Birmingham, John (1816–84), astronomer, polymath, and landowner, was born at Millbrook, near Tuam, Co. Galway in May 1816, the only son of Edward Birmingham (d. 1833, the youngest son of John (Sean Rua) Birmingham of Dalgin, a landowner with interests in the West Indies) and his wife, Elly (née Bell) (d. 1835), who came from a declining family near Purrane, Co. Galway. The Birminghams were of old Norman stock; after the extinction of a senior branch of the family Sean Rua spent large sums of money in 1800–02 on an unsuccessful attempt to establish his claim to the title of Lord Athenry. This claim was not maintained by his descendants because his three sons were born outside marriage to three different women; his marriage was childless. The Dalgin estate was divided among these three, and Edward Birmingham received 700 acres around Millbrook House, which included watermills at Lack that at one point were used to produce linen for export. By 1865, when John Birmingham had his title to the estate confirmed after a legal challenge, this had shrunk to 350 scattered acres in south-east Mayo and north Galway.
Sean Rua conformed to the established church, though his sons were nominal catholics. The Birminghams were part of a stratum of intermarried Connacht small gentry whose religious allegiances remained ambiguous and whose lifestyle was not particularly pious. As the internal discipline of the catholic and anglican churches sharpened in the nineteenth century and their boundaries became more clearly defined, these families were forced to choose definitively between them. The Kirwans of nearby Castlehacket (one of whom married a cousin of Birmingham), once seen as quasi-catholic, adopted evangelicalism; John Birmingham, in contrast, became increasingly identified with the intransigent catholicism associated with his friend Archbishop John MacHale (qv). Birmingham's biographer, Paul Mohr, speculatively attributes this allegiance to the influence of his mother, of whom little is known.
Birmingham was educated privately by tutors and briefly apprenticed to a Dublin solicitor (1832). He is alleged to have attended St Jarlath's College, Tuam, but no record of this survives. In his youth he was athletic, renowned for hammer-throwing and the long jump. At this point he conducted a non-marital liaison with a woman called Farragher from Lack (near Millbrook) which resulted in the birth of a daughter. Miss Farragher was eventually sent away into Co. Mayo, and their daughter later emigrated to America. Birmingham never married; he shared Millbrook House with two elderly aunts and a maternal uncle, Arthur Bell, who assisted his astronomical observations and outlived him.
The young Birmingham served as a steward at the local races on several occasions, and owned at least one (unsuccessful) racehorse. In 1838 he moved a resolution at an anti-tithe mass meeting at Ballyglass, Co. Galway. In later life he took little part in politics (he was a longstanding member of the Tuam poor law guardians, but his activities were mainly administrative); this may reflect a speech impediment which contributed to his shyness and relative social isolation. He often expressed anglophobia, was critical of the exploitation of tenants by landlords, eulogised Daniel O'Connell (qv), and may have had Young Ireland leanings at the time of the famine, but was definitely opposed to Fenianism. He appears to have been acquainted with George Henry Moore (qv), as he addressed two letters on comets to a London paper from Moore's London address in 1861.
From about 1844 to 1854 Birmingham spent long periods in continental travel, though he was active in famine relief around Tuam in 1846–7 and is known to have paid other visits to the area. He is believed to have undertaken further education in Germany, no details of which have yet come to light, and is known to have visited Rome in 1852.
On his definitive return to Millbrook in 1854, Birmingham built up a network of contacts with local papers (notably the Tuam Herald, edited by Richard Kelly (qv)), to which he contributed articles on scientific and other matters. He first attracted attention as a geologist between 1857 and 1864, when he contributed to the Journal of the Dublin Geological Society and addressed the British Association on the sedimentary rocks of Galway Bay and south-western Mayo. Through his personal observation of the terrain, Birmingham opposed the increasingly dominant view that the geological features of Connemara and the Burren were primarily due to glaciation, maintaining the older view that they had been caused by marine currents at a period when the land lay under the sea. Although his observations received some initial support from academics at Queen's College, Galway, they were later regarded as erroneous, and by 1880 Birmingham had accepted the glacial theory. He continued to publish occasional geological notes in local papers, but from the mid-1860s his principal interests turned elsewhere.
Birmingham may have been the anonymous reviewer of Darwin's Origin of species in the Dublin Review in 1860; one fragmentary letter from him concerning an ants’ nest survives in the Darwin papers, but it is not clear whether this represents a genuine observation or a leg-pull.
Birmingham was an occasional author of satirical verse (his first known publication, ‘Soyer's soup’, in the Tuam Herald of 12 June 1847, ridicules the chef's famine relief efforts as an attempt to persuade the Irish that they can avoid starvation by living on ditchwater). His major literary production was Anglicana: or England's mission to the Celt (1863), a book-length poem denouncing protestantism in general – especially anglicanism – and the coercive proselytising activities of Bishop Thomas Plunket (qv) in Partry in particular; this is combined with lyrical descriptions of a mournful Erin seated amid the Twelve Bens of Connemara. Birmingham also attacks the vices of the English nation, with particular reference to the exploitation of factory workers in a social system which he denounces as based on greed and the subjugation and massacre of indigenous peoples by British colonialists. Anglicana was widely praised by Irish catholic and nationalist papers; it was greatly admired by Archbishop MacHale, who distributed copies as prizes to students at St Jarlath's College, and it retained a local popularity in the Tuam area, though it did not achieve wider fame because of its provocative content and late-Augustan style. (Anglicana is written in heroic couplets; influences include Hudibras by Samuel Butler, Dryden's The hind and the panther, and the writings of Scott and Byron.) Only two copies were known to survive in 2002, both in private hands.
From 1858 Birmingham began to publish notes on astronomy in local papers, principally the Tuam Herald and Galway Vindicator. He built a small observatory, believed to have been on the roof of an outhouse near Millbrook House, which he decorated with biblical texts on the stars as indications of the glory of God. His first major contribution to astronomy came on 12 May 1866, when he discovered the variable star T Coronae in the constellation Corona Borealis. Birmingham promptly reported this discovery in a letter to The Times (which failed to print it, a decision which its author attributed to anti-Irish prejudice) and wrote to the astronomer royal, who confirmed the report and made important observations with the assistance of the newly developed spectroscope. The favourable publicity this received led Birmingham to acquire a powerful telescope made by Thomas Cooke of York, for £120, and to fit it with a lens made by Grubb of Dublin, at a cost of £70. Although his telescope was smaller than those used by other Irish amateur astronomers of the period, Birmingham compensated for this by the care and extent of his observations. He published almost 100 articles in astronomical journals (the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the society's journal the Astronomical Register and its successor the Observatory, the German Astronomische Nachrichten, and the London journal Nature). Birmingham also published popularised accounts of astronomical progress in London, Dublin, and Connacht papers (some of these, such as an 1872 Tuam Herald article on Jupiter, appear to have been rejected by learned journals). He is known to have corresponded widely with European astronomers, notably Fr Angelo Secchi, head of the Vatican observatory, assisted by his knowledge of French, German, and Latin. In 1878 the Prussian government formally presented him with a copy of the lunar map two metres in diameter made by Julius Schmidt, in which a walled plain near the lunar North Pole was named after Birmingham. (The designation was subsequently shifted to a nearby crater.)
In 1872 Birmingham began the revision of H. C. F. Schjellerup's Catalogue of red stars; he discovered forty-nine, compiled a list of all known red stars (reobserving 658 objects with his modest 4.5 inch (11.43 cm) refractor), and published ‘The red stars: observations and catalogue’ (RIA Trans., xxvi (1879), 249–354), for which he was awarded the RIA's Cunningham medal (1884). In his last years Birmingham worked on an update of this catalogue, bequeathing his notes and logbooks to his friend Thomas Webb of Herefordshire (an anglican rector) with instructions to complete the revision. However, Webb died a few months after Birmingham, and the revision was undertaken by Rev. Thomas E. Espin of Tow Law, Durham; the revised catalogue was published by the RIA in 1888, retaining Birmingham's name. (His observations subsequently passed through various hands in England and were inadvertently destroyed in 1934.) Birmingham published papers on features of Jupiter and the moon, on sunspots, on meteor showers (which he observed on 13 November and 12 December 1866 and 27 November 1872), and on the transit of Venus (6 December 1882). As well as the Birmingham Crater, rings on the moon were named after him, as was the strikingly variable deep red star in Cygnus which he discovered on 22 May 1881.
Birmingham took a strong interest in the extension of the railway to Tuam and beyond. He campaigned successfully for the line northwards from Tuam to go via Claremorris rather than Ballinrobe; in 1877 he personally surveyed the route later taken by the Tuam–Claremorris line, demonstrating its superiority to the ‘parliamentary’ route initially suggested. There has been persistent local speculation that the Knock apparition of 21 May 1879 may have been caused by Birmingham playing pranks with a magic lantern. Although he did possess an impish sense of humour, these claims are ruled out both by his religious convictions (he is said to have fought a duel with Lord Oranmore and Browne in the 1850s after the peer made insulting remarks about Mariolatry) and by the limitations of contemporary magic lantern technology.
Birmingham's last years were overshadowed by age, ill health, and the land war. He does not appear to have been a good estate manager and is remembered in local folk tradition as a generous and somewhat gullible man (he appears to have possessed a melancholy disposition; many of his writings display a preoccupation with human and animal suffering, and his religiosity may have included feelings of personal guilt) who ‘at the end had all spent up and died with the hunger’ (Mohr, 75, quoting the local historian Christy Molloy, brother of M. J. Molloy (qv)). While this may be an exaggeration, it is certain that his self-chosen geographical isolation excluded him from career advancement in science and that his financial position steadily deteriorated. In spring 1883 he was appointed a district inspector assessing the suitability of applicants for Board of Works loans; his obituarists claim that the conscientious performance of his duties affected his health, and at the time of his death the Galway MP Mitchell Henry (qv) was trying to secure a scientific position for him.
Birmingham died 7 September 1884 at Millbrook House of heart disease accompanied by dropsy and jaundice; his estate amounted to £532 3s. 11d. His papers and effects were lost or destroyed after his death, but his telescope was bought as a memento by St Jarlath's College, where it is preserved.