Sunday, January 10, 2010

A family of Balls, the father of mass-entertainment and the greatest of all the Barnacles

Mary Ball, yesterday's naturalist of the day, was part of a massive family business. Her brother, Robert, gave 7,000 specimens to the Dublin University Museum, whose zoological and ethnological collections he also organized. He also helped develop the Dublin Zoo. His eldest son, also Robert, was astronomer royal of Ireland and later director of Cambridge University's observatory (he's the one in the picture). The next son, Valentine, participated in the Indian geological survey before becoming director of the Institutions of Science and Art, an umbrellas for what are now the National Museum, National Library and botanical gardens. The third son, Charles, was an eminent surgeon who pioneered antiseptic operations and the rectal valves known as "Ball's valves". That makes five Ball family members with DIB entries - a sixth, Ann (or Anne), sister of Mary and Robert senior, is twice mentioned as herself being a noted naturalist.  Also, a grandson of Robert junior, Henry Barcroft, who held a chair of physiology at Queen's University, Belfast. A remarkable family.

One of the books I enjoyed reading at school was Balzac's Le Père Goriot. It is set in Paris in 1819 and opens in a boarding-house where some residents have a running joke of coining words with the suffix "-orama". Panoramas - large curved paintings viewed inside specially-constructed buildings - were popular entertainment at the time, hence the joke. The original panorama was invented by an Irishman, Robert Barker, who displayed landscape pictures inside a circular building, specially lit to create an illusion of reality. He was credited with using "a false perspective, a proper point of view, and unlimiting the bounds of the art of painting." Once his patent expired, the panorama became an international phenomenon. The DIB, reasonably, credits Barker with creating "an extremely popular form of mass entertainment which is the ancestor of many types of entertainment still current 200 years later," citing photography, cinema, IMAX and virtual reality games.

My birthday is June 16, or Bloomsday, the date on which James Joyce's Ulysses takes place and also when he met his wife Nora Barnacle. (I sometimes think Leopold Bloom is my closest living relative; apart from the June 16 thing, we both had Hungarian Jewish fathers and Irish catholic mothers. On the other hand, my father is alive and well, having never committed suicide in a hotel in Ennis.) Thanks to Brenda Maddox, we knew a lot already about Nora. She was an extraordinary companion to a very difficult though brilliant man. She had considerable character: she once told Joyce that if he didn't curb his drinking, she'd have their children baptized. Another story I like (although not in the DIB): Snobs considered her ill-educated and an unworthy consort for the great man. One such, during an interview, sought to trap her by asking who was her favorite writer. She replied, "when you've been married to the greatest writer in the world, you don't have much time for the little fellows." (I quote from memory.) I love that.

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