Margaret Kelleher, ‘Prose Writing and Drama in English, 1830-1890: from Catholic Emancipation to the Fall of Parnell’, in Cambridge History of Irish Literature (Cambridge UP 2006), Vol. I [Chap. 11], p.449-99.


Part 1

Note: The copying of this chapter has been undertaking to facilitate the efficient transfer of quotations and references to author-entries in RICORSO. The chapter is reproduced in its totality in view of its signal wealth in bibliographical detail especially as regards the publishing history of 19th century Irish fiction, as well as its outstanding critical merit and value as a point of reference. Reference notes are set to open in a different window, which may be closed after use.

Sections:
  [Introduction]
Literature and the Book Trade
Tales of the Irish Peasantry: Carleton and His Contemporaries
Narratives of the Irish Famine
Reading England, writing Ireland: Lever, Le Fanu and Riddell
England and the Irish Question: Mill and Arnold
Land, politics and fiction, 1870-1890
Irish Drama 1830-1890
Critical Constructions of Nineteenth-century Irish Literature
449
451
452
462
466
475
477
484
489
  Notes* 492
 
*This file opens in a new window
 

[Introduction]
The 1830s have been termed by some commentators as the decade in which Irish fiction faced collapse, and, in support of this view, critics commonly cite a letter written by Maria Edgeworth in 1834, the year in which Helen, her last novel, was published. Writing from her home in Edgeworthstown to her brother Michael Pakenham Edgeworth in India, the novelist observed: ‘it is impossible to draw Ireland as she now is in a book of fiction – realities are too strong, party passions too violent to bear to see, or care to look at their faces in the looking-glass. The people would only break the glass, and curse the fool who held the mirror up to nature – distorted nature, in a fever.’ [1] As chapters 8 and 10 by Ross and Connolly have shown, by 1830 Ireland was well established as a locale for fiction and Irish fiction was firmly embedded within emerging definitions of realism – trends exemplified by the success of Edgeworth’s writings. While the remarks quoted above spell the end of her own novel-writing career, they greatly underestimate the tenacity of Irish fiction. Five years earlier, in an address ‘to the reader’ which prefaced her Book of the Boudoir (1829), Sydney Owenson had delivered a more accurate prediction of the future for Irish writing: Among the multitudinous effects of catholic emancipation, I do not hesitate to predict a change in the character of Irish authorship. [2]

However, with the exception of the much-cited William Carleton and the undervalued George Moore, the period of 1830 to 1890 is still not readily identifiable through major prose writers or dramatists, and many of the most popular authors of the time – Charles Lever, Anna Maria Hall and Hubert O’Grady, for example – fared badly in subsequent criticism. As early as 1889, W. B. Yeats objected to what he saw as a ‘loss of Irish manner’ in nineteenth-century fiction after Carleton and the Banims, and this critical sidelining of writings from the second half of the nineteenth century has continued since. [3]. The view expressed by Thomas Flanagan, that ‘few novelists appeared in the {449} post-famine years to “explain” Ireland to English readers’, is one such example, whereby the extent and diversity of post-1850 Irish writing in English has been significantly undervalued. [4] In the decades following Catholic emancipation not only was a much larger and more influential body of writing produced than is generally acknowledged, but also an expansion in publishing venues facilitated a greater diversity of genre; hence numerous Irish-born authors ventured into the Victorian literary marketplace with their versions of the stock genres of the period, such as sensational novels, sentimental fiction, urban fiction and melodrama, in addition to the longer-established forms of the historical novel, travel narrative and peasant tale.

The socio-political conditions of post-emancipation Ireland diagnosed by Edgeworth thus had more productive literary results than she had envisaged and led in subsequent decades to a proliferation of what may be termed ‘factual fictions’: as novelists assumed or had forced upon them the often urgent weight of political subject matter, the line between fact and fiction proved difficult to draw. In the closing years of the century, the particular instability of nineteenth-century Irish society as a factor disabling to its literary development continued as a matter of comment among writers; [5] a hundred years later, critics still differ as to whether this explains the ‘inadequacy’ of the nineteenth-century Irish novel or, more positively, was the creative condition of its ‘anomalous’ development. [6] To date, however, such analyses have relied on a handful of examples, yet again with little detailed study of the development of the genre over the century or of its complex influences.

The years 1830 to 1890 also mark a period in which differentiations of ‘English’ and ‘Irish’ writing, whether in prose or drama, are not easily made. Many Irish-born authors moved to London or were entirely published in London; some entered the mainstream of English literature, without complication, in terms of subject matter and form; others returned to Irish themes frequently, still others intermittently, in their careers. Of the authors who remained in Ireland, few could sustain themselves solely in the domestic market and sought a wider readership, yet such an orientation towards an English, or later an American, audience has too often, in a crude simplification, been viewed as a disqualification from the history of ‘Irish’ literature per se. Once more the influence may be detected here of Yeats, whose stated objection to the later nineteenth-century novel lay in what he saw as the impossibility of dividing ‘what is new, and therefore Irish, what is very old, and therefore Irish, from all that is foreign, from all that is an accident of imperfect culture’. [7] But, rather than being a sign of aesthetic inferiority (a conclusion not confined to Yeats), such cultural hybridity is instead {450} where much of the richness of nineteenth-century Irish literature in English lies.

[ top ]

Literature and the book trade
The collapse of an Irish publishing industry in the years following the Act of Union, together with the large-scale migration of Irish authors to London markets, led other literary commentators in the 1830s to speculate as to the end of ‘Irish’ writing. Writing in the September 1832 issue of the pro-repeal Irish Monthly Magazine, the author of ‘The Past and Present State of Irish Literature’ observed that ‘if national literature means the capability of a people to write, and the establishment of a system to publish what is written for the instruction or entertainment of the community’, then Ireland’s ‘very existence as a nation possessing a separate literature of her own, must be denied’. [8] Such meditations on the material institutions that enabled or disabled Irish literature were a recurring concern in periodicals that themselves displayed a newly national orientation. In 1837, the Dublin University Magazine, in an essay which has been described as ‘in effect, the first attempt at a theory of Anglo-Irish literature’, offered its diagnosis of ‘the past and present state of literature’, [9] and lamented that ‘the vast capabilities of this country for literary pursuit, are in fact concealed by the overpowering demand of the English marts’. [10] Five years later, however, a significant change could be detected, as the reflections of author William Carleton, writing in the preface to a new edition of his Traits and Stories, imply:

In truth until within the last ten or twelve years an Irish author never thought of publishing in his own country, and the consequence was that our literary men followed the example of our great landlords; they became absentees, and drained the country of its intellectual wealth precisely as the others exhausted it of its rents.
 Thus did Ireland stand in the singular anomaly of adding some of the most distinguished names to the literature of Great Britain, whilst she herself remained incapable ofpresenting anything to the world beyond a school-book or a pamphlet. [11; and see note, infra.]

Carleton was the first post-Union Irish novelist to publish primarily in Ireland and his career and the re-emergence of the Irish publishing industry would prove to be closely linked. The first edition of his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830) appeared anonymously and was published by Dublin publisher William Curry in two small, duodecimo volumes; the two volumes that {451} comprised the ‘new edition’ of 1843-44, in contrast, were lavishly produced in octavo by Curry together with William Orr of London, and featured illustrations by Phiz and other ‘artists of eminence’. In 1847, Carleton’s The Black Prophet (published the previous year in serial form in the Dublin University Magazine) was the first work to appear in the Parlour Library series launched by Belfast publishers Simms and M’Intyre. This series, in which volumes were priced between one shilling and one shilling and sixpence, marked a key innovation in the publication of cheaply priced fiction throughout Great Britain, and was quickly imitated by English publishers such as Routledge’s Railway Library, launched 1849.

While the years of the Great Famine saw the bankruptcies of many Irish publishers and printers, most famously that of William Curry in 1847, a notable survivor was the firm of James Duffy (1808-71) with a business, as Charles Benson has noted, ‘firmly based on the triple pillars of Catholic piety, school-books and nationalist literature’, [12] and whose marketing offiction in decreasing prices from the 1840s onwards allowed a significant expansion in sales and readership. Meanwhile, Irish authors continued to appear in significant numbers on the lists of English publishers, including Colburn, Bentley, the Tinsley brothers, and Chapman and Hall. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Dublin firms such as Sealy, Bryers and Walker, M. H. Gill and Son (formerly M’Glashan and Gill), and Duffy produced novels for the domestic market in ever cheaper editions: Duffy’s popular ‘Parlour Library of Ireland’, priced at a shilling, for example, was followed by the ‘Sixpenny Library of Fiction’ issued by Sealy, Bryers and Walker. These affordable prices were also facilitated by their co-publication with American firms such as Sadlier, Kenedy and the Benzinger brothers, all of New York, who, along with firms such as J. Murphy of Baltimore and Flynn of Boston, served a growing Irish-American market.

The period beginning in 1830 also saw the flourishing of the literary journal in Ireland. The founding of the Christian Examiner and Church of lreland Magazine by the Revd Caesar Otway and Dr J. H. Singer, in 1825, which provided the young Carleton with his first publishing outlet, was quickly followed by that of its ideological opponent, the short-lived Irish Catholic Magazine (1829). More recognisably literary magazines soon followed, though most were of a very short duration: the Dublin Literary Gazette, later National Magazine (1830-31); the staunchly pro-repeal Irish Monthly Magazine of Politics and Literature (1832-34), which was modelled on Blackwood’s Magazine; the Dublin University Review, and Quarterly Magazine (1833); and Ancient Ireland (1835), whose stated purpose was that of ‘reviving the cultivation of the Irish language’ and which published {452}.

[ top ]

Prose and drama in English, 1830-1890
Irish-language stories and poems, with translations and glosses. Of these 1830s periodicals by far the most influential and long lasting was the Dublin University Magazine which appeared monthly from January 1833 to December 1877 and has been described as ‘the supreme archive of Irish Victorian experience, especially that of the protestant (and oddly, protestant southern) middle classes’. [13]

The DUM was founded in January 1833 in the wake of the Reform Bill of 1832, by a group of young Trinity College Tories, including Isaac Butt, Caesar Otway, Samuel Ferguson and John Anster, with the aspiration to be ‘the monthly advocate and representative of the Protestantism, the intelligence, and the respectability of Ireland’. [14] Its most famous contributors, in literary terms, were novelists William Carleton, Charles Lever (who edited the journal from 1842 to 1845) and Sheridan Le Fanu (also editor of the journal, in its later years, from 1861 to 1869), as well as poets Samuel Ferguson and James Clarence Mangan. Although most of its contributions appeared anonymously, many have since been identified; occasional contributors included Michael Banim, George Brittaine, Elizabeth Gaskell, Anna Maria Hall, Harriet Martineau, William Hamilton Maxwell and Anthony Trollope. Subtitled ‘a literary and political journal’, it acknowledged its politics as ‘Conservatism’ and its religion as ‘Protestantism’, but claimed, rightly as future contents would show, ‘as for literature, we avow ourselves to have ever been .. thorough latitudinarians’. [15] Thus, as Norman Vance has noted, in its early decades, at least, ‘doctors, clergymen and more or less briefless barristers as well as professional journalists’ could ‘decorously moonlight’ as ‘economists, literary critics, political commentators, antiquarians, storytellers and poets’. [16] At its peak, under the editorship of Lever, the DUM sold 4,000 copies a month, with Irish and English purchasers. [17]

Even more long-lasting than the DUM, and a direct competitor, was the London-published Dublin Review, launched in 1836 and surviving until 1969 over three series. Backed by Daniel O’Connell, it became the leading Roman Catholic periodical in Britain, distributed by Mudie’s libraries and popular among an upper-class readership in Ireland and England. [18] Many of its contributors, including Charles W. Russell, Patrick Murray and George Crolly, were drawn from the Catholic seminary at Maynooth.

The Dublin University Magazine was priced at half a crown; at the other end of the literary market were the many penny magazines available. The weekly Dublin Penny Journal (1832-36), founded by Caesar Otway and whose contributors included William Carleton, reached a peak circulation figure of some 40,000 sales. Successors included the Irish Penny Magazine (1833), edited by Samuel Lover and chiefly featuring his writings, and the Irish Penny Journal {453} (1840-41), in which Carleton’s writings once again featured prominently While the Nation (founded in 1842) was primarily a weekly newspaper, its reviews of Irish books and periodicals, and its commissioning of poetry, firmly linked emerging literature to the Irish political scene, and its circulation figures are estimated to have reached 13,000 copies a week, with a much higher number of readers. From 1847 onwards, the periodicals produced by the firm of James Duffy were an important outlet for popular fiction, all the more significant given the declining interest in Irish material among English publishers at the time; these periodicals included Duffy’s Irish Catholic Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Hibernian Magazine and Illustrated Dublin Journal. Yet another penny magazine was The Shamrock, self-described as ‘a national weekly journal of Irish history, literature, arts, &c.’; founded in 1866 by Richard Pigott, later the infamous forger of the ‘Parnell’ letters, it provided a forum for many writers including Charles Kickham and the young Bram Stoker. Towards the end of the century, the popular Irish Fireside (1883-87), which promised ‘fiction, amusement and instruction’, published serial stories by Kickham, Rose Kavanagh and others. And most influential of all in shaping a home audience for Irish fiction was the literary periodical the Irish Monthly (1873-1954); founded by the Jesuit priest Matthew Russell, it provided a vital publishing outlet for many Irish authors, most especially forfernale writers such as Rosa Mulholland, Katharine Tynan and Attie O’Brien.

[ top ]

Tales of the Irish peasantry: Carleton and his contemporaries
‘The Eerishers are marchin’ in leeterature, pawri pashu’: so wrote James Hogg in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in May 1830, a comment prompted by the recent publication of Carleton’s Traits and Stories. [19] From the mid-1820s onwards, as critic Ina Ferris has shown, contemporary periodicals in England and Scotland had begun to define ‘an Irish line of fiction’, and the 1830 publication of the first series of Carleton’s stories consolidated this trend. [20] Over the course of the next decade, numerous volumes of Sketches, Stories, Tales, True Tales and Legends followed, which variously described, explained, scrutinised, critiqued and/or defended ‘Irish character’, ‘the Irish peasantry’, Ireland and ‘Irish life’. Written for the most part by Irish-born authors, and generally with English or Scottish publishers, these volumes were marketed as ‘real-life’ representations, offering a strong social and anthropological quotient, while at a safe distance from political contention and easily digestible by their readers. Significantly, some of the earliest recognitions of this trend in {454} Irish prose writing came from Scottish journals - Blackwood’s Magazine, as cited above, or its liberal rival, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine - in a continuation of the ‘cross-pollination’ between literary Ireland and Scotland of earlier decades. [21] Thus, in the February 1833 issue of Tait’s, Christian Isobel Johnstone used the occasion of a review of the second series of Traits for acerbic comment on the developing genre:

It will go hard if the Irish do not beguile or flatter their fellow-subjects into some knowledge of Ireland at last. They had pleaded, argued, expostulated, yelled, shouted, clamoured, fought, burnt and slain, wept and sung to small purpose. Little was the permanent attention they were able to gain from the people of Great Britain, till the happy device was hit upon of throwing open the castle gates, and the cabin doors, and inviting the Scotch and English to enter, hear stories tragic and mirthful, and be amused. [22]

A dismissal of these writings purely as light amusement, however, fails to do justice to their contemporary popularity, and to the role which they played in the years following Catholic emancipation during which the condition of the Irish poor, the continuing agrarian disturbances, and agitation for repeal of the Union moved in and out of the British public’s view.

Chief among such native informants is William Carleton (1794-1869), whose reputation, from his very first publications, was built on the perceived ‘authenticity’ of his writings. Born in Prillisk, County Tyrone, Carleton was the son of Irish-speaking parents, his father fluent also in English and his mother less so. Writing late in life in his Autobiography, Carleton credited the influence of his bilingual father in enabling him as a writer ‘to transfer the genius, the idiomatic peculiarity and conversational spirit of the one language into the other’ and in providing him with a ‘perfect storehouse’ of legend, tale and historical anecdote. [23] The details of Carleton’s life are difficult to disentangle from his many autobiographical constructions, the most famous being the lines he wrote as part of an application for a government pension in 1847: ‘I have risen up from a humble cottage and described a whole people.’ [24] The formal education received by the young Carleton was sporadic - including attendance at a local hedge-school, a ‘lady’s school’ and various short-lived classical schools - and it was supplemented by his avid reading of whatever literature was locally available, from Fielding’s Tom Jones and Smollett’s translation of Gil Blas to the chapbook tales of highwayman James Freney and Arabian Nights. Still a teenager, and intended by his family for the priesthood, he was sent as a ‘poor scholar’ to be educated in Munster, but traveled only as far as Granard, County Longford, episodes fictionalised {455} in the early stories “The Poor Scholar” and “Denis O’Shaughnessy Going to Maynooth”. In 1819 he arrived in Dublin where he worked as a tutor. His first sketch, “A Pilgrimage to Patrick’s Purgatory” (later to be revised as “Lough Derg Pilgrim”), was published in Caesar Otway’s Christian Examiner in 1828; sharply criticised for its ‘anti-Catholic’ subject matter, it was modified in later versions.

The publication of the first series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry in 1830 established Carleton’s literary reputation, with positive reviews from the English and Scottish press. A second series followed in 1833, including stories such as “The Wildgoose Lodge” and “The Poor Scholar” that showed a considerable advance in narrative power and dramatic effect. In 1843-44 appeared the definitive two-volume edition of Traits and Stories, whose long autobiographical introduction ranks among Carleton’s best prose writing. Viewed overall, the most successful stories in Traits are those that experiment with dialect and with narrative voice, for example, the use of the first-person narrator in “Wildgoose Lodge” and the various linguistic registers recorded in stories such as “The Hedge School” or “Denis O’Shaughnessy”. “Wildgoose Lodge”, now Carleton’s most acclaimed story, was first published in the Dublin Literary Gazette in January 1830 as “Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman”, and subtitled ‘An owre true tale’. The narrator recounts the horrific killing of a local farmer and his family by a group of Ribbonman (members of an agrarian secret society), ‘some of the most malignant and reckless spirits in the parish’, events in which the narrator is an unwilling but implicated participant. The atmosphere of the story partakes of Gothic-like suspense and horror - frequently described by critics as reminiscent of Poe, though well preceding Poe’s ‘grotesque’ tales of the mid- to late 1830s - and its account of the ‘fearful magnificence’ of the house-burning and ‘conflagration’ is especially memorable, shadowed by the guilt-ridden recollections of the narrating voice. What the narrator calls ‘the pernicious influence of Ribbonism’ would return as a theme in later writings but is never as potently portrayed.

Alongside his various collections of short fiction, including Tales and Sketches, illustrating the Character, Usages, Traditions, Sports and Pastimes of the Irish Peasantry (1846), Carleton was the author of over a dozen novels, from Fardorougha the Miser, first published in the Dublin University Magazine (1837-38) and produced in volume form in 1839, to Redmond, Count O’Hanlon, the Irish Rapparee, published in Duffy’s new Hibernian Magazine in 1860 and in book form in 1862. These novels, and their various political targets, record not only Carleton’s shifting political allegiance during these decades, but also his acute {456} appraisal of reader interest, during the 1830s and 1840s at least. Fardorougha the Miser is set in the background of a resurgence of Ribbonism in the 1830s, but characteristically for Carleton the motivation for violent deeds is presented as what he terms the ‘savage principle of personal vengeance’ rather than political or economic grievance. His novel Valentine M’Clutchy, The Irish Agent, or, Chronicles of Castle Cumber (1845) turned to a critique of Orangeism in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and its characters include as villains the agent M’Clutchy and Phineas Lucre, the local Protestant rector. In 1845 Carleton produced three shorter novels for Dublin publisher James Duffy: Art Maguire; or, the Broken Pledge, in support of the temperance movement of Fr Mathew; Rody the Rover; or, the Ribbonman, in which the evils of Ribbonism return to view; and Parra Sastha; or, the History of Paddy Go-Easy and his Wife, Nancy, a deeply negative portrait of a peasant family.

Following Carleton’s well-known famine novel The Black Prophet (1847), discussed in more detail below, his Emigrants of Ahadarra was published in 1848. Set in the period immediately before Catholic emancipation, the novel adds to an established list of political targets - absenteeism, corrupt agents, neglect by the legislature - an extended attack on the earlier enfranchisement of forty-shilling freeholders, an event which Carleton blamed for the multiplication of a pauper population who ‘like Frankenstein in the novel’ now pursued their landlord creators. The Tithe Proctor (1849) stages yet another political revisiting, this time of the themes of Valentine M’Clutchy, through the story of a rebellion against tithes forty years before. In 1855 Carleton obtained his largest commercial success with the melodramatic novel Willy Reilly and His Dear Colleen Bawn, first serialised in the London Independent, but overall his writings from the last two decades of his life - such as The Black Baronet (1857), The Evil Eye (1860) or The Double Prophecy (1862) - show a sharp decline in narrative power.

Although his reputation became that of ‘peasant novelist’, Carleton’s central protagonists are usually quite prosperous small farmers; of more significance to the narrative is the apprehension shared by such characters that their economic and social advancement is vulnerable, a theme deployed to comic or to serious effect. In “The Lough Derg Pilgrim”, for example, the narrator discovers both the heightened status awarded to him when his fellow pilgrims think him to be a student studying for the priesthood, and also the swift debunking that occurs as a result merely of the theft of his clothes. And while Carleton’s novels frequently endorse a narrative of social progress and economic prosperity, their powerful evocation of the ‘pull’ of the past and of older traditions undercuts {457} this optimism in subtle Ways. [25] In Fardorougha the Miser, the plight of the title character (‘fear dorcha’ or blind man) moves between melodrama and psychological intricacy: a now well-to-do farmer, he is haunted by fear of the poorhouse, torn between ‘the famine-struck god of the miser’ and his love for his son. This 1839 novel is also curiously prophetic of many of the social mores attributed to post-famine Ireland in its depiction of the sexual constraint and religious conservatism of Fardorougha’s society. This is by far Carleton’s most successful novel, in sharp contrast to the melodrama of his later works, and unjustly overshadowed by his more famous short fiction.

In 1829, Sketches of Irish Character, the first published work of the author known as Mrs Hall (1800-81), appeared. Born in Dublin, Anna Maria Fielding was raised in Bannow, County Wexford by her mother’s family until the age of fifteen when the family moved to London. In 1824 she married the Cork-born journalist and author Samuel Carter Hall (1800-89), who had moved to London at the age of twenty-one, and with whom she later collaborated on many Irish travel books, such as Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c. (1841-43), A Week at Killarney (1843) and Handbooks for Ireland (1853). Set in the village of Bannow, Hall’s stories proved immediately popular among English readers; in 1831 a second series of Sketches followed, with numerous later editions. While the author was at pains to emphasise that her characters knew little ‘and care less’ about politics, the sketches themselves belie this assertion with frequent references to memories of the rebellion of 1798. In the fifth edition of Sketches published in 1854, Hall included an extensive account of the friendship between her Huguenot grandmother and a Roman Catholic priest during the rebellion. [26]

Anna Hall was an extremely prolific writer, whose work featured in diverse Irish and English periodicals such as Chambers’s Journal, New Monthly Magazine, the I and the Dublin Penny Journal. While her writings were praised at the time for their accuracy and insight, they can now appear superficial and conventional, and she may be more fairly viewed, as Riana O’Dwyer has argued, as ‘the equivalent of a journalist or columnist today, rather than as a literary writer’. [27] Some of her stories contain a level of irony rarely credited to their author: in the novella Groves of Blarney, for example, which comprises the first volume of Lights and Shadows of Irish Life (3 vols., 1838), much ridicule is directed against Peter Swan, the Cockney cousin, who arrives in Ireland as a ‘travelling towerist’, in search of the picturesque. On 16 April i838, a dramatised version of the novella began a highly successful run at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Of Hall’s nine novels, The Whiteboy (1845) is the darkest and most substantial: set in the context of agrarian agitation in 1822, it {458} portrays the desperation of a generation with ‘no hope beyond hunger, revolt and death’. [28]


Agrarian violence had continued as a popular subject for ‘condition-of-Ireland’ fiction in the period immediately following Catholic emancipation. It provided the subject of Charlotte Tonna’s first novel, The Rockites (1829), and of Harriet Martineau’s Ireland: A Tale (1832), the ninth volume in her ‘Illustrations of Political Economy’ series. [29] For Martineau, Whiteboy agitation demonstrated the extent of English misgovernment of Ireland; for Tonna, it was a ‘poisonous excrescence formed upon the tree of her [Ireland’s] national prosperity, and eaten into its heart’s core’. [30] Tonna (1790-1846), born Charlotte Elizabeth Browne, lived in Kilkenny from 1819 to 1824 with her first husband, Captain Phelan, and while in Ireland began a series of religious tracts, published as the work of ‘Charlotte Elizabeth’, which were fiercely denunciatory of contemporary Roman Catholicism. Her most successful novel, Derry: A Tale of the Revolution (1833), provided a fictional retelling of the siege of Derry (1689), heavily drawn from John Graham’s 1823 history; lurid but also compelling in its depiction, the novel had reached its tenth edition by 1847 and was reprinted throughout the nineteenth century. In the 1840s, Tonna’s writings also became highly popular in America, with a two-volume collection of her works published in 1844, and introduced by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Along with the Irish material, the collection included reprints of Tonna’s industrial novel Helen Fleetwood (1841) and her Personal Recollections (1841), together with extensive selections from her poetic writing.

Known in her day as a social reformer as well as an evangelical writer, Tonna was also the author of The Wrongs of Woman (1843), a denunciation, through moral tales, of contemporary working conditions for English women and children. The subject of legal discrimination against women was explored by the renowned poet and novelist Caroline Norton, model for Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885), and herself the author of such works as The Wife and Woman’s Reward (1835), the controversial pamphlet English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854), and the quasi-autobiographical novel Stuart of Dunleath (1851). Other significant discourses on the ‘woman question’ include Anna Hall’s Tales of Woman’s Trials (1835), two with Irish settings, and Sydney Owenson’s historical chronicle Woman and her Master: a History of the Female Sex from the Earliest Period (1840). While Tonna expressed concern about her own and others’ use of fictionalised examples in order to portray the conditions of the poor, the Scottish writer Christian Isobel Johnstone, now co-editor of the influential Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, put official evidence to powerful effect. Her pamphlet True Tales of the Irish Peasantry, As Related by Themselves (1836) {459} reproduced a large number of first-person testimonies, including those of evicted tenants, unemployed labourers and widows, selected from the report of the Poor Law Commissioners and designed to prove the necessity of a Poor Law for Ireland.

The comic representations provided in the 1830s by William Hamilton Maxwell (1792-185o) and Samuel Lover (1797-1868) fared particularly well with an English public accustomed to more humorous portrayals of Ireland. The highly successful Wild Sports of the West, with Legendary Tales and Local Sketches (1832) by Maxwell, then a Church of Ireland rector in Balls, County Mayo, mixed lengthy accounts of fishing and shooting in Ireland with Irish legends, ‘robber-tales’ and various comic adventures. In contrast Maxwell’s contemporary, George Brittaine (c.1790-1847), rector of Kilcommock, in the diocese of Ardagh, provided an unrelenting attack on Catholic ‘priestcraft’ in works such as Irish Priests and English Landlords (1830) and Hyacinth O’Gara (1830), first published in Dublin. Brittaine’s writings did not become widely available to an English readership until their republication in the 1870s in editions significantly rewritten by Revd H. Seddall.

The fame of Samuel Lover rested during the nineteenth century on his reputation as the Irish humourist, and declined in the twentieth century as the genre fell out of fashion. His multiple careers ranged from stockbroker to painter, musician, magazine editor, book illustrator, songwriter, novelist, poet and dramatist. His Legends and Stories of Ireland, some of which were first published in Dublin magazines, were printed in two series (1831, 1834) with many subsequent editions. Lover’s most successful and most fully realised novel, Rory O’More (1837), set in late 1790s Ireland, began as a song, reputedly suggested by Sydney Owenson, and was successfully dramatised later in 1837. Although the plot is largely concerned with the comic misadventures of its hero and the 1798 rebellion occurs mostly off-stage, Lover’s comic targets have a more serious dimension, including various broadsides against the corrupt judicial and political system in Ireland, and his story ends with the emigration of all of its central characters. Later works included Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life (1842), previously serialised in the newly founded Bentley’s Miscellany over a two-year period, beginning January 1837, during which time the periodical was edited by Charles Dickens.

Travel literature about Ireland also proliferated from Dublin and London publishers in the 1830s and 1840s. Selina Bunbury (1802-82), author of numerous volumes based on her travels in Europe, published two Irish narratives in the 1830s: Tales of My Country (1833) and Recollections of Ireland (1839). The many {460} volumes by visitors to Ireland included political economist James Bicheno’s Ireland and its Economy (1830), Notes of Three Tours in Ireland, in 1824 and 1826 by James Glassford, a Scotsman and one ofthe commissioners of inquiry into Irish education of 1824-26, and A Tour round Ireland (1836) by John Barrow, son of the famous English explorer of the same name. A Journey throughout Ireland during the Spring, Summer and Autumn of 1834 (1834) by the established English travel writer Henry Inglis was in its fifth edition by 1838. That same year Charlotte Tonna’s Letters from Ireland MDCCCXXXVII appeared, prompted, according to Tonna, by the books ‘perpetually coming out on Irish subjects’ and ‘none that meet the case’. In 1839 Rambles in the South of Ireland during the Year 1838 by Lady Henrietta Georgians Chatterton was published, its author the English-born wife of Sir William Chatterton of Castlemahon, County Cork. Chatterton explained to readers that her objective was to remove some of the prejudices which rendered many of her peers afraid either to travel or to reside in Ireland, and two volumes detailing the ‘charming’, ‘pretty’ and picturesque ensued; a second edition was required within two months of publication.

While Chatterton and others sought to encourage upper-class tourists to Ireland, the large-scale migration of the Irish poor to English cities generated alarm among English commentators of the period, most notably Thomas Carlyle in his 1839 essay Chartism: ‘Crowds of miserable Irish darken all our towns … With an Ireland pouring daily in on us, in these circumstances; deluging us down to its own waste confusion, outward and inward.’ [31] The influence of Irish migrants also became an anxious subject in a number of later English novels, for example Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55) and Charles Kingsley’s Alton Locke (1850), and received a more ambivalent treatment in Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) as a force that could hasten social crisis. Carlyle’s comments on England’s ‘guilt’ and injustice towards Ireland led to his being regarded by Charles Gavan Duffy and his contemporary Young Irelanders as a potential advocate of Irish national interests. [32] However, in the longer term, Carlyle’s fears ofthe Irish as social and political contaminant are the more revealing, expressed in his now infamous depiction of the Irish national character:

For the oppression has gone far farther than into the economics of Ireland; inwards to her very heart and soul. The Irish National Character is degraded, disordered; till this recover itself, nothing is yet recovered … Such a people circulates not order but disorder, through every vein of it; - and the cure, if there is to be a cure, must begin at the heart: not in his condition only but in himself must the Patient be all changed. [33] {461}

As Amy Martin observes, Carlyle’s influential representation combines tenets of cultural and biological racism to powerful effect: ‘the Irish difference of which he writes is simultaneously the result of a historically contingent process of degeneration and of racial descent’ .[34]

A sharper and sustained investigation of Ireland’s internal political condition, specifically of the role of its ‘bad aristocracy’, came from the French writer Gustave de Beaumont, author of Ireland: Social, Political and Religious (translated 1839), based on his visits to Ireland in 1835 and 1837 [35] For the French traveller, as for many of the writers on Ireland in this period, much of Ireland’s misfortune could be attributed to the delayed emergence of a middle class: according to de Beaumont, in Ireland ‘where the aristocracy is at open war with the people, the middle class, from the very moment of its existence, is quite naturally the first and only national power’. [36] De Beaumont’s depiction of the ‘condition of unfortunate Ireland’ as worse than that of ‘the Indian in his forests, and the Negro in his chains’ was much cited in later decades - by John Stuart Mill, Charles Gavan Duffy and many others. It was immediately echoed by German writer Johann Georg Kohl who, in his influential Travels in Ireland (1843), drew on his own travels in eastern Europe to deem Irish hovels worse than the ‘poorest of the Letter, Esthonians and Finlanders’ [37] Yet two years earlier, writing in 1841, Samuel and Anna Hall happily reported that Ireland was on the eve of a new era of economic prosperity, English capitalists now considering the country as ‘a vast field in which judicious labour may be assured a profitable harvest’. [38] Their three-volume travel account, Ireland: Its Scenery and Character (1841-43), drawn from five tours of Ireland made by the authors between 1825 and 1840, sold rapidly even prior to publication.

Small wonder then that the young William Thackeray, while on a visit to Wicklow in 1842, would bitterly complain: ‘A plague take them! what remains for me to discover after the gallant adventurers in the service of Paternoster Row [39] have examined every rock, lake, and ruin of the district, exhausted it of all its legends, and “invented new”, most likely, as their daring genius prompted’ [40] The picaresque and mischievous narrative that Thackeray did produce, entitled The Irish Sketchbook 1842, proved to be an immediate success in London following its publication in May 1843. One of the liveliest accounts of pre-famine Irish society, it includes a fascinating account of the author’s own ‘light reading’ while in Ireland and features liberal quotation from what Thackeray termed the ‘Hedge school volumes’ - such as The Life and Adventures ofJames Freney and The Irish and Hibernian Tales - once the childhood reading of William Carleton and, two generations later, still a staple of the Irish reading public. {462}

[ top ]

Narratives of the Irish famine, 1845-1851
The two most famous nineteenth-century Irish famine novels are William Carleton’s The Black Prophet (1847) and Anthony Trollope’s Castle Richmond (1860). Yet these constitute only a small part of the many narratives of the period on the subject of famine: from the published testimonies of contemporary observers, newspaper reports and government correspondence, to the many subsequent and competing political analyses. Nor did either novel come close to rivalling the iconic status of the texts of John Mitchel, whose accounts of the Great Famine in Jail Journal (1854), The Last Conquest ofIreland (Perhaps) (1860), An Apology for the British Government in Ireland (1860) and History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time (1868) were probably the most frequently read, and most influential, interpretations in the late nineteenth century.

Published between May and December 1846, in eight instalments of the Dublin University Magazine, Carleton’s novel is set a generation before and draws from the history of earlier famines in 1817 and 1822. Its first issues thus appeared well before the fatal recurrence of the potato blight in the autumn of 1846; by December, in a chapter entitled ‘A Picture for the Present’, the contemporary relevance of this ‘Tale of Irish Famine’ was clear. The plot of The Black Prophet is quite standard melodrama, featuring a murder mystery, wrongful accusation, and a consequent family feud that obstructs the love of hero and heroine. Yet the plot element of an unsolved murder from a generation past, rising to the surface in the present, eerily parallels the resurgence of famine in the late 1840s. In later chapters the narrative voice breaks out of the story’s frame to address directly the responsibility of a legislature to provide ‘for a more enlightened system of public health and cleanliness, and a better and more comfortable provision of food for the indigent and the poor’. Furthermore, Carleton’s identification of what he calls ‘an artificial famine’, created by a general and culpable monopoly in food rather than simply by food shortage, differs startlingly from the views of many of his contemporaries. [41]

Carleton’s novels regularly digress into political and economic commentary, usually in lengthy footnotes as in the long discourse on famine fever, drawn from the work of D. J. Corrigan, included in The Black Prophet. In his later famine novel, Squanders of Castle Squander (written 1851-52), this non-fictional material takes over in a bewildering array of texts including a lengthy regurgitation of extracts from Valentine M’Clutchy and Traits and Stories, a narrative implosion which, as Christopher Morash has argued, may render this novel ‘the characteristic Famine text’, illustrating the pressure of what George {463} Steiner has termed ‘the enormity of the fact’ on literary representations of atrocity. [42]

Literary representations of the famine are thus distinguished by their generic instability, and by their authors’ frequent attestations to events ‘too terrible to relate’ - declarations that may be read as both rhetorical trope and human appeal. One of the first, and least known, accounts of the 1840s famine was Cork author Mary Anne Hoare’s “Sketch of Famine”, first published in Howitt’s Journal, the short-lived London radical weekly, on 24 April 1847.

The quasi-fictional sketch detailed the recent arrival of the potato blight and the desperate strategies for survival employed by famine victims, in comparison with which, Hoare wrote, the horrors of Dante’s Ugolino ‘fade into nothingness’. In 1851 her Shamrock Leaves, a collection of tales and sketches gathered ‘from the famine-stricken fields’ of Ireland, was published in Dublin and London and explicitly addressed itself to ‘our English brethren’, emphasising the extent of suffering in Ireland and the importance of private philanthropy. [43]

During the years of the famine, numerous eye-witness accounts - many written by visitors to Ireland - appeared in the pages of Irish and English newspapers, and some were published in volume form. A number of the most significant and detailed testimonies came from members of the Society of Friends, men like William Forster and his son William Edward Forster (later chief secretary for Ireland), James Hack Tuke and William Bennett, who were sent by Quaker colleagues in England to ‘obtain trustworthy information as to the real state of the more remote districts, and through what agency to open suitable channels for relief. [44] The large volume Transactions of the;’ Central Relief Committee of the Society of Friends during the Famine in Ireland, in 1846 and 1847, first published in 1852, remains an invaluable source in this regard. A more ephemeral yet telling work was the Narrative of a Journey from Oxford to Skibbereen during the Year of the Irish Famine, written in February 1847 by two young Oxford students, Frederick Blackwood (future earl of Dufferin and viceroy of India) and G. F. Boyle, who fled the horrors of Skibbereen to return speedily to England. On 13 and 20 February 1847, famine engravings by the Cork-born artist James Mahony appeared in The Times, featuring the now famous ‘matchstick figures’ and accompanied by Mahony’s less well-knowm commentary on the scenes he had witnessed.

In July 1847 the American traveller Asenath Nicholson, then on her second lengthy visit to Ireland, began a year-long journey around the famine-stricken districts in the west, north and south of Ireland; her ensuing account was first published in London in 1850 as part of her work Lights and Shades of Ireland {464} and republished in New York the following year as Annals of the Famine. The strength of Nicholson’s reporting, evident also in her pre-famine narrative Ireland’s Welcome to the Stranger (1847), lies in her distinctive combination of social detail and pointed political analysis. Other contemporary sources include the diaries of Scottish-born Elizabeth Grant Smith, whose husband was a County Wicklow landowner, the letters of Alexander Somerville, child of Scottish labourers and by 1847 a well-known journalist for the Manchester Examiner and Morning Chronicle, and the correspondence of the aged novelist Maria Edgeworth which featured lengthy exchanges on the topic of famine and economy with her friend, the political economist Richard Jones.

In late 1849 and 1850 the clergyman and philanthropist Sidney Godolphin Osborne visited Ireland and published accounts of his travels in the columns of The Times, later republished as Gleanings in the West of Ireland (1850). The publication of Osborne’s letters prompted the young Anthony Trollope, then living in Ireland where he worked as a surveyor for the postal service, to write a series of letters to the Examiner, a liberal English newspaper, on the subject of ‘Ireland, her undoubted grievances, her modern history, her recent sufferings, and her present actual state’. Ten years later, just prior to his final departure from Ireland where he had lived intermittently during the 1850s, Trollope completed Castle Richmond, his third of five novels set in Ireland. [45] As in The Black Prophet, for much of Trollope’s novel the subject of famine is conveyed through a conventional love story: in Castle Richmond, the involvement of the novel’s hero, Herbert Fitzgerald, in the distribution of famine relief emerges as a useful narrative strategy to differentiate him from his rakish cousin Owen Fitzgerald, rival both to the heroine’s affection and to the interest of readers. On the other hand, Herbert’s encounters with the starving poor, in the course of which he champions laissez-faire policies against what is termed ‘promiscuous charity’, prove more difficult for the narrative to assimilate, as are the detailed and disturbing examinations of victims’ quasi-naked bodies included in these scenes. An authorial voice intervenes to identify the destruction of the potato firmly as the work of God, echoing providentialist views of the blight which were current in the 1840s and after. At the novel’s end, a narrative of Malthusian-like progress is proclaimed in stark biblical terms:

But if one did in truth write a tale of the famine, after that it would behove the author to write a tale of the pestilence; and then another, a tale of the exodus. These three wonderful events, following each other, were the blessings coming from Omniscience and Omnipotence by which the black clouds were driven away from the Irish firmament … And then the same author going on with his series would give in his last set, - Ireland in her prosperity. [46] {465}

The 1840s famine returned intermittently as a subject for fiction in the second half of the century, and these novels offer an early insight into the controversies concerning famine’s causation and significance that would come to have such significance in Irish historiography. Novelist Mary Anne (Madden) Sadlier (1820-1903) - who had emigrated from Cavan to Canada in 1844, where she married James Sadlier, the influential publisher - employed the famine as a backdrop to the evils of proselytism in her novel New Lights; or, Life in Galway (1853). In contrast, Limerick-born Elizabeth Hely Walshe (1835-68) focused in her famine novel Golden Hills, published by the London Religious Society, on the philanthropic work of a Protestant landowning family. The Chronicles of Castle Cloyne (1884), by Clare author Margaret Brew, is one of the most successful of such novels and presents two concurrent narratives, that of the landlord family, the Dillons of Castle Cloyne, and of their tenant Oonagh MacDermott, ‘to show how universal was the action of the Famine’ with effects on ‘peer and peasant, landlord and tenant, the home of the great, and the cabin of the lowly’. [47] In these later narratives, scenes of individual famine deaths, which possessed such disturbing force in Carleton and Trollope’s novels, largely recede from view, supplanted by meditations on famine’s place in a developmental narrative of progress and modernisation. The agents of such renewal differ from novel to novel: a reinvigorated Catholic gentry in the work of Margaret Brew, or, in a plot increasingly common in Irish fiction after 1870 (Brew’s Chronicles and Annie Keary’s Castle Daly (1875) being among many examples), returning Irish emigrants. Yet the very recurrence of famine as a narrative subject in the years after 1850, together with the enthusiastic welcome expressed by English reviewers towards these novels as explanations of ‘the abiding Irish difficulty’, attest to the continuing potency of their subject in a period too often simplified as ‘silent’ with regard to the Great Famine.

See Notes, attached.

[…; cont.]

RICORSO editing notes
1. Kelleher here cites an article in Irish Monthly Magazine, 1, 5 (Sept. 1832) entitled ‘The Past and Present State of Irish Literature’ and, shortly afterwards, the same or another of the same title in Dublin University Magazine (March 1837), p.371 - citing ‘The Intellectual Revival (1830-1850)’, ed. W. J. McCormack, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry/NDU 1991), Vol. 1, pp.1173-1300; p.1200 in a footnote as her authority for ascribing it to Isaac Butt [see Notes, attached, notes 8 & 10]. The identical nature of the title and the variety of the printing venues cited opens the question whether ther ehas not been as bibliographical confusion, veiled in part by the inclusion of the title in the body-text on the first occasion and in the Notes on the second.

[ previous ]
[ top ]
[ next ]