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Defining Utopia

Philip MacCann

Utopianism in Eighteenth-Century Ireland, by Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin, Cork University Press, 272 pp, €39.00, ISBN: 978-1782051688

Ever since Thomas More conceived his ideal state it has raged like an expansionist power across the world, for good as well as ill. Barbara Goodwin, in her book The Philosophy of Utopia, comments on the difficulty of defining the term now.

The field is politically charged and contested: liberals, conservatives, socialists and utopians of all stripes propound definitions to fit their agendas; scholars approach utopias from different academic disciplines as well as political perspectives; and utopias have changed (in form, content, and function) in response to an ever-changing world.

In a fascinating study from Cork University Press on developing utopian trends in eighteenth century Ireland, Deirdre Ní Chuanacháin perhaps finds the denominator common to all significant manifestations of the utopian propensity: “Firstly, the society described must not exist; second, the author must in some way evaluate that society; third, the literary Utopia should encourage and activate new ways of thinking about the author’s own society.” Furthermore, utopias

begin with a sense of unease or dissatisfaction with existing political, economic, social, legal and welfare arrangements and a need to imagine a political order that can maintain a radically improved society. This means they must deal with issues of partisan advantage and conflict. They must re-order the relationships between minorities and the majority and between the weak and the strong.

We cannot therefore expect Ní Chuanacháin’s study to confine itself to literature alone – novels, pamphlets, poetry. She includes not only the oral tradition of vision poems and travellers’ tales, but also religious visions; political speeches, manifestos, proclamations, policies; architecture, visual images, songs; practical improving projects by individuals and philanthropic societies such as the Dublin Society (later the RDS); and even the lived tradition of nineteenth century communal enterprises all over Ireland.

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski observed that the artificially concocted word “has acquired, in the last two centuries, a sense so extended that it refers not only to a literary genre but to a way of thinking, to a mentality, to a philosophical attitude, and is being employed in depicting cultural phenomena going back into antiquity”. In noting this range of meanings he captures the nature of the Dublin Society, with which many eighteenth century Irish utopians were connected in one way of another: “a way of thinking, a mentality, a philosophical attitude that coalesced around practical and visionary patriotism, liberalism and nationalism, and which aimed for the ultimate transformation of everyday life”.

While few of us may associate Ireland with any great utopian tradition, two of our most constant themes have been discontent with the present and longing for an ideal. Desire for a better future has been a marked feature of early Irish literature, with its Celtic Otherworld and Christian Heaven. Celtic culture was fertile ground for missionaries to plant ideas of Eden and Paradise because it had already developed its own culture of mythic idealism. Themes of nostalgia and loss are central to the oral poetic tradition in early Gaelic society and they fuse with the sorrow of the eighteenth century aisling poem.

The early longing was bound to find new expression in seventeenth and eighteenth century Irish-language poetry, given the dislocations occasioned by colonialism. Indeed, it is at this time that the poetic tradition reaches its climax in early millennial dreams in which Ireland, typically depicted as suffering at the hands of strangers who, though physically absent, control her, looks abroad for the return of her rightful leaders, who promise the return of a “natural political order”.

The aislingí, tales of journeys to the mythical “Brasil Island” (a mini-Atlantis which oddly enough appears off the west coast of Ireland in some early maps of the Atlantic) and the inspirational quality of the Celtic Otherworld as expressed in the mythology of Tír na nÓg, are all “central to an understanding of the Irish eighteenth-century utopian imagining”. It is even likely that some of the eighteenth century aisling poets were familiar with the utopian visions of the classical writers of Greek and Roman mythology “and the many permutations of the Elysian Fields and the Islands of the Blest”.

The potent sociological thesis in this book is that long-established Irish themes of discontent and longing developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along with the twin discourses of improvement and satire to the point where a distinct and significant Irish utopian tradition can be recognised. This thoroughly insightful study helps us appreciate a utopian tendency in our own psyche and it sheds new light on centuries of Irish culture, politics and Christianity (perhaps explaining some of its moral purism), as well as on our contemporary grievances.

Dissatisfaction with the social and moral status quo is a constant experience and has been the inspiration for all imagined utopias and dystopias through the ages. Consider these words composed in 1721 by the great philosopher George Berkeley, his response to the corruption exposed by the crash of the South Sea Scheme:

Vice and villainy have by degrees grown reputable among us; our infidels have passed for fine gentlemen, and our venal traitors for men of sense who knew the world. We have made a jest of public spirit, and cancelled all respect for whatever our laws and religion repute sacred … instead of blushing for our crimes we are ashamed only of piety and virtue.

So relevant are these words to our own time that we could mistake them as eighteenth century speculation about Ireland’s present-day socio-political ills in the novel which was the first ever to feature time travel. “The first time-traveller in English literature is a guardian angel who returns with state documents from 1998 to the year 1728.” Memoirs of the Twentieth Century, an arcane and somewhat Masonic work, was written by the scarcely-known eighteenth century Irish clergyman Samuel Madden and published anonymously in 1733. Madden’s alter ego is woken in the night when a beautiful celestial being opens his bedroom door and transports him to the close of the twentieth century.

He finds a lot to admire in our time: cultural improvement, scientific advance and political expansionism in Britain, which is now a utopia. Even “the Kingdom of the Jews” is “restor’d to Israel”. On the down side, our time marks the last days of the world, with the Vatican “overgrown” and Jesuits a “prodigious threat”. However, with cities and even inhabitants visible on the Moon, “engines” will be invented to transport people there.

This is the first English-language work of prose fiction to be set in a chronologically specified future, the first futuristic literary utopia, and Madden was the first to write a narrative that purports to be a document from the future. Its relevance to our day is testament to the timeless nature of the utopic tendency, grievance and longing. Like all utopias in the tradition that was then developing in Europe, Madden’s futuristic narrative was a device to facilitate primarily satirical commentary about his own time. To express excitement for or fear of the third millennium was a minor purpose, however interesting it may be to us. Madden found a novel and safe way of satirising his society by describing it from a remote, future vantage point. His utopian vision is aligned with his ideas for practical improvement of his country (revealed by his letters to the Dublin Society). In fact, Madden felt his novel method of political satire so direct and relevant to his day as to be inconsistent with the role of clergyman. He had vainly hoped that only fifty copies of his book would appear for a private readership, “the number of Persons in Great Britain who are Wise and Honest enough to be trusted with such a Jewel”. He had a great many of his newly printed books destroyed and then returned to anonymity.

In the eighteenth century, London was commonly perceived as a dystopian space while some English émigrés considered Dublin their new utopia. Likewise, travellers’ accounts of the New World as a desirable place (suffused with genial sunshine), in contrast to the corrupted homeland, had for some time seized the literary imagination. John Dryden wrote “Westward like the Sun”, Shakespeare and Marvell celebrated those “happy climes” and this utopian perspective on colonialism is encapsulated in More’s seminal work of 1516.

By the eighteenth century a common ideal in England was the establishment on one of the new colonies of a limited constitutional monarchy purged of corruption and faction. The ideal was shared by many of the Anglo-Irish. It is fascinating to read how Bishop Berkeley engaged in tireless practical (if quixotic) efforts to encourage the colonisation of the island of Bermuda, the establishment of a Protestant college to convert and train “American savages” and the funding and founding of a Platonic city state there. A perfect Christian society, he argued, would provide all the prerequisites of complete happiness and fulfilment.

Berkeley had the rare intelligence to perceive the interface between the material and the invisible. But “idealism” in the common sense of unrealistic belief and lack of practicality is also evident in the great philosopher’s venture in the North Atlantic. Lacking hard facts, with implicit faith in Marvell’s faith-heavy poem, it seems, he wrote of the Bermuda islands that its summer is

refreshed with constant cool breezes, the winters as mild as our May, the sky as light and blue as sapphire, the ever green pastures, the earth eternally crowned with fruits and flowers … oranges, etc., always fresh and blooming … beautiful situations and prospects of hills … great variety, plenty and perfection of fish … the most excellent butter …

Supported by a litany of idealistic images, Berkeley even appealed to the king to fund his proposed British base in the Atlantic for the purposes of extending British rule abroad, countering the colonial ambitions of Spain and providing a counterweight to Jesuit propaganda in the New World. In Berkeley’s Christian colonialism we see something other than rational sociological hypotheses (such as those Platonic and Aristotelian theories of the perfect society which influenced the medieval church). Zealot acting statesman, he is connecting more viscerally to creation myths imagined in ancient Greece and Rome, Sumer and early Judaism. In fact, these ancient dreams are central to the early development of western utopianism. The best-known depiction of a golden age is probably that of the Greek poet Hesiod: a golden race dwelling in Olympus enjoying the endless fruitfulness of the earth.

Berkeley does not present a credible alternative space: rather a poetic vision of the re-establishing of a golden age on an island “once thought to be enchanted and to hold special magical powers”, where it was commonly believed in his own day that God’s perfect earthly creation still survived unsullied by man. The belief is that a new golden age can unfold only in the New World and its unfolding will see the rise of empire and of arts. This is Western colonialism entranced by myth, driven on by dreams of a promised land, which is also a return to Eden. So the utopian traveller crosses the seas backward in time, every mile a century past, toward the cradle of civilisation.

When the great philosopher appeared before a sceptical audience in London and spoke about his project “the company were struck dumb and after a pause simultaneously rose and asked leave to accompany him to the plantations”. It was only after he had spent some time in America that Berkeley began to doubt the suitability of Bermuda after all. An Anglican clergyman he met there with experience of the region considered his whole scheme to be ill-founded.

The Bermudas were by no means the idyllic islands pictured by Berkeley, but rough and impoverished. It would be difficult to persuade Indian lads to go there – they would not even go to the “Brafferton” hostel specially provided for them at William and Mary College – and if they did, they would be so denationalized that their tribes would not have them back, nor would they wish to return.

The final blow to the philosopher’s New World utopia, Christian social order and learned and virtuous ministry, came in the winter of 1730-31: a message from Sir Robert Walpole stated that the expected grant would never be paid. Dejected, Berkeley linked the abandonment of his personal project with abandonment of God and he blamed freethinking in religion.

Perhaps a more obvious expression of the Irish utopic urge is found in nationalism. But Ní Chuanacháin describes a surprising transition between emerging Irish republicanism on the one hand and British colonial ambition on the other: while the two appear to be conflicting ideologies, the vision common to both is utopian idealism.

In 1788 Theobald Wolfe Tone, founder of Irish republican nationalism, was studying law in London and avidly reading adventurous tales of voyage and discovery throughout the world. Fired with excitement, he collaborated with his brother William on a proposal to establish a British military colony in the South Pacific for the strategic benefit of Britain – a base from which to counter growing Spanish power and influence. He chose the recently discovered Sandwich Islands, renowned for fierce natives who had murdered James Cook in 1779 (presumably now the island of Efate). On August 10th he hand-delivered his proposal to 10 Downing Street but received no acknowledgement from William Pitt. Undeterred, Tone wrote to the Duke of Richmond and the foreign secretary, William Grenville, proposing a full-scale republican war of liberation in Spanish America from his proposed colony. The sensuous and epicurean paradise of Tahiti celebrated by Diderot was not for the austere Tone: he was inspired by the military colonies of ancient Rome.

However contradictory, Tone’s memorandum is a model for the secret society of United Irishmen he founded the following year to “break the connection with England … promote constitutional knowledge, the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics, and the equal distributions of the rights of man through all sects and denominations of Irishmen”. Furthermore, Tone’s colonial expansion presumably foreshadows a dystopia for the indigenous inhabitants – in the same way that Thomas More gives little consideration to the natives of his island.

Practical improving projects such as these run an obvious risk of hubristic humiliation if the utopian gets it wrong. On the other hand, the emerging literary genre of utopian fiction facilitated a more indirect and tentative approach for the would-be improver. Berkeley’s great supporter Jonathan Swift was a critic not only of the Ireland of his day, which he saw being in need of renovation – where “so many bad men pass for good; so many fools for wise; so many ignorants for learned; and so many knaves for honest, and rewarded accordingly” – but he was also sceptical of the improving urge itself.

In many ways Swift is a dystopian because he explicitly parodies the utopian propensity which was so popular in his day and would later be embodied by the Dublin Society. He is scathing of the inertia of bad science which he saw as the antithesis of improvement: “learning without understanding”, as Thomas Duddy puts it in A History of Irish Thought, “knowledge without wisdom, rationality without reasonableness, and enquiry without responsibility”.

Of course, Swift’s subjects are never described as being in his immediate milieu but rather in fantastic places in remote regions of the world and even in outer space. Gulliver visits the Academy at Lagado, a research institute staffed by “projectors” who work on hare-brained schemes for the betterment of the country. Thus Swift employs cognitive estrangement to defamiliarise existing social standards, values and norms and thereby illuminate them. And it is for this reason that “so very few are offended with it”, as he wryly noted. Satire working through means of exaggeration of the present is a mirror “wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own, which is the chief reason for that kind of reception it meets in the world”.

With Swift’s words resonating, one wonders if Samuel Madden might have revised his drastic decision to silence himself.

Perhaps because the Irish tradition of utopian literature remains somewhat thin, much detail is devoted in this book to minor works. Particularly interesting is the unpublished lunar utopia of Lady Mount Cashel, Selene, written in Italy in the early 1820s. Ní Chuanacháin quotes Anne Markey from Trinity College, Dublin: “The principle of toleration which underpins Selenean attitudes to religious practice and belief reflect [the author’s] disapproval of the injustice enshrined in the Penal Laws, many of which were still in operation in Ireland at the time Selene was written.”

The author is also acerbic on the English publishing industry in the late Romantic period. Up on the moon only a handful of books are considered worthy of publication yearly, while down on earth English publishers print a vast number of inferior works. Returning from the Moon, the narrator shows his manuscript to a London bookseller who employs Mr Amplify to expand the work to ten times its length without adding any substance. Thus Selene highlights the power of booksellers in the Romantic period to determine literary conventions and establish the canon to the detriment of quality – they often told “printers and sometimes authors too what to produce”. Again, these words could describe contemporary dissatisfaction.

Equally pertinent to the utopian theme are the essays and pamphlets of various intellectual idealists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such as James Connolly. Erin’s Hope (1897) is a highly uncompromising statement of the socialist case. Connolly maintained that common ownership of land characterised the Celtic clan system which lasted longer than similar systems elsewhere. He believed that the conflict between the rival systems of land ownership was the pivot around which all the Irish struggles and rebellions revolved and argued that different elements of Irish society fused in a compact nationality, and during this process a new middle class arose that accepted the social system of the invader, thus compromising and betraying the hopes of the Irish people. At the same time George Russell argued for economic and national revolution in Ireland and that national ideas must be “built up” with “conscious deliberation of purpose”, presumably by a more knowing elite. However, his own programme of national reconstruction was informed by his belief in individual self-help and the moral benefits that accrued from industrial as well as psychological decolonisation.

It is at this point that the astonishing journey of this great book ends and it is salutary to revise the early innocence of revolutionary utopianism (especially in the light of Swift’s warnings about the overzealous propensity), given that in the late twentieth century it would implode with catastrophic cynicism.


A new short story by Philip MacCann appears this month in The Irish Times.