The legacy of the French Revolution

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2020), Letters, Volume 28

Sir,—Sylvia Kleinman is right to deplore the narrow cynicism and rehashed stereotypes that characterise the rare mentions of the French Revolution on RTÉ (HI 28.2, March/April 2020, Platform). Kleinman exposes the factual errors and spin that reduce this transformative decade in history to the ‘excesses of the Revolution’ and a James Gillray-style caricature of simian savages with instant identifiers—red cap, cockade, wanton violence and ‘a head on a pike’.

When the merits of the Revolution were first debated in these islands, Wolfe Tone assured us that Edmund Burke had the triumph to decide the public in England. However, Tone asserts that in Ireland an oppressed, insulted and plundered people sympathised with the French. Long before the Revolution had degenerated into bloodshed and terror Burke had been calling for a war of annihilation against the Revolution. His scabrous prose attacking ‘French philosophers, female revolutionaries and British reformers’ is of a piece with Gillray’s lurid depictions. Burke got his wish and the war dragged on from 1793 until 1815. We will never know how many died but some estimates put the death rate at more than six million. Kleinman muses, astutely, that British methods in 1798 would put many heads on pikes in Ireland. This has never been seen in caricature because George Cruickshank had no interest in government excesses. However, there is an uncanny similarity in the way Gillray and Cruickshank portray their sub-human French and Irish savages.—Yours etc.,

FERGUS WHELAN
Dublin 7

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