Terry Eagleton, “Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian London”, in Times Literary Supplement ( 1 April 2005)

[ Source: Terry Eagleton, review of “Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian London”, an exhibition at National Portrait Gallery, in Times Literary Supplement ( 1 April 2005), q.p. ]

Between 1801 and 1921, around 8 million people left Ireland for abroad. No other country in the nineteenth century lost so high a proportion of its population, or experienced such massive emigration over such a long period of time. Even before the Great Famine of the 1840s, well over 3 million had abandoned the country since the Act of Union of 1800, and another 4 million were to jump ship in the years between the Famine and the First World War. In all but three counties of Ireland , more than a quarter of the population disappeared in the 1850s. Around 1890, only three-fifths of those born in Ireland were still living in their native land. Irish children were reared in the knowledge that they would probably leave home when they grew up. Getting out of the place was a time-honoured indigenous custom.

Some of those who sailed away chose to come to Britain, rather than Australia or the United States , in the fond hope that they might one day return home. Very few of them did. Women, unusually in such demographic shifts, were as migratory as men. Most emigrants left reluctantly, but the more enterprising and ambitious among them were probably keen enough to go. The typical Irish emigrant was an ummarried adult under the age of thirty destined to become either a labourer or a domestic servant wherever they washed up. Increasingly vital to the British economy, Irish workers proved on the whole cheap, adaptable, hard-working, highly mobile and conveniently non-fastidious. Contrary to mythology, they tended not to crowd into ghettoes of their own but settled for the most part in ethnically mixed areas, where they coped as well as they could with the virulent anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments of a good many of the British people. They were the Paddies and the Biddies of popular legend, often landed with the most menial jobs and insanitary living conditions, sending home what cash they could afford to even more impoverished relatives. Whole villages in the west of Ireland are said to have been kept economically afloat by the New York Police Department.

These men and women are not the subject of the imaginative exhibition, “Conquering England”, at the National Portrait Gallery, though their lives inevitably impinge on it. Robert George Kelly’s oil painting “An Ejectment from Ireland”, which stirred some irascible political controversy in London and was even debated in the House of Commons, portrays an Irish eviction in sombre, powerfully histrionic style, as the ousted tenant clasps a despairing palm dramatically to his forehead and the local priest points a miniatory forefinger to the heavens. There is even a spot of genteel slumming in Julia Margaret Cameron’s soft-focus, over with a less well-sung migration to Britain - that of the Irish middle-class intelligentsia, who colonised English law, medicine, journalism, politics and the arts so resourcefully that by the end of the century Irishness was in some quarters as enviable a commodity as it is today in the age of the Celtic Tiger. In a characteristically stylish, erudite essay in the book accompanying the exhibition, R. F. Foster quotes Bernard Shaw as observing that the first business of every Irish intellectual was to get out of the country. It was also the first necessity of a great many of their compatriots. The difference between Shaw and the Paddies and Biddies is the distinction between the expatriate and the exile. If the former group hawked their wits to the British, the latter hired out their muscle.

For all the social differences, however, the two kinds of flight were not unrelated. The dreary provincial backwardness which drove the near-destitute to find employment abroad also spiked the talents of aspiring poets, lawyers and sculptors. Exemplary of this latter trend is the remarkable outflow of artists to London from the city of Cork , once it had declined from its eighteenth-century prosperity. In his drawing “The Fraserians”, on display here, the Cork painter Daniel Maclise, Royal Academician and friend of Queen Victoria , portrays some of his fellow Corkonians: William Maginn, the dipsomaniac, prodigiously talented editor of Fraser’s Magazine , his renegade priest colleague Francis Sylvester Mahony, Thomas Crofton Croker and others. The extravagant fantasies, ingenious pedantry and aimless word-spinning of writers such as Maginn and Mahony, stamped as they are by a sense of colonial futility and frustration, managed, to translate themselves fluently into the scabrous polemics and in-group bitchiness on which journals like Fraser’s thrived.

Irishwomen bulk large in the exhibition, though more as models than writers or artists. Ford Madox Brown’s oil painting “The Irish Girl” portrays a pert, stubbom-featured slum child with dauntingly set jaw and angrily accusing eyes, at once vulnerable and strong-minded, the brilliant red of her shawl contrasting with the dark, bunched halo of her hair. The frail blue flower she clutches is presumably to sell, not to savour. In contrasting mood, a canvas of almost the same title, John Lavery’s “An Irish Girl”, reveals a melancholic young beauty, pensive and high-collared, her green scarf gently catching the light and reflecting her green topknot. Lavery married the model, who told him she was Irish but turned out to be Welsh.

There are iconic females here, as well as naturalistic ones. In “ Erin ”, an oil by Maclise, the Irish writer Caroline Norton poses cloaked and wreathed, one hand resting on the strings of the ineluctable harp. There is a static, poorly lit feel to the canvas, not least to Norton’s rather zombie-like expression, which betrays dhe stageiness of this kind of emblernatising. Norton was in fact a lot livelier than this stilted image would. suggest, as a scandalously separated woman determined to five by her pen. A far more potent icon of an Ireland looiding to its her deliverer. As an inept sun smudges the horizon, the woman’s languid, seaweed-like tresses merge into the vegetation of a rock on one side of her, while forming a coy cache-sexe on the other.

Irish writers in London are represented in abundance. The great historian William Lecky peers superciliously down on the viewer in another oil painting by Lavery, his lips drawn distastefully downwards, his strong nose splendidly haughty, ‘the whole head posed somewhere between embattled arrogance and lonely nobility. A florid, rather scatty Jane Elgee (Lady Wilde) appears like an upper-class baglady in a crayon drawing by the Italian artist George Morosini. Helen Allingham, wife of the Donegal poet William Allingham, paints her husband in almost mystically serene mood in a russet-coloured dressing gown.

Home Rule and the Land War thrust Irish politics to the centre of Metropolitan life. There is a splendid lithograph, by John Doyle, of Daniel O’Connell, beaming, tubby, cherubic and Pickwickian, wrapped in a great cloak and flanked by two of his Whig colleagues. This version of the Liberator clashes loudly with the oil portrait of him by Sir George Hayter which hangs next to it, its sharply intelligent face at once steely and kindly. A pencil drawing by Sydney Prior Hall, who also has a charming, pensive portrait of Oscar Wilde on display, shows an apparently ten-foot-tall John Dillon the Irish Home Rule MP, being expelled from the House of Commons for constantly interrupting Gladstone . Another Home Ruler, Isaac Butt, appears in a chalk portrait by John Butler Yeats, his white hair flying off his head at an improbable tangent, his jowly features at once stem and sensuous.

There is an extraordinarily casual, intimate chalk drawing of the Unionist leader Edward Carson by his friend Sir Robert Staples, the short-back-and-sides haircut surprisingly modern, the well-moulded head contrasting with the slightly frailer chest and shoulders. Most striking of all, perhaps, is Prior Hall’s posthumous portrait of a doomed Charles Stewart Parnell staring tragically into space, his features eerily illuminated against his sombre black coat, his arms defiantly folded and shoulders thrown back in a gesture which contrasts sharply with his general air of gloomy isolation.

Fintan Cullen and R. F. Foster, the curators of “Conquering England”, have constructed an exhibition as notable for its mix of genres as for its individual items. There is sculpture by the great Dublin artist John Henry Foley, historic playbills and theatre programmes, an early draft of The Importance of Being Earnest and a profusion of other treasures. As with most Irish cultural matters, there is a political agenda of sorts behind the exhibition. Part of its purpose is to counterbalance Irish nationalism’s insistence on the antagonism between Britain and Ireland , shifting the focus instead to the two nations’ mutual admiration, collaboration and entwined destinies. It is a view of the past which, like most such views, is moulded by the politics of the present- As such it represents a salutary revision of the case that the British saw the Irish only as apes and anarchists. The image of the Irishman typified here in Alfred Bryan’s lovable rogue lithograph of the popular stage character Conn the Shaughraun was never the whole story. The stereotype of Irishness in Britain was always more complex: in the eighteenth century, for example, notions of Irish sentiment and conviviality played a vital role in the English literary cult of sensibility. When the English Whigs were in need of a world-class rhetorician to promote their cause, it was to the Dubliner Edmund Burke that they turned.

Yet, though not all Irish emigrants to Britain were working-class, as Foster points out, the cast majority of them were: and the plaudits bestowed on a Maclise or a Shaw scarcely serve to redeem the racism and exploitation endured by their less fortunate compatriots. What proved decisive in the end, as usual in Britain , was social standing rather than national origin. “Conquering” England”, in the sense of taking over its theatre and journalism, was harldy a fair return for having its army in your own country. Even so, this spectacle of Irish cultural wealth reminds us valuably of John Bull’s other island - of those Irish who ran a monopoloy of parliamentary reporting in London: whose influence was pervasive thorughout the provincial press of the whole island; whose drama entranced the West End, and whose art decorated the House of Lords.

[Conquering Ireland opened at 6.30pm on 8 March 2005 , running to 19 June 2005 . The cover-girl of the exhibition was “The Irish Girl” by Ford Maddox Ford (Yale Centre for British Art/Paul Mellon Fund.]

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