Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent

Literatura Irlandesa / LEM2055

Dr. Bruce Stewart
Reader Emeritus in English Literature
University of Ulster

Index of Resources
Classroom Readings
Critical Commentary
Some Further Texts
The Oxford Companion

A Maria Edgeworth Album


Anglo-Ireland & the Protestant Ascendancy


Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849) is usually regarded as the author of the first Irish novels, with special emphasis on Castle Rackrent (1800) in which the anatomy of Anglo-Irish society - to which she belonged - is revealed in a peculiarly glaring light, as if by x-ray long before the date of that invention. Equally, the notion of a Colonial Subconscious might be applied - or else a form of channelling by means of which the mentality of the Colonial Other infiltrates and even overwhelms that of the author. The means by which this is made possible is the use of a household servant, Thady Quirk, as narrator - a character whom Edgeworth has said she based on the “real-life” household servant John Langan whose voice she seemed to hear beside her as she was writing. It is the strange intimacy of this imaginative relationship which holds the critics' attention today since, in the course of his chronicle or “history” of the Rackrent family, Thady reveals a thousand details about their conduct down the generations which clearly casts them in a very different light from the one he explicit proposes: instead of being admirable, they form a selfish, wasteful, self-deluding, bibulous and wildly destructive cohort of irresponsible land-owners whose resemblance to Edgeworth’s own class seems strangely certain in spite of her insistence that the novel depicts the “manners of the squires” in the years before 1782 when, in fact, the Edgeworth’s themselves migrated from Oxfordshire to take up an Irish estate inherited by her father.

The significance of 1782 is two-fold: not only is it the date when Richard Lovell Edgeworth arrived in Co. Longford with his children but it is also the date then the Protestant proprietors of Ireland gained Legislative Independence from England for their Parliament in Dublin. Since the victory of William III over James II at the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690, the Protestants had succeeded in building a handsome capital city which included as the gem in its crown a magnificent Parliament incorporating the House of Lords and the House of Commons, designed by a number of brilliant architects including Richard Cassells and Jamea Gandon. (Gandon was also responsible for the magnificent Four Courts and the Custom House, both facing the Liffey River across a quay as fine as those in Paris if smaller in scale, as the river itself is smaller.) It was, in fact, the threat of the French Revolution spreading to Ireland which permitted the Anglo-Irish to form the Irish Volunteers, a private army which they used in turn to extort “liberty” from the British Government. Led by the famed parliamentary speaker Henry Grattan, the “national” party used their newly-acquired “muscle” to gain Legislative Independence so that, on 16th April 1782, Grattan was able to say: “Esto perpetua!” in the Irish House of Commons. Yet, in spite of that fervent declaration. the Protestant Parliament which he thus led to freedom did not last long. In 1798 the United Irishmen - primarily a group of Presbyterians radicals influenced by republican ideas from France - started a rebellion, in which they were joined by the Jacobite peasantry in the South of Ireland (formerly supporters of King James “across the water” and latterly French republicans). After some successes this guerrilla army was badly beaten by the British, resulting in numerous brutal executions. Frightened by the rebellion, the aristocratic leaders of Protestant Ireland - landlords all - voted their Parliament out of existence and, after January 1801, Ireland’s MPs began travelling to the "Imperial Parliament" in Westminster (London) - as they would continue to do until the Irish War of Independence of 1919-22.

It is in the gap between winning Legislative Independence in 1782 and the Act of Union in 1800 that Maria Edgeworth wrote her Irish novels . The Irish novels of Maria Edgeworth were written in the interstices or gap between the founding of the Protestant Parliament in 1798 and the Act of Union in 1800. Besides its ostensible character as a ’rollicking’ account of the Anglo-Irish gentry in their wild days before the reforming spirit of the Protestant Parliament held sway, Castle Rackrent is an extraordinary window on the conflicting forces of the period when the condition of Anglo-Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics were so sharply divided that the idea of a bond of “loyalty” and “friendship” truly existing between one and the other can only be treated as a fantasy on the part of the privileged party. (It is often thus in colonial society.) Now let’s meet the Rackrents - Sir Patrick, Sir Condy, Sir Connelly with their several wives whose harum-scarum version of civic society in Ireland constituted the scandal that Maria Edgeworth hoped to reform - and which her “family servant” Thady Quirk (aka John Langan) was justified in regarding as as a clear demonstration of the fact that no such class deserved a footing in the country - compared, that is, with the lost Gaelic aristocracy which had shipped overseas in the previous century - for which reason his own son Jason is about to strip the Rackrents of their estate in his character as an Catholic lawyer, not entirely unlike Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator who won Catholic Emancipation for his people in 1829 ...

See some opinions of Maria Edgeworth - infra.

[ Note: All files listed on this page are downloadable MS Word documents which can be read and saved on your own hard-drive. ]

Primary Texts

Classroom Readings

“Preface to Castle Rackrent” (complete)
Castle Rackrent - Part I: Opening pages”
Maria Edgeworth - General Opinions(Quotations)”
“Maria Edgeworth - Her remarks on Castle Rackrent

[ A full copy of Castle Rackrent can be reached at RICORSO > Library > “Irish Classics” - via index or as attached.]

Some Further Texts
“Essay on Irish Bulls” (by Maria & RL Edgeworth)
“Emily Lawless, The Story of Ireland (1896)”

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Secondary Texts

Critical Commentary on Maria Edgeworth

“Irish Critics on Castle Rackrent” [Emily Lawless, Daniel Corkery and Paul Murray]
“Recent Critics on Castle Rackrent” [Emily Lawless, Daniel Corkery and Paul Murray]
“Bogland and Bogmen” (essay by Bruce Stewart) download
[ These samples reflect the much greater holdings on the Maria Edgeworth “Commentary” pages in RICORSO

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The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (1996)
ed. Robert Welch; asst. ed. Bruce Stewart
“Maria Edgeworth” (1767-1849)
Castle Rackrent” (1800)
The Absentee” (1812)
“The United Irishmen's Rebellion” (1798)
“The Act of Union” (1800-01)

[ You can greatly extend your knowledge of this writer by browsing in RICORSO - online. ]

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The Opinions of Maria Edgeworth

Social class: ‘The question, whether society could exist without the distinction of ranks, is a question involving a variety of complicated discussions, which we will leave to the politician and the legislator … At present it is necessary that the education of different ranks should, in some respects, be different. They have few ideas, few habits in common.’ (Preface to The Parent’s Assistant, 1796).

The Native Irish: ‘The lower Irish are such acute observers, that there is no deceiving them as to the state of the real feelings of their superiors. They know the signs of what passes within, more perfectly than any physiognomist, who every studied the human face, or human head.’ (Memoirs, 1820, ii., p.241; quoted in Watson, ed., Castle Rackrent, World Classics, OUP, 1964, 1969, Introduction, p.xxiv.)

Irish Catholics: ‘Catholics can and should have equal rights [but] must not have a dominant religion.’ (Quoted in Michael Hurst, Maria Edgeworth and the Public Scene, Macmillan 1969, p.223.)

Irish language: ‘The Irish language is now almost gone into disuse, the class of people all speak English except in their quarrels with each other …’ (1782; quoted in Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth, p.91; cited in Rolf Loeber & Magda Loeber, A Guide to Irish Fiction, 1650-1900, Dublin: Four Courts Press 2006, p.lvii.)

Ireland in 1834: ‘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.

[See further extracts attached; see also Quotations from Maria Edgeworth in RICORSO > Maria Edgeworth > Quotations - online.]

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The Night That Larry was Stretched” - A Dublin Literary Ballad (c.1780)
Jack B Yeats

The night before Larry was stretched,
The boys they all paid him a visit;
A bit in’ their sacks, too, they fetched
They sweated their duds till they riz it;
For Larry was always the lad,
When a friend was condemned to the squeezer,
To fence all the togs that he had,
just to help the poor boy to a sneezer,
And moisten his gob ’fore he died.

“I’m sorry now, Larry”,  says I,
’To see you in this situation;
’Pon my conscience, my lad, I don’t lie,
I’d rather it was my own station.”
“Ochone! ’tis all over”, says he,
“For the neckcloth I am forced to put on,
And by this time to-morrow you’ll see
Your Larry will be dead as mutton;
Bekase why? - his courage was good!”

The boys they came crowding in fast;
They drew all their stools round about him,
Six glims round his trap-case were placed
He couldn’t be well waked without ’em.
I ax’d him was he fit to die,
Without having duly repented?
Says Larry, “That’s all in my eye,
And all by the gownsmen invented,
To make a fat bit for thernselves.”

Then the cards being called for, they played,
Till Larry found one of them cheated;
Quick he made a smart stroke at his head
The lad being easily heated.

“Oh! by the holy, you thief,
I’ll scuttle your nob with my daddle!
You cheat me bekase I’m in grief,
But soon I’ll demolish your noddle,
And leave you your claret to drink,”

And pitched his big wig to the divil.
Then stooping a little his head,
To get a sweet drop of the bottle,
And pitiful, sighing he said,
“Oh! the hemp will be soon round my throttle,
And choke my poor windpipe to death!”

So moving these last words he spoke,
We all vented our tears in a shower;
For my part, I thought my heart broke,
To see him cut down like a flower!
on his travels we watched him next day,
Oh! the hangman I thought I could kill him!
Not one word did our poor Larry say,
Nor changed, till he came to “King William”:
Och! my dear, then his colour turned white.

When he came to the nubbling chit,
He was tucked up so neat and so pretty,
The rumbler jogged off from his feet,
And he died with his face to the city.
He kicked, too, but that was all pride,
For soon you might see ’twas all over;
And as soon as the noose was untied,
Then at evening we waked him in clover,
And sent him to take a ground sweat.


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