Issue 21 (Winter 2013)  


Jim Kelly (ed.), Ireland and Romanticism: Publics, Nations and Scenes of Cultural Production (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 240pp. ISBN 978-0-230-27457-0; £50 (hb).


Did Ireland experience Romanticism? Certainly not in the uncomplicated way that scholarship assumes England, Germany, and other countries did. In Romanticism in National Context (1988), Tom Dunne’s contribution eschews the standard chapter title form—‘Romanticism in England’, ‘Romanticism in Germany’—and indeed the term Romanticism itself. Instead, his title reflects Ireland’s complex relationship with the movement: ‘Haunted by history: Irish Romantic writing 1800–1850’. The start of this period marked a significant moment in Ireland’s relationship with England and Europe: the formal union of Ireland and the United Kingdom in 1800 was merely the rubber stamp to a process of colonisation that had been active for centuries, but the imposition of direct rule from London, seen as a hedge against the corrupting influence of revolutionary forces from the continent, served to intensify the Anglicisation of Ireland at the expense of native language and culture. Thus, the current social, political, and cultural influence of Britain was paramount in Ireland at this time, but its Romantic literary modes and tropes seemed more likely to cross the Irish Sea from Scotland than from England. The gothic was one of the notable common modes in fiction, however, while the ‘national tale’ has received attention as an apparently native Irish fictional form. In poetry, there is no canon comparable to England’s ‘Big Six,’ and marginality is a common characteristic of Irish (and Scottish) poets in considerations of archipelagic Romanticism. Characteristically, Ireland’s most popular and successful poet of the period, Thomas Moore, has long exemplified the complicated connections to the concepts of Romanticism and nation that his compatriots shared.

In his introduction to Ireland and Romanticism, Jim Kelly acknowledges the difficulties scholarship has had in defining this period in Irish literature, while noting its acquisition of ‘academically accepted capital’ thanks to recent surveys and disciplinary enquiries by scholars such as James Chandler, Claire Connolly, and Sean Ryder. He presents the collection as a snapshot of current research, and its strength lies in the broadness of its purview, with five sections covering a range of material that confirms that topical scarcity is not an issue within the field. The more pertinent question, which surfaces regularly throughout the collection is ‘what is the field?’ Kelly argues that as the Romantic period finds itself co-opted on either side by studies in the ‘long’ eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the period’s transitional nature in Ireland offers the possibility of its separate categorisation. Stephen Behrendt, whose afterword provides the complementary bookend to Kelly’s introduction, suggests some of the characteristics which might form a part of the field’s future: greater focus on the transitory status of the Irish language and its literature in the period (as Proinsias Ó Drisceoil’s opening essay provides); increased attention to the production, dissemination, and consumption of literature (what D. F. McKenzie called the ‘sociology of texts’); and the shrewd use of electronic technology and resources for scholarship.

The first pair of essays in the collection addresses issues of the urban and the rural. Ó Drisceoil’s account of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin (Humphrey O’Sullivan), a nineteenth-century Irish-language diarist, complicates the assumed kinship of linguistic allegiance and traditional culture. Caught in a transitory moment for Irish society, culture, and language, Ó Súilleabháin provides documentary evidence in his diary of the competing attractions of tradition and cosmopolitanism, metaphorically articulated through the embattled Irish language. Timothy Webb discusses the career, trial, and execution of government strongman and informer Jemmy O’Brien, highlighting the gothic rhetoric of monstrosity and cannibalism that was expressed by his prosecutor, and attributed to crowds that attended his execution. The episode provides an example of what Siobhán Kilfeather characterises as the ‘gothicization of atrocity,’ and Webb provides an interesting commentary on the variance between contemporaneous and subsequent accounts of O’Brien’s demise.

Two subsequent sections examine transnational issues: the influence of international writers on Irish literature of the period, and the literal and imaginative travels of Irish authors. Susan Egenolf provides a useful frame for these essays as she examines Lady Morgan’s vision of personal and national politics in the aesthetic categories of Romanticism. Politics is inherent in Morgan’s Romanticism, as she characterises it following the spread of European liberation movements. Her novels emphasise Irish cultural hybridity, implicitly linking the Irish cause to that of global republicanism. Thomas Moore’s writings after 1807 are associated with articulating the Irish cause for an English audience, but Jane Moore addresses his earlier writings that are influenced by travels in the United States and Canada. The germ of Moore’s later satirical writings is evident in his American poems, and Jane Moore traces the influence of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lyrical Ballads in the Canadian compositions, linking them to the Romantic nationalism of the Irish Melodies. Moore is not ordinarily associated with the Lake Poets, and this article is an important addition to scholarship on a relatively neglected period of his career. On a similarly pastoral theme, Patrick Vincent discusses the travel narrative A Ramble Through Swisserland by United Irishman William MacNevin, and analyses the manner in which the author’s Irishness conditioned his response to the archetypal location of Romantic and republican sentiment. Reflecting the author’s political and scientific consciousness, MacNevin’s Swisserland involved a romanticisation of the country’s agrarian and democratic republicanism, rather than the sublimity of its landscape. His work reveals its Irish ‘fratriotism’ for another country’s republican endeavour, adding emphasis to the changing nature of Alpine ideology in the work of first- and second-generation English Romantic authors.

Percy Shelley acknowledged the influence of Pedro Calderón de la Barca on The Cenci, and was a more general devotee of Spanish issues, seeing in its literature and early-nineteenth century politics a distinctive reflection of his own ideological concerns. In some respects, Anne MacCarthy argues, Irish writers such as James Clarence Mangan and Denis Florence MacCarthy went further in aligning Spanish literature with Irish cultural nationalism. While Spanish nationalism, and more particularly its Catholicism, led to its literature being viewed with some suspicion in England, Mangan and MacCarthy saw it as a benign influence. Anne MacCarthy demonstrates the particular importance of Calderón and Spanish ballad poetry for incipient Irish literature in English, while Stephen Dornan reassesses Robert Burns’s impact on Ulster literature and the songs of Thomas Moore, identifying hybrid language and variable register as characteristics shared by the Scot and Irish writing.

Thomas Moore reappears as the central focus of Adrian Paterson’s essay; his regular presence through the volume tallies with Paterson’s wonder at how and why Romanticism “seems to have got along quite happily without him.” The article demonstrates how the notion of ‘originality’ was closely linked with prevailing Romantic ideas about nationality, history, language, and aesthetics. Against claims that Moore’s Melodies were founded upon the careless appropriation and gentrification of ancient Irish music, Paterson uses judicious quotation from Moore’s own reflections about their genesis and composition, and writings by Rousseau and Herder on Romantic aesthetics, to argue for the achievement and originality of the Irish Melodies. The second essay from the section on poetry sees Leith Davis discuss the figure of the bard in the poetry of Charlotte Brooke, Mary Balfour, and Vincentia Rogers. Davis considers the poets’ creative responses to the Ossian poems by analysing both textual and paratexual evidence from their works, and emphasises their difference from the antiquarian discourse which often surrounded the Ossian controversy.

The final section of the collection provokes some interesting ideas through parallels in the articles by Christina Morin and Jim Shanahan. Both seek to question the legitimacy of the ‘national tale’ as a narrowly-conceived literary form, suggesting that there are significantly fewer examples of the form, as it is critically understood, than scholarship assumes. This idea is the central focus of Morin’s article, and she compares novels by Maria Edgeworth and Regina Maria Roche to illustrate that the formal categories into which they are currently placed misrepresent the essential hybridity of Irish Romantic fiction, deploying, as the novels do, characteristics of both the Gothic and the national tale. In Shanahan’s view, the disproportionate and potentially misleading place the ‘national tale’ occupies in Irish literary history is an exemplar of a wider canonical imbalance in the period. He argues for the wisdom and necessity of attending to the literary aggregate—the exhaustive cache of novels identified by recent bibliography—if a genuinely representative canon of Irish Romantic fiction is to be constructed. In so doing, he makes very persuasive claims for the new responsibilities and obligations of scholars faced with the quantitative bibliographic work of William St Clair, and Rolf and Magda Loeber.

Charles Benson’s short essay conveys some very useful information about a pivotal moment in the history of Irish publishing: the end of the trade in unauthorised reprints which resulted from the extension of British copyright law to Ireland in 1801. Both Benson and Shanahan provide illustrations of potentially fruitful areas of future research which are alluded to in Behrendt’s closing remarks. The facts and figures that Benson provides about the scale of native book production, exporting and importing of books, and constitution of reading audiences after 1801 require incorporation into scholarship about the period as a whole, just as Shanahan’s appeal to recognise the corpus of Irish Romantic fiction points towards techniques like text-mining and text-analysis (though Shanahan indicates some reservations with the ‘distant reading’ methods of Franco Moretti). Behrendt is enthusiastic about the potential of Digital Humanities techniques for research in this field. He cites his own Irish Women of the Romantic Period as an example of a web resource that has ‘revolutionized scholarship and teaching by making available in electronic form resources that have long been inaccessible for scholars’. He is correct about their potential, but for such resources to fulfil this potential they must be available free of charge to all web users, scholars and non-scholars alike. Some of the raw materials for future directions in Irish Romantic studies are certainly present in this volume, as they are in last year’s fourth volume of the Oxford History of the Irish Book which covers the period 1800–91. Many of Kelly and Behrendt’s remarks about scholarly prospects for this area of study urge interdisciplinary practice, and the debalkanisation of scholarship that has previously resisted interdisciplinarity: there is evidence in this collection to suggest that these ideas are already present in current research.

Justin Tonra
NUI Galway

Copyright Information

This article is copyright © 2013 Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research, and is the result of the independent labour of the scholar or scholars credited with authorship. The material contained in this document may be freely distributed, as long as the origin of information used has been properly credited in the appropriate manner (e.g. through bibliographic citation, etc.).

Referring to this Article

J. TONRA. Review of Jim Kelly, Ireland and Romanticism: Publics, Nations and Scenes of Cultural Production (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), Romantic Textualities: Literature and Print Culture, 1780–1840, 21 (Winter 2013).
Online: Internet (date accessed): <http://www.romtext.org.uk/reviews/rt21_r03/>