Literature: Anglo-Irish Literary Tradition, Beginnings of

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Anglo-Irish Literary Tradition, Beginnings of

When Anglo-Irish literature begins is problematic. Some critics deny the existence of an Anglo-Irish literature distinct from British literature before 1800 and Maria Edgeworth's (1768–1849) novel Castle Rackrent(1800). Indeed, at least through the first two decades of the eighteenth century, many of the English settlers and their descendants would have insisted that they were "the English of Ireland." And stylistically, even an Irish Catholic writing in English, such as playwright John O'Keeffe (1747–1833), has been described as "West British." O'Keeffe wrote at least seventy-seven plays, counting revised versions, and several of them, including The Poor Soldier (1783) and The Wicklow Mountains (1795), are set in Ireland. O'Keeffe dedicated his Recollections of the Life of John O'Keeffe (1826) to "George my Belov'd King, and Ireland my Honour'd Country," illustrating the difficulty of simple definitions of literary nationalism.

The Catholic Old English, descendants of the immigrants who arrived from England before the large Elizabethan plantations of the late sixteenth century, were denounced in Rome in 1659 as largely responsible for the loss of Ireland to the Protestants, thus lumping the Old and New English together as equally Anglo-Irish. The Old English long wished to insist on a difference between themselves and the native Irish, a distinction that English commentators tended to deny with the Latin tag Hibernis ipsis Hiberniores (more Irish than the Irish). Henry Burnell (fl. 1639–1642) in his play Landgartha (17 March 1639) pleaded allegorically for Charles I to remain true to the Catholic Old English rather than the Protestant New English; the native Irish, represented by the character Marfisa, while loyal to the true faith, are clearly untutored bumpkins. After the defeat of Jacobite forces at the Boyne (1690) and Aughrim (1691), and the Treaty of Limerick in the same year, the distinction between Old English and Irish dissolved, replaced by an apparently simple bifurcation between Catholics and Protestants. Even here, conversion blurs the line; for example, the actor and playwright Charles Macklin (c. 1699–1797) was born Catholic and Irish-speaking in Donegal but converted to the Church of England and moved in Protestant circles easily in the second half of his life, while continuing to write plays that challenged pejorative stereotypes of the stage Irishman.

Movement between Ireland and England was relatively easy for ambitious writers and tended to draw literary talent to the imperial center. Most of the significant comic playwrights of the London stage in the eighteenth century were from Ireland. William Congreve (1670–1729)—born in Yorkshire but educated in Kilkenny and at Trinity College, Dublin—George Farquhar (1677–1707), Sir Richard Steele (1672–1729), Oliver Goldsmith (1728–1774), and Sir Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816) are perhaps the most famous, but Arthur Murphy (1727–1805) and Hugh Kelly (1739–1777) were also very successful. Their plays imported from the London stage also provided much of the repertory for Dublin's theaters. Nevertheless, it is difficult to discern a particularly "Irish" element in their works. While these playwrights were more likely than English playwrights to present positive Irish characters, a playwright whom most would regard as English, Richard Cumberland (1732–1811), whose father was bishop of Clonfert and Kilmore and who was himself Ulster secretary under Lord Halifax in 1761 and 1762, also depicted admirable Irish characters in the second half of the eighteenth century (for example, Major O'Flaherty in The West Indian [1771]). Cumberland's sister Mary Alcock (1742–1798) also published two volumes of poetry, and she is included in the major anthology of Irish verse in English in the eighteenth century, Verse in English from Eighteenth-Century Ireland (1998). It was not unheard of for English writers to move to Ireland. Charles Shadwell, already a successful English playwright, was the equivalent of playwright-in-residence at Smock Alley Theatre from 1715 to 1720; his plays reveal a firm identification with the Whig principles of the revolutionary settlement of William III, while indicating a growing sympathy toward Anglo-Irish complaints of mistreatment. Shadwell's conflicted allegiance is symptomatic. Robert Ashton's (fl. 1725–1728) The Battle of Aughrim (1728) presents both the English and the Irish as heroic, and the hero is a doomed English soldier who fights for both sides.

If, however, there is a characteristic that Anglo-Irish authors share, it is a sense of grievance. In the aftermath of 1691 the Anglo-Irish regarded their sacrifice in the victory over the Jacobites as insufficiently appreciated, and they increasingly protested against the English parliament's disadvantageous legislation limiting the Irish economy and usurping the ancient rights of the Irish parliament. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries the towering literary figure was Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). Swift's relationship with Ireland was profoundly ambivalent: He was frequently contemptuous of both the native Irish and the Anglo-Irish gentry, but the poor of Ireland never had a more impassioned defender than Swift, and the gentry had no more determined a supporter of Irish independence. Swift's circle included Thomas Sheridan the Elder (1687–1736), Thomas Parnell (1679–1718), Patrick Delany (c. 1685–1768) and his wife Mary Delany (1700–1788), and Matthew (1701–1774) and Laetitia Pilkington (c. 1708–1750). Together, their poems, essays, and letters provide a valuable portrait of Georgian Ireland.

In the latter half of the eighteenth century Protestant writers increasingly regarded themselves as Irish patriots, although this disaffection to English authority did not necessarily entail any allegiance to Catholic Emancipation. Novelist, playwright, and poet Henry Brooke (c. 1703–1783) wrote in support of the Dublin alderman Charles Lucas (1713–1771), whose advocacy of municipal electoral reform forced him to flee Ireland; nevertheless, he produced anti-Catholic propaganda as virulent as anything written at the time. Some cultural syncretism was present nonetheless. Brooke's daughter Charlotte (c. 1740–1793) was fluent in Irish and produced the important translations of Irish verse in Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789). Poets and playwrights from either side of the political spectrum in the second half of the eighteenth century wrapped themselves in Irish history, as evidenced by the radical Francis Dobbs's The Patriot King; or Irish Chief (1774) and the conservative Gorges Edmond Howard's The Siege of Tamor (1774). Moreover, individual political allegiances varied depending on the issue. During the Regency Crisis the poet and playwright Mary O'Brien (fl. 1785–1790) sided with the group surrounding Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan in her collection of poems The Political Monitor; or Regent's Friend (1790), but her play The Fallen Patriot (1790) is a plea for Irish economic independence (which Fox opposed) and for an Irish parliament unbribed by Dublin Castle. William Drennan (1754–1820) wrote poetry and satire in support of the agenda of the United Irishmen; his works reveal the influence of Thomas Paine and the French philosophes. As such, his politics are antithetical to those of Edmund Burke (1729–1797), whose Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is one of the masterpieces of English prose, but Burke too campaigned often for Irish rights.

Anglo-Irish literature in this period should not be thought of only in political terms or even just in terms of the relationship between Ireland and England. Lawrence Sterne's (1713–1768) birth in Ireland probably did not affect his own sense of himself as English, but James Joyce and Flann O'Brien are the aesthetic heirs of Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy (1759–1767). Frances Sheridan's (1724–1766) novel of suffering virtue Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761) was popular not just in Britain but also on the continent. Poets such as Lawrence Whyte (1683–1753), author of bucolics and panegyrics, Matthew Concanen (1701–1749), who celebrated Irish sport in his mock-epic A Match at Football (1720), and William Dunkin (1709–1765), the gleeful chronicler of Irish country life and the Hiberno-English dialect in poems such as The Parson's Revels, all represent a self-conscious identification with and a delight in Irish life that establishes an Anglo-Irish literary identity long before the romantic age.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; English Writing on Ireland before 1800; Literature: Gaelic Writing from 1607 to 1800; Swift, Jonathan


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Christopher J. Wheatley

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