Prior, Thomas (1681–1751), founder of the Dublin Society and philanthropist, was born in Garrison House, Rathdowney, Queen's Co. (Laois), second son among five children of Col. Thomas Prior and his first wife, whose name is unknown. According to unverified family history, his father secretly married again after the death of his first wife, this time to the good-looking daughter of a small farmer; they had two sons. His grandfather, Thomas Prior, an English captain, came to Ireland in 1636 and under the act of settlement obtained 500 acres of land in Rathdowney.
Thomas went to the Kilkenny School (1696–9), where he formed a lifelong friendship with George Berkeley (qv), later philosopher and bishop of Cloyne. Subjects included the classics, Hebrew, poetry, and oratory, and strict discipline was harshly enforced. Prior's entrance to TCD (1699) was delayed by the death of his father (1700), who was fatally wounded by outlaws. Thomas Prior always remained in touch with most of his family, but became estranged from his brother Richard and two half-brothers, of whose riotous lifestyle he disapproved. At TCD (BA 1703) he participated fully in the cultural life of the college, which at the time was influenced by the liberal ideas emanating from England and Europe (from such men as John Locke, René Descartes, and Sir Isaac Newton) and by the new patriotism of the Anglo-Irish (e.g. William Molyneux (qv), Jonathan Swift (qv)). This atmosphere had a profound influence on Prior for the rest of his life. Described as a studious and intelligent young man, he was more prone to action than to theorizing. His practical patriotism resulted in a life spent working for the social and economic integration of his country.
Little is known of his activities for the ten years following university. He probably spent much of that period at Rathdowney, where he was an improving landlord, but he also had a house in Bolton St., Dublin. Occasionally he went to Cambridge, where his favourite uncle, Richard Prior, lived. Richard had fled Ireland and been outlawed under the act of attainder passed in James II's Irish parliament. In 1712 Thomas went to Oxford (MA 1712), and spent time in London socialising with Berkeley, Samuel Molyneux (qv), and the intellectual elite. It was probably here he first met with Jonathan Swift, a little-known friendship commemorated later by an anonymously published satire, A dialogue between Dean Swift and Thomas Prior Esq., in the isles of St Patrick's church, Dublin, on that memorable day, October 9th, 1753 (1753). Returning to Ireland (1714) he established himself as agent in Dublin for a number of landlords, including Berkeley, whose financial affairs had become increasingly complicated. An astute businessman, Prior also leased land in Wicklow, subletting in smaller plots. His leases were models for their time: he insisted on specifications for proper dwelling houses and the sowing of crops, as well as proper enclosure of land. His annual income from his estates at this time was over £500.
Following Swift's rousing Drapier's letters (1724), Prior courageously published a treatise, List of the absentees of Ireland, and the yearly value of their estates and incomes spent abroad with observations on the present state and condition of that kingdom (1729). Unlike Swift, who was more concerned with the interests of the protestant Irish, Prior had an acute social conscience. He exposed the large number of landowners, including Berkeley, living abroad and spending money extracted from Irish tenants at home. According to Prior, much of this money could have been used to improve the poor economic condition of the country and the appalling conditions of many of its people. In appealing for the support of home industry rather than importation of goods, he roused the anger of several protestants in high places, including Primate Hugh Boulter (qv), archbishop of Armagh and a powerful force in Ireland, who insisted on placing Englishmen in Irish bishoprics, as well as in all government posts. An amusing response to Prior's List of absentees was The Irish register: or a list of the duchess dowagers, countesses, widow ladies, maiden ladies, widows and misses of large fortunes, in England, as register'd by the Dublin Society, for their members (1742), a satirical recommendation to Irishmen to repair Ireland's poverty by marrying wealthy English women.
The following year (1730) he published a pamphlet, Observations on coin in general with some proposals for regulating the value of coin in Ireland, which dealt with the chaotic condition of all forms of currency in Ireland. It was an important issue at the time, as there was a shortage of copper, silver, and gold coins throughout the country due to several factors: the depressed economy, lack of parity between Irish and English money, and Irish money spent abroad by absentees.
Deciding that action speaks louder than words, Prior, John Madden (1690–1751), and a group of twelve other men decided to form a society to improve the economic condition of the country by promoting good practices in agriculture, industry, and the arts and sciences in Ireland. The ‘Dublin Society for improving husbandry, manufactures and other useful arts and sciences’ (afterwards the Royal Dublin Society from 1820), was inaugurated in the rooms of the Philosophical Society of TCD (25 July 1731). Prior was later elected secretary, a position he held for twenty years until his death.
The rules of the society, influenced by Prior, encouraged each member to investigate a particular subject, such as agriculture, and communicate their expertise to the society (run by voluntary committees) and the public through publications that were distributed throughout the country, so that landlords could improve their output. Prior produced the first paper, A new way of draining marshy and boggy lands (1731). Over the years he drew up many pamphlets on practical topics, the most important being Instructions for planting and managing hops (1733), which was considered for many years one of the foremost works on the subject. His last publication (1749) was on encouraging linen manufacture in Ireland. As a result of his influence Richard Cox (qv) (1702–66), a landlord in Dunmanway, Co. Cork, transformed his local countryside by instigating the cultivation of flax. The ensuing development included flax mills, a spinning school, bleach yards, and the erection of a market house and schools. Over 300 inhabitants were dependent on the industry. Cox produced a pamphlet, A letter from Sir Richard Cox to Thomas Prior Esq., showing from experience a sure method of establishing linen manufactures and the beneficial effects thereof (1749), which acknowledged his indebtedness to the ideas of Prior.
Prior was also responsible for the purchase of agricultural implements for the Dublin Society. These were stored in the vaults of the Irish parliament house and later formed the first museum of agricultural implements in Ireland and Britain. He immersed himself in the activities of the society and with the financial support of his friend Samuel ‘Premium’ Madden (qv), developed a successful system of rewarding individuals and groups with premiums for economically beneficial agricultural and industrial experiments, inventions, and initiatives. With an additional annual grant from parliament of £500 a year (1749), procured through his friendly association with Lord Chesterfield (qv), viceroy of Ireland, the finances of the Dublin Society became more secure. A royal charter was granted in 1750. From these small beginnings and through the zeal of its founders the society prospered and went on in later years to leave a legacy of several national institutions including the national library, museum, art gallery, botanic gardens, veterinary college, school of art, and college of science.
Throughout his life Prior was a close friend and advisor of Berkeley. After Berkeley published a much maligned book on the use of tar-water as a cure for dysentery and pestilence resulting from famine, Prior stood by him and published his own book An authentick narrative on the success of tar-water (1746). Prior's interests in public health also included supporting Bartholomew Mosse (qv), who established the Rotunda Hospital (1751), the first maternity hospital in Ireland or Britain. Prior is listed as one of the four original trustees of the hospital.
Among his contemporaries, Prior was notable for his commitment to public service and his indifference to public honour or patronage. He showed little interest in party politics and put his country and its people before his own self-interest. By no means a deep thinker, he was a practical man who concentrated on immediate objectives. According to Terence de Vere White's (qv) assessment (1955) of Prior, ‘his cast of mind was puritan, but he seems to have been free from self-righteous or bigoted opinions . . . . He was very busy and public-spirited, not very efficient in private business, but zealous in public affairs. Too busy, it would seem, to have time to marry; too useful, occupied and constructive to waste time in quarrels. He left behind him no trace of scandal or folly . . . . His views were radical and he expressed them bravely. His pamphlets ensured him the disfavour of government because not only did he criticise Irish affairs, but he also questioned conventional beliefs’.
After a period of ill health Prior retired to his estate in Rathdowney during the summer of 1751 and he died 21 October 1751, aged 70. He was buried in the Rathdowney churchyard and his tombstone, inscribed ‘Thomas Prior Esq., who spent a long life in unwearied endeavours to promote the welfare of his country’, was later relocated inside the adjacent church. His exact place of burial is now unknown. In his will Prior disinherited his estranged two half-brothers, and left his estate to his cousin John Murray (Prior), only son of his aunt Mary. In recognition of his work for Dublin and Ireland a monument and bust by sculptor John Van Nost (qv) was erected in the south porch of Christ Church cathedral, with a lengthy Latin inscription penned by his close friend Berkeley: ‘ . . . Societatis Dubliniensis auctor, institutor, curator . . . ’ (‘ . . . promoter, founder and guardian of the Dublin Society . . . ’). The monument has been restored by the RDS.