At some stage in the twentieth century Thomas Moore became a national embarrassment. It seems a little unfair, but aesthetic and political fashions change and for some time Moore’s extravagant celebration of emotion and national sentiment has been out of fashion. Once he was immensely popular, and across sectarian divisions, especially in the South.
The feelings and values found in Moore’s Irish Melodies are pre-romantic and were pretty much incompatible with the thrust of the romantic movement, whose influence slowly grew through the nineteenth century and which rejected the more rationalist aesthetics of the eighteenth century as inadequate to the depths of human experience. Tennyson, who still had an engagement with the pre-romantic was something of an exception among the major poets and was very positive in his estimation of Moore. And significantly many ordinary people throughout the nineteenth century and beyond who did not convert or convert fully to romantic aesthetics continued to admire him. But for the leading poets of the nineteenth century and the modernists who succeeded them, Moore was at best faintly ridiculous. WB Yeats condemned him as artificial and mechanical and ascribed to him a meagre literary talent; in this he was giving vent to a view which was common in advanced literary circles. Moore, who also came to be reviled by advanced nationalists, was by the early twentieth century increasingly caught in a pincer movement of rejection.
Yeats associated Moore with London drawing rooms and in that spirit Dominic Behan later wrote, in his isolationist ballad “The Sea Around us”, the disparaging lines: “Tom Moore made his waters meet fame and renown / A great lover of anything dressed in a crown.” Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Paulin and Brendan Kennelly are among those who have also joined in the Moore-bashing. The exception is Seamus Heaney, who contributed to the otherwise scant commemoration of the poet in his 1979 bicentenary year. Apparently Moore was a strong presence in Heaney’s youth and while his own verse was influenced by the romantic tradition, Heaney saw beyond aesthetics and politics to recognise him as an important national literary figure.
One reason Yeats disliked Moore was because he was the poet of a politicised national and largely Catholic middle class, a configuration he found deeply unattractive. Whatever may have happened since, in 1879 ‑ the year of Moore’s centenary ‑ that body was confident and ebullient in its commemoration of the national bard as the following account of anniversary events in Dublin reveals:
As rain poured down on the city of Dublin on 28 May 1879, a procession of carriages left the Mansion House, the official residence of the Lord Mayor, and made a short journey to the Exhibition Palace on Earlsfort Terrace, the site of a grand concert. The corporation flag was raised at City Hall and the streets bustled with crowds, who, despite the purportedly atrocious weather, had made the journey to the capital, courtesy of extra trains. At the model schools on Marlborough Street, over 1,000 children sang a selection of the Irish melodies and that same evening, [Moore’s] house on Aungier Street received a throng of visitors and was lit up with the name ‘Thomas Moore’ emblazoned over that ubiquitous symbol of Irish nationalism, the harp. All of this activity marked the centenary of the birth of Ireland’s national bard … A committee had been formed to plan the events for 28 May, the date of Moore’s birth. What transpired were large-scale spectacles that incorporated two concerts with audiences of 3,000 apiece; a specially written ode and oration; marching bands numbering over 100 musicians; an exhibition of some of Moore’s library and personal effects; and finally, a grand ball hosted by the Lord Mayor of Dublin that boasted fashionable and influential guests. Similar festivities were recorded throughout the country and indeed, further afield, in England, America and Australia among other places … [On the day of the concert] a number of dignitaries decked in red robes and ermine including the Lord Mayor of Dublin and mayors, aldermen and mace bearers from other parts of the country, filled twenty carriages and processed to the Exhibition Palace. Upon their arrival, a chorus of 200, under the baton of the conductor, composer and teacher, Joseph Robinson, commenced proceedings with a rendition of Moore’s elegy on music When through life unblest we rove. From there, Lord Thomas O’Hagan took the stand: a figure respected and admired, he was the first Catholic to hold the position of Lord Chancellor of Ireland. It was not the first time O’Hagan had been involved in a formal occasion relating to the poet. Over twenty years beforehand he had been involved with the unveiling of Moore’s statue in College Green. That he was an ardent admirer of Moore was undoubted. His address of exactly one hour and five minutes testified to the fact….
By contrast (but in keeping with the spirit of Moore as the bard of all Erin) the subsequent concert, billed as a “Popular Evening Concert” was a far less reverent affair. Again, as with the earlier concert, numbers exceeded expectation. It would appear that more tickets were sold than could be catered for. As the clock moved towards 8.00p.m., a crowd, almost as large as the one gathered in the main hall, was trapped in the transept and cut off from the concert. Disgruntled but determined, they clamoured to get into the hall. A reporter for the Daily Express described the situation: “[the crowd] expressed their dissatisfaction in a variety of ways, and made occasional charges on the occupants of the back parts of the hall”. Furthermore, many of the songs were obliterated by the restless crowd whose “murmur of discontent [ … ] occasionally burst into a storm”. Unfortunately, this meant that several items had to be cut short, or even abandoned. Even so, with 21 numbers, the programme remained ample, and aside from a description of the hall as a “Turkish bath” the reports of the concert were generally very good.
Source: Moore’s Centenary: Music and Politics in Dublin, 1879 Maria McHale : Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 109C (2009), pp. 387-408