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Ireland’s governance, Stern(e) Lectures and a Voyage of the Blessed – ISECS Rotterdam, Day 3

July 30, 2015

ISECS 2015

Everyone’s conference is different.  Nobody takes the same map through the conference.  The morning was devoted to early eighteenth-century Irish governance.  I learned about the extent to which Bishop Berkeley started to moderate the anti-catholic rhetoric that was fastened to the discourse of so-called liberalism through the muscle memory of long usage.  I learned about how William Molyneux developed his case for Irish legislative independence as a result of strategically gifted relationships with prominent English Whigs – including John Locke.  And we had some proper legal history, a discussion of the complex and compromised arrangements whereby the question of whether Dublin or Westminster was the highest court of appeal, was rarely if ever pushed to a point of logical conflict.

And then the afternoon was given to Laurence Sterne.  Three and a half hours of Shandean discourse.  Three and a half hours on latitudinarian sermons, on the meaning of “gentility”, on the Levant company and its failures and a minute and well illustrated discussion of the typefaces and printing conceits employed not merely by the novel, but by advertisements for the novel.  All of the speakers were wonderful, and focused, and not inappropriately digressive at all.  And by the afternoon’s end, the discussion appeared blissfully incomplete.

And in the evening we were herded onto a boat.  With stormclouds glowering and exercising themselves all week, I feared the event might become a Voyage of the Damned.  Or a Stultifera Navis – a ship of rudderless fools – the Enlightenment adrift.   But instead we had the best weather we’d had all week.  We grabbed platefuls of eclectic cuisine, charged our glasses and scrambled aloft as our little craft weaved in and out of the myriad of smaller docks that go to make Europe’s largest port.  The conference theme of “commerce”, sometime allegorised to the point of implausible dilution was here literalised and given a sea salt tang of joyous actuality.

If being a sailor consisted entirely of eating, drinking and discussing eighteenth century culture while listening to seagulls and waving at passing vessels I think I might after all, somewhat belatedly, want to fulfill my childhood dream of running away to sea.

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