Margaret Kelleher, ‘Prose Writing and Drama in English, 1830-1890: from Catholic Emancipation to the Fall of Parnell’, in Cambridge History of Irish Literature (Cambridge UP 2006), Vol. I [Chap. 11], p.449-99 [here p.484ff.].


Part 3

Note: The copying of this chapter has been undertaking to facilitate the efficient transfer of quotations and references to author-entries in RICORSO. The chapter is reproduced in its totality in view of its signal wealth in bibliographical detail especially as regards the publishing history of 19th century Irish fiction, as well as its outstanding critical merit and value as a point of reference.

Irish drama, 1830-1890
In 1842 the paucity of Irish drama, as evidenced by advertisements in Dublin newspapers, led to the following criticism by visitor W M. Thackeray: ‘Only one instance of Irish talent do we read of, and that, in a desponding tone, announces its intention of leaving its native country. All of the rest of the pleasures of the evening are importations from cockney-land. [103] That same year, the poor houses in Dublin theatres led the manager of Dublin’s Theatre Royal, J. W Calcraft’ (stage name of John William Cole), to issue an appeal to the city’s citizens ‘not to suffer their national theatre to be extinguished’. [104] Yet, as Cole himself later attested, Irish-born dramatists, both past and present, were ‘numerous and eminent’, ifnot currently evident on Dublin stages. His eleven-part ‘Dramatic Writers of Ireland’ series, published in the Dublin University {484} Magazine in 1855-6, provides an invaluable guide to the history of Irish-born dramatists up to 1850, told through biographical sketches of numerous individuals, extending from Henry Burnell and Roger Boyle to Cole’s own contemporaries Samuel Lover, J. Stirling Coyne and James Sheridan Knowles. [105]

In the years after 1830, the number of theatrical venues available in Ireland increased significantly Dublin’s Theatre Royal, Hawkins Street, running since 1821, provided audiences with the staple offerings of Shakespearean drama, grand opera (mostly Italian), visiting ‘English opera’ companies, and annual pantomime. The opening of the Queen’s Royal Theatre on Great Brunswick Street in 1844 challenged the dominant position enjoyed by the Theatre Royal (although it would not be until the arrival of manager James W. Whitbread in 1884 that the Queen’s ‘golden age’ would commence). Theatres Royal were founded in Wexford in 1830 and in Limerick in 1841, and in 1866 Cork’s Athenaeum Theatre (later Opera House) opened. [106] Also at this time, the careers of two Irish lyric composers, Michael William Balfe (18o8-7o) and William Vincent Wallace (1812-65), flourished, Balfe’s light opera The Bohemian Girl (1843) and Edward Fitzball’s Maritana (1845) proving enduring favourites with Dublin audiences. [107] In 1871, the new Gaiety Theatre staged Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer as its first production, and over the next decades brought to Dublin both contemporary plays and touring companies from London theatres togetherwith established classics, most notably numerous Shakespearean productions.

On the one hand, such fare differed little from that provided by London theatres at the time; on the other hand, the annals of Dublin theatre feature occasional reminders of specific Irish conditions and concerns. In 1843, the season of Italian opera was cancelled at the Theatre Royal, as a result of ‘the great political agitation then existing, which so frightened the Italian Artistes they demanded so much additional terms, there would be no Italian opera that season’. [108] As late as 1870, visits to Dublin by Irish-born acting stars, including Barry Sullivan and Shiel Barry, brought the familiar complaint as to the many artists ‘whom the Dublin audience left for a London audience to “find out” [109] And as Martin Meisel has noted, Dublin theatre in the 1870s - as experienced by the young George Bernard Shaw, for example - was an ‘earlier’ theatre than that of its London contemporaries, preserving for longer the ‘conventions, modes, techniques and genres’ of popular theatre. [110]

The interrelation of drama and novel in the early decades of the nineteenth century, as traced by Claire Connolly in chapter 10, continued until the middle of the nineteenth century but with a clear decline evident in the fortunes of classical tragedy and classical drama. In 1835 a benefit performance for {485} the ailing John Banim was held at Dublin’s Theatre Royal; two years later, his historical drama Sylla the Dictator, declined by London managers, was staged unsuccessfully in Dublin. Eily O’Connor, an early stage adaptation of Griffin’s The Collegians, was a success for the Theatre Royal in 1834. [111] In 1842 Griffin’s verse tragedy Gisippus, never staged during his lifetime, was performed posthumously both at Drury Lane and Dublin, with William Macready playing the title role; while well received, it failed to impress a wider audience and was revived rarely.

The dramatic career of newcomer Samuel Lover was significantly more successful. In 1831, Cole, then in his second season as manager of the Theatre Royal, commissioned Grana Uile; or The Island Queen, as an ‘original operatic drama on an Irish subject, in which unhackneyed melodies should be freely intermixed’. [112] Lover went on to produce eight dramatic pieces in total, seven of which were musical dramas, whose commercial appeal was largely built on their popular melodies. Of these the biggest hit was Rory O’More, dramatised from Lover’s own novel, which ran for over a hundred nights at London’s Adelphi Theatre in its first season in 1837 and was staged in many of the provincial theatres throughout the country; in 1838 it was a large hit in Dublin with the main part played for some of this run by famous nineteenth-century actor Tyrone Power. A year later, the Adelphi had another popular success with Anna Hall’s Groves of Blarney, adapted for the stage by the novella’s author in collaboration with Power; following a long season at the Adelphi, it toured throughout Britain and travelled also to Ireland and America. It received a very successful revival at Dublin’s Queen’s Theatre in 1854. As with Lover’s work, much of its appeal came from its popular songs, including “The Blarney”, “Aileen Mavourneen” and “Irish Invitation”.

In the midst of this successful run of fiction writers turned dramatists, one since-lost play provides a suggestive exception. In 1841 Cole urged William Carleton, then at the peak of his career, to try his hand at dramatic writing, and a three-act comedy was hastily produced called Irish Manufacturer, or Bob MacGawley’s Project, which opened on 25 March 1841. As Cole recalled later, expectation was high because of the celebrity of its author. While billed as comedy, in the play itself pathos predominated: the scene of a family starving for want of work was ‘wrought up with an appalling strength which absolutely startled the audience’ and had, Cole conceded, a ‘reality’ that was ‘too painfully explicable to existing facts to prove either agreeable or attractive’. Its author could not be induced to repeat the experience. [113]

As Christopher Morash has observed, ‘if there was a problem with the Irish theatre in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, it was not the problem {486} of finding an audience; it was the problem of finding an Irish repertoire. [114] Thackeray’s criticism was thus largely accurate: as noted above, most productions in Irish theatres were English in origin and, conversely, Irish-born dramatists moved themselves and their careers as quickly as possible to London and to the wider dramatic and economic opportunities offered by the English stage. One example is that of Joseph Stirling Coyne (1803-68), born in Birr, County Offaly, who moved to England in 1837. By 1856, Coyne had authored over fifty plays, including farces, comedies and burlesques, and specialised in topical drama on themes such as “Our National Defences” and “Railway Bubbles”. Only one of his plays contained an Irish character, however. This character appeared in a play called The Tipperary Legacy, and proved, not unlike Haffigan in G. B. Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island, to be a ‘Saxon’ in disguise. During the 183os and 1840s Cork-born and now London-based James Sheridan Knowles, his reputation secured by historical drama and tragedies, turned to newly popular domestic themes; meanwhile revivals of his most popular works, Virginias (1820) and Brian Boroimhe (1811), took place in London and in the United States. [115]

The most characteristic form of popular theatre in Victorian England and Ireland was melodrama, laden with dramatic spectacle; its elaboration, along with the other strongly visual modes of farce, pantomime, extravagance and burlesque, was facilitated by more complex stagecraft and more detailed scenic, quasi-pictorial settings. This popular drama continued to employ Irish material throughout the nineteenth century: Irish characters appeared sporadically in English drama, for example in John Baldwin Buckstone’s Green Bushes; or, A Hundred Years Ago, produced in London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1845, and frequent use was made of Irish settings in pantomime and melodrama. The recurrence of plays with an Irish subject in certain English theatres might usefully be linked to the tastes of individual managers, as Heinz Kosok has suggested [116] one case being the frequency of ‘Irish plays’ in London’s Adelphi Theatre in the decades preceding its 1860 triumph with The Colleen Bawn.

Undoubtedly the master of Victorian melodrama was actor, manager, designer and playwright Dion Boucicault (1820-90), now the most renowned nineteenth-century Irish dramatist. In 1861, following major successes in the 1840s and early 1850s in London with plays such as London Assurance (1841), and later in New York with such plays as The Poor of New York (1857) and The Octoroon (1859), he returned triumphantly to Ireland with the opening of his Colleen Bawn (loosely based on Griffin’s The Collegians) at the Theatre Royal, Hawkins Street on 1 April. [117] Numerous parodies of the play followed almost immediately, including H. J. Byron’s burlesque Eily O’Connor at Drury Lane {487} in 1861, and Brough and Halliday’s farce The Colleen Bawn Settled at Last at the Lyceum the following year. The fashion towards Irish material also benefited Boucicault’s fellow actor Edmund Falconer (born Edmund O’Rourke) (1814-79) who was the author of Peep O’Day; or Savoureen Deelish (1861), adapted from a short story by John Banim, and set in 1798. A later play by Falconer, Eileen Oge (1871), became a success in Ireland at the end of the century with frequent revivals by Whitbread at the Queen’s Theatre. Three years after the first Irish production of Colleen Bawn, Boucicault’s Arrah-na-Pogue, set in 1798, premiered in Dublin (November 1864) and ran in London the following year, with later productions in North America, France and Australia; in 1874 The Shaughraun, the last in his Irish trilogy of melodramas, opened in New York. The simultaneous popularity of Boucicault’s work in Ireland and England, as well as the United States, may, as Stephen Watt rightly warns, occlude the different reasons for the plays’ success, as well as their ‘chameleon-like’ appeal to audiences of various political persuasions. [118]


By the late nineteenth century, the renewed popularity of Irish themes is evidenced by the career of Hubert O’Grady (1841-99). Born in Limerick and trained as an upholsterer, O’Grady became a famous actor and manager. In 1876-77 he came to the attention of Dublin audiences in the role of Conn in Boucicault’s The Shaughraun. As manager of the ‘Irish National Company’, O’Grady and his wife toured Ireland, England and Scotland, where performances included O’Grady’s own plays, most famously his melodramas with Irish subjects: Eviction (1879), Emigration (1880), The Famine (1886) and The Fenian (1888). The Famine and The Fenian attracted huge audiences at the Queen’s Theatre into the early years of the twentieth century; in 1902, for example, three O’Grady plays were staged there. The fortunes of the Queen’s in the last decades of the nineteenth century were built on regular revivals of Boucicault and O’Grady, along with the plays of its manager, J. W. Whitbread (1847-1916), who took over the running of the theatre in 1884. Whitbread wrote some fifteen Irish plays, including The Nationalist (1891) and, in the years after 1890, a number of plays dealing with the 1798 rising. [119]

O’Grady’s work is an important reminder of the existence and significance of popular theatre on Irish themes prior to the formation of the Irish Literary Theatre and Abbey Theatre. [120] The popularity of his play The Famine, for example, casts some light on how a ‘social memory’ of famine was constructed and transferred in the late nineteenth century. The long prologue to the play places it in rural Ireland in 1881 at the time of the Irish Land League and No Rent Manifesto, and thus invokes the distress and famine experienced in parts of Ireland in 1879 and 1880 - very recent events for the play’s first audiences. {489}

The famine tableau that ends this scene also draws heavily on associations with the ‘Great Famine’ of the 1840s, and firmly establishes the play’s central theme - that the suffering of a previous generation shapes the present. The closing line of the play, voiced by the soldier son recently returned from India, underscores this:

And if you will only look back to the years gone by, you cannot but be convinced that all our trials and troubles can be traced to the great distress during The Famine’ – ‘picture-curtain – end’.

O’Grady’s plays, performed in Dublin nearly every year from 1877 until his death in 1899, were still performed regularly to 1907, and occasionally in the following decade.

Critical constructions of nineteenth-century Irish literature
In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the question ‘what do the Irish read?’ was a recurring topic among literary commentators, in both English and Irish periodicals.’ [121] The large volume of correspondence received by the Freeman’s Journal in March 1886, in response to author and historian Richard Barry O’Brien’s essay on the subject of “The Best Hundred Irish Books”, provides a rich array of answers. O’Brien, writing under the pen name “Historicus”, weighed his choices heavily in favour of historical writing, an emphasis which his many respondents - over forty in total, and including well-known figures such as Justin McCarthy, Matthew Russell, Charlotte Grace O’Brien, William Lecky and Samuel Ferguson - were quick to point out. Novelists qualified for inclusion on O’Brien’s list only because ‘the novelist who portrays national character and manners is in some degree historian too, and must not be forgotten’. His selections of Edgeworth, Banim, Griffin and Carleton are thus unsurprising; Lever he judged to be entitled to a distinguished place among Irish novelists, ‘as an artist’, but disqualified from the list of ‘best Irish’ books by his ‘caricatures’ - a dismissal which would become prevalent among critics of Lever over the next decade. [122]


In the letters that followed - printed in the Freeman’s Journal over a two-week period beginning 23 March, and soon after republished in pamphlet form - contributors suggested numerous additions to O’Brien’s selections, including his choice of novelists. The authors most frequently recommended are Annie Keary, May Laffan Hartley, and Charles Kickham for his novel Knocknagow (1879). Hurrish, only recently published, was nominated by Trinity {489} College historian William Lecky and vehemently opposed by Irish Monthly editor Matthew Russell because of what he saw as its ‘atrocious’ depiction of Irish peasant motherhood, as well as its ‘caricature of Irish dialect’. Drawing from his considerable knowledge of contemporary writing, Russell himself made the longest supplement of Irish novelists, adding works by Keary, Kickham, Margaret Brew, Richard Ashe King and Richard Dowling. Meanwhile, readers of the Irish Fireside, in response to that journal’s rival theme of ‘fifty Irish works’, also nominated the novels of Kickham, along with Rosa Mulholland’s recently published Wild Birds of Killeevy (1883), and a host of Lever titles.

Other illuminating insights into the construction of a tradition of Irish writing at this period may be obtained from the four-volume Cabinet of Irish Literature (1879-80). The anthology, produced by Blackie publishers in an expensive and handsome ‘super-royal octavo’ edition, was largely the work of author and journalist Charles Read (1841-78), who did not live to see it published; the fourth volume was completed by T. P. O’Connor, newly elected Nationalist MP for Galway, with the assistance of Read’s widow. The subtitle promised readers ‘selections from the work of the chief poets, orators, and prose writers of Ireland’ - oratorical writing, given the political climate of the time, being a special selling point. In relation to its choice of prose writers, the contents of the Cabinet are impressively diverse, not only in terms of the ideological stance of the authors selected but also in relation to the genres featured. Oratorical writing ranged from an 1876 speech by Isaac Butt on the subject of land tenure, and the courtroom orations of James Whiteside (defence counsel for Daniel O’Connell and Charles Gavan Duffy), to House of Commons speeches by politician Hugh Cairns on Anglo-Indian affairs. The scientific writings of Dionysius Lardner and William Rowan Hamilton (both professors of astronomy) accompanied an extract, entitled ‘Scientific Limit of the Imagination’, from the highly controversial, pro-Darwinian address delivered by John Tyndall (born in County Carlow) to the British Association in Belfast, August 1874. Orientalist writings - from J. L. Porter (professor of biblical criticism and opponent of Tyndall), Richard Burton (most famous as translator of Arabian Nights) and Meadows Taylor (author of the 1872 ‘Indian mutiny’ novel Seeta) -as well as travel writing and military memoirs also featured strongly in the Cabinet’s contents.

In 1902, poet and fiction-writer Katharine Tynan published a revised edition of the Cabinet of Irish Literature in which the richness and variety of the Read/O’Connor selection of writings were reduced significantly Tynan’s omissions were in some part ideological and in large part pragmatic, given the publisher’s requirement that she reduce the previous four volumes to three {490} and add a new volume of her own. The narrowing of genre that occurs in this edition - evident in the omission of most oratorical and travel writings, and all of the scientific material, for example - is also symptomatic of wider aesthetic developments at the time, and Tynan’s understanding of ‘literature’ to mean fiction, poetry and drama would match that empployed for much of the twentieth century. In contrast, the first edition of the Cabinet is an important reminder of the breadth of material that the term ‘Irish literature’, as late as 1879-80, could signify, a breadth of inclusion that later histories of Irish literature and writing would struggle to re-establish.

Alongside the contraction in ‘literature’ that occurred during this period, a significant devaluation of the nineteenth-century Irish novel took place. The roll call of nineteenth-century novelists deemed worthy of consideration shrank visibly by the century’s end: thus in her 1902 revised edition of the Cabinet, Katharine Tynan stated decisively that ‘not much happened between 1848 and 1878’, a view shared by successive studies of nineteenth-century Irish writing. By 1903, Horatio Krans’s analysis of ‘Irish life in fiction’ could unapologetically deal with only the first half of the nineteenth century, and many later critics would follow his example. The influence of Yeats was again crucial here: in his famous lists of Irish books, published in the Daily Express and Bookman in February and October 1895 respectively and more generally in his critical writings, Yeats helped to shape an evaluation of the nineteenth-century novel that continues in critical currency For example, in his 1891 two-volume anthology Representative Irish Tales, only one living writer - Rosa Mulholland - was featured, and those fictional tales that were included (Carleton, Lover, Lever, Kickham, etc.) were intended to be ‘illustrative of some phase of Irish life’, with the collection overall offered as ‘a kind of social history’. [123]

Following Yeats, the perceived sociological character ofnineteenth-century Irish fiction was quickly made by Revival critics into an argument for the aesthetic inferiority of these novels, in contrast to the ascending status of drama in the period. Writing in 1897, in an essay entitled “Novels of Irish Life in the Nineteenth Century”, Stephen Gwynn expressed his regret that ‘literature in Ireland is almost inextricably connected with considerations foreign to art’. Gwynn criticised nineteenth-century writers specifically in this regard, objecting to what he called their ‘morbid national sensitiveness’ and the consequent ‘insincerity and special pleading which has been the curse of Irish or Anglo-Irish literature’ . [124] In 1904, also writing with regard to the Irish novel, Maurice Egan went further in his criticisms: the new movement ‘expressing itself in Irish literature today’, he argued, was sharply different - and superior - to ‘that movement which influenced the Irish novelists of the eighteenth and {491} nineteenth centuries’, the differences being that the new movement ‘is not a movement of reaction’, it is not ‘purely social’, and in it ‘art counts for much’. [125]

A century later, the revival of interest in nineteenth-century Irish writers that began in the mid-1990s would turn the terms of many of these complaints into literary virtues. Gwynn’s declaration that ‘Irishmen have always shown a strong disinclination to pure literature’ became a badge of honour for Irish writing, and the Irish novel’s ‘anomalous’ relationship to the realist tradition was celebrated at length in critical studies. Yet, even in this new critical climate, a discomfort with what Yeats had termed the ‘imperfect’ influence of nineteenth-century writing still lingers, whereby the nineteenth-century novel may be redeemed as ‘Irish’ only by its realist failures, or by its proto-modernist forms. Nor has the choice of post-1830 authors now deemed worthy of critical consideration changed notably from that made by “Historicus”, Yeats and their contemporaries – a handful of writers featuring in all cases. Only with a fuller knowledge of what was written can we accurately assess the ‘difference’ of nineteenth-century Irish writing, not only within an Irish–English axis but also through other comparative studies which await attention: be it comparisons with contemporary developments in Scottish writing, with nineteenth-century Canadian and American literature, or beyond European metropolitan centres to other colonial histories. [126]To conclude, the range of prose writing that was produced by Irish writers in English from 1830 to 1896, and the complexity of its origins and influences, extends far beyond the constructions that have been offered by its critics to date.

See Notes, attached.

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