Patrick Sheeran, ‘A Brief Historical View [of Irish Literature]’, in The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism”, Ph.D., UCG 1972)

Source: The dissertation is held in the Princess Grace Irish Library (Monaco). See also the published version as The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism (Dublin: Wolfhound Press; NJ: Atlantic 1976). For his remarks on the Anglo-Irish dramatists in London see the earlier passage appended infra.

‘A Brief Historical View’ [pp.171-92]
Thomas Flanagan concludes his study of The Irish Novelists I800-1850 as follows:

The history of the Irish novel is one of continuous attempts to represent the Irish experience within conventions which were not innately congenial to it. Maria Edgeworth’s novels-with-a-thesis, Lady Morgan’s exotic romances, Gerald Griffin’s moralities, the picaresque narratives of William Carleton are all encumbered in certain essential ways by the conventions which they have assumed. The best of them, which seek to move beyond these forms, make their strongest points and exist most vividly through indirection, symbol, allusion, and subtle shifts in point of view.

Technique, however, is always correlative to the sense of life which it embodies and makes manifest. The English novels, whether great or good, are concerned with the actualities of social existence, and with the heroisms and comedies of social choice. The salient feature of the Irish novel, as we have seen, is its involvement with issues of another order, its concern with the ways in which history, language, and race may define, liberate, or thwart the personality. (The Irish Novelists I800-1850, NY 1959, pp.334-35.)

“Technique” as “correlative to the sense of life which it embodies” is our main concern. Only a few supporting comments can be made on the line of novelists which stretches from Maria Edgeworth to Liam O’Flaherty.

Inevitably we look to the writings of Maria Edgeworth for it was she who first, “perceived the relation between the local habitation and the people who dwell in it” (Walter Allen, The English Novel, London 1954, p.98) and exemplified the situation of the novelist in Ireland. In the light of our discussion of the similarities between nineteenth-century Russian, American, and Anglo-Irish literature it is interesting to note Walter [172] Allen’s discussion of The Absentee in his critical history of the English Novel:

The novel opens in London - and it might almost as easily be Moscow or St. Petersburg. There is Lady Clonbrony, the wife of an absentee Irish peer, busily at work striving to stake a claim to a position for herself in fashionable society, perverting her native Irish good humour and simplicity into a comic parody of English aristocratic manners and behaviour; a figure of fun to the ladies who flock to her balls and routs; a source of endless expense to her weak-willed husband, whose Irish estates must be mortgaged to enable her to keep her foothold in the great world, and whose tenants must be fleeced and screwed for ready money to keep the userers at bay. Lord and Lady Clonbrony might be landowners from a remote province in a Russian novel who have at last got to Moscow. For in The Absentee Maria Edgeworth had seized upon the essential situation of her country at the time of writing: the absence of its landowners in England and the stranglehold their agents had on a helpless peasantry. And when we visit Ireland in the company of Lord Colambre, the Clonbronys’ son, whose aim it is to induce his parents to return to their native land and take up their proper duties there, we might be in nineteenth-century Russia, in that world of sequestered petty landowners, culturally almost indistinguishable from their peasants, among whom every kind of eccentricity flourished. (Ibid., p.100.)

The locus classicus of that “essential situation” is of course to be found in her Castle Rackrent and here the technique is exactly correlative to the life it embodies. The material of the novel is the history of the Rackrent family - precisely the same material (seanchas) which was employed by the seanchaí in their tales of family sagas and genealogies. Further it is written entirely in oral style the rise and fall of four generations of the Rackrents is told by [172] their servant Thady Quirk. If we bring Castle Rackrent into relation with, say, the oral romances collected by Douglas Hyde in Sgealta Thomais Ui Chathasaig (Dublin 1939) new aspects of the work, many of them flatly contradictory to received opinion, spring to the eye. To take but one example. It is a commonplace of criticism of Castle Rackrent, to focus on the tension between the narrator’s story and his own understanding of it, between the family “in fact” and as it appears in Thady’s imagination:

The meaning and passion with which he instinctively invests the words “honor” and “loyalty” lead him to bring forth evidence which prompts the reader to a quite different judgment of the Rackrents. (Flanagan, op. cit., p.91.)

That is, the reader accustomed to the novel of manners. Thady invests the words “honor” and “’loyalty” with the same meanings and passions as the narrator of Thomas Casey’s stories where there is no ironic gap between story and teller. They refer us, not to a code of manners where Rackrent extravagances are extravagances but to an older, albeit decayed code, where there is an aura of the heroic, the wildly romantic. Thady, after all, tells his tale for “the honor of the family”. This, of course, is not the whole story - “... evidence which prompts the reader ...”, as readers, concerned with the complexities of the written word, we are forced to pay attention to such things as irony and ambiguity. But place Thady’s tale among the thousands of folktales of similar type and one can only agree with his final comment - which is itself a trope of Gaelic folktales:

[...] where’s the use of telling lies about the things everybody knows as well as I do? (Castle Rackrent, Everyman’s Library Edn., 1968, pp.66.)

One comes upon this submerged code - let us call it an heroic code as against the manners of society - again and again in the literature of nineteenth-century [173] Ireland. The Autobiography of William Carleton - in many ways a real-life counterpart to Thady Quirk - is a record of his “feats” for which he was famous “not only through my own, but the adjoining parishes”:

[...] let not the reader blame me or tax me with vanity. I am recording the humble events of my early life, and I can truthfully assert that I derive more gratification from the limited fame which I enjoyed in consequence of my local celebrity for those youthful exploits than ever I did from that won by my success in literature. This I think every rational reader will understand. (Life of William Carleton, ed. D. J. O’Donoghue, London 1896, Vol. I., p.109.)

His account of his last feat reads like a peasant version of the events in the old, heroic tales. The final phrase sends us straight back to the world of Fionn and Cu Chulainn. The spot where he leaped the Karry “is called ’Carleton’s leap’ until this day”. Behind that phrase, shadow beyond shadow, lies Tain Bo Cualnge:

Meadb went eastwards over the ford, and he cast another stone from his sling at her east of the ford and killed the pet marten which was on her shoulder. Whence the names of those places are still Meide in Togmaill and Meide ind Eoin and Ath Srethe is the name of the ford across which Cu Chulainn cast the stone from his sling. (Tain Bo Cuailgne, trans. Cecile O’Rahilly, Dublin 1967, p.173.)

The over-riding ambiguity of almost all nineteenth-century Irish Fiction is an ambiguity of context, how are we to evaluate Sir Patrick Rackrent who:

gave the finest entertainment ever was heard of in the country not a man could stand up after dinner ... He had his house from one year’s end to another as full of company as ever it could hold, and fuller... (Castle Rackrent, p.5.) [174]

If we view his portrait ironically then our narrator is someone of the ilk of Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park. Such a context seems too limited and too remote. If we forget our modern preoccupation with irony and ironic distance and refer Sir Patrick back to the heroes of folklore then we can see how Thady might “love to look upon his picture”. There is a world where hard living and unholy dying, if done with sufficient gusto, are the supreme values. It is the Sir Patricia of this world that Christy Mahon will seek out when he wants “great company”. All have in common, in Yeat’s phrase, “the wasteful virtues”.

Lady Morgan’s works The Wild Irish Girl, O’Donnel, The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys are more purely romantic in form than anything Maria Edgeworth wrote. It is plain, from stray remarks in her Memoirs and letters, that she consciously wrote within the romance form. The strange amalgam of diverse elements which constitute these romances is best brought out by a letter of advice to her from her mentor and friend Joseph Cooper Walker, author of a History of Irish Music. Lady Morgan (then plain Miss Sydney Owenson) is in the West of Ireland struggling with The Wild Irish Girl:

You are now in a part of the island where many of the Finian tales are familiarly known. You will, of course, collect some of them, and, perhaps, interweave them with the work on which you are at present employed. If you could obtain faithful descriptions of some of the scenes of those tales, you would heighten the interest of your romance by occasionally introducing them. On the summit of Slieve Guillen, lies the scene of The Chase, which has been so admirably translated by Miss Brooke. As it does not appear from your letter, that you are acquainted with her Reliques, permit me to recommend that inestimable work to your particular attention.
With the plan of your work I am unacquainted. [175] Perhaps you have taken for a model, the prose romance of the Irish, which was, I believe, generally interspersed with the poetical pieces (see Percy’s Reliques for an account of the History of the Civil Wars of Granada) or, to refer to a modern production, The Mysteries of Udolpho.
The language of simple narration, where the passions are unconcerned, should be easy, elegant, and familiar. Such, I am sure, madam, is the language you will employ. And I am equally certain, that in the impassioned parts of your work, you will employ the words that burn, or melt, as the occasion may require. (Lady Morgan’s Memoirs: Autobiography, Diaries and Correspondence, ed. W. Hepworth Dixon, London 1862, Vol. 1, p.262.)

J. C. Walker, in concluding his letter sends his respects to Miss Owenson’s father from whom his correspondent derived a further influence - her penchant for melodrama and the theatrical construction of her novels. He was the manager of the National Theatre and later, deputy-manager of the Theatre Royal. In bad times he took the lead in numerous melodramas and farces where it was his custom to insert patriotic airs for the honour of the Nation. The practice finds a counterpart in his daughter’s works where she strikes out again and again at the political and religious condition of the Irish people. The “element of romance” as her friend and editor, W. Hepworth Dixon, put it,

perhaps enables the reader to go through political discussions and statistical details of the then existing state of things in Ireland, which otherwise would not have been tolerated ... (Ibid., Vol. II, p.77.)

Miss Dixon here strikes on one of the strengths of the romance form, that it can bear a large freight of illustrative material and it was for this reason, among others, than the Irish writers found it so congenial.
We have remarked previously how the West of Ireland had a place in the Irish imagination very similar to that held by the prairies in the American [176] and the Steppes in the Russian. The Indians of one, the Old Believers of the other brought a barbaric spendour and mystery into their literatures denied to that of the more uniformly “civilized” nations. Charles Lever sums up what Connacht meant for his contemporaries:

The genius of the rest of Ireland [...] uses Connaught as a species of literary store-farm. Ulster, Leinster, and Munster, breed men of genius who, so soon as they have exhausted their own provinces of lay and legend, incontinently cross the Shannon to carry on a predatory warfare against Fin Varra and Grana Uaile. These they rob and pillage without mercy; driving preys of ghost stories, and taking black mail of songs and tunes as unceremoniously as ever the Finns of old lifted sheep and black cattle. Meanwhile, the Connasians go on coshering, and story telling, and droning on their bagpipes; fighting, joking, ghost-seeing; acting comedies and romances every day; but never dreaming of taking pen in hand to turn themselves to account; and again, you might as well attempt to eat down a corcass meadow as to exhaust this El Dorado of material, by transporting into it any given number of tourists, statists, legend-hunters, whim-catchers, trait-trappers, and historians. (Quoted in W. J. Fitzpatrick, The Life of Charles Lever, London 1884, p.175,)

It is part of Lady Morgan’s significance that she was one of the first to carry on the predatory warfare against Fin Varra and Grana Uaile [Gráinne O’Malley]. Her romances, in common with Moore’s Irish Melodies established a conventional, sentimental image of Ireland that was to exert a powerful influence on later writers and indeed on the rhetoric of Irish politics. Joyce’s image, in the story “Two Gallants”, of the harp, “heedless that her coverings had fallen about her knees ... weary alike of strangers and her master’s hand.” (James Joyce, Dubliners, Penguin Edn., 1956, p.52.) [177] is the sordid declension of the image of Glorvina, “The Wild Irish Girl” posed with her harp against a ruined castle in the sunset. Appropriately, Joyce’s harpist “played in the bass the melody ‘Silent, O Moyle’”.

There are times and places when reality itself, the fabric of daily life, becomes so heightened or so terrible as to rival or defy fiction. Today many writers are concerned with the way in which the events of recent times, the horrors we associate with Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the hamlets of Vietnam, seem beyond the reach of words to describe or justly portray. “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” The only fit response for many is silence and artistic, if not actual, suicide. The dilemma is not new. It was in many ways the one which faced the Anglo-Irish writers as their century grew in violence and horror, culminating in the Great Famine and the subsequent diaspora. There is a remarkable similarity in the final comments of Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan on the way in which Irish life eventually moved beyond the Pale of their art. Maria Edgeworth replied to her brother’s question as to why she no longer wrote fiction:

It is impossible to draw Ireland as she how is in the book of fiction - realities are too strong, party passion too violent, to bear to see, or care to look, at their faces in a looking-glass. The people would only break the glass and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature - distorted nature, in a fever. We are in too perilous a case to laugh, humour would be out of season, worse than bad taste. Whenever the danger is past, as the man in the sonnet says, “We may look back at the hardest part and laugh.” Then I shall be ready to join in the laugh. Sir Walter Scott once said to me, “Do explain to the public why Pat, who goes forward so well in other countries, is so miserable in his own.’’ A very difficult question: I fear above my power. But I shall [178] think of it continually, and listen, and look, and read. (100)

Lady Morgan concludes her “villeggiatura” of the year 1853 with the entry:

Fiction has nothing more pathetic than that great melodramatic tragedy now performing on the shores of Ireland - The Celtic Exodus. The Jews left a foreign country - a house of bondage; but the Celtic exodus is the departure of the Irish emigrants from the land of their love - their inheritance - and their traditions - of their passions and their prejudices; with all the details of wild grief and heart-rending incidents - their ignorance of the strangers they are going to seek - their tenderness for the objects they are leaving behind. Their departure exceeds in deep pathos all the poetical tragedy that has ever been presented on the stage, or national novelists have ever depicted in their volumes. (Memoirs, II, p.523.)

Then as now, not all writers adopted the final radical solution of silence. Banim, Griffin, aad Carleton took up the old burden of explanation and found a rough shape for their intractible material by drawing on the resources of melodrama and the shilling shocker. John [recte Michael] Banim’s Croho[o]re of-the Billhook is a story of incredible savagery of a kind that could not possible be contained within the conventions of English realistic fiction. Maria Edgeworth, in the passage quoted claimed, “We are in too perilous a case to laugh, humour would be out of season, worse than bad taste”. Banim, if he were to write at all about the life he knew, had to risk that breach of taste. His strategy was to write what can only be described as black comedy. The climax of Crohoore occurs when the tithe proctor is buried to the neck beside a ditch and Yemen O’Neill, to the accompaniment of fiddler and piper and attendant hedge poet, [179] sets about removing the proctor’s ears:

Come, come, none of your ochowns, Peery. Don’t be the laste unasy in yourself, agra. You may be right sartin I’ll do the thing nate and handy. Tut, man, I’d whip the ears of a bishop, not to talk of a creature like you, a darker night nor this. Divil a taste I’d have him; and wouldn’t bring back any o’ the head wid me neither - musha, what ails you, at all? You’ve a better right to give God praise for gittin’ in the hands of a clever boy like me, that - stop a bit, now - that ’ud only do his captain’s orders, and not be lettin’ the steel slip from your ear across your wind-pipe - Lord save the hearers! Stop, I say! There, now; wasn’t that done purty. (“Crohore [sic] of the Billhook”, in Peep O’Day, NY 1865, p.100.)

A society where justice (Yemen is executing the sentence of the people) is measured out, on one side by removing ears and/or wind-pipe and on the other by hanging judges had passed beyond the civility implied by Maria’s concept of humour. Banim’s other fine novel of peasant life, The Nowlans also moves beyond the bounds of realistic fiction but for different reasons. It is particular interesting in that the work is a deliberate effort at mediating between the old contraries of Orange and Green. Daniel, the father of the novel’s protagonist, John Nowlan, marries a “black Protestant”. She “turns” Catholic on her marriage - as the Church demands - first hint that the two sides cannot really meet on equal terms. In the next generation John, now a Catholic priest, falls in love with the daughter of a Protestant neighbour. Reversing the earlier situation, they are married by a Protestant clergyman in London. One could view The Nowlans, metaphorically, as the world of romance superimposed on the world of the novel. Father John, cannot [180] forget the judgement of the Church on his state: “Tu es sacerdos in aeternum secundura ordinem Melchisadech”. He is a man for whom the doctrines of salvation and damnation are living, terrible realities. The polite social world into which his wife introduces him in London and Dublin takes on the linaments of Hell. He is as unseemly there as a Biblical citation in a comedy of manners. For Banim, as for so many other Irish writers, the figure of the Priest is charged with energies which break through any purely realistic surface. John and his wife Letty (the very names capture some of their differences) live unhappily. Letty dies and John returns home, mentally sick, to the bosom of his father and his God. These lovers, one bound to a world of religious images and obscure dreads, the other a free spirit, are recurring figures in Anglo-Irish fiction. Françoise, the French wife of Kieran O’Meara in John Montague’s short story, “An Occasion of Sin”, shares something of Letty’s plight as late as the 1960’s:

Her husband had nearly split his sides laughing when she asked what that meant. And yet, despite his education and travel, he was as odd as any of them. From the outside, he locked completely normal, especially when he left for the office in the morning in his neat executive’s suit. But inside he was a nest of superstition and stubbornness; it was like living with a Zulu tribesman. It emerged in all kinds of small things: the way he avoided walking under ladders, the way he always blessed himself during thunderstorms, the way he saluted every church he passed, a hand flying from the wheel to his forehead even in the thick of city traffic. And that wasn’t the worst. One night she had woken up to see him sitting bolt upright in bed, his face tense and white. “Do you hear it?” he managed to say ...”It’s a banshee,” he said. “They follow our family. Aunt Margaret must be going to die.” All through the funeral, Kieran kept looking at Francoise reproachfully, as if to say you [181] see! And now the disease was beginning to get at her, sending her to stalk through the night like a Mauriac heroine, melancholy eating at her heart. (The Death of a Chieftain and Other Stories, London 1964, pp.125-26.)

In Gerald Griffin’s vivid melodrama The Collegians the conflict of the two worlds is given in rather different terms. Kyrie Daly, son of “a very respectable family in middle life”, argues with his friend Hardness Cregan on the value of social conventions, the whole world of manners and morals. For Daly, the usages of the “polite world” are all important, they keep anarchy at bay. Without custom and ceremony

“How soon the mighty vessel would become a wreck! How silent would be the rich man’s bouquet: low solitary the great man’s chambers! How few would bow before the throne. How lonely and how desolate would be the temples of religion!” (The Collegians or the Colleen Bawn: a Tale of Garryowen, Dublin 1847, p.105.)

Hardness is a follower of Rousseau. “Manners” for him imply hypocrisy and meanness. He will carry his beliefs on this point into the most intimate practice:

“Plain human nature is enough for me. If I were to choose a companion for life, I should rather hope to cull the sweet fruit of conjugal happiness in the wild orchard of nature than from the bark-beds and hot-walls of society.” (Idem.)

Hardness, as has frequently been remarked, is the Heathcliff of Anglo-Irish fiction. He is also a surrogate for his creator who writes of him and his surrogate with a force and power that he cannot muster in the service of Daly and his beliefs. John Cronin, in his study of “Gerald Griffin, Dedalus Manqué” points out the essential resemblance: [182]

This creature of extremes, starting from a hatred of sham, transgresses his social code, reacts violently to the resultant predicament and brings ruin upon himself. It is a fictional analogue of Griffin’s own predicament. Hardress’s social morality is as simple, as unsophisticated as Griffin’s artistic morality. They are both sensitive. Warm-hearted, full of “nature”, passionate and intense, they both have an oversimplified view of life and they both murder what they love. Hardress murders Eily, Griffin tries to destroy his work. Surely Griffin’s penetration of the ambiguities of the character of Hardress is made possible because of some war within himself between two sharply opposed views of life and art, views which might be described in Kyrtle Daly’s words as “simplicity” and “elegance”. (Cronin, ‘Gerald Griffin, Dedalus Manqué’, in Studies, in Studies, 58, 1969, p.276.)

Certainly his view of life, his conviction of “the essentially solitary nature of the human condition” derived from his Irish Catholicism, crippled Griffin as a novelist and drove his narrow but intense power in the direction of Romance. (Cronin, ‘Gerald Griffin’s Commonplace Book - A’, in Éire-Ireland, IV, 3, 1969, p.38)

The major figure in nineteenth century Anglo-Irish fiction is, without doubt, William Carleton. The title of his most popular and enduring collection speaks for itself - Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry. Carleton’s work derives directly from the romances of oral, Gaelic tradition. There is a remarkable passage in his unfinished biography which describes the confluence of the two worlds we associate with Anglo and Irish. He is describing his father and his native place:

My father, indeed, was a very humble man, but in consequence of his unaffected piety [183] and stainless integrity of principle, he was held in high esteem by all who know him, no matter what their rank might be. When the state of education in Ireland during his youth and that of my mother is considered, it will not be a matter of surprise that what education they did receive was very limited. It would be difficult, however, if not impossible, to find two persons in their lowly station so highly and singularly gifted. My father possessed a memory not merely great or surprising, but absolutely astonishing. Ile would repeat nearly the whole of the Old and New Testaments by heart, and was besides a living index to almost every chapter and verse in them. In all other respects, too, his memory was amazing. My native place was a spot rife with old legends, tales, traditions, customs and superstitions, so that in my early youth, even beyond the walls of my own humble roof, they met me in every direction. It was at home, however, and from my father’s lips in particular that they were perpetually sounding in my ears. In fact, his memory was a perfect storehouse, and a rich one, of all that the social antiquary, the man of letters, the poet, or the musician would consider valuable. As a narrator of old tales, legends, and historical anecdotes he was unrivalled, and his stock of them inexhaustible. He spoke the Irish and English languages with equal fluency. With all kinds of charms, old ranns, or poems, old prophecies, religious superstitions, tales of pilgrims, miracles and pilgrimages, anecdotes of blessed prients and friars, revelations from ghosts and fairies, he was thoroughly acquainted. And so strongly were all these impressed upon my mind by frequent repetition on his part, that I have hardly ever since heard, during a tolerably enlarged intercourse with Irish society, both educated and uneducated - with the antiquary, the scholar, or the humble seanachie, - any single tradition, legend, or usage, that, so far as I can at presant recollect, was perfectly new to me or unheard before in some similar or cognate dress. This is certainly saying much, but I believe I may assert with confidence [184] that I could produce, in attestation of its truth, the names of Petrie, Sir William Betham, Ferguson, and O’Donovan, the host distinguished antiquaries, both of social usages and otherwise, that ever Ireland produced. What rendered this, however, of such peculiar advantage to me as a literary man was, that I heard them as often, if not oftener, in the Irish language as in the English; a circumstance which enabled me in my writings to transfer the genius, the idiomatic peculiarity and conversational spirit of the one language into the other, precisely as the people themselves do in their dialogues, whenever the heart or imagination happens to be moved by the darker or better passions. (David J. O’Donoghue, The Life of Wiliam Carleton: Being His Autobiography and Letters; and an Account of His Life and Writing from the Point at Which the Autobiography Breaks Off, London 1896, I, p.5-7.)

Carleton himself became a seanachaí and entertained the neighbours as his father had done before him, but more adventurously. He wanted to display his “learnin” so he composed popular stories on classical model and finding it would not do to go over the same ground too often he took to inventing original narratives. This apprenticeship, together with his avid reading of the picaresque romance of Gil Blas served as a basis for his future work. He gave to the life that surrounded him in his youth and to the stories he had heard “a linked embodiment” as he described it in the short narratives that were his forte. Then, in response to the challenge of his critics that he was unable to write a novel, since his powers of construction and development were not marked, he wrote Fardorougha the Miser. In the long view of history his critics were right, this and succeeding works - Valentine M’Clutchy, The Black Prophet, The Squanders of Castle Squander are strange but potent mixtures of political allegory, thesis-novel, and romance. His description of yet another somberly entitled book The Black Baronet in a letter to his publisher might stand for his entire output: [185]

I have dealt with principles, feelings and passions more than mere manners and the sympathy excited is proportionately intense and deep. (Ibid., II, p.144.)

It would take us too far from our present concerns to deal at any length with Carleton’s achievements and failures. The general direction of his work, however, may be gauged fro- what he himself regarded as his best “novel” - The Black Prophet. In it he tried to come to a final summary of his views on Irish life and society. Before approaching this prophetic book it is as well to remind ourselves of a typical feature of European realism:

The theatre of the European novel, its political and physical matrix from Jane Austen to Proust, was extraordinarily stable. In it the major catastrophes were private. The art of Balzac, Dickens and Flaubert was neither prepared nor called upon to engage those forces which can utterly dissolve the fabric of a society and overwhelm private life. (George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, Penguin Edn. 1967, p.43.)

This was precisely what Carleton had to call upon his art to engage. In the”Author’s Preface” to The Black Prophet, where he defends himself against the possible charge that he was exaggerated the horror of his descriptions of the 1817-1822 Famine, he exclaims:

But why talk of exaggeration or contradiction? Alas! do not the workings of death and disolarion among us in the present time give them a fearful corroboration, and prove how far the strongest imagery of Fiction is frequently transcended by the terrible realities of Truth? (The Black Prophet, London 1899, p.viii.) [186]

It is the discovery of Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan all over again. Truth is more terrible than fiction; Carleton is writing his preface in the first year of the Great Famine. His theme is “those forces which can utterly dissolve the fabric of a society and overwhelm private life” - in Ireland’s case, the landlord system, agrarian violence, famine. He writes of a society where the people pray to be struck down by cholera rather than typhus, a quick rather than a lingering death. The resources of his art are not capable of dealing with such a theme except in terms of melodrama, gothic horror, and thesis writing. At the high point of his presentation of the violence and suffering endured by his people he abandons fiction and in the course of a lengthy footnote has recourse to the unvarnished prose of Dr. Corrigan’s pamphlet On Fever and Famine as Cause and Effect in Ireland. To-day, with the knowledge of similar artistic failures - perhaps necessary failure - in the face of catastrophe we find it less easy to blame Carleton. His effort to hold together in a single narrative the destructive forces and private life are hopelessly at variance. A conventional romantic-cum-thriller plot creaks through a landscape of black misery and despair. “Black” is the key term of the novel and indeed Carleton seems to have been obsessed with the word and with darkness

Almost every house had a lonely and deserted look; for it was known that one or more beloved beings had gone out of it to the grave. A dark, heartless spirit was abroad. The whole land, in fact, mourned and nothing on which the eye could rest bore a green or thriving look or any symptom of activity, but the Churchyards, and here the digging and the delving ware incessant - at the early twilight, during the gloomy noon, the dreary dusk, and the still more funereal-looking light of the midnight taper. (Ibid., p.211.) [187]

There follows the obligatory footnote which reveals the crossing place of fact and fiction: “A fact - the sextons were frequently obliged to dig graves by candlelight.” The problem of the relationship between the “in fact” of the text and the “a fact” of the footnote contains in little Carleton’s ambiguous relation to his material.

Through this landscape, more precisely, through “Glendhu or the Black Glen”, hirple - to use an odd but suitably grotesque word of Carleton’s - the archetypes of fairytales and dreams, the golden girl and the dark boy, the lost mother and vengeful dead. The central character Donnell Dhu - “Black Donnel” is both a type from the Ireland of Carleton’s youth and an archetypal daemonic figure. All of the leading characters derive their intensity from their connection with such archetypes. In the opening scene of the book Donnel’s daughter is shown sinking her teeth into her stepmother, yet another baleful figure, and the narrative likens the action to “[...] the fierce play of some beautiful vampire that was ravening for the blood of its awakened victim”. (Ibid., p.7.) To Yeats, fresh from his study of The Black Prophet, Carleton seemed “like the animals in Milton, half-emerged only from the earth and its brooding”. (Quoted in Flanagan, The Irish Novelists 1800-1850, 1959, p.263.) If we take”brooding” in its primary sense of “breeding”, we have a final image of Carleton, in a time of terror, releasing the fearful spirits of the collective unconscious.

Darkness, in the most literal sense, did descend on Carleton in the end. Old and almost blind he wrote a begging letter to his friend Dr. Corry and gave himself over to prophecy: [188]

The only three names which Ireland can point to with pride are Griffin’s, Banim’s, and - do not accuse me of vanity when I say it - my own. Banim and Griffin are gone, and I will soon follow them - ultimus Romanorum, and after that will come a lull, an obscurity of perhaps half a century, when a new phase of manners and habits among the people - for this is a transition state - may introduce new fields arid new tastes for other writers, for in this manner the cycles of literature and taste appear, hold their day, displace each other, and make room for others. I am now tired and exhausted. (The Life of William Carleton, II, p.293.)

Like the Black Prophet he had an unerring sense of the times. Our brief historical survey takes up again in the nineties and with the enigmatic figure of George Moore. It was not simply, as Carleton had predicted, a new condition of Irish civil society which opened up new fields for his successors. Rather was it contact of a more purely literary kind with those French influences that were at the same time reshaping English literature. George Moore is, increasingly, being acknowledged as the key figure of the period. He wrote poetry in French in the manner of Baudelaire, novels in English in the manner of Zola, a collection of short stories translated under his supervision into Irish that owed a large debt to Pater’s prose: More generally he was heir to the two conflicting tendencies within French literature of the day, the impulse towards realism and the contrary impulse towards aesthetic symbolism. We might think of A Mummer’s Wife as embodying the first and his poetic novel of Irish life The Lake as embodying the second. There is, however, a rich diversity in Moore’s work that precludes any easy classification: Graham Hough, commenting [189] on Moore’s evocation of his abandoned mentors - Shelley, Gautier, Zola, Flaubert, Goncourt - marks a rough but sufficiently plastic division:

This pell-mell jumble of passions and revulsions spreads out, as it were, the contents of Moore’s imagination for our inspection; and we can see that the objects displayed, apparent in a mere chance assortment, actually fall into two groups. One group is composed of fantasies and dreams, often slightly perverse fantasies and dreams, unchecked by bourgeois ethics of ordinary social reality. The other group consists of equally passionate aspirations after the actualities of life, the tangible realities of contemporary experience and modern urban living. These two enthusiasms sometimes clash violently. Each at times tries to deny the existence of the other, yet both continue to exist - and even in the end come to a kind of reconciliation. (Hough, Image and Experience: Studies in Literary Revolution, London 1960, p.186.)

We might mark off the changed meaning with which we must invest the work “romance” from this point forward in our discussion of Anglo-Irish prose fiction by considering Moore’s first “novel” of Irish life A Drama in Muslin as against The Lake. The first, though much more densely realistic than anything that had gone before (Moore, we remember, was a disciple of Zola) still leans to the illustrative mode in traditional ways - his theme is the old political one of an Ireland torn between landlord and tenant. The Lake on the other hand is something new to Anglo-Irish and to English fiction - “[...] the beauty, harmony and integrity of the words on the page are a more important consideration than their efficacy in representing an outer reality” (Ibid., p.204.) Moore, in fact, opened the way for Joyce and faced before him the dual allegiance, at once to [190] “realism” and “beauty”. The Lake was also of the first importance - as has been pointed out earlier in the words of Frank O’Connor [see note] - in establishing a pattern for half a century to come. In its symbolic quality (“There is a lake in every man’s heart”), its concentration on a solitary hero (“lonesomeness being our national failing”), its questing for the meaning of existence (“my quest is life”) this work gave a new meaning and a new dimension to the romance strain in Anglo-Irish fiction.

James Joyce both learned from Moore and to some extent duplicated his experience. Dubliners owes a debt to The Untilled Field and in “The Dead” one even hears far off echoes of The Lake:

At the end of an autumn day, when the dusk is sinking into the room, one lacks courage to live. Religion seems to desert one and I am thinking of the leaves falling, falling in Derrinrush. All night long they will he falling, like my hopes (Moore, The Lake, London 1905, p.147.)

The similarity of the two men’s careers is more a matter, as both recognized, of shared experience. In a letter to John Eglinton, Moore recounts a visit paid to him by James Joyce in 1929:

He was distinguished, courteous, respectful and I was the same. He seemed anxious to accord me the first place. I demurred and declared him the first in Europe. We agreed that our careers were not altogether dissimilar. (Quoted in Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, OUP 1966 Edn, [pp.630-31.])

In the same letter Moore recalls having praised himself as a revolutionary and Joyce as a heroic revolutionary. Joyce confessed “Paris has played an equal part in our lives” ([ibid. [p.630]). Both had striven to hold together the extremes of [191] richness and reality, symbolism and naturalism, and their ultimate strength derived, not from any harmonious fusion of the two, but from their opposition. Joyce was, of course, in every way Il miglior fabbro: not the least of his achievements was to alter the whole axis of Irish fiction from an almost exclusive concentration on the countryside to the city. Our rapid survey of Anglo-Irish prose fiction has been undertaken with the aim of providing a literary-historical perspective to our study of O’Flaherty’s works. They are of a peculiar kind which is best explicable by reference to the tradition we have outlined both in its early phase and later development. O’Flaherty’s points of contact with this tradition are buroadly: his “regional novels” which follow directly in the path of Maria Edgeworth’s and Lady Morgans; his trilogy of historical novels which seek, like Banim’s and William Carleton’s, to explain the past to the present and finally, his failing attempt to grapple with the city and its violence. The task of the third part of this study will be to explore these works in depth and to concentrate on the way in which the romance form embodies O’Flaherty’s vision as it did that of his predecessors.

[End chap.]

Viz.: ‘Where are the successors of The Lake [by George Moore] and how have they developed on and superseded their model? Most Irish novels still tend to end as The Lake itself ends by the hero’s getting out of the country as fast as he can. The only Irish novel that compares with it for excellence - Daniel Corkery’s The Threshold of Quiet - ends with the heroine’s going into a convent, which is only the same conclusion seen through a veil of resignation.’ (O’Connor, The Lonely Voice, Cleveland: World Pub. Co. 1963, p.206; Sheeran, p.133.)


See also his remarks on the Anglo-Irish dramatists in London ...

‘The Irish dramatic tradition presents a similar picture of the differences. We are attempting to highlight between a literature that tends to move through contradictions to forms of harmony and reconciliation and one content to resolve disharmonies, if at all, by limited means such as pastoral or melodrama. To continue the necessary dogmatic vein of the discussion so far we can say that Irish dramatists, when they turn to English society for their material and audience write comedy of Manners. [Ftn. acknowledgements to Vivian Mercier in conversation.] They depict and satirize the manners and customs of society, generally good London society. Such moral standards as are advanced by the dramatist are either those of society itself or have a concrete social sanction - the social wisdom known as “common sense”. Aberrations and wildness of conduct in individuals will be corrected or, if they are beyond correction, the individuals will be rejected. The standard invoked is the necessary compromises and imperfections of the social order. Manners and morals and their equivocal relationship provide the largest target for the dramatist within this form. One thinks to the work of William Congreve, George Farquhar, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. When the Irish dramatist turns to the divisions and dissensions within Irish society he lacks a fine texture of received and traditional manners to work on. Instead he writes either Melodrama, pastoral or, more commonly, Mock Pastoral [William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral, 1925]. The hero or protagonist of Mock Pastoral is not an idealized peasant, as in the pastoral mode proper, but a tinker, beggar, tramp, or criminal. type. He is both anti-hero and anti-society, at the end of the play he will be banished from the stage and the unadventurous “decent” people remain behind. Captain Boyle and Jockser Daly are typical mock-Pastoral figures. Synge is the foremost exponent of the mode. Christy Mahon, after he has become “a likely gaffer in the [137] end of all.”’

—Sheeran, “The Novels of Liam O’Flaherty: A Study in Romantic Realism”, Ph.D., UCG 1972), pp.136-37.)


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