English Writing on Ireland before 1800

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English Writing on Ireland before 1800

The boundaries of this subject are more than a little blurred, and more than a trifle contentious. For medieval writing, the very categories "English" and "Irish" may be anachronisms: historians argue vigorously over how far back in time such national labels can aptly be applied. In more recent periods particular individuals and groups evidently had changeable or hybrid identities—the same person might be viewed either as English or as Irish, as both or indeed neither, from different perspectives or at different times. "Old English" and later "Anglo-Irish" identities in early modern Ireland are the most obvious cases in point. But there would also be scope for dispute over the categorization, for instance, of a figure such as Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), who was Dublin-born but of English parentage, and divided his adult life between the two countries, adopting different literary personae according to circumstances and polemical intent.

Among the earliest surviving "English" texts dealing with Ireland are medieval Anglo-Irish annals of Irish historical events; that is, ones apparently set down by monks of English origin, though resident in Ireland. They differ from their counterparts kept in Gaelic Irish monasteries mainly in that the latter confine themselves largely to happenings within Ireland, whereas the Anglo-Irish chronicles detail English and Welsh events as well. A little later, Giraldus (Gerald) Cambrensis depicted Ireland more extensively in his Topography of Ireland (1188) and Expugnatio Hibernica (c. 1189). As his name suggests, Gerald was of Welsh birth, but his writings clearly reflect the viewpoints of Ireland's and Wales's Norman invaders. Indeed, Gerald is often seen as the effective founder of a long English literary tradition of viewing the Irish as primitive, barbaric, semiheathen, and fit only to be dominated, if not destroyed, by England.

A great deal of the early English writing about Ireland came from clergymen and was religious in character. After the Protestant Reformation, a major theme was naturally anti-Catholic polemic, often coupled with lamentation at the alleged theological ignorance, immorality, and backsliding of the Irish clergy and people. Suffolk-born John Bale (1495–1563), for instance, was bishop of Ossory from 1552 to 1553. His tenure was brief because his attempts to enforce Protestant worship in the diocese met a violently hostile reaction from local people. Bale's account of this fiasco is among the most important records of early responses to the Reformation in Ireland. Among the later English ecclesiastics who resided in and wrote about Ireland, perhaps the most prolific and influential was Anglican bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667).

English-born writers contributed to Counter-Reformation polemic too. The English Jesuit Edmund Campion (?–1581) stayed in Dublin in 1570 and 1571 and wrote his Histories of Ireland (published only in 1633, well after Campion's execution for treason) to acclaim the record of the Catholic Old English there. His manuscripts were heavily drawn on by Richard Stanihurst (1547–1618), who wrote most of the Irish sections of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles. The latter was the most widely read historical work in Elizabethan England. As is well known, it formed in its turn the main source for Shakespeare's history plays. But although Shakespeare's Henry V features a famous cameo appearance by a belligerent Irish soldier, Macmorris, there are no major Irish themes or settings in his oeuvre. England's greatest seventeenth-century poet, John Milton, similarly made only fragmentary (and unflattering) allusions to Ireland in his works. Indeed, very few—perhaps surprisingly few—of England's major early playwrights, poets, or novelists seem to have given much attention to Ireland before the eighteenth century. The most prominent exception was Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599), whose View of the Present State of Ireland (which remained unpublished until 1633) advocated a harsh policy of repression or even extermination. Historians have differed over how representative or influential such extreme proposals may have been, and also on how far Spenser's epic Faerie Queene (1590–1596) should be read as presenting a similar view in allegorical form.

Nonfiction accounts—histories, geographical surveys, and religious and political arguments—were more numerous and extensive. Many came from the pens of English soldiers or administrators in Ireland. Sir John Davies (1569–1626) in his Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued (1612) celebrated the extension of English law across Ireland and the sweeping away of indigenous and Old English institutions. William Camden (1551–1623) espoused fiercely anti-Catholic sentiments, while his Britannia (1586) also included references to the Irish as lazy, filthy in their habits, bellicose, and promiscuous. Other major contributions to this literature included John Dymmok's Treatise of Ireland (c. 1600), Robert Payne's Brief Description of Ireland (1589), Luke Gernon's Discourse of Ireland (1620), and various works by Fynes Moryson (1566–1630). Others became more famous for their images than their words—above all, John Derricke's 1581 Image of Irelande.

The relative weights of anti-Catholicism and of anti-Irishness in much of this writing have been lastingly contentious, but claims that the supposedly deplorable character of the Irish people was caused above all by their religion seem to have gained strength in the early seventeenth century. Still, not all were uniformly hostile. Payne, for instance, found much that was positive to say about Irish honesty, hospitality, and (perhaps surprisingly at that time) their obedience to the law, and the Elizabethan courtier Sir John Harrington (1561–1612) was positively effusive about the people's good qualities. Yet these, it is often pointed out, were exceptions, while new political conflicts gave impetus to antagonistic imagery. Thus the "depositions" of Protestant settlers who had suffered in the 1641 rebellion were heavily drawn upon in Sir John Temple's History of the Irish Rebellion (1646). Temple's claims about the number of settlers massacred in the rising were greatly exaggerated but had a lasting effect on Protestant historical consciousness.

Several of those who came with Oliver Cromwell in and after 1649 left important accounts. Some, like Ireland'sNatural History (1652), the posthumously published survey by Gerard Boate (1604–1650), who was actually Dutch-born, or the later Interest of Ireland in Its Trade and Wealth (1682) by the former Cromwellian colonel Richard Lawrence (?–c. 1684) were explicitly designed to encourage colonization and commercial development. The most influential of them, however, was Cromwell's physician-general, William Petty (1623–1687), whose economic and demographic surveys of Ireland included The Political Anatomy of Ireland (1691) and Hiberniae Delineatio (1685).

After the end of the Williamite wars a seemingly more tranquil Ireland attracted numerous English travel writers. The most famous—and in many later critics' eyes, the most accurately informative—was the 1780 Tour in Ireland by agrarian reformer Arthur Young (1741–1820). But the genre became so popular that even an Irish-authored account—Thomas Campbell's Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland (1776)—was presented as if written by an English tourist. English-born members of the Ascendancy, such as Mary Delany (1700–1788) and Emily Fitzgerald, duchess of Leinster (1731–1814), also left significant portrayals, which are among the first widely known women's views of Ireland. Some began to be infused with the emerging and novel Romantic enthusiasm for wild countryside, mountains, and lakes, for "unspoilt" peasant communities and their folklore. Thus it became possible and increasingly popular to see the west of Ireland no longer as its most barbaric part, but as the most picturesque and interesting—indeed, as more "truly Irish" than other regions. This structure of feeling had, of course, a lasting influence not only on outsiders' depictions of the country but on Irish literary self-images too.

Literary depictions of the Irish—especially on the London stage—also became more numerous, more varied, and at least in some cases, less scornful during the eighteenth century. The stock figure of the comic, usually foolish "Stage Irishman" was already well established, but now a wider range of stereotypical characters began to emerge in the writings of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, and other popular English writers: the impudent fortune hunter, the sham squire, but also the gallant army officer and the naturally eloquent peasant. An image of the Irish as sentimental, poetic, musical, and courageous took shape. It was often a condescending representation at best, but it was no longer a ferociously hostile one. Nonetheless, such affectionate stereotypes did not entirely replace those of the Irish as congenitally idle, drunken, violent, and treacherous. The latter, indeed, were to re-emerge with renewed force in the era of Daniel O'Connell's Repeal campaigns and the Great Famine of the late 1840s.

So diverse a body of writing, extending across several centuries, cannot easily be subject to general judgment. Yet dispute over the dominant character of English works and views on Ireland has nonetheless been vigorous, not least since the 1990s. Some commentators would emphasize a general tendency of English writing about Ireland and the Irish to stereotype, denigrate, and scorn its subjects. They see a great deal of it as directly linked to and supporting England's attempts at conquest, domination, and exploitation. Other critics, by contrast, would stress that many English literary views of Ireland were by no means uninformed, unfriendly, or unsympathetic.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Colonial Theory from 1500 to 1690; Literature: Anglo-Irish Literary Tradition, Beginnings of; Primary Documents: From The Topography of Ireland (1188); From Expugnatio Hibernica (1189); From Vocation of John Bale to the Bishopery of Ossorie (1553); From Two Bokes of the Histories of Ireland (1571); From "Notes of His Report" (1576); Letter to Elizabeth (12 November 1580); From The Image of Irelande (1581); From "The Sons of Clanricard" (1586); From A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596); From A New Description of Ireland (1610); From A Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued (1612); From An Itinerary (1617); From Discourse of Ireland (1620); From The Total Discourse of His Rare Adventures (1632); From Travels (1634–1635); From A Philosophical Survey of the South of Ireland (1777); On Irish Rural Society and Poverty (1780); From A Description of the . . . Peasantry of Ireland (1804); From Narrative of a Residence in Ireland (1817)


Canny, Nicholas. Making Ireland British. 2001.

Duggan, G. C. The Stage Irishman: A History of the Irish Play and Stage Characters from the Earliest Times. 1937.

Eagleton, Terry. Crazy John and the Bishop and Other Essays on Irish Culture. 1998.

Hadfield, Andrew, and John McVeagh, eds. Strangers to That Land: British Perceptions of Ireland from the Reformation to the Famine. 1994.

Leerssen, Joep. Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century. 1986. Rev. edition, 1996.

Stephen Howe