Thomas Flanagan, The Irish Novelists 1800-1850 (NY: Columbia UP 1959).

[Bibliographical note: The copyright attaches to the Columbia UP PhD of 1958. Pages numbers in the original appear at the top of each page and those in arrow brackets below follow this arrangement.]

FLUELLEN: .. I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation -
MACMORRIS: Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation? (Henry V, Act III, Scene 2.)

—What is your nation, if I may ask, says the citizen.
—Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. (James Joyce, Ulysses.)


We and our bitterness have left no traces
On Munster grass and Connemara skies. [1]

THE CLOSING LINES of the poem which young William Butler Yeats wrote in dedication of his book of stories from the Irish novelists suggest the distance which separated these writers from his own generation. In 1889 he was much concerned to discover whatever was usable in the literary past of Ireland, and the commission from an American publisher gave him an opportunity to read the novels of a tradition which had flourished and declined during the first half of the century. “It has all quite gone now—our little tide,” he wrote to Father Matthew Russell, who had helped him in his search for books which once were well known. Then, seeking to define the impression which his reading had made upon him, he wrote: “The old men tried to make one see life plainly but all written down in a kind of fiery shorthand that it might never be forgotten.” [2]

Since the appearance of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent in 1800, Irish writers had addressed themselves to the native scene—Lady Morgan, John- Banim, Gerald Griffin, William Carleton, and a small army of less conspicuous figures. In Ireland their books had been greeted with that mixture of lavish praise and hoarse indignation with which all public events, great or small, were celebrated. And abroad they had been accepted, each in turn and despite all contradictions, as the delineators of “the real Ireland.” But the development of the Irish novel had been cut short by the despair and silence which {viii} fell upon Ireland in the wake of the Famine. The decades which followed, years which are among the dreariest in Irish history, afforded barren soil for any kind of intellectual or political life.

”Banim and Griffin are gone,” William Carleton wrote to a friend in 1863, “and I will soon follow them—ultimus Romanorum, and after that will come a lull, an obscurity of perhaps half a century. ...” But the spell which had seized the country would be broken, he predicted, and other writers would come forward, “for in this manner the cycles of literature and taste appear, hold their day, displace each other, and make room for others.” [3]

But he probably did not anticipate the extent to ’which this new generation would not only replace but reject his own. The wrong people, so it seemed to the stern young men of the Irish revival, admired the early Irish novelists and for the wrong reasons. Their books had been bred of a bastard art, neither Irish nor English, and presented a view of Irish life which was false alike in moral and in political terms.

Yeats, with his strong sense of the need for connections with the past and his relative freedom from doctrinaire political assumptions, could read the “fiery shorthand” of the old novelists. “There is a great want for a just verdict on these men and their use for Ireland,” he wrote to Katherine Tynan in 1889. [4] But few shared his enthusiasm, and none attempted the task. The neglect persisted. Despite the attention which Irish literature has received, no scholar or critic has concerned himself with the general subject of the novelists who interpreted the life of Ireland during the years of its emergence into the modern world. [5]

The intention of this study, therefore, is to examine the works and careers of the principal Irish novelists of the early nineteenth century: {ix} Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, John Banim, William Carleton. I have not forgotten that other writers were at work during these years, and I have drawn upon them to illuminate particular subjects, but the study is given its form by .a close and detailed discussion of these five.

The Ireland of the nineteenth century was a fragmented culture, a dismaying and complicated tangle of classes, creeds, loyalties, and aspirations. In the first two of the three introductory chapters, I have set forth the historical background and have tried to recreate the social, political, and religious atmosphere. In its characteristic form the Irish novel is an attempt to define the nature of Irish society and to relate its present graces and disorders to the island’s tragic past. The myths, justifications, and visions which such novels embody are attempts to reconcile in symbolic terms the conflicting elements of a culture at war with itself. It is necessary, therefore, to have some understanding not only of the immediate social and political issues, but of their historical roots.

The insistence that a group of writers constitutes a “school” or a “tradition” is often made at the expense of their individuality. The bond which joins these writers is that all of them were Irishmen, trying to come to terms with the experience of life on their maddening island. And so, having set up the necessary guideposts in the introductory chapters, I have relied upon each writer to chart for the reader his particular stretch of the country. When these charts are all before us, we may be able to define the “tradition” of the Irish novel.

Preface - Notes
1. William Butler Yeats, Collected Poems, p.52.
2. The Letters of W. B. Yeats, p.143.
3. The Life of William Carleton.
4. Yeats, Letters, p.133.
5. There is, however, a useful bibliographical study: Stephen Brown, S. J. Ireland in Fiction: A Guide to Irish Novels, Tales, Romances, and Folk-Lore (Dublin 1916). Brown brought to his work a long and affectionate familiarity with Irish letters, but his entries should be checked against a more recent and more professional bibliography: L. Leclaire, A General Analytical Bibliography of the Regional Novelists of the British Isles, 1800–1950 (London, 1954).


The Weight of the Past
SHAKESPEARE BRINGS only one Irishman onto his stage. A Captain Macmorris makes a sudden appearance at the siege of Harfleur, behaves deplorably, and leaves in anger. He has been directing the mining operation and is much annoyed when retreat is sounded: “’Tis shame for us all. So God sa’ me, ’tis shame to stand still, it is shame, by my hand! and there is throats to be cut, and works to be done, and there ish nothing done. ... “
Fluellen, the pedant of war, is convinced that he has no knowledge of “the true disciplines of the wars, look you.” Macmorris listens with scant courtesy to a pompous but well-intentioned reproof, until he hears, “I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation—” And at this he explodes:

Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?

Fluellen, taken aback by this, makes a fresh try, though his own Welsh spirit prompts him to remark that he is “as good a man as yourself.” This provokes another show of temper: “I do not know you so good a man as myself. So Chrish save me, I will cut off your head!” At this point a trumpet summons them back to the war against the French, thus leaving unanswered for the centuries Macmorris’s truculent but plaintive cry, “What ish my nation?”

The scene compresses within a few lines the Elizabethan understanding of the Irish - touchy, moody, brave, undisciplined, and happily, casually murderous. Shakespeare’s audience could remember Shane O’Neill the Proud, brave and treacherous, stalking through the London {4} streets to make false submission to the Queen, protected by his shaggy, barbarous gallowglasses. A few, perhaps, had heard of how Garret Mor had justified to King Henry his burning of the cathedral of Cashel on the ground of his mistaken belief that the archbishop was inside. But everyone in that audience knew the stories brought back by soldiers from the Irish wars—chilling accounts of a land of quicksand bogs and vicious night raids, a land fitly symbolized by the wolves which prowled its shabby streets.

Ireland was no farther away than a short voyage over a rough sea, and yet it was in most ways as dreadful and as exotic as High Tartary. In theory it was a possession of the English Crown, but in practice it was a chaos of conflicting jurisdictions, for the English had never until the reign of Elizabeth determined upon a total conquest, and were incapable of maintaining permanent hold upon the Pale. The one certain principle upon which English rule was based was that English and Irish cultures were entirely different, that the latter was barbarous and degrading, and that because of its amazing absorptive powers it was a constant threat.

Since Norman times England had been despatching adventurers, soldiers, and officials to Ireland, only to discover that they had become, within one or two generations, hibernis ipsis hiberniores, more Irish than the Irish themselves. Such had been the fate of the great families of Fitzgerald and Courcey and de Burgh. In polite parlance they were the “old English,” but because they spoke Gaelic, lived by the Brehon code, and had no more use for English-law than the most remote Maguire, they were called, more often, “degenerate English.”

A number of attempts were made, in turn desultory, sullen, and ferocious, to halt these transformations, and always with the intention of keeping the cultures separate. Odd legalisms proliferated—Irish enemies, Irish rebels, English rebels. In the reign of Edward III, statutes were set which forbade intermarriage, the use of Gaelic, and even the entertaining by English hosts of native Irish. All proved useless; within a decade the most severe statute had become a mockery. London was forever receiving word that some de Burgh in Galway had flung off his English clothes, donned saffron kilts, and was now calling himself {5} MacWilliam Oughter, or some other agglutination of rough syllables.

Elizabeth had inherited the full debt of the earlier centuries, together with a problem peculiar to her own generation. For a variety of reasons the Reformation had not taken root in Ireland, which remained faithful to the older religion. A resourceful and wary ruler, Hugh O’Neill, had perceived the implications of this. He had thrown off his title as Earl of Tyrone and with it his allegiance, and now called himself The O’Neill. With a speed which suggests that the hour had been awaiting the man, he formed a coalition of Gaelic and Norman-Irish lords which defeated successive efforts to smash it. He had also, and more fatefully, sought aid from the Pope and from Catholic Spain against Elizabeth. The effect was to commit the cause of Celtic Ireland to that of the Counter-Reformation. Henceforth England was to be flanked, not by an ally, but by a seditious colony.

This was very much in the mind of Shakespeare’s audience as it watched the first performance of Henry V. The reason is given to us in the prologue to Act V:

Were now the general of our gracious Empress
(As in good time he may) from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him!

At that moment Essex was preparing to cross the Irish Sea, though scarcely under the conditions anticipated by the Chorus. Far from skewering rebellion, he had been infected by it, and the guileful O’Neill was more secure than ever. During the few years which were left to O’Neill to reign at Dungannon, surrounded by his bards and harpers and tanists, his priests and papal legates and emissaries from Spain, the character of Celtic Ireland was being hammered and hardened. From then until the mid-eighteenth century she would be an enemy whom England, even if it would, dared not spare. “The priests are on the ocean green,” as the poem has it, “They march along the deep.”

O’Neill’s hour struck in 1601. On the beach at Kinsale Gaelic Ireland suffered so utter a defeat that it seemed incapable of surviving. {6} It was in such circumstances, G. M. Trevelyan was to write, that “the Irish tribes finally became welded into the submerged Irish nation. ... The abolition of the native upper class to make room for English landlords, begun under the Tudors and completed by Cromwell, left this peasant nation with no leaders but the priests and no sympathizers but the enemies of England.” [1]

The literature of Ireland, for all its diversity, is given unity by the theme which returns, obsessively, to haunt every Irish writer. The question first posed by Macmorris phrases the theme as well as may be done: “What ish my nation?” But it involves those larger issues of culture and identity of which nationality, in the political sense, is but a shadow. For it may sometimes be the case that a man cannot really know what his culture is like, or even who he himself is, until he has answered Macmorris’s question.

In 1908 Thomas Kettle wrote a short but brilliant introduction to the English translation of L. Paul-Dubois’ Contemporary Ireland. It contains this passage:

A civilisation shaken by Norse invasion before it had quite recovered; a people plunged in an unimaginable chaos of races, religions, ideas, appetites, and provincialisms; brayed in the mortar without emerging as a consolidated whole; tenacious of the national idea, but unable to bring it to triumph; riven and pillaged by invasion without being conquered—how could such a people find leisure to grow up, or such a civilisation realise its full potentialities of development and discipline? [2]

Or where, we might add, could a writer look for a tradition; what assumptions could he take to be common to his society; how, indeed, could he be sure that Ireland boasted a society in the ordinary senses of the term? For Ireland was either not a nation at all, or it was many nations, having little in common and holding but slight discourse with each other. The first Irish novel came to be written because a young woman living on a large, estate in County Longford found herself with time spare Her father had gone down to the {7} Parliament in Dublin, where the “Protestant Nation,” as it came to be called, was in session to decide whether or not it would continue to exist. Maria Edgeworth’s class was more or less identical with the Protestant Nation, and this dramatic political crisis struck her with personal force. Her reflections found expression in one of the most profound of all Irish novels, Castle Rackrent.

There was thus, from the first, a deep involvement of the Irish novel with issues of nationality and of cultural identity. It often took subtle and unexpected forms, but it is the common subject of the important Irish novelists—Maria Edgeworth herself, Lady Morgan, John Banim, Gerald Griffin, and William Carleton. This book, therefore, may properly be called a study of five Irelands, for each writer had his own intense understanding of the the country which he had taken as his subject.

The intention of this chapter and the one which follows it is to trace the sources and the consequences of that “unimaginable chaos of races religions, ideas, appetites, and provincialisms” with which the Irish novelist of the early nineteenth century was confronted. We will be concerned, in the second of these chapters, with the prologue to our story, the rise and fall of the Protestant Nation; with the re-emergence of Celtic Ireland; with the vivid and bewildering transformation of Irish life during the first half of the nineteenth century. These are the issues and events which engaged the imagination of the Irish writer; in these he found his immediate subjects.

But these local issues, though sufficiently urgent, did not kindle his imagination and prompt his passions in and of themselves. He was haunted by history, and his thoughts returned, again and again, to the living bones of the past. Upon these, to an extraordinary degree, he fed his hatred and his love. We must know something, therefore, of his most constant concerns: the way in which Ireland’s variety of races and religions came to exist and the reasons why Ireland’s culture seemed fated to remain embittered and fragmented.

We may begin by citing a famous and terrible passage from Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland:

Out of every corner of the woodes and glennes they came crepinge forth upon theire handes, for theire legges could not beare them; they looked like Anotomies of death, they spake like ghostes crying out of theire graves; they did eat of the dead Carrions, happy were they could find them yea, and one another soon after in so much as the very Carcases they spared not to scrape out of theire graves. And yf they founde a plot of watercresses or shamrocks, there they flocked as a feast for the tyme yet not long able to continue therewithall that in short space there were none almost left, and a most populous and plentiful country suddenly left voyde of man or beastc. [3]

It was hoped with some confidence by Elizabeth’s Irish administrators that this program of extermination would accomplish what earlier methods had failed to achieve that, that it would settle “the Irish question.” Their plan, as Goldwin Smith has remarked, was to diffuse English civilization “much as an American settler would diffuse it among Red Indians, by improving them, so far as they could, from the face of the earth.” [4] The trouble with the plan, moral considerations aside, was that it did not work. Gaelic Ireland, by its perverse and heedless refusal to perish, perpetuated the tragic conflict.

Seán O’Faoláin, in the opening chapters of his biography of Hugh O’Neill, has shown us the problem as I it appeared to the English captains. The Binghams, Broughs, and Essexes “could not so much as conceive that behind the outer ring of port-towns, behind those wild Irish woods, and those dark Irish bozs with, their gleaming pools of water, there was, another mode of life as valid, as honourable, as cultured, as complex as their own. They saw nothing there but ’savages,’ ’wild hares,’ ’beasts,’ ’vermin,’ ’churles,’ ’rascals,’ ’felons,’ ’slaves,’ either to be ’rooted out’ and `civilized’ or ’exterminated.”’ [5]

Each of these methods was to be tried, but neither was pushed to completion. Half of Gaelic Ireland was destroyed but the other half persisted, while its distinctive way of life was corrupted and brutalized. Its nobility held tenaciously to stretches of boggy country in bad times; surged forward in good. Their ancient prerogatives were the constant {9} theme of the bardic order, which became the special object of English retaliation. “These bards,” Spenser says coldly, “celebrate that which is most dangerous and desperate in all parts of disobedience and rebellious disposition ... [to] ... the hurt of the English and the maintenance of their own lewde libertie.”

The issues of race, religion, and politics became hopelessly entangled. The policy of the government was to garrison the island on a scale not previously imagined. Elizabeth made extensive settlements in Munster. James cleared Ulster and resettled it with Scottish farmers. In most places the population of these plantations held themselves fiercely aloof from the natives. They had been warned, once by means of a ghastly massacre, that they were held by the “aboriginal inhabitants” to be heretic expropriators, and they had every reason, therefore, to commit themselves to the English interest. In the first years of the nineteenth century young William Carleton stood with his father on a rocky hill in Ulster, staring down with hatred at the prosperous farms of the of the Presbyterian settlers; for these two, the events of the seventeenth century were as real as yesterday.

In other sections, however, the Elizabethan families reverted to Catholicism, thus making one with the native population on religious grounds, while remaining sharply antagonistic in matters of politics and culture. This situation led directly to the confusion of the Parliamentary Wars, when five distinct armies were in the field, fighting each other in a bewildering sequence of alliances. All five were put to rout by Cromwell, with his customary thoroughness. The Catholic Celts were driven from two of the provinces which remained to them and sent beyond the Shannon to the inhospitable bogs of Connaught. Within a single generation, however, William of Orange faced the eternal problem again, for the great bulk of the Anglo-Irish swordsmen had rallied to the support of James II, and were prepared, with the help of his French allies, to win back his throne on Irish soil.

The full meaning to Irish culture of William’s victory at the Boyne, on July I, 1690, will be discussed later, for it is the theme of John Banim’s most famous novel. Here it should suffice to say that the Williamite victory gave Irish life the form which it was to hold until {9} the beginning of the nineteenth century. When Patrick Sarsfield, the Jacobite commander, sailed from Limerick, he took with him, in accordance with the treaty, the Irish army. Never again would Celtic Ireland mount a regular army in the field. But so long as the Stuarts had a cause, it was the plain intention of the Irish Brigades in the service of France to return some day at the point of an invasion. Throughout the dark century which followed, the Gaelic bards, now sunk to the wretched status of hedge poets, awaited “the crack of the sleet on the Jacobite fleet, and the lift of their sails in the morning.” Yet in 1715, when the Old Pretender invaded Scotland, not an Irish sword stirred. “His cause,” Swift noted in the “Seventh Drapier Letter,” “is both desperate and obsolete.... Even the papists in general, of any substance or estate, and their priests, almost universally are what we call Whigs.” [6]

After the centuries of plantation, massacre, assimilation, and reprisal, a stable and permanent community of “the English in Ireland” had at last been formed. It was composed of Cromwellian settlers—
great and small, who were scattered over the four provinces; Williamite grantees, to whom were assigned the estates, including those of “old English” Catholics, confiscated after the Boyne; and, finally, those Elizabethan families who had remained Protestant. To this two smaller but significant groups must be added. A number of important Gaelic families, like the O’Briens of Inchiquin and one branch of the Sligo O’Haras, had embraced Protestantism; henceforth they were to be reckoned as Anglo-Irish, their names being mere oddities. Secondly, the Scots-Irish Presbyterians of Ulster formed a distinct and self-conscious community. Taken in the aggregate, these groups constituted the “middle nation” of the Anglo-Irish.

After the Williamite Settlement far less than one twentieth of the land of Ireland was owned by Catholics, and yet these constituted the overwhelming bulk of the population. This simple but portentous fact accounts for the brutal penal legislation which was the dominant feature of eighteenth-century Ireland. In the measured words of Prendergast, the historian of the process of confiscation, “The object of the {11} penal laws of the eighteenth century was to secure that the area still owned by Catholics should never be increased, and should be as far as possible diminished. These laws succeeded but too well in their object.” [7] The laws were designed to keep servile a hostile population and to extirpate a detested creed.

The campaign was not one of extermination, but of systematic attrition. The public celebration of the Mass was prohibited, and bishops and members of religious orders were driven out upon pain of death. Secular priests, in scheduled numbers, were allowed to remain, provided they took an oath of abjuration. But since further ordinations were forbidden, it was assumed that their rank would vanish within a generation. Bounties were placed on the heads of clergy who refused to register, and “priest-hunting” with wolf-dogs supplanted for a time the other blood sports in which the gentry excelled.

The laws passed against the millions of laymen were equally barbarous. Some lands, even after the Act of Settlement, remained in Catholic hands. At the death of a Catholic landowner, however, his property was broken up and distributed equally among his children. To this there was one exception. Any son, if he conformed to the Church of Ireland, was permitted to dispossess his father and come into full possession. Catholics were forbidden to educate their own children, or to send them abroad. They could not carry arms nor vote nor sit on grand juries nor meet in assembly. They could practice neither law nor medicine. Intermarriage of Catholics and Protestants was strictly prohibited, which tended, as Burke wrote, “to finish the scheme for making the people not only two distinct parties forever, but keeping them as two distinct species on the same land.” [8]

The apostolic purpose of the laws failed to carry. Once it had become clear that the conversion of the Irish, like that of the Jews, would take place only amidst the tumult of Judgment Day, the Garrison relaxed certain of its laws, less from tolerance than from an infuriated recognition of their ineffectiveness. Priests and bishops returned and maintained themselves, despite humiliating harassments. Masses were {12} celebrated, not, it is true, in chapels, but more publicly still, under open skies. Education was carried on behind a hundred hedges. Candidates for the priesthood and recruits for the Brigades were smuggled regularly from the Kerry coast.

Moreover, while religious hatreds did not slacken, the two peoples living cheek by jowl beside remote bays and bogs found, in time, a modus vivendi. The Catholic gentry of the Cork and Kerry coasts took to smuggling, and their Protestant neighbors were their best customers. They also acquired property and passed it on intact by means of friendly Protestant “fronts.” Yet here, as elsewhere, the true effects of the Penal Laws were subtly corrosive. Honor itself seemed to demand connivance against the laws of the land.

But pure religious fanaticism, as Lecky has written, echoing Burke and Grattan, “does not appear ever to have played a dominant part in this legislation. The object of the Penal Laws, even in their worst period, was much less to produce a change of religion than to secure property and power by reducing to complete impotence those who had formerly possessed them.” [9] In this it was a devastating success. Those with the longest heads, the Blakes and Lallys and Dillons and O’Donnells, took service abroad, where their names glittered on the army lists of six nations. Others were forced down inexorably into the ranks of the peasantry, like that unfortunate Lord Fermoy who was discovered as a stable boy on the lands which his father had ruled. A sizable remnant remained, battered survivors of a dozen traditions. Some, like The O’Conor Don and The O’Donoghue, were lineal descendants of the old kingly families. Some, like the Redmonds and the Graces, were the heirs of Strongbow’s Norman aristocracy. A few, like those Brownes who were earls of Kenmare, were of Elizabethan stock. All were involved in a common ruin.

For half a century they nursed a Jacobitism which became increasingly sentimental. After 1750 even this vanished, though it burned strongly among the hedge poets and the peasantry. Charles Edward Stuart was wasting out his days in Rome, abandoned by Louis. And France, while it provided a most hospitable place to live, had no intention {13} of righting Irish grievances. Their apparent hopelessness and the conspiratorial life they had to lead bred in them a timorousness which was to become notorious. “If you mention me or mine,” old Maurice O’Connell cautioned Smith, the Kerry historian, “these seaside solitudes will no longer yield us an asylum. The Sassanagh will scale the mountains of Darrynane and we too shall be driven out upon the world without a home.” [10] Not until the generation which produced Maurice’s grandson would Irish Catholicism bring leaders forward.

Yet the full, staggering weight of the Penal Laws, -was social and moral, rather than political. The actual tillers of the soil were made into tenants-at-will of landlords often who often were absentee. The land was let out to middle men, agents, and subagents. Since the system of primogeniture had broken down, peasants divided and subdivided their minute holdings. Taxes were heaped upon them, the most opprobrious being the tithes which they paid to an alien and enemy church. To improve their farms meant either eviction or an increase in rent, which put a positive premium upon slovenliness. By a system which amounted to slavery they were obliged to work untold “duty days” for the entire benefit of the landlords. When pasturage offered prospects of quicker profits, they were turned out to starve in their thousands on the roadside.

Thus, in the instance of peasant as of gentleman, the law existed only as an oppressor. The gentry at least understood the nature and function of law, but the peasants had been hurled straight from the clan system into a nightmare, sustained only by a religion which was itself an outlaw, and their cherished memories of a culture which others held in the highest contempt. The consequence was inevitable: having been robbed of law, they turned to violence; having been brutalized, they delivered it savagely.

Most Irishmen have a weakness for glamorous myths, and the Anglo-Irish were no exceptions. It beguiled their imaginations and provoked their fears to imagine that they were in constant constant danger {14} from an insidious Catholic Jacobite conspiracy. In this they persisted, even when the only Stuart claimant was the placid and Anglophile Cardinal York. Were not the Catholic landowners in league with those formidable swordsmen, the officers of the Irish brigades? For what other purpose did the devious Jesuits and Dominicans depart and return? How else were the terrorist societies of the peasant helots to be explained?

Since the seventeen sixties there had been agrarian disturbances which would become so intense as to dominate the Irish problem. In Munster, always the most turbulent province, bands of bougheleen bawins, or White Boys, leveled enclosures, burned the houses, and houghed the cattle of the landlords and of peasants who had taken land “over the head” of neighbors. They elected leaders with such fanciful names as “Captain Starlight” and “Captain Rock,” drew up regulations, held trials, and passed sentences. [11]

These conspiracies, needless to say, were not organized in the interests of the house of Stuart or at the behest of Kathleen ni Houlihan. The plain fact was that the starving and rackrented poor, having been denied justice, had taken recourse to its only alternative. By the beginning of the nineteenth centur however, these local societies, cut off from one another by mountain and bog, had fallen together in a very loose and very tenuous confederacy. Themselves acting out of grievance and instinct, and possessing no set ambitions, they yet fed into the popular movements—the United Irish rebellion, O’Connell’s agitations, Michael Davitt’s Land War, and at last Sinn Féin.

The idea of the “Irish Nation” was born in the Ascendancy, and came to flower as the Prootestant Nation. It could hardly have been otherwise, for the concept of nationality depends upon conditions which did not obtain for Irish Catholics in the eighteenth century. Barred from public life, they existed without any stake in their own land. Their gentry, who might well have congratulated themselves on being alive at all, carefully preserved their Spanish and French {15} blades, their manuscript copies of the old annals, and the genealogies which traced back their ancestry to Noah or the Lost Tribes. They had the warrants of office of grandfathers and great-grandfathers who had served under James II. They sighed, in the long Connaught nights, that the king had not come into his own again. The old, blind harpers and bards, visiting their houses, sang their antique glory. And, on rare occasions, they would pluck up sufficient courage to submit to Dublin a humble petition of rights. [12]

The memories of the old Gaelic order had sifted down, like fine dust, into the peasant imagination. The cabins retained the stories or Ossian and Cuchulain, of Dark Rosaleen. Their poets sang of the Young Pretender, as later they would sing of Bonaparte and O’Connell, not as a living man, but as though in him had been made incarnate some lost, glittering ideal. But all this was locked in the helot’s uncouth songs. Antiquaries like Smith and Vallencey and Ledwich would listen to them idly, now and then, just as they would pace back and forth, ruminatively, studying the Celtic crosses and the round towers.

Of the condition to which, by the middle of the eighteenth century, four fifths of the population had been brought, we have spoken. To the condition of the remaining fifth—the Anglo-Irish of the “middle nation”—we must shortly turn. We would seem to have traveled a long way from Macmorris’s question, and yet we have not. Each generation posed it afresh. And to the nineteenth century, with its interest in process and historical continuity, the very fact that the question had been asked so many times was revealing.

Many of the Irish novels are loud with the clash of old battles—De Burghs against O’Conors, Kildares fighting Butlers for the mastery of Norman Ireland, McCarthy Mor raising up Munster against Elizabeth, O’Donnell’s plots against Clifford, William at the Boyne, and Sarsfield at Limerick. But few of these novels are “historical” in the technical sense, and they are the less interesting ones. History operates upon and through a culture in ways too subtle and too profound to {16} be accommodated to military tableaux. The Irish novel is saturated with history. The writer may be Lady Morgan, celebrating the traditional life of the Catholic gentry, yet pulled in another direction by her Ascendancy loyalties. Or it may be Gerald Griffin, for whom the stones of Limerick were heavy with memory, meaning, and tragedy. However tedious this preoccupation with history became to others, however much it limited his own work, the Irish writer was yoked to it forever. His search for identity drove him relentlessly into the past.

The greatest of all Irish novels contains the cry: “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” [13] It is also the novel with the most powerful and pervasive commitment to history as a determinant of character. The cry comes to the mind of Stephen Dedalus as he is talking to Deasy, a stuffy ideologue. Deasy assumes that Stephen, because of his race and creed, is a “Fenian,” and gives him a little lecture on the days when Orangemen had been the only opponents of the Union with England. But it is not the lecture which prompts Stephen to protest. He is caught in the net himself. He remembers that when he went to work for Deasy there had stood on the sideboard a “tray of Stuart coins, base treasure of the bog.” And snug in their “spooncase of purple plush, faded, the twelve apostles having preached to all the gentiles: world without end.” As much as any nationalist or any Gaelic Leaguer, Stephen is conscious of where matters stand, historically, between his people and Deasy’s. “For Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,” Deasy says, jingling out Randolph Churchill’s slogan. But Stephen has remembered another Orange cry, “Croppies lie down,” and the slashed bodies of Armagh peasants, and Sir John Blackwood in his shiny top boots riding down to Dublin.

1. History of England, p. 362.
2. L. Paul-Dubois, Contemporary Ireland, p. vii.
3. Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, p.135.
4. Quoted by Paul-Dubois, p. 21.
5. The Great O’Neill: A Biography of Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, 1550–1616, p. 10.
6. The Drapier’s Letters, p. 161.
7. Quoted by William F. T. Butler in Confiscation in Irish History.
8. Edmund Burke, “A Letter to a Peer of Ireland,” Works, IV, 236.
9. W. E. H. Lecky, Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, I, 20.
10. Charles Smith, Antient and Modern State of the County of Kerry (Dublin, 1753), P. 120.
11. George Cornwall Lewis, On Local Disturbances in Ireland (London, 1836), Chapter 1.
12. The life of the old gentry is vividly evoked in Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland: Gaelic Munster in the Eighteenth Century.
13. James Joyce, Ulysses, p.35.


2. The Political and Social Scene
In Lady Morgan’s Florence Macarthy there occurs a scene which might have been taken from any of twenty novels of the period. A young Irishman, returning to his stricken country some time after 1810, rides to the graceful Georgian building which once housed the Irish Parliament. Gazing on it, he remembers the bright, heroic days of the Volunteers, the oratory of Grattan, and the patriotism of Bushe. “The descendant of some Irish exile,” he thinks, “may voluntarily seek the bright green shores of his fathers, and in this mouldering structure, behold the monument of their former degradation.” [1]

The language could only be that of a Morgan hero, but the sentiment was deep and widespread. No political idea had greater strength nineteenth-century Ireland than the legend of the Protestant Nation, which rose to its swift grandeur in the seventeen seventies and perished ignominiously in 1800 when the Parliament, animated by lavish bribes, voted its own extinction. This idea was, in its fullness, a complex and self-contradictory one. It is of interest to us here because it was the embodiment of the aspirations of Ireland’s “middle nation.”

The battle of the Boyne had been won by a garrison English settlers, Protestant in creed, and loyal to the principles of the Whig Revolution. As a garrison, it settled down to the enjoyment of the fruits of victory. Before many years had passed, however, it found itself asking Macmorris’s fatal question: What is my nation? In 1698 William Molyneux, a friend of Locke, wrote a defense of Ireland’s {17} claim to independence, only to have it burned by the public executioner [2] But other writers took up the claim, and it was eventually stated, with imperishable brilliance, by Swift. [3]

The question was one of practical and immediate moment. In theory the island was governed by the King, Lords, and Commons of Ireland, but the theory had become as badly compromised as the practice was ignored. Since the days of Henry VII, no law of the Irish Parliament could be ratified without English approval, and this provision was now being used by England to cripple or prevent such competition as she might be offered by her dependent. In this fashion Irish manufactures, trade, and shipping were subjected to stiff and often prohibitive duties.

England may have judged that since the. Garrison was doing a bully’s work, it was entitled to no more than a bully’s wages. In any event she farmed out the government of Ireland to middle men, in exactly the fashion that absentees farmed out land. Parliament was controlled by the Primate, and by certain magnates and commoners who were called “undertakers,” a word in every way fitting, since in exchange for Crown favors they had undertaken to keep the country quiet. It was against these men, and their principals in London, that Swift launched his philippics. He wrote in the name of “the Irish people” and “the Irish nation.”

This “nation,” which had found so noble a voice, is one of the curiosities of political speculation. In The Drapier’s Letters, Swift excludes from it, presumably in perpetuity, not only the Catholics, whom he despised, but the Dissenters, whom he loathed. This left members of the Church of Ireland, the bulk of whose clergy and members of parliament he regarded as little better than suborned traitors. Perhaps he chose his pseudonym wisely: only a Dublin draper could be sure of meeting all his qualifications. Yet Swift’s Irish papers are lifted far above the absurdity of his central position by his patriotism, and by the rage against man’s inhumanity which led him to champion the homeless poor who lined the roads.

The situation of the Anglo-Irish contained ambiguities which became, in time, intolerable. They were not Irish, if by that term was meant the natives of the island. Indeed, from “the mere Irish” they held themselves arrogantly aloof. They had thought themselves as English, but what meaning had that term if the sister island chose not to honor it? They lived, to use De Quincey’s term, “amidst turbulent scenes,” [4] which demanded vigor and intrepidity of them, and they came to think themselves a special breed, entitled on their proved merits to self-government. And those men of the Ascendancy were a special breed—witty, gallant, coarse, brave, and profligate. Because the anarchy of Irish life was universal, affecting conqueror and conquered alike, the Anglo-Irish gentleman was as lawless as any Connemara peasant. Sir Walter Scott, who had long admired him from afar, was somewhat unnerved when he encountered him in 1825, stalking the land like a conquistador. [5] He was an inveterate duelist, and in this light-hearted fashion he proposed to win the independence of the “Irish Nation” from the British Empire.

The moment arrived in the seventeen seventies. Britain’s conflicts with France and the colonies had spread her military establishment perilously thin, and forced her to leave Ireland unprotected against invasion. Into this breach stepped the nobility and gentry of Ireland, who formed yeomanry corps of infantry and cavalry, which coalesced into an army known as the Volunteers. Events did not permit them to take the field, although they were splendidly accoutred. But it occurred to them that they were in an excellent position to argue their cause against England. Sir Laurence Parsons, viewing events retrospectively, put matters in the nervous, declamatory rhetoric to which they were uniformly addicted:

The whole nation in a few years was thus arrayed. That is, every Protestant capable of bearing arms ... But their spirit rose with their armament and discipline. And, beginning only to assure themselves, and proceeding to protect the country against France, they concluded by vindicating their constitution and liberty against the aspiration of England. [6]

That is to say, they refused to disband. They were thus an unexpected weapon in the hands of patriots like Grattan, who had for years been fighting a lonely and hopeless battle in Parliament. But Grattan realized from the first that they were a dangerous weapon, for while their zeal and high spirits were welcome innovations, their aspirations were as shimmering and changeable as the epaulets with which they had bedecked themselves.

A convention of the Volunteers at Dungannon in February of 1782 asserted in the firmest tones that they intended to secure their rights. With so belligerent a force at his back, Grattan proceeded to a vigorous attack, and succeeded in wresting from London what amounted to a concession of Ireland’s right to self-government. Grattan announced the victory in language which long was remembered:

I found Ireland on her knees, I watched over her with a paternal solicitude; I have traced her progress from injuries to arms, and from arms to liberty. Spirit of Swift, Spirit of Molyneux, your genius has prevailed, Ireland is now a nation; in that new character I hail her, and bowing in her august presence, I say, Esto perpetua. [7]

Parliament tendered its thanks to Grattan in a graceful ceremony. This was watched, with concern mixed with cool amusement, by a landlord long resident in England, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who had just returned home with his daughter Maria. Edgeworth had the quick-cutting, unsentimental mind of a philosophic radical, and he saw at once the dangers which attended the rejoicing. Ireland’s “independence” meant nothing if it was not accompanied by a thorough reform of Parliament, an adjustment of the land problem, and a recognition of the rights of Catholics.

With the abruptness proper to a rational man when confronted by exuberant heroics, he left Dublin and traveled north to his estates. But Maria stored up the scene, as she would many others, in her sensitive and perceptive imagination.

Grattan was caught upon a dilemma. He was intent not merely on reform but on the preservation of the constitution and the forms of ordered government, yet the only hope for reform lay with the more {21} swashbuckling elements in the Volunteers. These gentlemen, in confirmation of his apprehensions, descended upon Dublin in armed bodies. Nominally they were under the command of the wan and romantic Lord Charlemont. Their most congenial spirit, however, was the Bishop of Derry, a buoyant and unbalanced personality who had traveled to town ostentatiously protected by the cavalry troop of his nephew George Fitzgerald, later to be hanged after a long and alarming career as a ruffian. [8]

Grattan temporized for a time between Parliament and the rival body which had installed itself in the Rotunda, but he finally refused to accept the methods of the Volunteers for the accomplishment of his aims. As a result of this split he lost his backing, Parliament remained unreformed, and the management of Irish affairs returned, after a brief period, to the old, venal understrappers. The years that remained to the Protestant Nation have been much celebrated, but in fact they allowed Grattan little more than opportunity to polish his much-admired eloquence. With the minority of patriotic Whigs, he fought a dark and thankless battle.

Grattan’s temperate and essentially conservative mind envisaged a nation which, while maintaining Protestant Ascendancy, would gradually admit Catholics of substance to the franchise. The Catholic lords, an exotic group of which the heads were Kenmare, Fingall, and Gormanston, had formed a committee to lobby for their rights. But since they considered mere assemblage an act sufficiently daring, they limited themselves to obsequious petitions. The rising class of Catholic however, decided upon a more manly course. Almost their first step was a momentous one, for in 1790 they hired as legal Secretary a struggling barrister named Theobald Wolfe Tone.

His name tells us that the curtain had rung up on the last act. Tone is in many ways the most remarkable figure in modern Irish history [9] An ambitious, dissatisfied, and intelligent young man, he embraced wholeheartedly the ideas which had blown across the sea from revolutionary {22} France. In association with a number of kindred spirits he formed the society, subsequently famous, of United Irishmen. Their reasoning was persuasive and their plan was daring.

The vicissitudes of the Protestant Nation had demonstrated with something like the clarity of mathematics that the Irish Parliament was incapable of winning for Ireland an independence which was more than nominal. The majority of its members were place men who voted on hire. Its patriotic minority were fettered by conservative instincts. But to speak of the “Nation” was to use the language of farce, since the great mass of the population was legally excluded from its privileges. These were the Scots-Irish of Ulster, a tough-minded and fractious people, and the Catholics of the South, whose peasantry was a byword for rebellious violence. The plan of the United Irishmen was to bring these two groups into the field with the assistance of a French invasion, overthrow the government, and establish a republic. Quite apart from the complacent ease with which they permitted government infiltrators to learn their secrets, they made two fatal mistakes: they assumed that Ireland’s religious hatreds were dead and that peasants would fight in the name of an abstraction called the Republic of Ireland.

The peasants did in fact join the United Irishmen, though not at first, and not for the reasons which Tone supposed. News of the Rising quickly leaked out, and threw the landlords, always apprehensive of rebellion, into hysterical panic. From every bogside they heard, or imagined they heard, whispers of treason, and they struck first and viciously. Bands of yeomenry rode over the countryside burning whipping, torturing, and gibbeting, until the frenzied peasants knew that there was no point in not rebelling. But the worst of the yeomanry corps were composed of the Ulster Presbyterians upon whom Tone had counted so heavily. And the Celtic counties of the West, which had not been put to the rack, remaine disappointingly apathetic.

The Rising, when it came, was immeasurably tragic. Brave, bewildered peasants marched out from Bargy and Forth and Shelmalier. They fought well and hard, but not for Tone’s Rights of Man. Their actions were marred by ugly sectarianism; even their fine stand on {22} Vinegar Hill was attended by the systematic slaughter of unarmed protestants. Yet it is hard to see what other ideals could have animated these poor wretches, steeped in their own history, and cut off from that of Europe. The Connaught peasants who told Humbert that they were fighting for Robespierre and the Blessed Virgin offer in those pathetic words a kind of justification.

The only apparent consequence of the Rebellion was the Act of Union, which Fitzgibbon and-Castlereagh forced through a liberally bribed Parliament in 1800. Amidst the sordid but exciting scenes which attended the tallying of votes, the Protestant Nation perished as fact. But it had begun its long and equally dramatic career as a memory and an ideal.

One unambiguous “No!” to the motion in support of Union was spoken in the harsh, commanding tones of Richard Lovell Edgeworth. At that moment his daughter Maria was sitting at the long table in the crowded Edgeworthstown drawing room, scribbling furiously at the first Irish novel. Castle Rackrent was to be a brilliant requiem of the Protestant Nation, for Maria Edgeworth had seen its history as the life of a family which rose from obscurity, fought bravely; lost meanly, and, at, last perished in squalor and pride.

No one felt more keenly this national shame and loss than did a young farmer named Patrick Griffin, who had recently moved into the town of Limerick. Although a Catholic, he had been a militiaman in one of the companies of Volunteers, and had imbibed their heady patriotism. To his son Gerald, who was born in 1803, he told and retold the stories of those brave days. When he was writing his best novel, The Collegians, Gerald Griffin would remember his father’s lofty, foolish sentiments with affection and anger. He had witnessed the drama and fire of O’Connell’s victory in Clare, and the Volunteers seemed by contrast country squires playing with dress swords.

Indeed, of all the writers with whom this study deals, there is only one for whom the legend of Grattan’s “Nation” did not hold meaning. In 1800 William Carleton was a barefoot, Gaelic-speaking urchin, following his father about from one hardscrabble Ulster farm to the next. For the Carletons the politics of 1800 had but one meaning: in that year a band of drunken Orange yeomen broke into their cabin and abused Carleton’s sister. The Gaelic-speaking community, which in 1800 covered great stretches of the island, was locked in another time, almost another land. Carleton alone would give it voice before it perished in the Famine.

To understand the significance of Grattan’s Nation, one might well pause upon this fact of language. The brief passages quoted above from Parsons and from Grattan himself suggest that the Patriot Party was intensely conscious of language, which it invested with much passion and moral feeling. Oratory of that sort was a prized accomplishment in eighteenth-century Ireland, the glittering, posed language of public men who had modeled themselves upon the heroes in Plutarch. Set against the stench and misery of Irish life, it marks the measure of their political failure.

But the speeches of Grattan celebrated—in a sense, they created—the idea of Irish nationality. And they did so in English. Ireland’s claims to sovereignty had been many, various, and inchoate. With the Volunteers they assumed for the first time the shape and direction of modern European politics. By the same token these claims had, in the past, been advanced in a tongue quite unknown to the peoples of Europe, and regarded in England as the gabble of savages. Themselves a minority, and meanly jealous of their prerogatives, the Volunteers presented their countrymen with the only available image of the nation-state.

For this reason the Catholics of Ireland were divided and confused in their attitude toward the Protestant Nation. When the Volunteers were forming in 1779, Richard O’Connof the Irish Brigade in France wrote to a friend, “Would to God, my dear Maurice, that we were at this moment 200,000 strong in Ireland, and that I had the command of our single company at Oak Park! I would kick the Members and their Volunteers and their Unions and their Societies to the Devil! I would make the rascally spawn of Damned Cromwell curse the hour of his Birth!” [10] But to Daniel O’Connell, Richard’s distant {24} kinsman, the Volunteers were a splendid and admirable example. Most of the Catholic gentry stood coolly apart both from the fury of the fire-eating Richard and from the admiration of his hardheaded cousin. “The Nation of Ireland” was the contrivance of their Protestant enemies; their participation in it had not been solicited, and they were indifferent to its death, as they had been to its life.

What the Nation meant to the Protestants of Ireland we will be able to trace in some detail when we turn to the novels and the career of Lady Morgan. The Nation’s great monument is Lecky’s many-volumed history, that stirring celebration of an independent Ireland written by the loyalist professor of history at Trinity College. [11] Perhaps that fact and its implications are all we need bear in mind for the moment. It was the tragedy of the nineteenth-century Ascendancy, which none felt more keenly than did Lecky himself, that the national cause had passed out of their hands, and into those of men who gave it a new shape, and new passions. The press of events would force upon the descendants of the Volunteers a position which was staunchly Unionist. Yet over the fireplace of many a great house would hang, in honor, the sword of a grandfather who had served in the Volunteers, and his uniform would be carefully preserved. The sword and the uniform Amay serve to remind us how rich in paradox was the culture of nineteenth-century Ireland, and how embittered.

”The majority of the Irish,” Professor Constantia Maxwell has written, “inspired by their national tradition and stimulated by O’Connell, were henceforth determined to shape their own destiny. With the growth of the Gaelic spirit the old Ascendancy came to be regarded with disgust, and the Anglo-Irish were described as a caste who had done little but exploit their own interests. It is vain, perhaps, to solicit the attention of those who have been offended, but others will observe that ... most of the institutions that flourish at present in Dublin date back to the Georgian period. The Irish capital as far as brick and stone are concerned is essentially a city of the past—an eloquent reminder of an old aristocratic society that, with all its faults, not only {25} achieved distinction at home, but upheld the standards of that age and even added to its culture. [12]

The chief legacy of the Protestant Nation was the city of Dublin itself. It appears in nearly all of the novels which we shall be discussing, and with a multiplicity of meanings. To some writers it was the portentous embodiment of England in Ireland; to others, the sad effigy of all that had made Ireland great. Yet few denied its loveliness, as haunting in its own way as the plains of Mayo. The Parliament House, the Four Courts, the Royal Exchange, the Custom House, the public buildings along the Liffey, the imposing vista of Sackville Street, attained in time the melancholy power of a Piranesi [13]. Here were buildings which seized the imagination of the writer, just as the shattered towers of the Desmonds did, and the Spanish houses of Galway. Here, more truly than in the Palladian mansions of the remote provinces, lived the spirit of the Ascendancy. But in Ireland the stones and bricks remain; the spirit is wasted and broken and swept into the past. In the period with which we will be dealing, the power of the eighteenth-century Ascendancy seemed as great as ever, but the nerve of its life had been cut.

The troubled, haunting past which has been sketched was the Irish writer’s, legacy, as it was that of all of his countrymen. But he was living also in his own tune, and the first half of the nineteenth century witnessed swift and confusing political and social changes.

These changes may be summarized, somewhat paradoxically, either as the emergence of modern Ireland or as the reemergence of Celtic Ireland. For the transforming event of these decades was the appearance on the political scene of the Catholic peasantry, mobilized by O’Connell in the interest of Emancipation. It was his boast that he found a nation of slaves and made men of them, and he was nearly right. Sweeping aside the cautious, Whiggish nobility of the old Catholic Committees, he inspired and disciplined hundreds of thousands {27} of peasants, many of whom knew no English, many of whom had never been beyond their own villages. When Insurrection Acts were passed to prevent his assemblies, he drove through them, to use his own phrase, with “a coach-and-six.” And in 1829 he wrung Emancipation from Peel and Wellington by offering, or seeming to offer, civil war as the alternative. [14]

Years later, after having held his Agitations in abeyance, he tried to force the repeal of the Act of Union by the same tactics, and failed utterly. Facing his two old antagonists again, he summoned his army in even larger numbers, but this time his bluff was called. Now the choice between peace and war was his to make, and he retreated. A few years later, while his country lay prostrate with famine and plague, he died in Rome, a broken man, with his fame in shreds. His legacy was divided, in equal proportions, between the young Gracchi of The Nation and the gang of timeservers whom he had gathered about him.

In 1828 an election was held in Clare which was itself a kind of civil war, for O’Connell, a Catholic, was standing for Parliament. Clare was one of the “troubled” counties, and thirty thousand peasants were waiting for him in camps pitched in the meadows outside Ennis. ’He entered the town with an escort of three thousand horsemen along l road lighted with bonfires. The government, naturally apprehensive, sent in strong cavalry detachments, but the Irish were under the rigid discipline of their priests, who acted as O’Connell’s lieutenants, no violence attended his overwhelming victory. All factions seem agree that the absence of drunkenness was the oddest phenomenon, having been believed that some natural law doomed the Irish to this condition whenever they met in assemblies larger than two. Peel, despairing of his own powers of evocation, wrote to Sir Walter Scott, “no pen but yours could have done justice to that fearful exhibition of sobered and desperate enthusiasm.” [15]

Gerald Griffin, the novelist, was present at the Clare election, and exchanged letters on the subject with a fellow writer, John Banim. Both men were young, liberal in their politics, and Catholic. But a generation separates them in feeling. Banim had all the cautious reservations of those Catholic landed gentlemen who followed O’Connell with such marked reluctance; Griffin was buoyant, confident, and prepared to put matters to the test. The Ennis victory supplied just the ending he needed for The Collegians, on which he was then at work.

But for two others of our novelists the changes wrought in Irish life by O’Connell’s triumphs bore a different meaning entirely. Lady Morgan was a prominent member of the group of liberal Protestants who gave O’Connell support. She lived to hate him as the man who had given Ireland over to the mob, the priest, and the terrorist. And Maria Edgeworth, a much finer and more honorable member of the Anglo-Irish than Lady Morgan, found herself one day surrounded by the tumult and animal force of one of his “monster” demonstrations; she was fortified in her decision never to write again of Irish life. Once she had understood her country, but now it confused and terrified her.

To understand the period it is necessary to understand the impact of O’Connell, since for twenty years, from 1825 to 1845, he was Ireland. [16] In Balzac’s phrase, which may sound hyperbolic, but was the common judgment of Europe, he was the incarnation of his people. But to see him clearly, and through the eyes of his Irish contemporaries, is no easy task. The English view of him may quickly be stated, for it found expression in a famous bit of doggerel printed in The Times:

Scum condensed of Irish bog!
Ruffian, liar, demagogue!
Boundless liar, base detractor,
Nurse of murders, treason’s factor!
Of Pope and priest the crouching slave,
While thy lips of freedom rave.
Of England’s fame the viprous hater,
Yet wanting courage for a traitor. ... [17]

But from the time of his first failures, and with a savagery which the years increased, he was attacked by nationalists at home, and their views have generally prevailed. “After his death,” Professor Michael Tierney has remarked, “he was represented to his own people as a giant indeed, but one whose faults were more gigantic than his virtues, and as largely responsible by his preaching of a cowardly doctrine for the catastrophe of the Famine and even for the fiasco of 1848. This condemnation, passed and ratified by men who never had a tithe of the power over their own generation that O’Connell possessed over his, has remained in force down to this day.” [18]

The terms of condemnation were compressed by John Mitchel into a few lines of vivid invective:

Poor old Dan! Wonderful, jovial, mighty, and mean old man, with silver tongue and smile of witchery and heart of melting rush—lying tongue, smile of treachery, heart of unfathomable fraud. What a royal yet vulgar soul, with the keen eye and potent sweep of a generous eagle of Cairn Tual—with the base servility of a hound and the cold cruelty of a spider. [19]

But Mitchel understood O’Connell’s Ireland as little as did Thomas Davis or the other members of Young Ireland who revolted against his control of the national party. There stand as a stain upon O’Connell’s memory the words with which the old man turned loose his pack on Davis: “There is no such party as that styled ’Young Ireland.’ There may be a few individuals who take that denomination on themselves. I am for Old Ireland. ’Tis time that this delusion should as put an end to. Young Ireland may play what pranks it pleases. I do not envy them the name they rejoice in, I shall stand by Old Ireland. And I have some slight idea that Old Ireland will stand by me.” [20]

It was O’Connell at his most brutal, for he knew where he was cutting, and to what instincts he was making appeal. The incident occurred {30} during the “Godless colleges” controversy, and O’Connell was rousing up the Catholics who formed his great majority against the Protestant, Davis, who was quite blameless of sectarian animus. For this reason his appeal has been much reprehended, and rightly. Yet O’Connell himself was no bigot, though he has been so represented. The fact is, rather, that O’Connell did represent the “old Ireland,” by which, of course, he meant the Catholic and Gaelic population of the island. And it had become clear, much to his own dismay, that their interests were substantially different from those of the Protestant Ascendancy. O’Connell had brought “old Ireland” into the light of modern history, from the darkness of feudal days and the eighteenth-century nightmare.

In 1825 and again in 1843, when O’Connell put the ingenious machinery of his “Agitation” into full operation, he summoned to life the slumbering passions of the “hidden,” Gaelic Ireland. Uncanny rumors swept the peasantry. Peddlers carried from village to village garbled copies of the supposed prophecies of Pastorini and Columkill, the burden of which was that some ill-defined but pleasurable event had been destined for the year ’25—it might be Emancipation or the end of heresy (and heretics with it) or the return of the Stuarts. Diarmuid O’Mahony, a hedge poet, wrote in Gaelic: “My thoughts were all of the troubles of the Gaels, harassed by taxes, rents, and wrongs, through the crooked laws of the tribes of treachery, since the true king, James, abandoned us. Poets of Munster, hear me: the army is coming over the water; Repeal will be won in the year that ends in five; Daniel O’Connell is our defender.” [21]

O’Connell would have viewed such a poem with jovial skepticism, for he was notoriously of two minds as to the worth of the traditional Gaelic culture. Yet there can be no doubt that the great source of his power was the instinctive skill with which he evoked such passions. He spoke unerringly to an Ireland of which Wolfe Tone knew nothing and would have cared less, and which Thomas Davis saw through the romantic haze of conventional nationalism. To the “poets of {31} Munster” his voice came like the distant thunder of their own past.

”The Catholic people of Ireland are a nation,” he once said, thus bringing us full circle. Grattan’s problem had been that of maintaining a Protestant Nation to which Catholics would gradually be admitted. The problem which faced Irish culture in the nineteenth century was the reverse of this, since O’Connell had made possible for Catholics a sense of nationality which they tended naturally to identify with their creed. The course of Irish history had made this almost inevitable. It followed that the question of the Protestant interest would be as insurmountable as the Catholic issue had been for Grattan.

For the seven years of the Tithe War (1830-1837), which is described so graphically in the novels of Griffin and Carleton, O’Connell was forced to leave the movement for Repeal in abeyance, partly because the Church, on whose organization he relied, was indifferent to Repeal, and partly because many Protestants who had been favorable to it hesitated to commit themselves to his leadership. When he finally did secure Church support for Repeal, in the eighteen forties, he found himself dependent for secular assistance upon the Young Ireland movement. A majority of its members were Protestant, and were very properly concerned that they should not become mere camp followers a priest-dominated Catholic movement. Their sensitivity to affront, times justified, created a fatal breach.

O’Connell himself, with his liberal views on cultural issues, was dedicated to the idea of a united nation, but he was overgenerous in estimation of both creeds. Despite his genuine piety he was no clericalist but, wiser in this than his critics, he knew that no Irish popular movement could hope for success without Church support. The dreadful attritions of Penal Days had deprived Irish Catholicism a class of educated, independent Catholic laymen, while the peasants were devoted, to the far side of idolatry, to the shepherds who had stood by them during the blackest of persecutions. Emancipation permitted the Church to show its less heroic side, and many Protestant liberals were shocked by its harshness and its intolerance. For the most part, of course, the Garrison was not liberal at all; its traditions of mastery and condescension would have been shocked by any popular {32} movement. Caught between these conflicting and irreconcilable interests, O’Connell naturally chose in accordance with his oldest and deepest loyalties.

In his dark, final years he would spend more and more time, to the neglect of national affairs, at his Derrynane home, which his forefathers had built on a narrow Kerry peninsula thrust into the wild Atlantic. If Georgian Dublin fixes for us the image of Ascendancy Ireland, then Derrynane must stand for another strand in the cultural fabric. Lady Morgan’s preposterous “Prince of Innismore,” living in a crumbling fortress with his chaplains and retainers, pales in interest beside the accounts which have been preserved of the O’Connells of Derrynane. O’Connell had spent his youth in this house with his uncle Maurice, the shrewd old smuggler who had made his peace with the new order, though when he wanted something done he still sent out to his peasants the crooked knife which was his badge of authority.

There lived also at Darrynane Mhair ni Dhuv, O’Connell’s grandmother, the dark woman from the O’Donohues. And for a time his uncle, Count Daniel, the last colonel of the Irish Brigade. Many memories lived there. Of Art O’Leary, the hot-blooded young soldier who was murdered during Penal Days, and over whose body his wife Ellen, an O’Connell, spoke the lament which was carried by poets over the length of Ireland: “Wretched Morris, sorrow on you! You killed my darling; and is there no man in Ireland to riddle you with bullets?” [22] And the memory of another O’Connell, driven to the West by Cromwell, and dying on the road.

Young Daniel O’Connell had gone from this house to the law courts of Dublin, and to the country assizes where only his bluster and guile stood between bewildered peasants and an infamous law. He had gone, at last, to the great open-air meetings where his voice rolled like honeyed thunder across the plains. And he had taken with him the entire submerged nation of Celtic Ireland. “It was one of my mother’s humourous sayings,” Justin McCarthy wrote, “that her {31} daughter—her name was Ely—was born a slave, while I, Justin, was born a free man, because Ely was born before the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act, while I was born in the year after it had become law.” [23] Because of this O’Connell was known, during his lifetime, as “the big beggar man” or as “the liberator”—depending where you stood.

The Great Famine falls like a dark curtain across the age. It was preceded by the collapse of O’Connell’’s campaign of agitation and followed by the defeat of the Young Ireland party, but overshadowed both of these events. “In Irish social and political history,” write the editors of a recent and illuminating study, “the famine was very much of a watershed. The Ireland on the other side of those dark days is a difficult world for us to understand; the Ireland that emerged we recognize as one with problems very much akin to our own.” [24]

In 1852, when the horrors of the Famine were still fresh in Irish minds, Patrick Murray wrote an important article on Carleton for The Edinburgh Review. He praises the novelist on several scores, but the one on which he lays most stress is this: “It is in his pages and in his alone that future generations must look for the truest and fullest, though still far from complete, picture of those who ere long will have passed away from that troubled land, from the records of history, and from the memory of man forever.” [25]

Murray meant the statement to be taken quite literally, for Carleton was the great memorialist of the peasant civilization of Ireland which perished with the Famine. But we may take his observation to hold true, in a sense, for the entire corpus of the Irish novel in the early nineteenth century. It has a special value, quite apart from questions of artistic merit, as the unique record of a culture. If we did not have Carleton’s novels, we would know much less than we do of the way in which the peasants lived. if we did not have Maria Edgeworth’s novels, we would know much less about life in the Big Houses.

The topicality of many of the Irish novels, the way in which they are rooted in history as well as in space, forces us to the consideration of controversies which now are long dead, and to the re-living of quarrels which the years have settled. But the relationship is reciprocal. The Ireland which lies on the far-side of the Famine is a less difficult world to understand because of the novelists who recorded and interpreted its life. The quarrels and controversies, the passions and aspirations come finally into place as the diverse voices which a troubled culture spoke to itself and, less coherently, to the world.


1. Lady Morgan, Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale, I, p.50.
2. The Case of Ireland’s Being Bound by Act of Parliament in England.
3. For Swift’s position in this matter, see his Drapier’s Letters, but also the less celebrated papers collected in Irish Tracts: 1728-1733.
4 Thomas De Quincey, Autobiography from 1785 to 1803, P. 226.
5 John Gibson Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, VIII, 20.
6 Quoted by Stephen Gwynn from an unpublished diary, in Henry Grattan and His Times, p. 59.
7 Ibid., p. 125.
8 See Mary Macarthy, Fighting Fitzgerald and other Papers, pp. 81-181.
9. The most controversial, at any rate. But of the many who have appraised his character, he remains his own most candid critic: The Life of Wolfe Tone; Written by Himself and Continued by His Son.
10. Mrs. Morgan John O’Connell, The Last Colonel of the Irish Brigade, I, 223.
11. W. E. H. Lecky, History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century.
12. Dublin Under the Georges, 1714-1830, pp.44-45.
13 See, for example, the plates in James Malton’s Picturesque and Descriptive View of the City of Dublin, 1799.
14. For a contemporary account of the events leading to Emancipation, see Thomas Wyse, Historical Sketch of the Late Catholic Association of Ireland. Two modern studies are excellent: Denis Gwynn, The Struggle for Catholic Emancipation, 1750-1829, and James A. Reynolds, The Catholic Emancipation Crisis in Ireland, 1823-1829.
15. Sir Robert Peel from His Private Papers, ed. by Charles S. Parker, II, p.99.
16. The most useful of the many biographies of O’Connell are those by Michael MacDonagh and Denis Gwynn. Sean O’Faolain’s King of the Beggars is a remarkable study of his personality and his career.
17. Quoted from Gwynn, O’Connell, p. 8.
18. Preface to Daniel O’Connell: Centenary Essays.
19. John Mitchel, Jail Journal: or, Five Years in British Prisons, 1854, p.157.
20. Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Young Ireland: A Fragment of Irish History, 1881, p.705.
21. From a translation by Gerald Murphy in his essay on “O’Connell’s Gaelic Background” in Dr. Tierney’s book of centenary essays.
22. The Gaelic text and a literal translation appear in the appendix to Mrs. M. J. O’Connell’s book. The lines quoted here are as translated by Mr. Murphy in the essay cited above.
23. An Irishman’s Story, p. 6.
24. The Great Famine: Studies in Irish History 1845-52, ed. by R. Dudley Edwards & T. Desmond Williams, p.vii.
25 Edinburgh Review, CXCVI (October, 1852), p.389. {37}


3. The Nature of the Irish Novel
Nineteenth-centur Ireland was, as we have seen, a land splintered by divided loyalties and ancient hatreds. Sir Walter Scott, visiting the country in 1825, noted with some contempt: “Their factions have been so long envenomed, and they have such narrow ground to do their battle in, that they are like men fighting with daggers in a hogshead.” [1] Much later Yeats, writing as an Irishman and in bitterness, would make the same point:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother’s womb A fanatic heart. [2]

One is tempted to seize upon these quotations as epigraphs to a study of Irish fiction, for most Irish novels accept as given the condition to which they point. The English novelist was concerned with social choice and personal morality, which are the great issues of European fiction. But to the Irish novelist these were subordinated to questions of race, creed, and nationality—questions which tend of their nature to limit the range and power of fiction. Yet for the Irishman these were the crucial points by which he was given social identity.

If the social pattern was much more various than is generally supposed, the popular notion of a dual society, the masters and the ruled, has a large measure of truth. On one side stood “native” Ireland. It had become a nation of peasants, fiercely Catholic, indifferent or hostile to statute law, Gaelic-speaking or at least heavily influenced by the traditions of Gaellic society, nourished by dark and sanguinary resentments and aspirations. On the other side stood the nation of the Anglo-lrish, land-owning, Protestant, and, of course, English-speaking. Though this nation aspired, intermittently, to political independence, in point of fact, its culture and its modes of thought were indisputably English.

The Irish novelists, being men of their generation, realized that the two nations were yoked in a common fate, that despite all hatreds and blood-letting they would have to endure each other. And yet, when all the fair words had been spoken, each writer would find himself pledged to his own people. Maria Edgeworth might reach gropingly in her last novels, to Gaelic Ireland, but she remained a lady of the Big Houses, anxious for peace, but for peace upon the terms imposed by the Big Houses. And Gerald Griffin, for all the liberality of his sentiments, was haunted by his vision of that older Ireland which existed before the Big Houses, and which remained incarnate in the shattered Norman keeps of the Geraldines. Each novelist was forced to pose to himself the question of what Ireland was and of what it meant to be an Irishman. From tensions of this kind the Irish novels derive their strength.

The Irish novelist, like any writer, was quarreling with himself and with his culture. A special and distinguishing circumstance obtained, however. The quarrel was addressed, in the first instance, not to his own people but to strangers, and it was usually couched in the language of explanation. That is to say, most of the Irish novels were addressed to an EngLish audience, and most of them offered to explain and interpret the sister kingdom. The supposed “editor” of the history of Castle Rackrent places his story “before the English reader as a specimen of manners and characters, which are perhaps unknown in England. Indeed, the domestic habits of no nation in Europe were less known to the English than those of their sister country, till within these last few years.”’ Nor is this novel an exception; of the fiction which we shall be considering, only the early stories of William {37} Carleton were written directly for an Irish audience. And Carleton’s stories, when collected as a book, were preceded by a note in which the author acknowledged the English reading public as his probable audience. [4]

This circumstance had a decisive effect upon the aims and purposes of the Irish novel. Numberless prefaces, forewords, and introductions make the same tedious avowal of intentions. Ireland, so such statements may be summarized, is for the first time to be represented “as it really is,” and in a spirit free of religious and political rancor. Lady Morgan, an inveterate offender in this regard, tells us in the preface to O’Donnel that her tale is devoted to “the purposes of conciliation, and to incorporate the leaven of favorable opinion with that heavy mass of bitter prejudice, which writers, both grave and trifling, have delighted to raise against my country.” [5] She assures us in the preface to Florence Macarthy that her aim throughout her career has been “to sketch the brilliant aspect of a people struggling with adversity, and by the delineation of national virtues, to excite sympathy, and awaken justice.” [6] Griffin and Carleton, better and less didactic writers, make similar avowals. And since Richard Lovell Edgeworth, who supplied the introductions to his daughter’s novels, was a professional moralist, his remarks may be entrusted to the reader’s imagination.

The “editor” of Castle Rackrent spoke sober truth: the English reader knew less about Ireland than than did most Europian countries. What little he did know was unpleasant. Some hideous insurrection would remind him of its existence, or a reckless Ascendancy duelist would cause a day’s gossip. The Act of Union, however, made Ireland a matter of direct concern, and the English public was soon burdened with the rumors of agrarian outrage and armed conspiracies which had hitherto been swallowed by the silences of Dublin Castle. Then, in the eighteen twenties, the mass agitation for the removal of the Penal Laws gave evidence of what was to become a recurrent problem: Ireland’s ability to provoke a parliamentary crisis. {38}

There was a general desire for information about Ireland, and an interest in the nature of Irish society. Novels were then considered proper vehicles of such information, and writers rushed into print with accounts of “Ireland today.” Orange novelists like the aptly named George Brittaine came forward with somber chronicles of brutish, priest-ridden peasants held in check by a devout Garrison of British Christians. Catholic writers like John Banim replied in kind. And liberal Protestants attempted a judicious adjustment of the two extreme positions—a task which was to find more favor in English than in Hibernian eyes. The atmosphere was charged with political passions, and every Irish writer, no matter how far removed he may have been from such concerns, knew that his picture of Ireland would be scanned for its political overtones.

Nor was Catholic Emancipation the only issue which could enmesh the novelist in controversy. The peasant question, the questions of land abd absenteeism are all represented in the novels of the period. All of these, however, came to be overshadowed, in the final decade of the half century, by the single issue of the repeal of the Act of Union, which would mean, of course, the restoration of Irish nationality. The Edgeworths were supporters of the Union, although Richard Lovell, for reasons peculiar to his temperament; had cast is vote against it in the Irish Parliament. And Ireland’s claim to nationhood is the chief theme in Lady Morgan’s fiction. The issue became one of wide public concern, however, only with the revival of O’Connell’s agitation and with the founding of The Nation in 1842.

Thus the Irish novel, in one of its aspects, can be termed a kind of advocacy before the bar of English public opinion. In plot and in characterization it often served the interests of special pleading. Maria Edgeworth’s scrupulous landlords, venal agents, and irresponsible peasants, like John Banim’s oppressed and unwilling rebels and conspirators, are too carefully posed for the vindication of a thesis to constitute a representation of Ireland “as it really was.” This propagandistic bent of the Irish novel is its weakest point. That it performed successfully the services of propaganda is doubtful. Very likely the contrasting and conflicting images of Ireland cancelled each other {39} out. The major writers, however much they may have differed, saw Irish experience as being essentially tragic, and this is the one view which English readers were not prepared to accept. The reading public much preferred the Ireland of Charles Lever—an enchanting and dowdy land of dolce far niente, in which dashing dragoons and impoverished fox hunters held genial sway over a mob of feckless rustics.

Irish novels were invariably reviewed by British journals on the assumption that they had been written to please English taste or to shape English opinion. John Wilson Croker’s slashing attacks upon Lady Morgan in the pages of The Quarterly Review were inspired by his fear of the damage which her novels might do to the high-Tory position which claimed his own slippery allegiance. Similarly it was to England that the Irish writer looked for critical judgment. In only a few instances, such as Carleton’s remarks upon the novels of Banim and Lever, Thomas Davis’s review of Carleton’s own work, or an occasional article in The Dublin University Magazine, is criticism from contemporary Irish sources relevant or important.

The dependence of Irish writers on an English audience did not seem at all exceptionable. London, after all, was indisputably the intellectual and literary capital of the British Isles. The problem, rather, is to define the sense in which their work may properly be called Irish. This problem, which is enmeshed in old and barren controversies and clouded over by doctrinaire political and cultural assumptions, inevitably confronts the student of the literature of nineteenth-century Ireland.

Irishmen, to be sure, had made generous contributions to the literature of the two preceding centuries—Swift, Congreve, Farquhar, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and Burke were all Irish. Except for Swift, however, who in this as in all things is a law unto himself, the fact of Irish birth is irrelevant to their accomplishments. Children of the English garrison, they took quick and natural root in English soil. The attempts which have been made to trace out an “Anglo-Irish”—let alone a “Celtic”—strain in their writings are quite unconvincing. [7] Goldsmith’s friends, it is true, made a standing joke of his Irish background, {40} and his transformation of a Roscommon village into “sweet Auburn” presents us with a literary oddity. And Burke, who was descended from one of the old Norman families and whose mother was a Roman Catholic, possessed a familiarity with Irish affairs which was to stand him in good stead. But Sheridan’s Irish birth we are likely to remember only because of his name and because he was in the habit of tossing a stage-Irishman into his plays. As for Congreve—we accept the fact with mild incredulity. The same might be said of the century’s only Irish novelist, Henry Brooke, the author of The Fool of Quality (1765-70).

There did exist in the eighteenth century a literature which was indisputably Irish—the poetry of the Gaelic hedge writers, who had inherited the traditions of Gaelic letters as fully as had Goldsmith those of English poetry. This literature was “hidden”—to employ Daniel Corkery’s evocative phrase—but it was not unknown. Goldsmith himself glimpsed Turlough O’Carolan, “the last of the bards,” and recorded his impressions in a brief essay. [8] It was a dying tradition, however, and might have perished without record had it not been for the retentive memory of the peasantry and the devoted labors of a few amateurs from within the Garrison itself. But the development of an interest among members of the Ascendancy in the literature of the older Ireland is discussed at greater length in Chapter Eight, and need not be anticipated here. It will suffice, for the moment, to realize that high walls of language and caste separated the two cultures of eighteenth-century Ireland. Nor were these the only barriers. Brian Merriman’s brilliant poem, The Midnight Court, is remarkable as much for the sophistication as for the antiquity of its traditional form. [9]

A single incident may bring the issue close to our own subject. In 1805 Arthur O’Neill, old and blind, sat dictating the story of his life to a clerk named Tom Hughes, who served the M’Cracken family of Belfast. O’Neill was one of the last of the race of Irish harpers, and {41} his attachments were to that aristocratic world of the Gael which had almost vanished.

”When dinner was announced,” he says, speaking of an assemblage some sixty years before, “very near a hundred of the O’s and Macs took their seats. My poor self being blind, I did what blind men generally do, I groped a vacancy near the foot of the table. Such a noise arose of cutting, carving, roaring, laughing, shaking hands, and such language as generally occurs between friends, who only see each other once a year. While dinner was going on, I was hobnobbed by nearly every gentleman present. When Lord Kenmare hobnobbed me, he was pleased to say, ’O’Neill, you should be at the head of the table, as your ancestors were the original Milesians of this kingdom.”’ [10]

Behind the darkened eyes of Art O’Neill, an old man talking out his life to a clerk of the family upon whose charity he depended, the Gaelic world lived and glowed in the bright colors of heraldry. This is not surprising, for in his youth he had had another patron Murtough Oge O’Sullivan, the half-legendary swordsman of Fontenoy and the Kerry coast. And he had crossed the sea in 1745 to play at Holyrood before Charles Edward Stuart, the “saviour and deliverer” of the Munster poets. Indeed, it has been supposed that he was present when the Irish lords met to decide whether they would risk one last throw of the dice on the Jacobite cause. [11]

O’Neill, who like all the Gaelic artists was proud to the point of snobbishness, naturally sought out the hospitality of those few titled O’s and Macs who had survived the penal legislation, but he could be sure of a welcome in many a Protestant Big House. In this fashion, amicably but with little real understanding on either side, the two cultures touched one another. One such Big House is of particular interest to us. “Always,” O’Neill says, “on my return from the Granard Balls, I stopped at Counsellor Edgeworth’s of Edgeworthstown, where I was well received.” [12] In this house, which we will visit in the next chapter, the first and perhaps the finest of Irish narratives was written.

The “Granard Balls,” which in fact were harp competitions, were held for three years running, beginning in 1781. When Lady Morgan was writing The Wild Irish Girl, she gathered a certain amount of information concerning the famous harpers, which she incorporated in the footnotes of that curious novel. Richard Lovell Edgeworth read the novel when it appeared in 1806, and it stirred a dim and inaccurate memory. “I believe that some of the harpers you mention were at the Harpers’ Prize Ball at Granard in 1782 or 1783. One female harper, of the name of Bridget, obtained the second prize; Fallon carried off the first. I think I have heard the double-headed man.” [13]

In Lady Morgan’s misty imagination the harpers and bards trailed clouds of Ossianic grandeur—an attitude which Edgeworth would have called damned folly. Edgeworth was a generous man, in his brisk, hard-tempered fashion, and Art O’Neill was surely received with kindness. But O’Neill was one in an endless stream of mendicants who came to the gates of the Big House at Edgeworthstown—harpers, pipers, pilgrims, prophecy-men, fiddlers. This stream troubled Edgeworth’s orderly mind and stirred his conscience, but it never touched his imagination. But then neither did O’Neill truly see “the Counsellor,” as he calls Edgeworth, since every gentleman must have a title, and “the Major” or “his Reverence” or “his Lordship” did not apply.

Between these two men of the eighteenth century—the friend of Murtough Oge O’Sullivan and the friend of Erasmus Darwin—there could be no communication. Maria Edgeworth shared, in part, her father’s impatience with the world which Art O’Neill represented. In the pages of The Absentee she deals satirically with life at Kilpatrick House, which was everything that Art O’Neill expected a Big House to be—festive, improvident, and swarming with retainers and “follyers.” But if she knew little of his Ireland and cared less, she understood {43} the moral life of her own caste with an artist’s piercing, intuitive understanding. Out of her knowledge she created Castle Rackrent.

With this novel a tradition begins, for it is the first fictional narrative of Irish life to be written in the English language. The writers who followed Maria Edgeworth display an equal concern with the Irish scene. Are their novels to be called Irish or English or, by way of ambiguous compromise, Anglo-Irish?

Douglas Hyde dismisses them in magisterial fashion from his Literary History of Ireland, telling us that he has “abstained altogether from any analysis or even mention of the work of Anglicised Irishmen of the last two centuries. Their books, as those of Farquhar, of Swift, of Goldsmith, of Burke, find, and have always found, their true and natural place in every history of English literature that has been written, whether by Englishmen themselves or by foreigners.” [14] And it is true that the nineteenth-century Irish writers have found a place in English literature’but whether, like Farquhar and Goldsmith, they have found their true and natural place is another matter. In most such histories they are to be found huddled together, a worried Hibernian band, with Marryat and Surtees pressing them hard from one side and “The Imitators of Scott” from the other.

Hyde is perfectly justified in excluding them from his own work, for he is writing the history of “the literature produced by the Irish-speaking Irish.” But his statement remains somewhat disingenuous, for the point upon which he insisted throughout his distinguished career was that only the literature of the “Irish-speaking Irish” was truly Irish. To the Gaelic enthusiasts of Hyde’s generation Ireland’s English-language literature was in every way deplorable. It was committed to the representation of Irish life in alien and unassimilable forms, and it had resigned itself to a humiliatingly “colonial” status. In its attempts to “explain” and to “show” Ireland, it was inevitably defensive in tone and attitude.

The argument rested upon false assumptions, for a culture must be judged by what it is and does, not by what it should be doing. If Irish culture is to be defined by the Gaelic language, we must conclude {44} that when the last of the hedge poets died, Ireland ceased to have a culture. Long before the Church and O’Connell cast the heavy weight of their authority on the side of English, and long before famine and emigration had thinned the ranks of Irish-speakers, it had become clear that such literary and intellectual life as Ireland possessed would find expression in English.

There is no strong reason why we should not join Professor Corkery in calling this literature Anglo-Irish. And there remains considerable point to the questions which he addresses to it:

The answer to the question: Is there an Anglo-Irish literature? must depend on what regard we have for what Synge spoke of as collaboration—without, perhaps, taking very great trouble to explore his own thought. The people among whom the writer lives, what is their part in the work he produces? Is the writer the people’s voice? Has there ever been, can there be, a distinctive literature that is not a national literature? A national literature is written primarily for its own people: every new book in it—no matter what its theme—foreig or native—is referable to their life, and its literary traits to the traits already established in its literature. The nation’s own critical opinion of it is the warrant of life or death for it. Can Anglo-Irish, then, be a distinctive literature if it is not a national literature? And if it has not primarily been written for Ireland, if it be impossible to refer it to Irish life for its elucidation, if its continued existence or non-existence be independent of Irish opinion—can it be a national literature? [15]

Professor Corkery, as the reader may have inferred, is an extreme cultural nationalist, and is happiest when a work of art is Gaelic, patriotic, Catholic, and puritanical (though the latter two terms are, in the Irish context, interchangeable). Fortunately, the brilliant accomplishments of modern Irish writers have not depended for a warrant of life or death upon the official opinion of the Republic of Ireland. The warrant for the continued existence of Yeats and Joyce and Synge is in the keeping of the republic of letters, which is at once more just and more generous.

Corkery has, however, defined somewhat inadvertently the anomalous status of the Irish literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is a literature which has never been able to depend for its existence on Irish opinion; only rarely has it been written primarily {45} for its own people; more rarely still has it drawn upon “traits” established in the literature. And yet it is a literature rooted in Irish life and experience, a literature which often forces us to turn for elucidation to the thought and culture of Ireland.

Whether a body of literature which must be defined in these terms may properly be called national, whether it should be spoken of as Irish or as Anglo-Irish or as Colonial are questions which might be set forth at greater length, but not, I think, with much profit. Speaking of “that literature which had no existence until towards the end-of the eighteenth century,” Corkery says, In our youth and even later it used always to be spoken of as Irish literature: and this custom old-fashioned folk have not yet given up: to them, Thomas Moore’s Melodies are still Irish Melodies.” [16] I have chosen to follow the practice of these old-fashioned folk. For one thing, they seem to have an old-fashioned preference for accuracy: Irish Melodies is the title which Moore, however mistakenly, gave to his work. It is also true that the word “Anglo-Irish” has slippery political and social connotations. If Maria Edgeworth belonged by class and allegiance, Gerald Griffin most certainly did not.

The novels of nineteenth-century Ireland were always spoken of as Irish, and we may accept the term with a full undstanding of what it meant. To be sure, we must also bear in mind implications which were not then clear. We have a deeper sense now of the interdependence of language and culture. We can appreciate that much which was rich and various, much which was uniquely Irish perished when Gaelic fell into disuse. O’Connell, in a remark which the Gaelic League would later make notorious, said that “although the Irish language is connected with many recollections that twine round the hearts of Irishmen, yet the superior utility of the English tongue,as the medium of all modern communication, is so great that I can witness without a sigh the gradual disuse of Irish.” [17] We, may agree with the judgment and yet wonder if he realized how final a sentence he was passing on much that he cherished.

We must also bear in mind the validity of certain of Corkery’s {45} strictures. A literature which seeks to vindicate and justify the culture from which it draws its being labors under a heavy burden. (Although one which announces truculently that its heroism, suffering, and ineffable purity place it beyond the need of vindication bears a much heavier one.) When these have been taken into proper account, however, and when the limitations and particular merits of each novelist have been recognized, it becomes clear that the major Irish novelists were engaged upon a subtle and profound study of a complicated and self-contradictory society.

I have singled out those novelists who attempted such a task, whether successfully or not. It is for this reason that I have not considered the work of Lover and Lever, whose names, inevitably and indecently yoked, are the first to occur to many readers. In neither writer is there any real tension or any sense of felt experience. It is not true, though many nationalist critics have made the claim, that Lever was engaged in the task of deliberately travestying his countrymen. His novels, nonetheless, are travesties, because they are not written out of any deep concern with his subject—but this is true of all poor novels. At times, as in The Martins of Cro’ Martin (1847), he seems to be fumbling toward a subject which might engage his feelings, but never with complete success.

On quite different grounds I have excluded certain novelists of unmistakable talent. Charles Maturin launched his career with two bizarre imitations of Lady Morgan—The Wild Irish Boy (1808) and The Milesian Chief (1812), but it must be said that the true interests of the author of Melmoth the Wanderer lay elsewhere. Joseph Sheridan Lefanu, whose reputation rests most firmly on works of another order, wrote two extraordinary Irish novels, The Cock and Anchor (1845) and The House by the Churchyard (1862). It is significant, perhaps, that both of these highly gifted members of the Ascendancy should have turned to tales whose somber and uncanny atmosphere seeks to transcend the immediacies of social fact. Maturin’s lonely and forbidding country houses, set in frightening isolation upon the bogs, and the strangeness of Lefanu’s Dublin suggest the disquiet and desolation which subsequent members of their social class took {47} to be the predominating fact of the Irish scene. Miss Elizabeth Bowen, herself an Anglo-Irishwoman, has suggested that much of is odd and puzzling in Uncle Silas, Lefanu’s best novel, is explainable if we assume that he has transferred to the English countryside a tale of the Irish Big-Houses. [18]

For our purposes, however, it is preferable that we concentrate upon those writers whose involvement with the Irish scene was deep and steady, and in whose work we can trace the changing pressures of Irish life. Of these, five claim our attention by reason of talent and accomplishment. Three of these, Maria Edgeworth, Gerald Griffin, and William Carleton, will not prompt questions as to the wisdom of my choice. They are writers of great, if often unrecognized, power. Lady Morgan and John Banim are much more uneven writers, and their native endowments are not so large. Though they were capable of fine work—Lady Morgan in The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys and Banim in The Nowlans—my reasons for discussing them at length are more nearly those of the literary and cultural historian than of the critic.

Lady. Morgan’s novels afford us an understanding of the way in which cultural and political myth was created in nineteenth-century Ireland, and of the uses to which writers put the romantic conception of an immemorial Irish “nation.” The discussion of her novels leads us, inevitably, into a consideration of the literary and political milieu within which she worked, for she was involved in the great public issues of the day, and this involvement is reflected in her work.

John Banim’s fiction is of interest to us on two counts. The Irish novel is supposed by some literary historians to have been inspired by the example of Scott. The impression is not altogether erroneous, for the bibliographical record of Irish fiction is heavily weighted by historical novels in Scott’s vein. No study of the fiction of the period could claim thoroughness, therefore, if it did not deal with a writer whose imagination was fired, as Scott’s was, by the clash and clatter of old battles. John Banim is probably the ablest, as he is also the first, of the Irish historical novelists. The Boyne Water, his best novel of {48} this kind, is discussed in Chapter Twelve, together with The Conformists and The Last Baron of Crana.

Chapter Eleven, however, discusses another and perhaps a larger claim which Banim has on our interest. Banim was one of the first of those writers who attempted the representation of the life of the Irish peasantry. It was a subject with many political and cultural reverberations, and these are set forth in “Irish Peasants and English Readers.” The tales of peasant Ireland which were written by Banim, Crofton Croker, and Eyre Evans Crowe constitute a kind of public debate on the Irish character, set against a lurid background of agrarian crime and near-insurrection.

The careers of the five novelists with whom we will be concerned assume their full interest, however, only when they are placed in the proper relationships to one another. For these writers, differing in talent and intention, differ as markedly in social class and background. It is by virtue of coincidence that they come from the four provinces —Leinster, Munster, Connaught, and Ulster—but the coincidence permits us to examine the sharp contrasts which obtained between the West of Ireland and the more Anglicized counties, and the special way of life which obtained in Presbyterian Ulster. The division along religious lines is almost too neat. Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan were Protestant—though Lady Morgan’s faith was a precarious possession. Griffin and Banim. following precedent set by Moore, were members of that first generation of Irish Catholics for whom the relaxation of the Penal Laws opened careers in the world of English letters. And in spiritual matters Carleton was a bewildering nondescript—not least bewildering to himself.

By birth they run the gamut of the social classes: the Edgeworths were of that Anglo-Irish county stock which, if not titled, had loftier claims than many of the nobility, and they were landowners of a truly impressive kind; Gerald Griffin was descended from the dispossessed Catholic gentry, though his immediate forebears were strong farmers; Banim’s father was a petty tradesman, perhaps the least regarded of all Irish social types; William Carleton was able to boast, accurately and often, that he was spurng from the heart of the Gaelic-speaking {49} peasantry. And Lady Morgan’s most delightfully Hibernian trait is that in matters of genealogy she was an inveterate liar, concocting once in each decade some new and mendacious pedigree.

Because religion, racial heritage, and family loyalties necessarily engaged their imaginations, these novelists yield to us a surprisingly complete understanding of nineteenth-century Ireland’s complex and stratified culture. It is an understanding which sharpens our awareness of the instinctive value which all men place upon culture, the apprehensions with which they view a culture which is shattered, incomplete, or imperiled. The very richness and variety of the forms of Irish life, that tumbling heterogeneity of social types and customs which so charmed readers, bespoke not healthy diversity but Kettle’s “unimaginable chaos.”

These apprehensions mark the thought and the literature of nineteenth-century Ireland, which found itself confronted by its own unique problems. The Anglo-Irish of Goldsmith’s generation pondered but briefly, and probably balefully, the question of nationality. To the Anglo-Irish of Grattan’s generation, it was an accomplished fact, and one which held no riddles. But in O’Connell’s Ireland the Ascendancy discovered that it was in sober fact a garrison, and a beleaguered one at that. Its Big Houses and law courts and Dublin mansions, which had seemed as firmly built and as imperishable as the prose of Cicero and Plutarch, seemed now to be standing naked and desolate on the dark, treacherous bogland.

The native writers, who were beginning now to think and to write in English, found themselves beset in other ways. They had been cut off, it is true, from the world of Art O’Neill and Egan O’Rahilly, and Owen O’Sullivan, but the Gaelic hedge poets, while deserving of most of Professor Corkery’s encomiums, had been hopelessly provincial. They had been adrift upon a river, somewhere outside of history and circumstance, and the river had been at last sucked down by the bogs. Brian Merriman had been the only one of them to come to terms with the world around him, and of Merriman Frank O’Connor has aptly written: “He had that sort of clear, objective intelligence which rarely attaches itself to lost causes, and he may well have turned {50} with a wry smile from the dream of a modernized Gaelic Ireland to the teaching of trigonometry.” [19]

Merriman died in Limerick in 1805, reduced no doubt to woeful virtue by his son-in-law, the respectable tailor. For Gerald Griffin, who had been born in Limerick two years earlier, the notion of Gaelic Ireland would hold great meaning, and he was to attach much of his passion to it. By that time, however, it lay in the past, and he had to seek it out in the tumbled ruins above the Shannon and among the clansmen of wild Clare and Kerry. It was as dead as the Ireland of the Rackrents, those cruel, fearless, and fatal rakes of the Georgian Ascendancy.

Yet both of these worlds, though dead in fact, were fully and vividly alive in the imaginations of Maria Edgeworth and Griffin, for the Irish novelist, whether settler or Celt, was fierce in his loyalty to the particular “Ireland” which was his. But he knew that others had opposing visions and aspirations—opposing “Irelands.” At times, as in Maria Edgeworth’s Ormond, he wrote out of a conviction that these oppositions might _some day be reconciled. But at other times, as in Griffin’s Tracy’s Ambition, he drew a picture of a land whose people, driven by old hatreds, would turn upon each other.

”Great hatred, little room, / Maimed us at the start,” Yeats was to write. The novels which we are about to examine will supply us, in unhappy abundance, with proofs of how much hatred there was, and how deeply felt. But they will suggest also that the power to love, to enjoy, and to create, though maimed, was still strong. “The old men,” Yeats has also written, “tried to make one see life plainly but all written down in a kind of fiery shorthand that it might not be forgotten.” The time has come to read the shorthand and to search out the sources of the fire.


1. John Gibson Lockhart, Life of Sir Walter Scott, VIII, 25.
2. From “Remorse for Intemperate Speech,” Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats, p.293.
3. Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent, p.69.
4. Preface to O’Donoghue’s edition of First Series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry, 1, xxiv—xxvi.
5. Lady Morgan, O’Donnel: A National Tale, 1, x.
6. Lady Morgan, Florence Macarthy: An Irish Tale, 1, vi.
7. See, for example, William O’Brien, Burke as an Irishman.
8 Oliver Goldsmith, “Carolan,” in Miscellaneous Writings, 1, 208-10.
9 It has been put into admirable English verse: The Midnight Court: A Rhythmical Bacchanalia from the Irish of Bryan Merryman, translated by Frank O’Connor.
10 “The Memoir of Arthur O’Neill” was first published in full by Charlotte Milligan Fox, in Annals of the Irish Harpers (London, 1911), pp.137-87. Samuel Ferguson had drawn upon material from the manuscript in preparing the notes to the 1840 edition of Bunting’s Ancient Musick of Ireland. The passage quoted appears in Fox, Annals, p.147.
11. Ibid., p.146n.
12. ibid., p. 178.
13. Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, Diaries, and Correspondence, I, 293.
14. Hyde, A Literary History of Ireland, p. ix.
15. Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, p. 2.
16. Ibid.
17. W. J. O’Neill Daunt, Personal Recollections of Daniel O’Connell, I, 15.
18. Introduction to Lefanu’s Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh, pp.8-9.
19. From the introduction to his translation of The Midnight Court, p.10.

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