When exactly was it that Protestant ascendancy began to decay in Ireland? In WB Yeats’s eloquent speech in the Irish senate in 1925 on the divorce question, there is already a feeling of harking back to a more illustrious past, a sense that the great days are regrettably over: “We against whom you have done this thing, are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Grattan; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created the most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence.” Parnell of course had died in 1891 and it didn’t at this stage really look like he was going to be replaced from within the tradition of which Yeats speaks. One might also ask whether Burke really belongs in this company.
The elegiac tone is strong too in JM Synge’s reflections on a landlord’s overgrown garden in In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, published by Maunsel in 1911.
Everyone is used in Ireland to the tragedy that is bound up with the lives of farmers and fishing people; but in this garden one seemed to feel the tragedy of the landlord class also, and of the innumerable old families that are quickly dwindling away. These owners of the land are not much pitied at the present day, or much deserving of pity; and yet one cannot quite forget that they are the descendants of what was at one time, in the eighteenth century, a high-spirited and highly-cultivated aristocracy. The broken greenhouses and mouse-eaten libraries that were designed and collected by men who voted with Grattan are perhaps as mournful in the end as the four mud walls that are so often left in Wicklow as the only remnants of a farmhouse. The desolation of this life is often of a peculiarly local kind, and if a playwright chose to go through the Irish country houses he would find material, it is likely, for many gloomy plays that would turn on the dying away of these old families, and on the lives of the one or two delicate girls that are left so often to represent a dozen hearty men who were alive a generation or two ago. Many of the descendants of these people have, of course, drifted into professional life in Dublin, or have gone abroad; yet, wherever they are, they do not equal their forefathers, and where men used to collect fine editions of Don Quixote or Molière, in Spanish and French, and luxuriantly bound copies of Juvenal and Persius and Cicero, nothing is read now but Longfellow and Hall Caine and Miss Correlli. Where good and roomy houses were built a hundred years ago, poor and tawdry houses are built now; and bad bookbinding, bad pictures and bad decorations are thought well of, where rich bindings, beautiful miniatures and finely-carved chimney-pieces were once prized by the old Irish landlords.
Is there something that Synge is not quite saying here? What he seems to be telling us is that while it is hard to pity landlords yet, when it comes down to us, an ill-maintained country house library should move us as much to pity as an abandoned cottage whose inhabitants have been forced to emigrate. And that the Protestant landowning class (for the most part?) spent their evenings debating Cicero and Juvenal or reading Quixote in the original. And here was me thinking they were farmers, soldiers and horsemen. The distortions of the elegiac eye are to be found, it would seem, in both traditions.