Gothic Ireland: horror and the Irish Anglican imagination in the long eighteenth century

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2005), Reviews, Volume 13

Gothic Ireland horror and the Irish Anglican imagination in the long eighteenth centuryGothic Ireland: horror and the Irish Anglican imagination in the long eighteenth century
Jarlath Killeen
(Four Courts, E55)
ISBN 1851829431
The title of this book initially suggests a study of the Gothic genre in Ireland in the eighteenth century, but Killeen delivers instead ‘a history of the social memory of Irish Anglicanism’, focusing on the ways in which the images and narratives of this social memory coalesced into the form of late eighteenth-century Gothic. He sets out to analyse the creation and maintenance of Anglican identity in Ireland in the eighteenth century through a study of a ‘pre-Gothic aesthetic’ that eventually produced the Irish Gothic and such novels as Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), The picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and Dracula (1897).
Killeen’s introduction argues that previous analytic attempts to understand Ireland in the eighteenth century have fallen short by omitting the 1641 rebellion from consideration. By beginning the period in the 1660s these studies have, he contends, glossed over the enduring ramifications of the rebellion for the eighteenth-century configuration of Anglican identity in Ireland. Indeed, he argues that the years between 1641 and the Act of Union in 1801 were taken up with Ireland’s struggle to come to terms with that gruesome rebellion and its political and social consequences.
Fittingly, Killeen begins with an analysis of Sir John Temple’s The Irish rebellion (1646) and the mythology sponsored therein. This first chapter deftly describes the formation of a unique Anglican identity in Ireland, hitherto considered unnecessary, as a chosen people, suffering the terrors of their Catholic neighbours in the hope of salvation both in heaven and on earth. Thoroughly reliant on the language and imagery of horror, Temple’s mythologisation of the murderous and rebellious Catholic majority established the essential ‘otherness’ of the Irish Catholics and thus created a ‘monstrous’ Catholic identity as opposed to a ‘normal’ Anglican one. Killeen is careful to point out the ultimate ambivalence of Temple’s narrative while also emphasising that this air of confusion did little to impede the implantation of its ‘imagology of horror’ in the Irish Protestant mind and its centrality to Anglican identity throughout the long eighteenth century.
The second chapter continues the story of the first, looking at the instability caused by the wars of 1690–1 and the attempt to narrate anew a stable identity like that provided in The Irish rebellion. His remaining chapters follow suit, cogently outlining the struggles in identity faced by the Irish Anglicans over the course of the eighteenth century, when the self/other, English/Irish and Protestant/Catholic distinctions became increasingly problematical and more difficult to maintain.
In his third—and arguably most compelling—chapter Killeen focuses on Swift’s A modest proposal (1729) and the connection Swift makes between cannibalism, Catholicism and grotesque Irish womanhood. He rightly identifies the accusation of cannibalism as ‘a regular feature of much ethnographical fiction and anthropology—the “other” as cannibal’, and highlights the link between cannibalism, vampirism and the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. Moreover, Killeen argues that eighteenth-century Anglicans in Ireland could most likely see transubstantiation as less improbable, the ‘radical ambiguity’ of their identity echoing that taking place at the consecration. Killeen’s discussion is perhaps at its strongest when considering this confusion of identities, the blurring of boundaries that confronted Anglicans in Ireland in the eighteenth century. His argument that the idea of transubstantiation, a doctrine that clearly marked Catholicism as the abhorrent ‘other’, might have been ‘less improbable’ to Anglicans poignantly suggests the turmoil faced by this non-English but not-quite-Irish population.
In this same chapter Killeen briefly considers the Gothic fear of the ‘other’ manifesting itself in medical terms as the spread of contagion and illness, linking this fear of contagion to fear of vampirism and zombieism. He cites Joseph Sheridan le Fanu’s vampire narrative Carmilla (1872) as an example of Irish Gothic dominated by this pathological fear. Later, in his analysis of necrophilia and the differences between Catholic and Anglican public rituals of the dead (Chapter 5), Killeen writes of eighteenth-century Ireland envisaged as the ‘sick man’ of the Empire. One wonders whether Killeen’s book would have benefited from a more thorough investigation of this idea of illness locating itself in the margins of society while threatening to contaminate the centre, as well as the role vampirism and cannibalism might play in that fearsome crossover.
Eighteenth-century medical geography effectively pathologised certain areas of the globe, dividing the world into ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ regions. Colonialism introduced the European world to a multitude of new diseases against which the colonising peoples had no immunity. The location of these illnesses in foreign lands allowed Europeans to characterise colonial spaces as sick, and in need of proper improvement and transformation to make them more like the healthy homeland in Europe. This distinction between here and there, sick and well, however, was never as clear-cut as the colonisers would have liked. Indeed, not only did it deny that disease existed at home but it also masked the fear of disease locating itself within the centre rather than staying at the margins, and it glossed over the ever more mutable boundaries between coloniser and colonised. In Ireland’s case this fear became magnified since it was so close geographically to England and thus possessed even more potential for contamination.
Killeen’s acknowledgement of Ireland’s characterisation as ‘sick’ points to this discourse on colonialism and medical geography but refrains from detailing what could be enlightening information given his subject matter. The same might be said for his take on vampirism, which, though mentioned several times throughout the book, never merits extended consideration. With the many links between vampirism and cannibalism, as well as Killeen’s analysis of necrophilia and transubstantiation, one might expect a more thorough investigation of this very Gothic trope. Moreover, while Killeen associates cannibalism, vampirism, illness and contagion, he fails to tease out this connection. As with disease/illness, elements of vampirism and cannibalism existed in European colonising societies (in, for instance, medical and scientific dissection and research, various traditional folk remedies and certain funerary customs), but these practices were displaced onto the savage ‘other’. The ‘other’ thus became the locus of these terrifying practices; self and home were saved from the implications of these tendencies, but the threat of their emergence at home persisted, making them all the more horrifying.
Both the vampire and the cannibal represent subversive threats, possessing the ability to erase borders, undermine established identities and introduce disorder. The vampire destroys his victim’s identity by replacing it with a version of his own. Similarly, in his consumption of others the cannibal literally and physically destroys borders; his incorporation of others into himself represents the breakdown of order, structure and hierarchy.
The absence of medical geography and the silence on the vampire represent unexplored links rather than omissions and do not detract from the overall excellence of this book. Killeen’s analysis of pertinent texts by Sir John Temple, William King, William Molyneux, Jonathan Swift, Regina Maria Roche, Edmund Burke and Maria Edgeworth is clear and coherent throughout. The considerations of Roche’s The children of the Abbey (1796) and Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), in particular, deserve close attention. In taking on the eighteenth-century formation of Anglican identity in Ireland as he does, Killeen goes far in explaining the emergence and staying power of the Gothic genre in Ireland.
Christina Morin


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