Seamus Deane, ‘National Character and the Character of Nations’ [Chap. 2], in Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790 (Oxford 1997), pp.49-99.

[Note: The end of each page in the original is indicated by bow brackets, e.g. {159} at the bottom of p.159. The original notes - in the range from 25 to 43 - are not supplied with this version. A few longer paragraphs have been divided for on-screen convenience. [BS]

The title of Deane’s book from which the extract is taken may reasonably be supposed to stem from a phrase from the following passage in The Third Policeman (1967): ‘I was clearly in a strange country but all the doubts and perplexities which strewed my mind could not stop me from feeling happy and heart-light and full of an appetite for going about my business and finding the hiding-place of the black box.’ (Penguin edn., p.37; my italics.)]


Speaking of the Nation: The Collegians
National character, as a category, illuminates some of the connections between speech and land in their various representations, most especially when the possession of each is taken to be a matter of critical political importance. There is a way of possessing speech and land that is held to be native to the Irish; and there is equally a mode of possession that is English. It is not merely a matter of claiming a difference between these. It is a matter of making one claim superior to the other or, alternatively, of eliding that difference and showing that the Irish can speak English as do the English and that they can, comparably, hold land according to English law.

However, if national character is to be altered, renovated so that it will allow the Irish to enter into the English world of progress and modernity, the consequence might seem to be that such a renovation might make the Irish indistinguishable from the English. In reforming the national character, national identity might be lost. It is, of course, true that the words identity and character are miscellaneously used in a diverse number of texts right through that century and beyond. But there is, I suggest, a difference between them.

In becoming a nation-state, England or France, for instance, could claim that the national identity had been preserved because identity was the condition attained by the national character when it became duplicated all over the globe via imperial expansion. Only privileged, successful versions of a local national character could claim a place in the evolutionary story of the character of nations - nations, that is, that were simultaneously particular in themselves but also universal in their global appeal. This, obviously, could neither apply nor appeal to the Irish; for them the character of nations, so construed, was profoundly oppressive. It assigned to them a national {56} character that had no global future. To the extent that they tried to reform this character so that it might find an entry into the imperial adventure of modernity, they risked losing their identity. The risk was taken. The first step was to find a mode of representation for Ireland that would confirm its uniqueness and liberate it from the notion that it was a civilization doomed to extinction in the evolutionary history of nation-state formations.

The first requirement for the national character was to find a manner in which its speech might be represented. This was first engaged with as a conscious political and historical question by Maria Edgeworth, both in Castle Rackrent and in her Essay on Irish Bulls. It remained a charged issue in Irish fiction thereafter, undergoing its ultimate transformation in Joyce’s work, where the idea of representing an already existing national character was replaced by that of forging the national identity through the act of writing.

If Castle Rackrent is set alongside Gerald Griffin’s The Collegians (1829), the effectiveness of the national character as an agency for the production of the country’s general history in the form of an exemplary, ostensibly ‘private’ or family, narrative is further vindicated. Griffin was ultimately upset that the villain of his novel, the half sir, Hardness Cregan, should be more memorable and more likeable than the stalwart Kyrie Daly, the young Catholic son of a middleman farmer who eventually marries Ann Chute, the daughter of a landed family and the heiress whose fortune will confer respectability and ease, as well as freedom from sectarian identification, on her spouse. Griffin was right to be so worried, although his ethical or moral anxiety is perhaps too limiting in its version of the problem. For the melodramatic form of his novel demands that the choice between good and evil be stark, and its ethical imperative - that control win out over excess - ensures that the history of past excess, embodied in Hardness, should be much more materially present to us than the yet to be written history of control ever could be. The good are pallid because they have, in the economy of this novel, no historical time; they are anachronistic, out of time, in a sense opposite to that which applies to the villains of the piece. Peter Brooks establishes the convention’s norms and anxieties: {57}

Melodramatic good and evil are highly personalized: they are assigned to, they inhabit persons who indeed have no psychological complexity but who are strongly characterized. Most notably, evil is villainy; it is a swarthy, cape enveloped man with a deep voice. Good and evil can be named as persons are named - d culorlearra, tend in fact to urce, coward a clear nomination of the moral universe The ritual of melodrama involves the commutation of clearly identified antagonists and the expulsion of one of them, It can offer no terminal reconciliation, for there is no longer a clear transcendent value to be reconciled to. There is, rather, a social order to be purged, a set of ethical imperatives to be made clear. (Peter Brooks, The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess, Yale UP 1976, 1984, pp.16-17.)

The Collegians, is, self-consciously, a national novel in the form of Romantic melodrama. Various people are identified as having the national characteristics of recklessness, vivacity, unsteadiness, lack of moral perception - excepting young Daly, who is the rational and noble emblem of the new type who is to inherit the Irish earth after Emancipation. The novel can indeed be read as an account of the newly emergent relationship between the national and the rational, with the rational understood to be that progressive condition that grows out of and surpasses the national. But this is not the revolutionary rationality of the system maker. Rather the reverse: it is the rationality of control, of reform, of modified, educated improvement. Kyrie is controlled by his rationality and is thereby equipped to control what would otherwise be his national fate - epitomized by his Trinity College friend Hardness Cregan, The young Catholic beauty, Eily O’Connor, the Colleen Bawn, is murdered by the young half sir Hardness (or at his instigation) after a secret marriage and his subsequent regret at a liaison that is both socially embarrassing and financially unwise - since only Ann Chute’s fortune will redeem his property. Hardness is a version of the Rackrents; and the other HCs in the novel (Hyland Creagh, Hepton Connolly) are cut from the sarne cloth-duellists, hard drinkers, ruinous spendthrifts, sportsmen, and, most important of all, anachronistic. ‘Mr Hepton Connolly was one individual of a species now happily extinct among Irish gentlemen. He just retained enough of a once flourishing patrimony to enable him to keep a hunter, a racer, and an insolent groom.’ {58}

One of the features of Edgeworth’s and Griffin’s texts - as also of those of novelists like the Banim brothers, Carleton, Charles Lever, Lady Morgan - is the rendering of Irish speech as a mode of authenticity and as a claim to realism. But whatever the fidelity of this rendering, the function of dialect, most especially of a dialect that is marked by vigour, oddity, fierceness, malapropisms, grammatical fractures - is worth considering more closely than any dispute about its authenticity. Its claim to authenticity resides in its mere presence, not in its proximity or otherwise to the actual speech of Irish people. In The Collegians there is a correlation between certain physical characteristics and certain forms of speech. Kyrie Daly and his friend Hardness Cregan have servants, Lowry Looby and Danny Mann. Both these servants are physically deformed, although in different ways, and both speak a dialect that is, in Looby’s case, endearingly attractive (or meant to be so) and in Mann’s case coarsely repellent. Their dialect is, like themselves, inferior to the educated speech of their young masters. Because each speaks in this instance, each is manifesting a national characteristic - but that national characteristic is indissolubly allied with degradation. Looby has come down in the world: a cottier, he has lost what land he had in an agricultural crisis during the Halifax administration. Now he is a faithful retainer, exhibiting in his posture ‘the effect ... of habitual penury and dependance’. But from the outset Looby was doomed to misfortune.

In his physique, “it seemed as if nature ... had laid the foundation of a giant ... but ... had been compelled to terminate her undertaking within the dimensions of a dwarf.”’ He has “the national talent for adroit flattery”; and before he became a servant he lost the chance to become a postmaster because of a superstitious belief. In this respect he is like his master, Mr Daly, father to Kyrie, who named a child of his “North-East” in compliance with a popular superstition, again because the Dalys, otherwise sensible, “were not wholly exempt from the prevailing weakness of their countrymen”. Landless, superstitious, Physically grotesque, illiterate, comically eloquent with a strong country brogue, Looby is an exemplary instance of the national character of the Irish, benignly viewed; one step back from his master, Mr Daly; two steps back from Kyrie Daly. Danny Mann, by contrast, besides being a hunchback, is {59} marked ‘by that look of pert shrewdness which marks the low inhabitant of a city, and vents itself in vulgar cant, and in ridicule of the honest and wondering ignorance of rustic simplicity.’

Mann’s injury has been inflicted by Hardness: when they were younger, Hardress hurled Mann down a flight of stairs, injuring his spine. But the consequence is that Mann is Hardress’s slave; he will do anything, even to the point of committing murder for him. He may be free of Looby’s disabling superstition; but he has so internally secreted his own oppression that his savage fidelity is itself a form of superstition too. Both men are physically, psychologically, socially, and economically retarded. Their speech is geared to their conditions; one rural and innocent, the other urban and corrupt; one superstitious, the other cynical; one harmless, the other violent. Neither has undergone civic emancipation. Nor can they. They are no more than representations of a historical moment in the evolution of their respective masters. There is no question of psychological complexity here. These four male figures constitute a palimpsest of an evolving historical condition, with Kyrie Daly the most highly evolved in the direction of rationality and Hardness Cregan the most fatally, if attractively, still engaged with the emotional intensities of his forebears. The extent of evolutionary progress is indicated by the difference between a speech that is civil and one that is disfigured, between received pronunciation and dialect, analogous to the physical characteristics of the handsome masters and their deformed servants.

However, the most important dialect, the one that places the speech of the male quartet most luminously, is that of the Colleen Bawn, Eily O’Connor, herself. Even the fact that she has two names, one in phonetically rendered Irish, the other in English, establishes her as a person who summarizes in her name a historical process, a transition between folk origin and social respectability. Eily’s birthday is St Patrick’s Day; the celebrations on that day in Garryowen are as boisterous as one could wish: Garryowen, like Eily herself, has an Irish name, Garbh Eoin, meaning Eoin’s garden, which we are told, because of the Garryowen boys, and because Moore, ‘our national lyrist’, has adapted the song ‘to one of the liveliest of his melodies’ has made the place ‘almost a synonime for Ireland’; {60} Eily’s fateful meeting with Hardness takes place on Patrick’s Day and in the course of it she and her father are rescued from the boisterousness of the Garryowen boys by Hardress. Her condition is, to say the least, overdetermined; her position is self-consciously allegorical. But the allegory extends itself to speech also. In the following passage, the links between speech, physical appearance, and a violent communal history are heavily marked:

It is true, indeed, that the origin of the suburban beauty was one which, in a troubled country like Ireland, had little of agreeable association to recommend it; but few even of those to whom twisted hemp was an object of secret terror, could look on the exquisitely beautiful face of Eily O’Connor, and remember that she was a ropemaker’s daughter; few could detect beneath the timid, hesitating, downcast gentleness of manner, which shed an interest over all her motions, the traces of a harsh and vulgar education. It was true that she sometimes purloined a final letter from the King’s adjectives, and prolonged the utterance of a vowel beyond the term of prosodaical orthodoxy, but the tongue that did so seemed to move on silver wires, and the lip on which the sound delayed

“long murmuring, loth to part”

imparted to its own accents an association of sweetness and grace, that made the defect an additional allurement. (John Cronin, ed., The Collegians, Appletree 1992, p.4.)

The links are telling. Eily is a ropemaker’s daughter; the rope is associated with the hangman (Mr Daly calls Micil O’Connor ‘a species of collateral hangman’): in a country such as Ireland the association is inevitable; her beauty does not mask vulgarity; her speech is not the King’s English: she filches from it, she breaks its orthodox rules, yet this defect is the more attractive for the sweetness of her voice. State violence, defective pronunciation of the King’s English, female beauty, Irish accent: as with Looby and Mann, there is a politics inscribed in speech, a politics understood in terms of a degradation that cannot be represented in received English. For Eily’s speech is not rendered in dialect, although we are to understand that the King’s English undergoes some distressingly Irish mutations in her mouth. Eily has had a measure of education, through her uncle, the priest, Father Edward, who was educated at Salamanca in the penal era. But the ‘moral entertainment’ provided {61} by her reading of Addison and Dr Johnson is insufficient to raise her, in appearance or in speech, to the status of Ann Chute, whose beauty is described in terms that indicate she is of the classical ‘act’ tradition (the Temple of Theseus, the Doric pillars of Trinity College) rather than that of nature, like Eily. Degradation of speech, unruly behaviour leading to violence, tatterdemalion dress, the small variations in low economic status, the lack of personal or civic control, are all symptoms of Ireland’s past and all have to be overcome - as in Kyrie Daly - that the emergence of Ireland from its history can be completed. That history is represented at one level as something to be escaped from and finally resolved in the national marriage of Kyrie Daly and Ann Chute.

Despite the fact that history is represented as a retarding influence, manifest in defective speech, physical deformity, and in the violence that takes the lives of Eily, Danny Mann, and Hardness, it retains its dominance. Even the long perspective in which the story is cast, the better to persuade us that the bad old days are gone, does not disguise the inescapable reality of this unreal territory and its murky past. The novel’s attempt to abandon a delinquent nationality for a modern rationality is a failure. What we may call the folklorish elements in the fiction, the authenticity of the Irish cultural and historical setting, is precisely what must be sacrificed for a marriage that will be economically emblematic of future success and that will be representable not only in the King’s English but by people who speak the King’s English. Irish history, the Ireland of Garryowen, the Ireland of the 1770s, the Colleen Bawn, duellists, exotic murder, shadowed by the hangman’s noose, is a foreign country because it is a country foreign to the present of the 1820s. To travel in it is to wonder how it can ever be reformed into a proper and civil part of the United Kingdom. Catholic Emancipation was not merely a matter of the franchise and the penal laws; it was a matter of emancipation from the past into civic freedom from that dark, phantasmagoric unreality of earlier times.

In Boucicault’s dramatic version of The Collegians, The Colleen Bawn, first performed in New York in 1860, the question of accent is even more prominent. But now there is a significant change in roles. {62} Hardness is no longer the squireen. He disapproves of whiskey, smoking, and, above all, of Eily’s brogue and her frequent use of Irish chevilles - ‘asthore’ and the like. All the obloquy that was formerly his is now transferred to the gombeen man, Corrigan. But by the close Eily is commanded to speak (or rather ‘spake’) in her natural accent, and the ‘Brides of Garryowen’, she and Ann Chute, are happily reconciled with Hardness and Kyrie Daly. The most significant alteration in the Boucicault play, and in the opera derived from it, The Lily of Killarney [1861], is not in the roles of the characters so much as in the disappearance from these adaptations of the heavily upholstered prose of Griffin himself. For that is the form of the King’s English that is ultimately dominant - self consciously respectable, wearing its learning on its sleeve, even making its classical quotations, tags, and references a ground bass to the lighter Irish melodies of place names, personal names (Myles-na-Copaleen), and chevilles. It is writing with an accent, the accent of respectability, education, responsible and tender feeling. In this novel, it is crucially important that speech should not be deformed, for deformity of speech indicates moral, social, or political delinquency. This is a point exploited in the opera adaptation, especially in Danny Mann’s recitative, where he makes the connection between physical and moral and emotional deformity clear in the standard way of the villain:

Duty, yes, I’ll do my duty,
What is love and what is beauty
To a rough misshapen creature,
Crooked in form and hard in feature?

Hearts that melt in soft compassion
Beat in frames of other fashion,
I’ll help the master where I can,
No other law has Danny Mann.

[p.63; end sect.]


The Politics of Music: Thomas Moore
[... T]here is another mode in which the instability of the Irish national character and the discourse appropriate to it are registered. In Thomas Moore’s “Letter to the Marchioness of Donegal”, affixed as a preface to the third number of the Irish Melodies, he identifies that mode as music:

It has often been remarked and oftener felt, that our music is the truest of all comments upon our history. The tone of defiance succeeded by the languor of despondency a burst of turbulence dying away into softness the sorrows of one moment lost in the levity of the next - and all that romantic mixture of mine and sadness, which is naturally produced by the efforts of a lively temperament, to shake off, or forget the wrongs which lie upon it: such are the features of our history and character, which we find strongly and faithfully reflected in our music; and there are many airs, which, I think, it is difficult to listen to, without recalling some period or event in which their expression seems particularly applicable. (Irish Melodies, Longman 1810, p.iv.)

Moore’s Melodies, and his own placement of them in relation to national character, co-ordinates national history, national character, within a political programme for Catholic repair and renewal. But his verses are a form of polite narrative that masters the wild and fierce music, which he and Sir John Stevenson were said to have emasculated, giving to it instead the ‘correct’ musical accent, far different from those accents that had been heard at the Belfast Harpers’ Festival in 1792 and written down (although again imperfectly) by Edward Bunting. The Melodies, like a number of later compilations of songs, cannot escape the problems raised by transmission from an oral to a print culture. The premiss is that the music that had existed for centuries had never been written down; when it was, the relation between that music and its pre-print form was generally considered to be deformed in some sense. In Moore’s case, we constantly find ourselves reading the Melodies without the music; the music is supplied by memory. So he, like the others I have mentioned, appears in two forms - with or without the music - and the arguments are conducted on the lines of deformation: the words deform the music, the musical notation is inappropriate to the {66} native forms. In such textual confusion, where does the claim to authenticity lie? Part of the answer is that the whole territory of Irish music, and by extension of Irish authenticity, is betrayed into print; and yet it is only through such betrayal that it can be preserved at all, for it is only through the medium of print that an audience can be found and established. If sympathy for the Irish problem within the Union were to be won, it had to be publicized and commercialized in a recognizable and attractive form. To that end, Irishness had to be sold as ‘Irish national character’ - a form recognizable precisely because of its complicity with, as well as difference from, the successful anti-revolutionary version of a syndicated British national character that Burke had inaugurated. The one element in that character that had to be erased was the revolutionary element; for once that appeared, the commercialization failed and Ireland became a territory as Other as revolutionary France.

Thus, the disputes about Moore’s brilliantly syndicated versions of the Irish in his Melodies were inevitably political. Douglas Hyde’s verdict on Moore epitomizes the hostility to him - a hostility more marked during the Irish Revival than before or since. Moore ‘had rendered the past of Ireland sentimentally interesting without arousing the prejudices of or alarming the upper classes’ [Irish Language Movement: Some Reminiscences”, in Manchester Guardian Commercial (10 May 1923, rep. in “An Craoibhín Aoibhinn”: Language, Lore and Lyrics - Essays and Lectures, ed., Breandan Ó Conaire, Dublin: IAP 1986.] But this is an accusation that applies much more accurately to Moore the melodist than to Moore the political writer. Moore seems to have been disgusted by the servility displayed by the Irish on the occasion of George IV’s visit in 1821. Certainly for some years after his prose versions of Irish history manifest a much more acerbic view of his country’s history than do the Melodies. Moore favoured the tactic of concealment, whether in Lallah Rookh, where the disguise is ‘oriental’ or in Memoirs of Captain Rock (1824) wherein he frames within a polite narrative the fierce accents of the wild and temperamental Irish, with the well-tried device of an Editor, who is engaged on a missionary crusade in Ireland. When this Editor is given an autobiographical manuscript recounting the exploits of Captain Rock, a famous rebel leader of the ‘poor benighted Irish’, he discovers the significant detail that Rock was born on the day Father Nicholas Sheehy was judicially assassinated at Clonmel in 1776 - an incident {67} that Burke, O’Connell, and many others alluded to over the next sixty years. The significance here is that Sheehy was hanged in order to cow the Whiteboy movement into submission on the standard grounds that agrarian disturbances were disguised forms of sedition. In such details, Moore offers an indirect apologia for the ‘seditious’ activities of the Captain and provides a much more sympathetic understanding of the chaotic state of Irish political life than that given in, say, Thomas Crofton Croker’s story of agrarian distrubances in “The Carders”, in Ireland Today (1825). Memoirs of Captain Rock is an interesting narrative in that it recounts the history of Ireland in ironic mode, pretending that the Rock family has only been able to sustain its ancestral violence as agrarian rebels because of the co-operation of the British government’s spectacularly cruel policies. It is, in effect, a rebel view of Irish history cast within the frame of an abortive Protestant missionary attempt to convert the Irish from their wildness and Catholicism - two interdependent conditions.

Still, it remains true that the horrors of the penal era and the brutalities of the Ascendancy are consistently narrated by Moore, as by Griffin and Edgeworth, even by the Banim brothers and Lady Morgan, as a history that is about to be overcome, as an inarticulacy that is now beginning to pass away and be replaced, however indirectly, by an increasing articulacy, even if it still shows marked traces of its inarticulate origin in the semi-civility of dialect. Since Ireland still had no institution that could plausibly be said to acknowledge its unique condition, printed discourse has had an especially important role to play in defining it and in providing a narrative for its resolution. It is a commonplace that organized movements, clubs, and societies - secret, teamed, and otherwise formed the matrix out of which various forms of protest and historical redefinition emerged into print. Since the days of the Volunteers, and even more since the organization of the United Irishmen through the press, the pamphlet, and the broadsheet, this had been generally recognized. Further, this expansion of print culture was regularly associated with the French Revolution. As late as 1831, Thomas Moore notes in The Life and {68} Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald that ‘The immense efficacy of clubs and societies, as instruments of political agitation, had been evinced by the use which the workers of the French revolution had made of them.’ (The Life ... &c., London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Browne and Green 1831, Vol. I, p.196.)

For such discourse, the central organizing cultural concept was national character, as it had been evinced in history and as it was displayed in the present. Increasingly, in the first decades of the nineteenth century, national character is an enduring category of collective existence that is expressed (although really constituted) within a series of miscellaneous narratives - travel literature, the political pamphlet, the novel, collections of music and folklore, and, in Moore’s case, collections of ancient melodies, refashioned in contemporary poetic idiom, that have exchanged the wild harp for the civil pianoforte. The difficulty encountered by such discourses, although they all encounter it with varying degrees of emphasis and success, is the connection between the constitution of a national character and the development of the material circumstances that are appropriate to it or to its alteration and improvement. The assumption is that national character is independent of material conditions and yet that its full development or final extirpation is dependent on their restructuring. Obviously, the various contradictions that both bedevil and define the national character are not subject to resolution. The relation between material conditions and cultural identification is critical; generally, the view is that one or other must be altered drastically before any resolution is possible. But then that is not a resolution; it is a surgical procedure that will remove one of the two elements that, in their combination, constitute the problem and in their separation either stifle it or prolong it. Part of this issue is embedded within the very act of transmission itself, whether that be in musical notation, in type fonts, in the representation of dialect. The point is that the problem was not really altered by these newly adopted modes of transmission. They actually determined its shape - even though the problem remained as one that was understood to have had an anterior existence that was now, however imperfectly, emerging into newly communicable forms.

[End. sect.]

[ close ]
[ top ]
[ next ]