John Brinkley (astronomer)

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The Rt. Rev. John Mortimer Brinkley DD HFRSE (ca. 1763 in Woodbridge, Suffolk – 14 September 1835 in Dublin) was the first Royal Astronomer of Ireland and later Bishop of Cloyne. He was President of the Royal Irish Academy (1822–35), President of the Royal Astronomical Society (1831–33) and awarded the Copley Medal in 1824.

Early years

Brinkley was born in Woodbridge, Suffolk and was baptised there on 31 January 1763, the illegitimate son of Sarah Brinkley, a butcher's daughter.

On being admitted to Cambridge, he was recorded as being the son of John Toler Brinkley, a vintner, but it is strongly suggested that his real father was John Toler, 1st Earl of Norbury, Chief Justice of the Irish Court of Common Pleas.[1][2]

His exact date of birth is unknown; he has often been assigned the birth year 1763, as at least one obituary gives his age at death in 1835 as 72.[3] However, his memorial at Trinity College, Dublin states that he died aged 70; also, he was recorded as being 17 upon matriculation at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge in August 1783, both of which imply a slightly later birth year.


He graduated B.A. in 1788 as senior wrangler and Smith's Prizeman, was elected a fellow of the college and was awarded M.A. in 1791. He was ordained at Lincoln Cathedral in the same year.

In 1792 he became the second Andrews Professor of Astronomy in the University of Dublin, which carried the new title of Royal Astronomer of Ireland. Together with John Law, Bishop of Elphin, he drafted the chapter on "Astronomy" in William Paley's Natural Theology.[4] His main work concerned stellar astronomy and he published his Elements of Plane Astronomy in 1808.

In 1818 he was awarded the prestigious Cunningham Medal of the Royal Irish Academy[5] and in 1822 was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.[6] He was awarded the Copley Medal by the Royal Society in 1824.

Brinkley's observations that several stars shifted their apparent place in the sky in the course of a year were disproved at Greenwich by his contemporary John Pond, the Astronomer Royal. In 1826, he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne in County Cork, a position he held for the remaining nine years of his life. Brinkley was elected President of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1831, serving in that position for two years.[7]

Brinkley died in 1835 at Leeson Street, Dublin and was buried in Trinity College chapel. He was succeeded at Dunsink Observatory by Sir William Rowan Hamilton.


Brinkley married Esther, daughter of Matthew Weld of Molesworth Street, Sheriff of Dublin City, by his wife Elizabeth Kane, daughter of Nathaniel Kane (d. 1757) of Drumreaske, Co. Monaghan; Sheriff (1720) and Lord Mayor of Dublin (1734); co-founder of the Bank of Kane & Latouche. Brinkley and his wife were the parents of two sons and a daughter: John (1793–1847), Rector of Glanworth, Diocese of Cloyne, who married Anna, second daughter and co-heir of Rev. Walter Stephens, of Hybla, co. Kildare; Sarah Jane (1801-1827), second wife of Dr. Robert Graves, who died giving birth to a daughter; and Matthew (1797–1855) J.P., of Parsonstown House, Co. Meath, who married Harriet, a daughter of Dean Richard Graves and with her was the father of Francis Brinkley.[8]


  1. Venn, John, 'Brinkley, John', Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College 1349-1897, vol. ii, pp. 107-8. Cambridge University Press, 1898.
  2. "Brinkley, John (BRNY783J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Gentleman's Magazine. November 1835, p. 547.
  4. W Paley, Natural Theology (1802); footnote in the "Astronomy" chapter.
  5. Royal Irish Academy "Cunningham Medal" Check |url= value (help). RIA. Retrieved 11 November 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. "Book of Members, 1780–2010: Chapter B" (PDF). American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 7 August 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "LIST OF PRESIDENTS AND DATES OF OFFICE". A brief history of the RAS. Royal Astronomical Society. Retrieved 10 September 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Burke's Landed Gentry of Ireland, 1912. (Brinkley, Graves, and Weld pedigrees)
Church of Ireland titles
Preceded by
Charles Mongan Warburton
Bishop of Cloyne
Succeeded by
Samuel Kyle
Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross