I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Home Uncategorized The Most Distressful Country

The Most Distressful Country

Joseph Woods
Poverty In Ireland 1837: A Hungarian’s View, by Baron József Eötvös (transl by Paul Sohar and Lázló Bakas), Phaeton, 220 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-1908420213 This is an extraordinarily lucid and “modern” analysis of the desperate conditions and suffering that prevailed in Ireland in the decade preceding the Great Famine, by the visiting Hungarian writer Baron József Eötvös. In every sense, it is a discovery to read of Eötvös’s visit to Ireland in the years 1836-37. In a foreword by the Hungarian ambassador to Ireland, Dr Tamas Magyarics, we are given much of the context and the measure of Eötvös. He was simply one of the most interesting public figures in nineteenth century Hungary: aristocrat, poet, intellectual, novelist, politician and above all a statesman driven by a deep humanitarianism. Born in Buda in 1813, his statue stands in Budapest in a square that bears his name. By the time he visited Ireland as part of a grand – and educative – tour, he already had a reputation as a romantic poet. His poem “The Frozen Child”, about an orphan who freezes to death at his mother’s grave (1833) was later made into a film. The poem reflects his thinking about “those classes, minorities, and nations whose dignity is violated and whose need for love is unfulfilled in the contemporary world”. His enlightened and empathetic approach set the tone for his visit to Ireland. After that visit, he embarked on writing novels and would eventually become better known as a novelist and essayist. His first novel, The Carthusian (1839), based on a real-life encounter, was of a man disappointed in love who later joins a monastery. Like his poem, the novel was subsequently made into a silent movie in 1916 directed by Michael Curtiz, who would later direct Casablanca. Later came The Village Notary (1845), which is now upheld as the first Hungarian (Eötvös only learned Hungarian at the age of thirteen) realist novel in the vein of Balzac and was “a portrait of contemporary Hungarian society of panoramic proportions, depicted with the passion of a poet and the lucid diagnosis of the social reformer”. Perhaps Eötvös was “radicalised” by his visit to Ireland in previous years, but it is clear that his “social reformer” consciousness was already in evidence seven years earlier with Poverty in Ireland. It’s an extended essay or pamphlet but presented here bilingually and carefully illustrated with prints of the era – from circa…

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