The popular mind in eighteenth-century Ireland

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 4 (July/August 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

Cork University Press
ISBN 9781782052081

Reviewed by: Jim Smyth

This book is arranged in an unconventional way: eight thematic chapters, in proximate chronological sequence, on ‘kingdom’, ‘faith’, ‘memory’, ‘war’, ‘patriots’, ‘land’, ‘rebellion’ and ‘union’, are each prefaced by Irish-language poems, ranging from three to eight pages in length, with facing translations into English. It is a study in what French historians call mentalité, in the popular mind, as reflected by vernacular literary sources, in what, almost 100 years ago, Daniel Corkery memorably called ‘the hidden Ireland’. It is also the latest blast in Irish historiography’s poetry wars. Vincent Morley gets to his point straight away, and never hesitates or wavers thereafter. In the period roughly from the Williamite war (1688–91) to the outbreak of the Great Famine (1845) no verse or song in Irish ever praised a British king, thus attesting to ‘the continuity of disaffection’. And evidence of anti-British, anti-Protestant sentiment, be it Jacobite, republican, Bonapartist or O’Connellite, is in abundant supply.

Critically, however, the evidence for what might be called Gaelic public opinion is predominantly supply-side, which raises fundamental methodological and interpretive issues about its reception and representativeness. One school of thought sees poetry in Irish as convention-bound and formulaic, and its eighteenth-century exponents as mainly schoolmasters—latter-day ‘bards’, reduced in status and deprived of aristocratic patronage. Morley is having none of that:

‘I cannot conceive how such a disparate and scattered body of amateur authors could have ever developed a sectional perspective of their own that diverged in any significant respect from the outlook of the people among whom they lived, and for whom they wrote’.

And while it is true that most poets were schoolmasters or, to a lesser extent, clergymen, other day jobs identified here include millwright, boatman, farmer, weaver, blacksmith, tailor, stonemason, cobbler, cooper and excise clerk.

Morley takes the long view, as did the poets, who routinely integrate immediate events, international and local, from the movement of the Spanish fleet to Whiteboy agitation over rent and tithes, into a grand narrative frame of conquest, dispossession and impending deliverance from the yoke of the Gall, or foreigner—the progeny of Luther and Calvin, and the heretical, usurping House of Hanover. Their texts display detailed knowledge of the many limited wars waged by absolute monarchs to uphold the European balance of power, celebrate every British reversal, and anticipate a Spanish-, or more often French-, backed restoration of the House of Stuart. And as that happy prospect became increasingly unrealistic, first in 1766 with the pope’s refusal to recognise Charles Edward as the rightful king upon the death of his father, James III, and then with the extinction of the Stuart line upon Charles’s own death in 1788, the poets simply transferred their hopes to Britain’s successor rivals.

Jacobitism is a legitimist, monarchical ideology, yet in the 1790s, when the poets looked to the French republic, that turn, Morley contends, represented ‘nothing more than a change of political nomenclature’. If that assertion is too sweeping, the rapid pace of political change in late eighteenth-century Ireland is unmistakable. The American War of Independence acted as a catalyst, and the response of Irish Catholics, as revealed in the vernacular literature, to the great struggle across the Atlantic is arresting. Historians of the ‘Catholic Question’ in this period, of the campaign by the Catholic Committee for a relaxation of the penal laws, have relied in no small measure on the writings and correspondence of Charles O’Conor. In 1766 O’Conor (and the bishops) waved goodbye to the Jacobite cause and sought to secure concessions as a reward for Catholic loyalty to George III and the British constitution. Thus Catholics, in contrast to northern Presbyterians, did not support the disloyal American colonists—or so the story went. But the verse tells a different tale. In that telling, the American Revolution is, at first, understood as a sort of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant civil war; British setbacks are welcomed as usual, of course, although there is little sympathy for the ‘Bostonians’. Attitudes began to shift, however, as Ireland’s domestic political crisis unfolded. Protestant patriots and volunteers, such as Henry Grattan, make their debut in Irish-language song and poetry. Washington becomes a republican inspiration.

This reconstruction of popular opinion among the majority community on the island transforms, or at a minimum complicates, the O’Conor-based version of the campaign for Catholic relief. Yet the precise reverse is also true. English-language evidence complicates any picture of undiluted mass disaffection, as ‘in the dark days of the American war Irish Catholics … once again stress[ed] their allegiance’; loyal addresses ‘poured into Dublin Castle’ from Wexford, Kilkenny, Galway, Roscommon and beyond. And what, later on, were all those Irish Catholic soldiers doing in the British army fighting Ireland’s putative deliverer, Napoleon?

This is an important, vital and, for the most part, persuasive book. The high value of Irish-language sources is demonstrated conclusively. The tractability of such evidence remains problematic, however. To what extent did poets write for each other? How representative were their views? Imagine, by analogy, extrapolating later twentieth-century popular political beliefs from those encoded in a stylised literary genre of that era—academic history? Speaking as a leading adept of soi-disant revisionism, sensibly acknowledged at the time, that would be a mistake.

Jim Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.


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