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.

The Books that Define Ireland






Londoner Dr Samuel Johnson famously remarked that the Irish were a fair people: they never spoke well of each other. This was echoed by Dubliner George Bernard Shaw’s remark, ‘If an Irishman were roasting on a spit, one could always find another one to turn it.’ Whatever the fairness of these adages, it is the case that the Irish seem to be addicted to long and occasionally endless argument, without being quite aware that the arguments have long ceased to be new; they are rediscovered as if for the first time in generation after generation. Much of this long conversation has been heavily infested by the argumentum ad hominem. Examples of such long-running arguments have been: the question of who is and who is not Irish? Could a viable Irish nation consist only of the Protestants loyal to the Crown? (This question changed over time to a more dangerous one: Geoffrey Keating’s 1634 question as to whether Protestants had any place at all in the Irish nation.) Should Ireland stay in union with Britain or have recourse to foreign aid from a great power of some sort outside these islands? Should Ireland be freed by constitutional action or through revolutionary insurrection?

Should the Irish speak English, Irish or both? Should Ireland be ruled as a unit, or as two states? Who should rule Ireland: an upper caste or aristocracy of a particular religion, a clerisy of priests, or those individuals elected by the general population from among themselves? Should Ireland have a king, and if so, should that king be Stuart or Hanoverian? If not, should it be a republic, and what kind of republic should it be? Should the Irish be encouraged to get rich, or should they live in frugal comfort combined with a virtuous poverty? Should the Irish be prevented from losing their innocence, or allowed to see the world’s seamy side freely? Should the Irish be given that dangerous thing, an education, or should they be kept in a useful ignorance? Should they be educated or just trained? Should Irish sexuality be controlled and repressed by the Church or the State? Or the question posed by Jonathan Swift: Must the miserable condition of Ireland and the corruption of Ireland’s government always be mentioned in the same breath?

This book is by way of an experiment, for which neither author can find a convincing precedent in this country. Each of us trawled through the historical and social literature of the island of the last three centuries to come up with books which seemed to have had an impact on Irish opinion, have defined or best exemplified long-running debates, or have been under-appreciated in terms of their significance. An example of the latter is Brian Merriman’s 1780 Irish-language poem The Midnight Court, which satirises the reluctance of Irish men to get married early. This poem crops up over the centuries and several times in the book in discussions of social class, cultural revival and issues of sexuality.

Both of us are historically-minded social scientists, one in political science and the other in social policy. Neither of us are graduate students of literary criticism, and our selection inevitably will reflect that fact. Some might argue that in the much-tilled field of Irish Studies, not having such a qualification is a distinct advantage. The few works of fiction we include are chosen forthe social and political arguments they provoked at the time of publication or later rather than for their place in some or other canon of Irish literature. The twenty-nine chapters each deal with one or two books which symbolise or clearly state a point of view that is shared by many and disagreed with by many others at the time of writing and commonly for many years afterwards. Other works that address the same issue are dealt with as well. In all, over fifty books scattered over three centuries are touched on or discussed at length.

Geoffrey Keating’s 1634 appeal for the creation of a united Irish Catholic nation has echoed down the centuries. He couples that plea with a wonderful and half-mythological account of the allegedly world-famous rise of the Gaelic nation in Ireland since the time of Patrick. A few decades later, William Molyneux made an argument in favour of parliamentary autonomy for a Protestant Irish nation at the end of the seventeenth century, a few years after Aughrim’s Great Disaster of 1691 which resulted in the expulsion from Ireland of the Catholic ruling class and the taking of the entire island by a new property-owning class of Protestant faith. Swift’s mordant satire on the corruption and tyranny of British rule in Ireland a generation later concludes that the Irish might as well eat their own young; they would be better off if they did. His Modest Proposal (1729) and his pamphlets of the same decade have found an Irish audience in every generation since. The Catholic Church reorganised itself after the great defeat of the Jacobite cause with priests trained in Europe and with penny catechisms that enabled its doctrines to be widely taught in the eighteenth century, despite a hostile government in London and Dublin. Wolfe Tone, the famous rebel leader of the bloody 1798 rising, reveals a very whiggish political vision of a free Ireland where only the well-to-do of all religions had the franchise. Presumably he would have approved of Daniel O’Connell’s acceptance of the disenfranchisement of the Forty-Shilling Freeholders in 1829 in return for Catholic Emancipation. O’Connell understood that inan open-vote election, poor men did not have a truly free vote. In his Jail Journal (1861) and other writings John Mitchel influentially denounced O’Connell’s constitutionalism and his championing of English liberalism.

A prominent debate on the possible cultural and political sources of Irish poverty and backwardness was started at the beginning of the twentieth century by two well-known protagonists, Horace Plunkett and Father Michael O’Riordan; Protestant squaring off against Catholic as usual in what became a notorious and fascinating duel. James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History (1910) owed as much to Mitchel as to Karl Marx. Connolly championed the same romantic nationalists – Tone, Mitchel and Fintan Lalor – that Patrick Pearse also included in his ‘new testament’ of Irish nationalism. The themes of many of Canon Sheehan’s novels, including his last, The Graves at Kilmorna (1913), were the search for virtue and holiness in a fallen world and heroic martyrdom in the sacred cause of the Irish nation. Patrick Pearse’s world view appears in many ways to echo the views of this forgotten bestseller-writing priest.

Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland (1924), arguing for an Irish cultural revival based on the Gaelic tradition of Munster in the eighteenth century, became almost official dogma after 1924, and led to impassioned debate among Irish writers and academics for decades afterwards, including Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor, Corkery’s rebellious students. PS. O’Hegarty’s Victory of Sinn Fein of the same year was possibly the first eye-witness account of the tragic treaty split in the Sinn Fein leadership with descriptions of the personalities of the leaders of both sides. His argument has been wrangled over ever since, often by protagonists who have never heard of his book.

The non-fiction fruits of the romantic ‘Celtic Twilight’ included a remarkable series of autobiographical works in Irish (The Islandman, Twenty Years A-Growing) which emanated from the Great Blasket Island in the 1920s and 1930s. The community was dying and…