George Birmingham, Introduction to Recollections of Jonah Barrington (Dublin: Talbot Press; London: Fisher Unwin [1918])

‘The Ireland of Charles Lever ... Until just the other day this was the only Ireland which Englishmen knew. It is still an Ireland which all Englishmen love, pity, and scorn; which Irish patriots of the sterner sort scorn without pity, but in their inmost hearts must love a little too. It is an Ireland of gay irresponsibility, of heavy drinking and good fellowship, of sport and sympathy with the sporting side of lawlessness, of nimble wit and frivolous love-making, of courage, honour, hard fighting and hard riding, of poverty turned into a jest, Its story is a tragedy in which the actors cut capers and turn somersaults, lest they should be discovered in the high heroic mood or moved to despicable tears.

Englishmen saw the capers and rejoiced in them. Irishmen of the sterner kind saw the same capers and resented them. For the Englishman we Irish were cast for the part of the clown in the circus of the world. Others, Germans, Frenchmen, the English themselves, took all the finer parts, came before the audience (the angels are the audience in this case) as learned pigs of great solemnity, moving wonder and admiration - ladies in fluffy skirts, who leaped delightfully through hoops, or dashing Dick Turpin’s riding valorously. It was Dick Turpin chiefly that the Englishman saw himself. We clowned and they kept us at it. No wonder we resented it occasionally. No wonder there has been a series of protests against the literary tradition of the capering Irishman. Thomas Moore, I suppose, made such a protest when he adapted Irish music to the piano and touched the hearts of our great-grandmothers, girls in white frocks at the time, with sugary patriotism, subduing the glaring lights of rebel nationalism to drawing-room use with nice pink shades. Thomas Davis and the ardent spirits of Young Ireland made their protest in fiercely rhetorical verse, and the savage prose of John Mitchel, the strongest prose written in Ireland since the days of Swift. Yeats, Synge, and the writers of our neo-Celtic school made their protest. They saw us, and half persuaded cultured England to see us, as a long procession of fate-driven peasants with sorrowful eyes, behind whose shadowy figures hover vast, malignant powers, spirits of cloudy poetry and tragical romance. Mr. Bernard Shaw, an Irishman, turned fierce by long residence in England, made his protest. He set up the tattered figure of Tim Haffigan, the caricature of a caricature, a creature as like Lever’s Irishmen as the woman of the streets is like a laughing girl. He slew Tim Haffigan with the sharp sword of his wit; but the literary tradition of the gay Irishman survives.

Not only the world outside, the world of Englishmen but we ourselves still recognise in Charles O’Malley, in Frank Webber, Mickey Free, and Baby Blake, true children of our race; remembering them when we are tempted to prance, high-stepping into the grandiose or to shout aloud, ‘The West’s awake, the west’s awake! / Sing Oh! hurrah! let England quake!’

Father O’Flynn remains for the world the typical Irish priest, though he bears little resemblance to the fighting curates of the Land League days, and hardly more to John Banim’s sentimentalised “Soggarth Aroon.” Miss Somerville and Miss Ross are true followers of the Lever tradition, but Flurry Knox and old Mrs. Knox, of Aussolas, and Bobbie Bennett, are genuine Irish; and there is not one of us who does not recognise Slipper as near kin to some friend of our own.

The fact is, that in spite of the protests, in spite of the ignorant caricatures which have well deserved the title of “Stage Irishman,” this type which Lever popularised is an authentic presentation of what we are. It corresponds to a reality; comes, perhaps, nearer to common Irish life than anything yet given us by poets, rhetoricians, or politicians. And those who look deepest see that the writers who present these Irishmen of the Lever tradition are themselves something more than buffoons. They laugh, and we laugh at or with them; but we know that they laugh with deliberate intention, because the [?real] motive to laughter in their case is tears. They clown, because if they did not there would be nothing for them except to sit down and wring their hands helplessly. Under all the noisy capering and rattling wit of these Lever Irishmen, there sounds a note, almost always audible to anyone with an car for literature, of sorrowful tenderness. The works of these authors is the literature of men with thoughts perhaps too deep, certainly too intimately private for mere tears.

It is Sir Jonah Barrington who gives us the first fairly complete and authentic portrait of the rollicking Irishmen of later literary tradition. I should be sorry to quote Barrington as a reliable authority for any historical fact of the cold, stark kind which I wished to establish. Barrington had a lively imagination and a taste for the picturesque, qualities absolutely fatal to the serious historian. He was the victim, moreover of the prejudices of the most vigorous kind. His ‘Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation’ is probably as interesting, and certainly as untrustworthy, as any history book ever written. His “Personal Sketches and Recollections”, are, we must suppose, the product of a cheer mind sporting with facts. But Barrington has this merit. He gives us a picture, not a photograph, of Irish society in his own day. We get the tone, the colour of the men about whom he writes. We gain, as we read him, queer glimpses of an extraordinary society. I should not like to pin my faith on the accuracy of the details which Barrington gives of the New Year’s debauch and in the cottage of Old Quin, the Huntsman, though names and dates are given with the utmost precision; but I have not the slightest doubt that there were “hard goers”, like the author’s two brothers, like Jemmy Mofitt and the rest of them, to be found in every county in Ireland in 1778. Have we not good contemporary evidence that Irish gentlemen in those days drank, swaggered, and behaved like swine, precisely as Barrington represents them? They left little literature behind them, those country gentlemen of the 18th century, but certain drinking songs of their survive, songs by no means without merit from a literary point of view. Only a society something like that which Barrington describes could have produced “Bumpers, Squire Jones”, and promoted the man who wrote it to high legal dignity. [Here quotes:]

‘Ye good fellows all,
Who love to be told where good claret’s in store,
Attend to the call
Of one who’s ne’er frightened,
But greatly delighted,
With six bottles more:
Be sure you don’t pass
The good house Money-glass,
Which the jolly red god so peculiarly owns;
’Twill well suit your humour,
For pray what would you more /
Than mirth, with good claret, and bumpers, Squire Jones.

Ye poets, who write,
And brag of your drinking famed Helicon’s brook
Though all you get by’t
Is a dinner oft-times,
In reward of your rhymes,
With Humphrey the Duke:
Learn Bacchus to follow,
And quit your Apollo,
Forsake all the Muses, those senseless old crones;
Our jingling of glasses,
Your rhyming surpasses,
When crowned with good claret, and bumpers, Squire Jones.

Ye clergy so wise,
Who myst’ries profound can demonstrate most clear,
How worthy to rise!
You preach once a week
But your tithes never seek
Above once in a year:
Come here without failing,
And leave off your railing
’Gainst bishops providing for dull stupid drones:
Says the text so divine,
“What is life without wine?
Then away with the claret-a bumper, Squire Jones.

’Ye lawyers so just,
Be the cause what it will, who so learnedly plead,
How worthy of trust!
Ye know black from white,
Yet prefer wrong to right
As you chance to be fee’d;
Leave musty reports,
And forsake the king’s courts,
Where dulness and discord have set up their thrones;
Burn Salkeld and Ventris,
With all your damned Entries,
Away with the claret – a bumper, Squire Jones.

“The Rakes of Mallow”, a jingle far inferior to the song just quoted, is another evidence of the substantial truth of Barrington’s picture of the upper classes of Irish society. We need not suppose that Barrington exaggerated the bacchanalian recklessness of the men who described themselves thus [quotes]:

’Beauing, belling, dancing, drinking, / breaking windows, damning, sinking, / Ever raking, never thinking - Live the rakes of Mallow. // Spending faster than it comes, / Beating waiters, bailiffs, duns, / Bacchus’ true begotten sons - Live the rakes of Mallow. // Living short but merry lives; / Going where the devil drives; // Having sweethearts but no wives -Live the rakes of Mallow.’

And the same spirit of reckless defiance of God, man, and common decency was prevalent among the lower classes. There is an 18th century Dublin street song - “The Night before Larry was Stretched” - which is inspired with a grim, blasphemous humour, likely to shock very severely the cultured sentimentalist who has fallen in love with the dear, dark head of Kathleen Ni Houlihan. The plain fact is that Ireland in Barrington’s time was as far as possible from being an island of Saints and Scholars.

But we should be wrong if we denied the claim of these swaggering drunken Irish gentlemen and their dependants to some fine qualities. They were, for instance, good fighters. Duelling was common. The custom was barbarous and wholly irrational. We should now consider it monstrous, and it always was monstrous, that a man should be forced by the code of honour prevalent among gentlemen to place his life at the mercy of any swashbuckler who chanced to possess unusual skill with the pistol. But Sir Lucius O’Trigger, ridiculous as he is, stands out as a finer figure than poor Bob Acres, just because his courage did not ooze out of his finger-tips at the mention of pistols and swords. And Sir Lucius O’Trigger, though a caricature, stands for a type which really existed in Ireland in those days. Fighting Fitzgerald was a man who owed his long immunity from punishment largely to his relationship to the Earl of Bristol, the most picturesque and disreputable of Irish bishops. He must have been something like Sir Lucius O’Trigger, though rather a finer gentleman and rather more reckless. The fighting squires of County Galway, who were sent to challenge Fitzgerald, must have been O’Triggers every one of them. The very fact that the appearance of Sir Lucius O’Trigger, on the stage evoked a strong protest and gave rise to a newspaper correspondence was a proof that the caricature was not altogether remote from the actual. The pleasure which the Irish gentry found in fighting each other according to the code of duellists is reflected in the fondness of the peasant for faction fighting. These extraordinary battles, for which no conceivable reason could he given, were common well on into the 19th century. They were - as brutal, as abominable, and as irrational as the duelling; but they witnessed to the existence of high physical courage among the people who indulged in them.

It is surely not necessary to recall the fact that the courage and fighting spirit of all classes in Ireland found expression in fine-, ways than the single combats of the duellists or the irregular battles of the peasants. No one has denied the greatness of the services rendered by Irish officers and Irish regiments to the armies in which they served in all the great European wars of the 18th and early 19th centuries. British military annals - to make no mention of those of France and Spain - are full of the names of Irish commanders and record many great deeds of Irish soldiers.

Nor were the Irish of Barrington’s day incapable of feeling the force of ideas. There seems indeed to have been comparatively little in the way of culture among the Irish of the upper classes. They built fine houses in the Georgian style and filled them with good furniture. They adorned Dublin with some dignified public buildings. But otherwise they did almost nothing, either in the way of creation or patronage, for art. The few Irishmen who obtained high literary reputation won it in England, writing mainly for an English public. The poorer classes in Ireland were almost entirely uneducated. The old Gaelic culture survived among them, the ghost of the past, but no more than a ghost. It had the inspiration of memories of “old, unhappy, far-off things.” It lacked the force of the ferment of new thought by which alone literature is vitalised. Yet the Irish people of all classes remained susceptible of ideas. It is not to be wondered at, considering what the history of Ireland was during the 18th century, that these ideas were mainly political.

Barrington himself is a witness to the fact that the Irish gentry of his day were capable of idealism. The book by which he is best known is called “The Rise and Fall of the Irish Nation.” That conception of “The Irish Nation” was one which had laid strong hold on the imagination of the Irish gentry. It was a narrow conception, for it took very little heed of the bulk of the people. The Irish nation, as these men thought of it, was the Irish aristocracy, even a narrower thing still, the Irish Protestant aristocracy. The idea was insular, divorced from the main stream of European thought; but it was real. The men who were haunted by it from the days of Lucas till Grattan uttered his triumphant “ Esto perpetua” oration were something more than rollicking squireens. They were able to devote themselves to things more spiritual than fox-hunting and claret-drinking. Their idea perished and they, as a potent aristocracy, perished with it, mainly because they were not wholly true to it, because they were afraid at the last moment to trust themselves and it. The brief and not inglorious existence of their independent Irish Parliament closed with the Act of Union. It is the fashion to speak of that Act as a political necessity. It is, at least, doubtful, whether it was anything of the sort.

Ireland might conceivably have continued, either for good or evil, to occupy the position which Hungary holds in the Austrian Empire. It is a commonplace to say that the Act of Union was passed by bribery [quotes:]

‘How did they pass the Union? /By perjury and fraud, / By slaves who sold their land for gold / As Judas sold his God. / / How did they pass the Union? / By Pitt and Castlereagh. / Could Satan send for such an end / More fitting tools than they?’

No doubt, there was corruption, plenty of it; but it is doubtful whether the Irish gentry could have been purchased in sufficient numbers to pass the Act if they had not at the last moment lacked self-confidence. They were afraid of the rising tide of democratic ideas and sought security for themselves under the wing of England, a security which, as the 19th century proved, was no real security at all. It us possible that if they had trusted themselves and fought the battle of their own class in their own country they might have survived, a dominant race in Ireland, as the Magyars are in Hungary. Their “Irish Nation” would have survived with them for a while and the history of the country could scarcely have been more unhappy than it has been. They made their choice, and history must judge them a people who, in spite of their recklessness and rollicking, yet had one lofty idea to which they were faithful for a little while.

And the Irish people, the peasants, oppressed, ignorant, to a large extent debauched as they were, also showed themselves capable of being influenced by ideas. It must always remain something of a puzzle that the Irish people should have received, even as much as they did, the doctrines of revolutionary France. It might have been argued that the Irish people, devoted to the Roman Catholic Church with all the affection of a persecuted remnant, would have been the very last in Europe to feel the attraction of revolutionary ideas which were essentially anti-religious, against which the Papacy had definitely ranged itself. Yet the French Revolution was the inspiration of the movement of the United Irishmen, as the revolt of the American colonists had been of the Volunteers. The rebellion in Wexford to a large extent, the outbreak in Antrim entirely, breathed the spirit of revolutionary France. Wolfe Tone’s amazing autobiography is the work of an intellectual revolutionary, fascinated by French ideas. It is true that many of the ablest leaders of the United Irishmen belonged to the educated middle classes and others sprang from the naturally democratic Protestant communities of the north ; but their teaching found a ready welcome among the peasantry of the south and west, a Proof that the Irish people, like the Irish gentry, were spiritually alive, responsive to the stimulus of ideas.

Barrington’s Personal Reminiscences is a misleading book in that it fails to take proper account, fails to give more than scarcely discernible hints, of the spiritual vitality of Ireland in his time. “I profess,” says Barrington, “to be a sound Protestant without bigotry and an hereditary Royalist without ultraism. Liberty I love, democracy I hate, fanaticism I denounce.” That is probably a perfectly honest confession of faith, an account of the author’s actual convictions. It is scarcely to be expected of such a man that he would understand or appreciate the feelings of a people in whose old bottles of traditional religious devotion the new wine of revolutionary democracy was fermenting to the bursting point. But Barrington might - indeed elsewhere he shows us that he did - have understood his own class and its peculiar idealisms. No doubt, Barrington when he wrote this book was a disappointed and disillusioned man. “It is, however, now in proof that twenty-seven years of the Union have been twenty-seven years of beggary and disturbance; and this result, I may fairly say, I always foresaw.” A man in the mood of the writer of these words is not likely to go back with any gladness to the memory of great emotions and compelling ideas. He has seen his hopes vanish, his plans fail, his ideas submerged by meaner considerations of expediency and profit. It seems paradoxical, but it is in fact more likely that he will dwell most on the superficial jollity of past days, on old scandals and old jokes, on the recollection of the merrier, more careless parts of the old life. Either that, or he will write a jeremiad, and Barrington is true Irishman in this. His self-respect demands of him that he shall laugh to the last and laugh loudest when he sees most cause for tears. There is the laughter of fools which is as the crackling of thorns under a pot ; but there is also, as one of our latest poets has said, a laughter which is the “trick of a broken heart.” [END]

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