Chapter Three cont’d

Irish poetry in the early-to-middle nineteenth century is mainly dominated by four figures:  Thomas Moore, Samuel Ferguson, James Clarence Mangan, and Thomas Davis, and these figures range between sentimentality and protest in their politics and their poetry.

There is clearly a certain sentimentalism in Thomas Moore’s famous Irish Melodies (published in 10 volumes between 1807 and 1834).  These were enormously popular poems–at least as popular in Victorian England as in Ireland–that Moore set to music in the early 1800’s.  The poems, or songs, are marked by sentimental images of the Irish landscape and culture (the Harp, the Minstrel, the Bard, the “island of sorrow,” the “last rose of summer”), and seem on the surface to romanticize and sugarcoat the realities of Irish life.  Yet beneath the surface can be seen many impulses of national dignity and pride, even rebellion, as in such songs as “Dear harp of my country!  in darkness I found thee,” and “The Harp that once through Tara’s Halls” (which Joyce puts to powerful use in his short story “Two Gallants”).  In reading Moore, one must attend to the ways in which the surface meaning might rub against the hidden meanings, and the ways in which Moore employs apparently stock devices in unusual ways.

The work of Samuel Ferguson is in this style as well:  romantic, lush, sentimental, ballad-like.  Ferguson also employs many of the figures of Irish mythology, a vein that was just beginning to be mined by Irish writers.  Ferguson sought a unity of Catholic and Protestant Ireland through this shared mythic past, and engaged in much translation work that would combine history, legend, and myth.  But another poet, James Clarence Mangan, wrote in a different style: Mangan’s poetry is tortured, alienated, homeless, negative. Mangan resists sentiment and writes tragedy in its place. His most famous poem, “Dark Rosaleen,” is a love lament and a political allegory in one, a litany of the sufferings of the motherland, Ireland herself, the Dark Rosaleen of the title.  Finally, Thomas Davis stands as the most political of all these writers.  His poem/song “A Nation Once Again” puts forth the ideal of male comradeship, sacrifice in a patriotic cause, and a glorious free Ireland–ideals that would motivate Irish rebels throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Thomas Davis

The Irish writers at the end of the 19th century would look back upon these poets with different attitudes: Yeats was strongly attracted to Ferguson, who had begun an Irish ballad tradition in English that Yeats would take up; whereas Joyce was strongly attracted to Mangan, whom he called “the most significant poet of the modern Celtic world.”

The Irish economy, already fragile and ill-managed, was devastated by the famine, particularly the rural, peasant classes in the west.  The population continued to decline, going from roughly 8 million just before the famine to only 4 million by the turn of the century. By far the bulk of these emigrants came to the U.S., and during this time the Irish American population, one of the most formidable ethnic groups in U.S. history, began to form. (For an excellent study of the Irish in America, see Lawrence McCaffrey’s classic The Irish Catholic Diaspora in America, 1997).  This population was, understandably, greatly embittered against Britain, and this anger would influence American political relations to Ireland and England throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Great Famine, in addition to the economic and social devastation of the Irish population, increased in the Irish mind a deep-seated anger toward the entire system of British government in Ireland. (Lady Gregory, herself a product of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, would say later in her life: “I defy anyone to study Irish history without getting a dislike and distrust of England.”) From this time forward, Irish Nationalism takes on a bitter and more violent edge, for it now became clear to many that Ireland would slowly perish under British rule, and that Britain would allow this to happen.  Thus, as the 19th century moved toward the 20th, Irish proto-military groups such as the Fenians or Irish Republican Brotherhood are formed, led by James Stephens, alongside groups like the Irish Land League, led by Michael Davitt and seeking reform of the outrageously unequal distribution and ownership of land. But none of these groups, and none of their leaders, could match the charisma and leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, who rose to power in the mid-1870’s and soon was the dominant figure in both Irish and British politics.

End Chapter Three