‘A nation in its last moments’: William Godwin’s visit to Ireland, 1800

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, Features, Issue 4 (July/August 2015), Volume 23

Godwin’s letters have left us an eyewitness account of aspects of Irish social and political life at a critical moment in the country’s history.

William Godwin by John Westbrooke Chandler, 1798. (Tate Gallery, London)

William Godwin by John Westbrooke Chandler, 1798. (Tate Gallery, London)

In June 1800 the Irish ‘patriot’ MP and barrister John Philpot Curran invited an English friend, the radical political philosopher and novelist William Godwin, to visit Ireland in the weeks before the passing of the Act of Union on 1 August. The Act of Union dissolved the Irish parliament and absorbed Ireland into a single United Kingdom. ‘To a man who has lost his Country, and his liberty’, Curran wrote, ‘the friendship of a few men of a certain class is perhaps the only consolation that remains.’ He added wryly: ‘I think too you would feel a curiosity to see a nation in its last moments. You would think that slavery is no such fearful thing as you have supposed in theory. I assure you our trees and our fields are as green as ever.’

Series of personal letters
Godwin’s six-week visit to Ireland was a memorable episode in his life; he had never travelled more than 150 miles from London before. He recorded his impressions in a series of personal letters, which have recently been published in full for the first time. They were written to his close friends James Marshall, whom he left in charge of his household, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The letters are an eyewitness account of aspects of Irish social and political life at a critical moment in the country’s history. They are informed by Godwin’s perspective as an English outsider and a public intellectual sympathetic to the Irish ‘patriot’ cause.
In Dublin, Godwin called at Curran’s townhouse at 12 Ely Place and accompanied his host to Curran’s country residence, the Priory, at Rathfarnham. During his visit, Godwin met many political and cultural figures of the Irish Whig élite, and witnessed defence counsel appearances by Curran at the Four Courts, Dublin, and at the Carlow assizes.

In addition to his social engagements, Godwin visited a number of picturesque sites in the vicinity of Rathfarnham. ‘I was delighted with the features of the scenery,’ he wrote to Coleridge. ‘I traversed the mountainous & rocky county of Wicklow in almost all directions.’ Guided by Curran and Lady Mountcashell, a former pupil of his recently deceased wife, Mary Wollstonecraft, Godwin undertook the ‘Wicklow tour’, a fashionable tourist itinerary. Highlights were the dramatic scenery of the Dargle Valley, the Glen of the Downs, the Devil’s Glen, and the ruined early medieval monastic complex at Glendalough.

Godwin was no ordinary sightseer: he also wished to understand Ireland’s recent political history, and to contemplate its future. His accounts of the landscapes and ruins of Wicklow are overshadowed by the events of the 1798 Rebellion that had occurred in or near them almost exactly two years earlier. Godwin’s visit to the Devil’s Glen (‘infinitely the most stupendous scene I ever saw’) with Lady Mountcashell took place at a time when the English newspapers were reporting continuing rebel activity there.

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, engraved by George Virtue after William Henry Bartlett (1860s). Guided by Curran and Lady Mountcashell, Godwin undertook the ‘Wicklow tour’, which included Glendalough. (Private Collection/Ken Welsh/Bridgeman Images)

Glendalough, Co. Wicklow, engraved by George Virtue after William Henry Bartlett (1860s). Guided by Curran and Lady Mountcashell, Godwin undertook the ‘Wicklow tour’, which included Glendalough. (Private Collection/Ken Welsh/Bridgeman Images)

Aftermath of the 1798 Rebellion
In a letter to Marshall of 2 August—the day after the Act of Union was passed—he described two visits to Henry Grattan at his country house on the Tinnehinch estate, which lay partly within the Dargle Valley. Each time Godwin stayed with Grattan for two days, noting proudly that on 29–30 July ‘I spent two whole mornings with him alone’. The subjects of their conversation are not recorded, but Grattan introduced Godwin to a man who had been ‘twice half-hanged’ by English troops during the Rebellion and whose wife had, on the second occasion, crawled from her deathbed to plead for mercy. ‘She survived the scene of which she thus became a spectator exactly ten days’, Godwin wrote, adding with bitter sarcasm, ‘God save the king!’

Godwin gained further insights into the condition of Ireland when he accompanied Curran to Carlow assizes at the start of August. On the way back, the two men stayed overnight at Hacketstown, ‘late distinguished for its flourishing streets, but of which every house but two, including the church & the barracks, was reduced to a heap of ruins by the late rebellion’. Here, on 25 June 1798, the barracks occupied by the Antrim militia had been attacked and burned by rebels marching northward. The next night, Godwin and Curran stopped at Glendalough, site of the Seven Churches and the place of retirement of St Kevin (still a place of Catholic pilgrimage today), which was then occupied by a military encampment. They found ‘neither inn, nor even alehouse’, but, Godwin reported to Marshall, the officers at the camp, ‘generously spying our distress, & hearing the name of counsellor Curran, supplied us, starving as we were, with dinner, tea, supper & beds’. The soldiers were less respectful towards the local population. Godwin recalled in his Essay on sepulchres (1809) that the pavement of the camp had been made of gravestones from the Glendalough cemetery, causing much distress to the families who still worshipped at the Seven Churches—‘and I own that my feelings were nearly in unison with [theirs]’.

Godwin was as much an object of interest to the people he met in Ireland as they were to him. Curran had written in his letter of invitation: ‘There are many here that know you in print and are much pleased with the hope I have given them of knowing you in person’. Judging by Godwin’s diary, in which he recorded his social engagements, Curran was not exaggerating. ‘No one has been ignorant of who I was,’ Godwin reported to Marshall, ‘to no one in that sense have I needed an introduction.’ At the Carlow assizes, he was introduced to the judge Thomas Kelly and invited to sit beside him on the bench: ‘Poor old Kelly made a grand speech in summing up, the most ex parte pleading I ever heard, the famousness & effort of which, as I was assured, were all prepared for the ear of the author of St Leon’. As an outspoken critic of the legal system, Godwin may not have been entirely comfortable with this proceeding. Perhaps this is why he referred to himself in the third person and changed the subject to his second novel: ‘St Leon is a much greater favourite everywhere in Ireland than Caleb Williams’. Another moment of uneasiness was captured by William Drennan, who called on Godwin in Dublin and found him ‘a plain simple mannered looking man, his eyes too downcast, though evidently ambitious of singular fame’.

Remained close to Curran
Godwin parted company with Curran in Dublin on 11 August. The following day he took a packet-boat to Holyhead (arriving at ‘4 morning’). He made a short excursion in Wales and arrived back in London on 18 or 19 August. But he and Curran were not separated for long. Curran, never at ease in post-Union Ireland, was in London again in the autumn of 1800, and a frequent visitor thereafter. The two men remained close friends until Curran’s death at his London residence in 1817. The children of each also formed strong bonds of friendship. When his young disciple Percy Bysshe Shelley visited Ireland in the spring of 1812, Godwin provided a letter of introduction to Curran, linking the two generations. When Shelley, now married to Godwin’s daughter Mary, moved to Italy in 1818, the couple became friendly with Curran’s eldest daughter Amelia, who had lived in Florence since her father’s death. She painted the portrait of Shelley now in the National Portait Gallery, London.

Visiting Ireland was a political education for Godwin. The intensity of his experiences informed his later engagement with the country and its politics in his writings. The opening scenes of his historical novel Mandeville (1817)—dedicated to Curran as ‘the sincerest friend I ever had’—are set during the notoriously violent Irish rebellion of 1641. He analysed the 1641 rebellion and its aftermath in the first volume of his History of the Commonwealth of England (1824–8).

Godwin’s personal letters from Ireland may ultimately prove more significant than his published writings on Irish affairs. They depict the state of Ireland at a period of uneasy transition, reflected through the changing consciousness of one individual, and they demonstrate the interconnectedness of Godwin’s personal and political interests. They link back to his relationship with Mary Wollstonecraft, bear witness to his growing intimacy with Curran and anticipate his early association with Shelley, which began, in the early nineteenth century, with an exchange of letters on Irish Catholic emancipation.

Pamela Clemit is a Professor of English at Durham University; Jenny McAuley is a Lecturer in English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.

Further reading

P. Clemit (ed.), The letters of William Godwin, volume II: 1798–1805 (Oxford, 2014).
V. Myers, D. O’Shaughnessy & M. Philp (eds), The diary of William Godwin (2010), http://godwindiary.bodleian.ox.ac.uk.
T. Webb, ‘Missing Robert Emmet: William Godwin’s Irish expedition’, in A. Dolan, P.M. Geoghegan & D. Jones (eds), Reinterpreting Emmet: essays on the life and legacy of Robert Emmet (Dublin, 2007), 105–37.


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