John Toland (1670-1722) on A Night to Remember
The Irish rationalist philosopher and freethinker, John Toland died on this day in 1722. Precisely one year ago today, the tercentenary of his death was observed in his birthplace, the townland Ardagh on the Inishowen peninsula in Co. Donegal. To mark and observe this occasion, a special event – John Toland: Man of Ardagh – was organised. There was a great turn out at The Strand Hotel in Ballyliffin to mark not just his passing but also and more importantly, his life and the work that he undertook, which jointly constitute his legacy.
Speakers on the night included Dr Brian Lambkin, former principal of Lagan College, Belfast and founding director of the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies, who gave the keynote address. In his broad overview, he dwelt on some of the issues surrounding Toland and how his reputation has survived down through the years, despite controversies, some of which may still linger today. He also mentioned some of the places associated with Toland and his many travels through what could be considered 'Toland Country', concluding at his final resting place in the churchyard of St. Mary's Church in Putney, England
He was followed by Dr Kay Muhr, who gave a presentation on the history the Toland surname and its presence in the region of Inishowen, where it remains very much in evidence today, demonstrated in no small part by the turnout on the night. Among those was Patsy Toland, who entertained the gathering with a musical interlude, featuring songs and compositions from contemporaries of Toland, including Turlough O'Carolan (1670-1738), the harpist and singer whose blindness did not affect (maybe aided) his great gift for melodic composition.
Prior to that, Dr Takaharu Oda of Trinity College Dublin spoke about how Toland's work continues to be of interest to academics and scholars the world over, irrespective of barriers presented by language, culture or distance. This would be in no small part due to his valiant efforts to advance reason and critical thought over the blind acceptance of authority in religion, politics or any other public sphere, many times at great personal risk to himself.
Oscar Duggan of The Manuscript Publisher gave a presentation on Toland's literary and publishing activities, including the work that is being done today to to make Toland's works more accessible and known to a wider audience, employing modern media and techniques in the process, under the umbrella of the John Toland Centenaries web project. This is a project that was initiated in 2018, with a view to the upcoming centenaries surrounding his life and death and which will continue thereafter, to serve as a repository of knowledge about Toland, his life and times as well as those of his contemporaries and those who have followed in his path.
There followed a lengthy discussion about Toland, his enduring significance and appeal as a writer and as a public figure, which went on well into the night.