Robert Welch, ‘Language and Tradition in the Nineteenth Century’, in Changing States: Transformations in Modern Irish Writing (London: Routledge 1993) [Chap. 2].

To speak of tradition in nineteenth century Irish literature is to be conscious of an absence. In an eloquent and deeply influential lecture by Thomas Kinsella, on “Irish Poetry and the Nineteenth Century”, delivered at the Merriman Festival in Ennis in 1968, the lecturer went over the names of the nineteenth century poets who have assumed a place in the roll-call of honour. This was his verdict:

Callanan, nothing. From Thomas Davis, Thomas D’Arcy McGee, Speranza ... rhetorical fluency, savage indignation, high purpose ... Mangan and Ferguson, with Moore and perhaps Allingham ... it all amounts to very little ... . From John Todhunter ... nothing ... waste characterizes the scene. [1]

Waste, silence, absence. This way of writing about the state of Irish culture in the nineteenth century is familiar. George Petrie, in 1855, writing in the preface to his Collection of the Native Music of Ireland, of the effects of the Famine on Ireland, spoke of the absence of the dimension of celebration in Irish life which was once there and to which the Collection itself bears witness. There is a break; there is a gap. There is something broken, hesitant and uncertain about the work of writers as various as Thomas Moore, Callanan, Ferguson, Carleton, Davis, Griffin and Le Fanu.

That uncertainty is caused by a great number of factors political, economic, cultural, social - but for the moment we might rest on one: the linguistic. In nineteenth century Ireland one of the most devastating shifts that can take place in a culture, the shift from one language to another, came about in a very {11} short time. This sudden shift is all the more remarkable when we consider that it had been a part of imperial policy since the days of the Tudor conquest, and before, to get rid of the Irish language. It all happened very quickly at the end. The Irish, to adopt a phrase of David Greene’s, committed linguistic suicide. Why did it happen? A community has to feel it has a competence. It must feel that it has the ability to express itself in its art, institutions, food, general way of life, and, most of all, language. A culture becomes a community through the system of signs, codes, transmissions that it organizes to give meaning and coherence to its life-experience. A culture that is not a colonized culture will find ways of continuously developing such a system of signs. It may look to its neighbours for examples, it may fall into inertia, but a free culture will have the privilege of communicating to and for itself its sense of itself by its own system of significances. In as much as it is drawn to life it will do this, because once life draws and attracts then a culture responds by making; by creating institutions, by building, by developing pathways and interconnections, by creating a representation of corporate life. There may be many foreign influences on a culture; indeed a sign of cultural health is just this ability to absorb and transform other experience, but such an ability rests upon a culture’s sense of self-possession, which has to do with its refusal to depart from its own ways of seeing and expressing.

Gaelic culture had its systems of law, inheritance, organization, and learning. It was an adaptable and flexible culture as any is when it is in a healthy state. The old Gaelic world had accommodated Christianity, and one of the great achievements of Europe is the Irish missionary movement in the so-called Dark Ages. But Irish culture was deeply hierarchical and aristocratic, and when the Tyrone rebellion was put down and when the chieftains left in the seventeenth century, Gaelic culture began to lose touch with its centre.

By the time we are considering, the beginning of the nineteenth century, that culture, while still active in many respects, was, in many other important ways, vestigial. Brian Merriman, the last major Gaelic poet until Seán Ó Riordáin, Pearse Hutchinson and Nuala ní Dhomhnaill in our own time, died in Limerick in 1805.

A language is the most comprehensive and satisfying of all the {12} systems that a culture has in which to represent itself to itself. What language was there for Irish writers at the beginning of the nineteenth century? There was English, and the tradition of Anglo-Irish prose embodied in the work of Swift, Berkeley, Burke and Goldsmith; and the tradition of Anglo-Irish drama that stretched from Lording Barry from Bandon to R. B. Sheridan. But before we leave that statement, that there was the English language, and the tradition of Anglo-lrish drama and prose, we should pause and confess an unease about the nature and kind of continuity that that leaves unsaid. If we think of language as simply a tool, a technological device for the transmission of information (which is often the way it is thought of, even in the universities) then, to a certain extent, the language a writer uses to communicate to his or her community is a matter of accident. But if we think of a language not as something subject to our will and caprice, like the control panel of a microcomputer, but as something on which we are dependent, something that represents for us an ability to establish for ourselves a clearing to be in, then you cannot think any more that writers, turning to what lies before them in their cultural system of language, are not affected by what is there. And what was there for the poet at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a language system, English, associated with the English imperium, its established constitutional life, its power. In that system there were the different, often challenging voices of Swift, Goldsmith, Burke and Berkeley; and within it as well there were the English voices of difference, challenge and dissent: Milton and Marvell, for example. But the mention of Milton serves to remind us of a very significant consideration: that English liberty was grounded on what Burke loved to call “traditionary” rights [1] - rights which were put to the test and sustained in the century of English revolution - the seventeenth; a testing and sustaining in which Milton had his part to play. The Irish writer could look to Swift, who also had a part to play in defining English constitutional liberty, especially as it referred to Ireland, but there was no Irish achievement in parliamentary systems and constitutional freedom which had established itself firmly in the “traditionary” rights of the imperium. Far from it, the Irish parliament voted itself out of existence in 1800 in the Act of Union.

There was, however, the voice of Ulster dissent, to be found, for example, in the work of William Drennan. Radical {13} Presbyterianism, which looked to France, and which was a major strand in the ecumenical weave of the United Irishmen, carried forward into the late Enlightenment the thinking of Milton on individual liberty and the prerogative it should have in a reformed and renewed state. The radical Presbyterians, in making this connection, were remaining in touch with their own intellectual and theological origins in seventeenth century controversy and debate, and were offering a totally different view of British constitutional history and continuity from that of Burke, and one which might have generated another system had the United Irish rebellion been successful. But it was not, and in case there is a danger of becoming entranced by the alluring prospect of radical Presbyterian liberty (which never was) as the salve to all Irish woes (which were and are), it is necessary to recall that the ecumenical euphoria of the United Irishmen, while admirable, had many tensions within it, the most inescapable being the fact that Ulster Dissenters looked to Cromwell as the liberator, while the Catholic Irish could never see him quite in that light. And what mixed feelings did the Dissenters have about William of Orange, and would they have shared these in any way with their Catholic fellow-countrymen?

All of this has to do with how an Irish writer would have thought and felt about English at the beginning of the nineteenth century. English was the language of power and liberty, Wordsworth’s and Burke’s liberty, not that of Milton or of Blake. Had the Anglo-Irish tradition of Swift, or the United Irish radicalism of Tone been successful; had the Irish parliament achieved independence and become more representative of the people of Ireland - then the English language, and all the world of liberty and power associated with it would have been closer, less foreign, less “out there”.

A culture has a system of representation, by means of which it confirms itself to itself in spontaneous and often unconscious acts of recognition: that coffee shop, that piece of pottery, that dish of food, that facial contexture, that gesture, all co-ordinate in a sense of relationship, which adds up to meaning, significance, identity. We know ourselves in and through the things we see and hear around us. The everyday particulars of life give back to us our sense of ourselves, our sense of location and presence. All of these form in themselves a kind of language (remember Bloom’s comment in Ulysses, “everything speaks in its own way”), {14} but it is language itself that is the mesh in which all the particularity of the everyday is connected in our cultural systems. One of the most important of the sub-codes within language, one of the most significant of the systems of meshes that go to make up the corporate life of a culture, is the institution of government, and its constitution, which is the activity, the living body, of a state. What constitution did the Irish people have after the Union? There was a constitution, certainly, for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, but Ireland did not have anything like its own way of representing itself to itself within that system. Its sense of itself as a state was not a living thing; it was without a means of representation, a means of embodying its own particular sense of its conscious and unconscious life. It felt itself to be second-rate, a feature of Irish life still in evidence. This goes back, in the Irish situation, to that huge shift in mentality and in feeling that took place in the move from one language to another. With Irish, there was no problem; even with English, had the Anglo-Irish parliamentary system broadened to include a greater range of Irish life, to include Dissenter and Catholic (a range Burke longed for), then there could have been a life for the Irish themselves as themselves; but with the Union all that disappeared and life, as Desmond Fennell would say, was “elsewhere” [3]. The Irish became full provincials.

The Act of Union followed upon a period of questioning and debate in England upon the state and the rights and privileges of its citizens. England had been going through since the French Revolution one of its periodic bouts of self-definition and self-renewal. At the end of the eighteenth century English constitutional thinking was taking its modern form, in reaction to the drama in France as it unfolded. English nerves were very alert to those events, and there were none more alert than those of the man who gave English constitutional liberty its most forceful,and persuasive language: the Irishman Edmund Burke. There is an irony here the depth of which it is hard to fathom.

Burke hated what he called the “new conquering empire of light and reason£ which strips life of its moral and emotional clothing, to leave it naked and shivering. He endows “traditionary” rights and privileges with a sacral and humane aura, and sees those who would dissolve that aura as “sophistors”, mechanicals, Jacobins. They are without dignity because they {15} insult the instinct life has, according to Burke, to make and sustain codes:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of the moral imagination, which the heart reveres, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion. [4]

Burke argues that it is a meddling and profane intelligence that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of codes and of their continuance. It is meddling because it does not know tact; and it is profane because it cannot see that the codes and systems a people evolves in which to represent itself to itself have what he considers a sacred and “awful” quality, a gravity; because it is through them and in them that we have our relationship with life itself. It is through these codes and languages that we respond to the call life makes to us; these codes and languages are a creative and natural response. We are impelled into making them by life itself and in making them we are imitating nature. To break them is to be mechanized and Jacobinical, to be out of nature, to be monstrous. It is blasphemy because such an attitude is an affront to the secrecy of life itself in its “great mysterious incorporation of the human race”:

Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world, and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts; wherein, by the disposition of a stupendous wisdom, moulding together the great mysterious incorporation of the human race, the whole, at one time, is never old, or middle-aged, or young, but in a condition of unchangeable constancy, moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual decay, fall, renovation, and progression. [5]

The placing and disposition of these phrases is not just windy rhetoric. The writing is straining to realize, as it reflects upon the revolution in France, that renovation of the system of English liberty which will not be revolution. Watch again the movement and rhythm of the last clause in the passage above, which is all one sentence: “moves on through the varied tenour of perpetual {16} decay, fall, renovation, and progression”. Burke wants his speech to be visited by and to enact that principle of nervous yet flexible self-possession and constancy that he sees embodied in the British constitution. He wants to give that principle a language. And, of course, he succeeded, remarkably well. Poise, passion, gravity, dignity, he has all of these things. He provides a language, a system of representation, in which the English can see, defined and renovated, the liberty which they, Burke insists, must feel proud to inherit. He makes a system for a system. He shows that English can expand to accommodate the immediacy of the events in France and react to them, and measure them because it itself, the language, is grounded in an affiance with life. It is empty-headed meddling, and dangerous blasphemy, to be attracted by the kind of views advanced in the sermon given by Richard Price in the Old Jewry, the immediate stimulus to the Reflections. The English system, redefined and renovated, ensures that the English people will enjoy a sure and “domestic” (one of Burke’s favourite words) relation with the things of life. Things are dear to us because we can rest upon an assurance of continuity; take continuity away and things lose their substance; they become chimeras and fantasies. This is Burke’s argument and it is one of the most capacious statements of conservative thought ever made. And it was made by an Irishman, defining the nature of English freedom to the English; just as Burke’s opposite, Shaw, showed the nature of the confinements of English life over a hundred years later.

With the passing of the Act of Union Ireland lost its own system of representation and Burke’s model of the constitution was now the one that served for Ireland as well. If a community of people does not have a system of representation, a code, which will reflect its life and show that life to be of value and of significance, then its people will get the sense that real life is being lived elsewhere, so they lose touch with the particular evidences, the facts, of day to day life as they stand there before them. They lose poise, attention to detail, and they lose selfrespect. They become preoccupied and vacant, because they are in two places at once and therefore nowhere. This is the world of absence that gives us so much vapid verse in the nineteenth century, but it is the dispossession out of which springs also the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, Flann O’Brien, and Beckett, to name {17} but three Irish writers who have chronicled the obsessions of futility.

In the nineteenth century the strategy was to invent as many Irelands as possible. Because there was no Ireland, because there was no language, no system for it, then it was as well to try out as many possibilities as the brain could invent. And in any case it is a fact of psychological behaviour that if a person does not have a solid life-image the tendency will be to invent ceaselessly, to contradict, to venture as many versions as possible, anything rather than try to face the absence, the emptiness, the lack of continuity.

It is the same for a community. The absence of a satisfactory set of representations rooted in continuity will drive a community to extremes of self-abasement and self-assertion. There will be a plethora of images but they will not co-ordinate. And yet there will be a desire to make a system, to make it all cohere. So there will be a strong, insistent, even strident emphasis on difference, difference from the dominant life-image. In the case of Irish literature in the early nineteenth century the dominant life-image was the cultural set, the constitutional pattern, the confident power of English tradition and of the English way of life.

Ireland became mysterious not just to the English, to whom it is ever a source of bafflement or irritation, but to the Irish themselves. And they even came to develop an English tendency to exasperation over the inefficiency and silliness of their benighted fellow-countrymen. Ireland had no language, no established way of life, no set of representations: it was a mood, a cloudy intimation, a dream. It could be sensed in Irish music; that at least was non-verbal. Music allowed access to something that had to do with the core of Irish experience, but it was not troubled with precise identifications and relationships. The early nineteenth century was the period in which a good deal of Irish musical tradition was taken down from recital, by Edward Bunting from Belfast and by others. But when we consider the work of the poet, the friend of Robert Emmet, who was excited by the Bunting Collection of 1796 into wishing to do something {6} “truly national” [6] we see how poetry of the time cannot convey the sense of the centre from which music emanates. The poet is, of course, Thomas Moore; the enterprise which was to be “truly national” was the Irish Melodies, which appeared in ten numbers from 1808 to 1834. In one of these Melodies, the one “On Music”, {18} Moore himself gives us an account of the poetic psychology that underlies his approach:

Music! oh! how faint, how weak,
Language fades before thy spell!
Why should feeling ever speak,
When thou canst breathe her soul so well? [7]

Feeling becomes disembodied. There is no language for it. Music, for Moore, was associated with the centres of feeling, and Irish music in particular seemed to him to derive its “tone of sorrow and depression” from the core of Irish experience. There being no system in which to represent that experience, to embody it, music offered a mood which could float free from the constraints of the actual. Moore was inspired by the United Irishmen of 1798 and was influenced by what he called the “democratic principle” [8] that spread throughout Europe and to Ireland in the 1790s, the very thing Burke abominated most. But he went to London, away from the country for which he wished to do something “truly national”. He went, because, as a poet, he would want daily life to incorporate certain things: a community of interests, a sense of the relationship between the past and present, but most of all a set of representations that would be adequate for people to be where they were. All of this was missing in Ireland . There was no language, no continuity, no national assembly, no imagery of corporate life, no system within which a community could rejoice in the common impressions and transactions of the everyday. There was no sense of relationship in Irish life, so little sense of significance.

In 1808 Moore published two verse epistles, Corruption and Intolerance, “addressed to an Englishman by an Irishman” These poems in harsh pentameters are an attack on the corruption that facilitated the passing of the Union, and on the intolerance that Moore sees as characterizing relations between Ireland and England. The rhetoric of this writing conveys a kind of nervous hysteria, a blind uncoordinated rage, that takes the reader, accustomed to the idea of Moore as a bland innocuous writer, the smiling weeper mocked by Hazlitt and others, by surprise:

But oh, poor Ireland ! if revenge be sweet
For centuries of wrong, for dark deceit {19}
And withering insult - for the Union thrown
Into this bitter cup, when that alone
Of slavery’s draught was wanting - if for this
Revenge be sweet, thou hast that daemon’s bliss;
For, oh! ’tis more than hell’s revenge to see
That England trusts the men who’ve ruin’d thee ...
All that devoted England can oppose
To enemies made friends, and friends made foes,
Is the rank refuse, the despised remains
Of that unpitying power, whose whips and chains
Made Ireland first, in wild, adulterous trance,
Turn false to England’s bed, and whore with France. [9]

The Union is the culmination of a history of oppression and intolerance, the final bitterness. (It is odd that Seamus Heaney too is drawn to the phrase from Hamlet which Moore has in mind here, in “Shelf Life” in the 1984 Station Island. [See Chapter 14.])

In an appendix which he wrote to Corruption and Innocence Moore expands further on the sorry state of affairs between Ireland and England, and on the historical background. An early lack of constitutional and parliamentary independence weakened moral fibre and resolve, he argues, and made Ireland a cipher:

The loss of independence very early debased our character. … It is true this island has given birth to heroes ... but success was wanting to consecrate resistance, their cause was branded with the disheartening name of treason, and their oppressed country was such a blank among nations that ... the fame of their actions was lost in the obscurity of the place where they achieved them. [10]

Moore is here registering a fear that underlies much nineteenth and twentieth century Irish writing, even work of the most explicitly nationalist and defensive kind: that Ireland does not matter, that it is a “blank”, a non-place, and that being, life, vivacity are elsewhere. Further on in the appendix he outlines the entire strategy of his Irish poetry, in particular the Melodies: because the Ireland of history is a non-place, the poet is drawn to seek his images from legend or from those pristine times before the “conquerors had divided, weakened and disgraced us”, the {20} time “when our Malachies wore collars of gold”. In addition, the appendix makes the case that music and song are best equipped to convey the sense of unavailing sorrow that seems, to Moore, the predominant fact of Irish life and feeling. Such a mood can be, he argues, effective, and he cites the story of Theodosius and Antioch . The reign of Theodosius “affords the first example of a disqualifying penal code enacted by Christians against Christians”. The implication is clear, the inference all too obvious. He then tells how the people of Antioch made Theodosius relent by getting their minstrels to teach the Emperor’s own musicians the sad songs of Antioch, which they played to him at dinner. The sad songs from Asia Minor had their effect in Rome. Here, in essence, is the strategy of the Melodies in general, and of “Oh! Blame not the Bard” in particular. “Success was wanting to consecrate resistance”, he wrote, and anyone taking up Ireland’s cause is accused of treason:

But, alas for his country! - her pride has gone by,
And that spirit is broken, which never would bend;
O’er the ruin her children in secret must sigh,
For’tis treason to love her, and death to defend.
Unprized are her sons, til they’ve learned to betray;
Undistinguish’d they live, if they shame not their sires;
And the torch, that would light them through dignity’s way,
Must be caught from the pile where their country expires.
Then blame not the bard, if in pleasure’s soft dream
He should try to forget what he never can heal. [11]

These last two lines give us an indication as to where Moore’s imagination is tending: towards the “soft dreams” of pleasure, depression, sadness, a kind of masochistic longing for an energy and vitality seen to be out of reach. “Oh! Blame not the Bard”appeared in the third number of Melodies, in 1810, and in 1817 Moore’s masterpiece, Lallah Rookh, a prolonged reverie of “soft” pleasure was published. The poem is an intensely atmospheric evocation of imagined oriental luxury, shot through with Irish references and notations, but the power of the poem resides not in the nationalist allegory that may be extracted, but in the sheer volubility of the writing, its ceaseless inventiveness, and a sad sense that all the riches that are described are illusory. An emptiness lies at the core, a “blankness” that the erotic {21} languishing of the poem tries to fill. Lallah Rookh is a kind of pornography, not without its attractions, but essentially sad and out of touch with the scenes and objects it strives to present. It is a “soft dream”. In the following extract two “lightsome maidens” dance, embodying the desire of Azim for an Arab girl who has just sung to him:

Around the white necks of the nymphs who danced
Hung carcancts of orient gems, that glanced
More brilliant than the sea-glass glittering o’er
The hills of crystal on the Caspian shore;
While from their long dark tresses, in a fall
Of curls descending, bells as musical
As those that, on the golden-shafted trees
Of Eden, shake in the Eternal Breeze,
Rung round their steps, at every sound more sweet,
As ’twere the ecstatic language of their feet!
At length the chase was o’er, and they stood wreathed
Within each other’s arms; while soft there breathed
Through the cool casement, mingled with the sighs
Of moonlight flowers, music that seemed to rise
From some still lake, so liquidly it rose;
And, as it swell’d again at each faint close
The ear could track through all that maze of chords
And young sweet voices, these impassion’d words. [12]

And so on. The poem is a “maze of chords”, through which the ear attempts to track a centre, a core of vision, or a cluster of associated perceptions that would vivify the work. But the writing is all activity, no life; all invention, no power.

Moore went to London and brooded upon “vanquished Erin” and her woes. J. J. Callanan, the Cork poet, went to West Cork to try to realize his life-image. He was one of the first of those in Ireland, who, disappointed with city life, “fly to the mountains”. [13] This last is a phrase he used in a letter to John Windele, the Cork antiquary. He planned a series of Munster Melodies along the Moore line, which he tried to research himself in Bandon, Clonakilty, Bantry and Gougane Barra. Nothing much remains: a few stray letters in a collection gathered by his friend Windele; a handful of translations; and a longish poem in imitation of Byron. There may be more as yet undiscovered, but it is unlikely. There is one superb poem, a poem which summarizes much of {22} what has been said so far about a sense of absence and the lack of a system to represent how people are in their lives. That is “The Outlaw of Loch Lene”. Purporting to be a translation (it is in fact an amalgam, drawn from various sources), it re-creates in English a certain kind of Irish love song - the kind where the man bewails the loss of his woman, and in which the world of nature seems to sympathize with his plight. But more interesting than that is the consideration that the speaker of the poem is outside the law, he has no system, no set of signs. And the language that Callanan uses, while inspired by the imagery and runs of the love songs, itself goes astray into a serial progression of images, that move outside the ordinary and the normal to create a sense of continuous shift and difference. It is a writing continuously evading the requirement that writing such as this, which has a strong narrative overtone, leads the reader to expect that a clear story be told. It continuously breaks the sense-expectation and yet retains an impassioned and forceful rhetorical drive:

O many a day have I made good ale in the glen,
That came not of stream, or malt, like the brewing of men.
My bed was the ground, my roof, the greenwood above,
And the wealth that I sought - one far kind glance from my love.

Alas! on that night when the horses I drove from the field,
That I was not near from terror my angel to shield.
She stretched forth her arms, - her mantle she flung to the wind,
And swam o’er Loch Lene, her outlawed lover to find.

O would that a freezing sleet-winged tempest did sweep,
And I and my love were alone far off on the deep!
I’d ask not a ship, or a bark, or pinnance to save,
With her hand round my waist, I’d fear not the wind or the wave.

’Tis down by the lake where the wild tree fringes its sides,
The maid of my heart, the fair one of Heaven resides -
I think as at eve she wanders its mazes along,
The birds go to sleep by the sweet wild twist of her song. [14]

In this poem we do not know what the terror is, nor how it is that {23} the girl lives by the lakeside. It may be that she is dead, and that this is why the outlaw is living in the glen. But the reader will see that these kinds of consideration have nothing to do with the effect of the poetry: this derives from a sense of strangeness that the writing conveys, a hidden secret mystery, towards which the poetry gestures, but which it does not explicate. Such a quality is frequently found in Gaelic love song:

Tá crann arm san ngairdin
Ar a bhfásann duilleabhar a’s bláth buí,
An uair leagaim mo lámh air
Is láidir nach mbriscann mo chroí.

There’s a tree in the garden
On which grows foliage and yellow flowers,
When I put my hand on it
My heart nearly breaks. [15]

But in “The Outlaw” Callanan takes this quality of sudden sharp realization and converts it into the organizing principle of the entire poem, so the piece drives forward with an excitement all the more effective for the strange, mysterious images in which it is presented. It is highly successful but it is very odd. It is intriguing because of the way it slides off its theme or narrative, to concentrate on the rhetorical drive. A central meaning remains unsaid, which does not matter in such a powerfully compacted poem as this, but when Callanan attempts to write analytical and historically responsible verse, as in “The Recluse of Inchydoney”, he fails to find a form for his emotion.

Callanan turned away from Moore’s example and the imperial model of Burke. He sought out a community in West Cork, but he became a provincial. An unruly temperament, he searched for an alternative tradition to the dominant one with which he was confronted in the prosperous, mercantile Cork of the early nineteenth century. Again, given the circumstances, given his attitude, it was inevitable. There was a community in West Cork to which the poet wished to relate, but it was without the power of expressing itself to itself, publicly. There were West Cork poets writing in Gaelic, for their own people, but that community had become a closed system within the larger closed-off system of Ireland itself.

Callanan longed for continuity and he looked for a source, {24} identifying it, in another poem of his, “Gougane Barra”, with the lake of that name, a black circle of water at the bottom of a cauldron of mountains in West Cork. Here, he says, the legends “darkly” slept. It was his ambition to awaken them, but he failed. No renovation takes place because, for this to happen, there would need to be not just an audience for Callanan’s work but a community, from which, through which, and to which he could speak. He lacked, in other words, a language, a system of adequate representation. His talent, lyrical and impulsive, needed a strong network of codes within which, against which, to work.

Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Association provided an objective for the majority of the people of Ireland at this time: Emancipation. His organization, based on the parish and supported by the Catholic clergy, gave Irish people the sense that they could effect change purposefully and coherently. Emancipation came in 1829, but still, we must remind ourselves, government was in Westminster . O’Connell won the concession from Westminster constitutionally, but the constitution was that defined by Burke. Emancipation was meant to be the prelude to Repeal, which would give the Irish people their own system of representing themselves to themselves, but Repeal never came. There was a good deal of literary activity in the years up to and soon after Emancipation. Carleton’s Traits and Stories began to appear in The Christian Examiner; Hardiman’s Irish Minstrelsy was published in 1831; Samuel Ferguson was trying to think out a conciliation of nationalism and Unionism; and Banim published The Boyne Water.

It would be wrong to lump all of this writing together: Hardiman’s cultural analysis showed that Irish literature had long and distinguished history and aimed to present that literature in a way which would emphasize its archaic nature and civilized qualities. He stressed the integrity and dignity of Irish tradition and pulled no punches in accusing the English of, at first, blind indifference to that tradition; at worst, outright hostility. He is a supremely confident spokesman for Gaelic literature and knows full well that a great deal had been lost. However, when it came to presenting the poetry of that culture to an audience lacking Gaelic he handed over the responsibility for translation to men such as John D’Alton and Thomas Furlong, who were non-poets, whose models were Moore’s Melodies, and {25} whose language entirely lacks emotional bite or any sting of reality or gravity.

Hardiman was a Catholic nationalist. Ferguson was a Protestant Unionist, with strong nationalist sympathies, and unlike Hardiman’s poetaster translators, someone with a gift for forceful, clear and effective language. He tried, in the 1830s, with all the energy of his youthful enthusiasm, to create a cultural space in which the Gaelic past would collaborate with the modern British imperial present, where Irish Catholic and Protestant could come to an accommodation through a better understanding of their respective traditions. At the root of his thinking in the 1830s is the concern to find a way of being in Ireland for Irish people, Catholic and Protestant, so that they can feel at home in the present and attached to the past. He is very conscious that Ireland does not have an adequate system whereby it can represent itself to itself. There has not been a civil evolution, as in England, of the kind described by Burke in the Reflections, when he reflects upon what was tested and sustained in the seventeenth century. The Irish Protestants, Ferguson says, have forgotten the liberty to which they are attached as part of the kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland; but the native Irish did not participate in this civil evolution in any way. Protestant and native Irish are “unable to amalgamate from the want of these intermediate steps upon the civil scale - steps forgotten by the one and never taken by the other”. [16]

Now the Protestants must show the lead. The responsibility is all the greater in that the opportunism of Rome has shown itself in the way the Catholic priests have allied themselves with O’Connell. The Protestants must, if the country is not to be taken over by another Bonaparte, another meddling Jacobinical democratizing tyrant, present their case, and show their countrymen a way of thinking about Ireland which will be inclusive and significant - that is, capable of signifying for now, for the present. Protestant industry must develop a method of enquiry which will have for its object a system of signs, rooted in the country’s past, whereby Irish people can “live back in the land they live in”. In the passage from which this is taken, from the Dublin University Magazine in 1840, he is speaking of the enlargement of our “portion of space, of time, of feeling” that is “the true source of intellectual pleasure” {26}:

And all this doubling, and trebling, and infinite multiplying of the shares of time, and space, and feeling, originally placed at our disposal, is the result of the observation and recording of facts. All must be set down at first in strict (not dry) detail. … What we have to do with, and that to which these observations properly point, is the recovery of the mislaid, but not lost, records of the acts, and opinions, and condition of our ancestors - the disinterring and bringing back to the light of intellectual day, the already recorded facts, by which the people of Ireland will be able to live back, in the land they live in, with as ample and as interesting a field of retrospective enjoyment as any of the nations around us. [17]

Ferguson is imagining a method whereby the “facts” can be found and one in which past and present, living and dead, can interact. This ideal is what impelled Ferguson to study Irish and to translate the poems he found in Hardiman in ways that make them stand out, lucidly declaring their ability to realize what life is like and how it feels to Irishmen or women. Ferguson is a good translator of Irish verse not just because he is faithful to the originals: it is because he sees them as part of a system of being to which Irish people must have access, must be able to talk about and read and enjoy, if they are to be themselves. He sees the importance of a system of meanings and signs, and mourns the inability of the Hardiman translations to carry it over from one language to another. To do that is to enlarge the possibility of being for any Irishman or woman:

A plenteous place is Ireland for hospitable cheer, Uileacan Dubh O!
Where the wholesome fruit is bursting from the yellow barley ear;
Uileacan Dubh O
! There is honey in the trees where her misty vales expand,
And her forest paths, in summer, are by falling waters fanned,
There is a dew at high noontide there, and springs in the yellow sand,
On the fair hills of holy Ireland. [18]

Ireland is holy to him, because it has the possibility of wholeness. {27}. It is holy because in the small system of this poem the little things, the fruit, the ear of barley, acquire a sacral quality as they link into the expansion of spirit the poem charts in its loving enumeration. The language is renovating the relationships between individual history, place and “fact”. The things before the eyes of the mind acquire more resonance because of the sacral activity of the poem’s language. This is Ferguson’s achievement, and it led him to much larger enterprises in poetry and scholarship.

Throughout his life he continued to work to make Irish tradition more of an effective presence in the minds of his contemporaries. His work is full of wild images, huge brooding forms, savage action, declamation. In Ferguson’s handling the Gaelic materials, the historical facts of the Gaelic world as well as the insights into the emotions and world view that inform Gaelic literature are transposed into an Irish Victorian idiom. It is an unlikely accommodation, and at times it can produce a sense of strain, but it can also realize bold and startling effects, as in the following passage from “The Welshmen of Tirawley”, where the Lynotts, blinded by having needles driven into their eyeballs, stagger across the stepping-stones of Clochan-na-n’all in Co. Mayo:

O’er the slippery stepping-stones of Clochan-na-n’all
They drove them, laughing loud at every fall,
As their wandering footsteps dark
Fail’d to reach the slippery mark
And the swift stream swallow’d stark,
One and all,
As they stumbled -
From the vengeance of the Welshmen of Tirawley. [19]

The stubborn difficult music of this poem derives from the thrill that material of this kind gave Ferguson. But this thrill carried with it a constitutional health warning; wildness of this kind was associated with the Gael, and it was Protestant, Anglo-Irish duty to exercise civic control over passions such as these, very effective in art, vivifying within Irish tradition, but dangerous to civic life.

“Conary” is a poem composed out of those very psychological materials which the Union should strive to incorporate and civilize. Conary is a good king. Since his installation no “harsh wind ruffled hair upon the side / of grazing beast” But now his {28} foster-brothers, aided by a British pirate, are going to overthrow him. They experience misgivings about what they are to do and argue that continuity, without which no state can maintain itself, is embodied in the crown and its institutions. The constitutional model here is Burke’s, the materials are from the Gaelic saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga ( The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel ), but there are all kinds of narrative tensions. Conary represents stability, and his rule is described in language that derives from Burke, but he is a Gaelic king. The usurpers are British and Irish; the world Ferguson’s saga-adaptation presents is one riven by conflict, division, superstition, taboo; and the mood is one of savage desperation. One of the usurpers has second thoughts, and describes the effect that killing Conary will have as follows (he is addressing the British pirate):

We gave thee not
Licence to take the life, the soul itself
Of our whole nation, as you now would do,
For, slay our reverend sages of the law,
Slay him who put the law they teach in act;
Slay our sweet poets, and our sacred bards,
Who keep the continuity of time
By fame perpetual of renowned deeds;
Slay our experienced captains who prepare
The youth for martial manhood, and the charge
Of public freedom, as befits a state
Self-governed, self-sufficing, self-contained;
Slay all those who minister our loftier life,
Now by this evil chance assembled here,
You leave us but the carcass of a state,
A rabble ripe to rot, and yield the land
To foreign masters and perpetual shame. [20]

The thought here is that of Burke, modified by the ideas of Thomas Davis. Yeats echoes the line about self-government in a surprising place, in “Prayer for my Daughter”, which asks that in a time of anarchy, his daughter may be allowed to recover innocence in “one dear perpetual place” (the word “perpetual” is echoed also; Yeats studied Ferguson ):

Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence {29}
And learns at least that it is self-delighting
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting. [21]

Ferguson’s ideal of the state becomes a statement about the soul, which takes up too Davis’s notion of a nation’s spirit and converts it to a private spiritual significance.

Irishness was a quality to be admired and understood, but it should have, to Ferguson’s way of thinking, a British framework otherwise it would remain outlandish and outside the law. This is the Burkean, Unionist approach to the problem of Irish identity within the British Isles . The continuity of Irish tradition could be sustained in this compromise, by being translated into the larger body of the Empire, just as Irish poetry and saga can be translated into English, if the translator is faithful to his originals and sensitive to the new language. But Irish people felt differently; they experienced a difference from England, and that difference would not go away. It is there in Ferguson’s harsh stanza forms, and in the narrative strains of “Conary”.

Ferguson cannot see Ireland simply as a place to be, and his language is agitated by so many considerations, political, cultural, propagandist, sectarian, that it cannot open out to become a system of representation for a mind fully engaged with, fully informed by, life. This is not to deny that he wrote some very fine poems, but simply to recollect that with Ferguson we are with one of the major figures of nineteenth century Irish literature, and yet we cannot even begin to compare him with, say, Victorian writers and cultural commentators such as Ruskin, Carlyle or Tennyson. He simply does not have access to a language capable of representing the broad conspectus of experience and of relating past and present in a confident assumption that there is such a thing as a coherent tradition. It is in these assumptions and confidences that Victorian authority is grounded, but for an Irish Victorian there would be, continually, for all the desire to anneal and compromise, a profound sense of rupture, unease and strain. In the twentieth century, ironically, artistic authority is grounded in just these discontinuities: “we sing in our uncertainty”, wrote Yeats.

James Clarence Mangan, in whom Yeats had an interest for a time, sang in uncertainty. He emerged in the 1830s as a writer with manifold interests, and as one with special insight into extreme Romanticism, particularly that of Germany . There were {30} certain affinities between Ireland and Germany in the early nineteenth century which had to do with the fact that both cultures felt themselves to be under pressure from an imperial threat, in Germany’s case that of Napoleon. Mangan was attracted to Germanic nationalism, to the emotional power of the Stürm und Drang, and to the emphasis, in the poetry of Herder, Schiller, Goethe and Freiligarth, on spiritual essences. Translation attracted Mangan for all kinds of complex reasons, but mostly because it allowed him a “cloak” (he used to call himself the “Man in the Cloak” in the Comet and elsewhere) under which he could find a means of expression.

Indirection was temperamental. In Mangan there is a radical sense that self or identity is simply not there: in a long prose piece, “An Extraordinary Adventure in the Shades”, the theme revolves around the idea that it is impossible to speak to anyone because speech presupposes a self, and seeing as there is no such thing as a central self then there can be no direct approach, no open speech. The manifold identities that he saw translation offering was a way out of the difficulty. He translated extensively from German, French, Italian, but also (even though he did not know the languages) from Persian and from Irish.

His translations from Irish are especially interesting because he saw them as allowing him to identify with a cause rather than anatomize his own personal angst. He knew Charles Gavan Duffy, Davis and Mitchel, and wrote for the Nation, contributing translations and also propaganda pieces. His version of “O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire” is well known, and the conclusion shows how he is drawn emotionally to extremism and violence (in his Autobiography he tells us that he loved news of disasters and revolutions):

Hugh marched forth to the fight - I grieved to see him so depart;
And Lo! tonight he wanders frozen, rain-drenched, sad betrayed
- But the memory of the lime-white mansions his right
hand hath laid
In ashes warms the hero’s heart.

This translation bears little resemblance to the original austere bardic poem by Eochaidh O hEodhusa.

Perhaps Mangan’s best poem is the one where he confronts {31} directly his own fearfully acute sense of non-self and relates it directly to the state of being in Ireland itself. Things are bad, not just on an individual level, but on the level of collective society. There is no mode of signification, no speech; the reality is oppression, suffering, terrible silence and spiritual cold. The poem is “Siberia”, first published in the Nation on 18 April 1846, the year of famine:

In Siberia’s wastes
Are sands and rocks
Nothing blooms of green or soft,
But the snow-peaks rise aloft
And the gaunt ice-blocks.

And the exile there
Is one with those;
They are part, and he is part,
For the sands are in his heart,
And the killing shows.

Therefore, in those wastes
None curse the Czar
Each man’s tongue is cloven by
The North Blast, that heweth night
With sharp scymitar. [23]

In questions of culture and tradition everything comes back to language. Whenever there is a sense of crisis, of something vital being transacted, the words a person uses, in speech or in writing, become crucial. Language is not just a medium for the communication of ideas, as if ideas were some kind of solid substance that can be moved from one brain into another: the language used in a particular situation derives from all the elements that go to make up that situation - politics, sex, hatred, private persuasions and prejudices, memory, and so on. In a critical situation of difficulty or challenge the management that language makes of all these elements will matter greatly; if someone is pleading a special case (as, for example, when Samuel Johnson voices his reservations about Milton as writer and man in his Life of the poet), then the style, the disposition of the clauses, the choice and placing of verb and noun, the way abstract is balanced with concrete, will all be crucial. If the balance and co-ordination are not effected then the idea does not {32} communicate, the dignity and authority of the writer or speaker is called into question. Fullness of utterance, a convincing style, depends as much upon the tradition of language the writer inherits as it does upon individual talent. There is a great deal of sense in the apparently paradoxical axiom of Heidegger’s that it is language, not man, which speaks.

For nineteenth-century Irish writers the language available to them was, of course, English, but English associated with the authority and power of Burke’s definition of the British constitution. They had no language of their own.

This is a baffling statement, at face value. But one must consider that we are here not speaking of language simply as a medium of communication, but as a cultural system, full of signs and referents, which call up associations and relations that are rooted in the past and are activated by the disposition and evocative power of the words we use. Each entry into speech, if we consider closely enough, is a remaking of the past and our past selves. Such a delicate operation will only take place successfully if one of two preconditions are met: either the tradition of thought and feeling which the language represents is well and truly established, so that the individual speech act can link up with given persuasions and feelings, prejudices of the mind or the emotions; or, the individual speech act is so forceful as to make its own history and establish itself.

In the nineteenth century there were good Irish poets, but none with the sheer downright force of personality to establish his or her own traditions. Ferguson, Hardiman, Callanan, Mangan and others looked for a tradition and what was there before them was Burke, the British/Irish constitutionalist. There was no Irish way of being, apart from that in the Irish countryside, which they were prepared to sentimentalize, but hardly to live out. When they wished to speak of any matters of serious concern they did not have that “retrospective field”, of which Ferguson wrote in 1840, into which their words could move. Swift, the dissenting Republicans, the United Irishmen of 1798, these were now a world away ( Moore spoke of the men of’98 as the ultimi Romanorum ). What was present and defined, with a very secure sense of its legitimacy, was the modern British Empire, with its language, into which Irishness, somehow, would have to be translated. Ireland had gone, for a time. It was re-forming itself {33} in the O’Connellite masses, who has their own powerful culture in English and in Irish, but that had little or no effect on literary culture and its ideas of tradition for some considerable time.

1. Thomas Kinsella, Davis, Mangan, Ferguson [… &c.], 1970, p.67.
2. Edmund Burke, “A Second Letter to Hercules Langrishe”, in Speeches and Tracts on Irish Affairs, ed. Matthew Arnold, 1881, p.339: ‘A third point of Jacobin attack is on old traditionary constitutions’.
3. Desmond Fennell, Beyond Nationalism (Dublin 1986), passim.
4. Burke, Reflections on the French Revolution, ed. Conor Cruise O’Brien (Penguin 1968), p.171.
5. Ibid., p.120.
6. Letters of Thomas Moore, ed. Wildfrid S. Dowden (Oxford 1964), Vol. I, p.143.
7. Thomas Moore, Poetical Works, ed., David Herbert (Edinburgh 1872), p.438.
8. Moore, Poetical Works Collected by Himself (London 1853-54), Vol. IV, p.vii.
9. The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore (London, n.d.), pp.226-27.
10. Ibid., p.271.
11. Ibid., p.209.
12. Ibid., p.364.
13. John Windele, ‘Memoir of the Late Mr. Callanan’, in Bolster’s Quarterly Magazine [q.d.], Vol. III, p.292.
14. J. J. Callanan, The Poems (Cork 1861), p.112.
15. Douglas Hyde, The Love Songs of Connaught (Dublin 1893), p.94.
16. Samuel Ferguson, ‘Hardiman’s Irish Ministrelsy – No. III’, in Dublin University Magazine, Vol. IV (1834), p.448.
17. Ferguson, ‘Dublin Penny Journal’, in Dublin University Magazine, Vol. XV (1840), p.115-16.
18. Fergusion, ‘Hardiman’s Irish Ministrelsy – No. IV’, in Dublin University Magazine, Vol. IV (1834), p.516.
19. The Penguin Book of Irish Verse, ed. Brendan Kennelly [2nd edn.] (Penguin 1981), p.208.
20. Poems of Sir Samuel Ferguson, ed. A. P. Graves (Dublin & London 1918), p.208.
21. W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems (London 1958), p.214.
22. Poems of James Clarence Mangan, ed. D. J. O’Donoghue (Dublin & London 1903), p.11.
23. Ibid., p.152.

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