, Cork Street Fever Hospital, October 2015; available from; accessed 9 December 2021.

[10] Thomas Mills, 1 May 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/2.

[11] Thomas Mills, 1 May 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/2.

[12] John Farmer, Patients, Potions & Physicians: A Social History of Medicine in Ireland, 1654-2004, (Dublin, 2004), p71, 74.

[13] Thomas Mills, 18 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/8.

[14] Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland, (Dublin, 1837), lists the population as 617 people.

[15] Thomas Mills, (n.d. possibly 1 or 2) July 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/5.

[16] Kennedy, W. Benjamin, Catholics in Ireland and the French Revolution, Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, Vol 85, No. 3/4, 1974, pp 221.

[17] ‘Scottish Enlightenment’, British Council, July 2016; available from; accessed 9 December 2021.

[18] ‘Scotland and the French Revolution’, The Scottish History Society, n.d.; available from; accessed 9 December 2021.

[19] A.T.Q. Stewart, ‘William Drennan’, in Dictionary of Irish Bibliography, October 2009, Royal Irish Academy,, accessed 9 December 2021.

[20] Thomas Mills, 14 May 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/4.

[21] C.J. Woods, ‘Alexander Crawford’ in Dictionary of Irish Bibliography, revised December 2010, Royal Irish Academy,, accessed 9 December 2021.

[22] John Gamble, edited by Breandán Mac Suibhne, Society and manners in early nineteenth-century Ireland, Field Day, 2011, XXV.

[23] Thomas Mills, 12 July 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/10.

[24] Thomas Mills, 12 July 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/10.

[25] Thomas Mills, 1 September 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/17.

[26] P.J. Bowler, ‘Evolution, History Of’, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes (Oxford, 2001), 4986–92; available from

[27] Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (Chicago, 1989), 5.

[28] Thomas Mills, 29 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/15.

[29] Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (Chicago, 1989), 4.

[30] Adrian Desmond, The Politics of Evolution: Morphology, Medicine, and Reform in Radical London (Chicago, 1989), 5.

[31] Thomas Mills, 9 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/1.

[32] Thomas Mills, 28 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/13.

[33] Thomas Mills, 30 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/16

[34] Thomas Mills, 3 July 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/5.

[35] Thomas Mills, 3 July 1805, p9- 10, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/5.

[36] Thomas Mills, 13 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/4.

[37] Thomas Mills, 13-14 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/5.

[38] Thomas Mills, (n.d., possibly 1 or 2 July 1805), RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/5.

[39] Thomas Mills, 18 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/9.

[40] Thomas Mills, 18 August 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/9.

[41] W. Forsythe, ‘The Measures and Materiality of Improvement in Ireland’, International Journal of Historical Archaeology 17, no. 1 (2013), 73.

[42] Thomas Mills, 4 September 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/19.

[43] Maria Luddy and Mary O’Dowd, eds., ‘Meeting and Matching with a Partner’, in Marriage in Ireland, 1660–1925 (Cambridge, 2020), 91–134; available from; accessed 9 December 2021.

[44] Probate Record and Marriage License Index, 1270-1858, Keeper of the Public Records in Ireland, (Dublin, Ireland), 745; available from; accessed 24 November 2021.

[45] Annual Report of the Managing Committee of the House of Recovery, and Fever-Hospital, in Cork Street Dublin, for the Year Ending 4th January, 1809 (Dublin, 1809); available from; accessed 9 December 2021.

[46] An essay on the utility of Blood-Letting in Fever, (Dublin, 1813).

[47] Belfast Newsletter, 22 & 29 August 1823; The Freeman’s Journal, 25 August 1823.

[48] Thomas Mills, 1 May 1805, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/2.

[49] Michael Mills, 13 May 1824, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/21.

[50] Michael Mills, 13 May 1824, RCPI Kirkpatrick Archive, TPCK/6/3/5/21.

[51] An essay on the utility of Blood-Letting in Fever, (Dublin, 1813); The Morbid Anatomy of the Brain in Typhus Fever, (Dublin, 1817); Observations on the Diseases of the Liver’ (Dublin, 1811 and 2nd edition 1821); An Account of the Morbid Appearances exhibited on Dissection in various Disorders of the Brain, (Dublin, 1826); and An Account of the Morbid Appearances exhibited on Dissection in Disorders of the Trachea, Lungs and Heart, (Dublin, 1829).

[52] The Freeman’s Journal, 11 May 1821.

[53] Transactions of the Association of Fellows and Licentiates of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians in Ireland. Volume 4, 1824, digitised by Wellcome Library; available from; accessed 25 November 2021.

[54] Belfast Newsletter, 26 Nov 1830..

[55] Richard E. Morris, ‘The Victorian “Change of Air” as Medical and Social Construction’, Journal of Tourism History 10, no. 1 (January 2, 2018), 4.

[56] Belfast Newsletter, 26 Nov 1830.

[57] Pettigrew and Oulton, The Dublin Almanac and General Register Of Ireland, 1835, 308.

[58] Belfast Newsletter, 26 Nov 1830.