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Misery and Improvement

John Swift

The Irish Enlightenment, by Michael Brown, Harvard University Press, 560 pp, £24.25, ISBN: 978-0674045774

Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom; and a great empire and little minds go ill together.
Edmund Burke

Selfishness is eternally in arms, while benevolence often sleeps on her post.
Joseph Pollock 

At both school and university I was lucky to have had able history teachers. But the history of Ireland I learned at secondary school in the 1950s was predominantly that of Ireland as victim. Within the established narrative, the two periods which best exemplified the victimhood role were those of the Famine and the Penal Laws. The Famine was the Irish Holocaust (although that term was not used) and the Penal Laws were simply and only “a machine of wise and elaborate contrivance, as well fitted for the oppression, impoverishment and degradation of a people, and the debasement in them of human nature itself, as ever proceeded from the perverted ingenuity of man”. At university I learned that, while both this mindset and these twin interpretations were valid and defensible because largely true, they were far from being the whole truth or the last word on these aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish history.

In my lifetime, the writing of eighteenth century Irish history has changed dramatically, perhaps more than that of any other Irish period; by comparison, accounts of the Famine have changed only marginally. From the early 1960s onwards, the so-called revisionist historians challenged the picture of eighteenth century Irish Catholics as simply oppressed, impoverished and politically and culturally desolate. Beginning with Maureen Wall’s study of the Penal Laws (1961), their evidence-based investigations refused to accept uncritcally that Irish Catholics at the time were only an amorphous mass of downtrodden victims; they also rejected the unspoken corollary that, in George O'Brien’s words, Irish Catholics were naturally good, wholesome and above reproach while their opponents, the Irish Protestant Ascendancy and the British authorities, could be assumed to be the opposite. The revised view, now possibly a majority one among professional historians, tends to stress instead the themes of Catholic social mobility, patchy economic advances and even some relative success over the course of the century in their struggles against civil disabilities and exclusion. Michael Brown's impressive book fits broadly into this pattern.

This study contains a lot more than the story of downtrodden Catholics. Because of their military defeat and political subjection, and in line with their attachment to Counter-Reformation values, Catholics constituted the confessional group least affected by general Enlightenment thinking. Professor Brown makes a good case that they were not unaffected, but the broad picture remains that Anglicans and Dissenters were better positioned to receive and appreciate the basic Enlightenment message on the centrality of man and the basic Enlightenment arguments built on what was considered a modern approach to man’s history and to politics, economics and society.

Brown’s short and helpful introduction reviews recent trends in Enlightenment scholarship before outlining the book’s neat schematic design and summarising its content. Present-day thinking about the Enlightenment emphasises how varied it was, based mainly on differences in geographic location and local social structures; what it meant in London, Paris or Berlin was not the same as in rural France, Scotland or on the other side of the North Atlantic. In this context, the Irish version of the Enlightenment has its modest but distinctive place, in spite of contemporary and later views. This study divides the Irish Enlightenment into three parts, running largely consecutively but with some overlaps. These are a religious enlightenment (1688-c1730), a social enlightenment (c1730-c1760) and a political enlightenment (c1760-1798). Each part in turn is divided into three chapters, organised around the three principal Enlightenment methodologies of thought, viz empiricism, rationalism and free-thinking; the substance of intellectual developments within each period is demonstrated from contemporary printed material.  

The range and vitality of this printed material is astonishing. It appears in pamphlets, tracts, open letters, enquiries, essays, sermons and reflections, besides being reflected indirectly in novels and poetry, the latter in Gaelic as well as English. The colour and richness of Brown’s cornucopia of direct quotation is truly at odds with the idea of eighteenth century Ireland as essentially underdeveloped, barbaric and superstitious, a belief widespread at the time not only in Britain but for example in Enlightenment France. That century’s life of the mind and its impulses towards toleration, civility and co-operation are clearly on display here.

I have two minor quibbles. First, in his introduction, Professor Brown claims that his book helps reconfigure the received narrative of the Penal era and the interconnections between its politics, society and faith. This is a slight exaggeration, as he is following in the footsteps of scholars in the field of general eighteenth century Irish history, and not only of those concerned specifically with Enlightenment studies. Second, the number of typographical errors, syntactical misjudgements, punctuation faults, clumsy expressions and verbal tics in the book is excessive. A few examples from many: “proscribe” does not mean the same as “prescribe”, nor is “inculcate” a synonym for “adopt” or “learn”. The standard of presentation reflects no credit on the publishers.

Part I on the religious enlightenment is less meaty than Parts II and III, largely because the characteristic signifiers of Enlightenment thought were not yet widespread or influential. Pre-Enlightenment scholasticism still held sway in all the major confessional communities. Its characteristics, as defined by Brown, were God, not man, as the central criterion of understanding, religious orthodoxy, established classical authority in matters of philosophy and a stress on the Christian virtues of faith, humility and obedience. This mindset was shared by persons as diverse in their particular beliefs as Jonathan Swift, George Berkeley, orthodox Presbyterian defenders of the Westminster Confession and, as late as the 1790s, by John Thomas Troy, Catholic archbishop of Dublin. The last-named is a good example of how pre-Enlightenment scholasticism morphed easily into Counter-Enlightenment, inspired not only by general Counter-Reformation values but also by a deeply embedded suspicion of empiricism and rationalism, a detestation of the philosophes, and antagonism to the atheism, amorality, libertinism and political radicalism identified by the scholastics of the day with all modern thought.

By far the most attractive figure in Part I is George Berkeley, Church of Ireland bishop of Cloyne, 1734-1752. Not only was he an immaterialist sage and poet of philosophy (Schopenhauer called him “the father of Idealism”), he was also anti-mercantilist and a Keynesian before his time, who believed in stimulating consumer demand to provide employment and relief for the poor. He asked: “If our peasants were accustomed to eat beef and wear shoes, would they not be more industrious?” Of course, he did not escape completely from his origins and position of status. I have noted the “our” above, and his reference (in the 1730s) to “such a gentle government”. But in hard times, his basic humanity was evident. Brown quotes the Gaelic Munster poet Seaghan Ó Dalaigh in praise of his charitable efforts:

Ta deirc is daonnacht in easpag Chluanach
Agus glaofad go haerach i bhflaitheas thuas air;

..Maoifeadsa ar dhraoithibh is ar eigsibh suaigh
Gur firinneach do ghnitear an deirc i gCluain.

Swift, by contrast, was incisive rather than attractive; Brown uses Swift's self-descriptive epithet “savage” more than once.

Not unnaturally, Professor Brown reserves much of his enthusiasm for the socially enlightened years of promise around the middle of the century. This section is divided into three chapters, entitled respectively, “Languages of Civility”, an oddly-named “The Enlightened Counter Public” and “Communities of Interest”. By this stage, discourse among enlightened theorists and practitioners centred mainly on civility and aesthetics and on economic developmental issues in agriculture and trade. All four topics turned on the links between private virtue and public good and all four were seen, in different combinations and by different people, as putative cures for the ills of the country. Their common feature was that separately and together, they implied a larger, trans-confessional inclusivity, at least a conditional toleration and the bringing of Catholics and Dissenters into a more active political life.

All these themes found their place within general eighteenth century trends, as parts of self-conscious movements towards refinement, good taste, the cultivation of sensibility and reform of political, social and economic life. But the motivation behind this new clustering of priorities was not un-self-interested. On the practical side, the Irish economy had come close to collapse in the 1720s and 1730s; and in the peak disaster years of 1739-1741, bad weather, poor harvests, famine and disease caused the deaths of between 13 and 20 per cent of the population of the island. It is also of interest that the debates on estate management and trade tended in different directions; that on agricultural improvement stressed Irish responsibility and home values while the trade discussion indicted Britain and its restrictive mercantilism. There was no equivalent in Ireland of the urban, Whig trading-interest dominance which characterised Britain after 1714.

According to Brown, the new discourse transformed associational life into a vibrant ecosystem of taverns and coffee houses, theatres and bookshops, clubs and fellowship groupings, outside official channels and relatively free of official control. His language here echoes that of Habermas on the public sphere and that of John Keane and Michael Walzer on civil society.

Some of the developments outlined in Chapter 5 (“The Enlightened Counter Public”) are fascinating in their detail, and as an indication of what might have been. But I would have found useful a good map of 18th century Dublin, and indeed some pictorial illustrations for the rich store of material quoted. For example, the cursory reference to James Barry’s private pen-and ink drawing “Passive Obedience”, said to show sympathy with the 1798 Rebellion, is more frustrating than illuminating.

The account given in this middle part of the book of developments at Trinity College is lively and thought-provoking. The subsection is entitled “The Sleeping Sister”; Trinity earned that contemporary sobriquet apparently because not a single item was published by a fellow of the college between 1722 and 1753. But that is not the whole story. Trinity had a professor of Irish (Charles Lynegar, admittedly a controversial figure), from as early as about 1708; between 1700 and 1750 the overall faculty increased from nineteen to twenty-eight, including new chairs in medicine, surgery and midwifery; the textbooks in the first part of the century included one by Fr Eustace de Paul, a Cistercian, on ethics; and a proposal was made in 1830 by Samuel Madden for a tax on graduates to fund bursaries or premiums. Incidentally, hospitals founded in Dublin between 1737 and 1757 included Mercer’s, the Royal Hospital for Incurables, the Lying-In Hospital, Swift’s St Patrick’s and the Rotunda. I am glad that Brown found space for the splendidly worded attack on Hely-Hutchinson’s tenure as provost by Patrick Duigenan, a fellow of the College, which is almost Elizabethan in its exuberance. Among other charges, Duigenan accuses the provost of being ignorant, of displaying the most inveterate malice, extravagant folly and unbridled fury, of being totally under the guidance of the most turbulent and malignant passions, and of having a disposition to mountebanking. This comes immediately after the chapter headed “Languages of Civility”!

The main story of this middle period is how the growing influence of the Enlightenment offered some hope that confessional asperities might be softened and political rivalries might evolve in a peaceful direction. Because this did not happen, and in the face of a downward spiralling into ever-greater radicalisation, the two opposition communities had to choose if they would look for reform and redress to London or to Anglo-Irish bodies and movements ‑ the still exclusively Anglican Irish Parliament, the Volunteers or to island-based movements and associational bodies. This option proved short-lived; by the late-1780s, and in spite of the successes of the previous years in respect of free trade and Irish parliamentary autonomy, it appeared increasingly unlikely that either franchise reform or Catholic redress would be forthcoming.

Willingness to seek solutions through violence naturally increased. Professor Brown’s take on this, in Part III of his study, is that the split in thinking was essentially between empiricists and rationalists; the rationalists wished to build on previous advances and extend the franchise while those of an empirical bent sought to stabilise the Protestant polity as then established. 

The chapter entitled “Fracturing the Irish Enlightenment” is particularly fascinating, at least partly because it contains a close reading and vigorous interpretation of the classic Gaelic poem “Caoineadh Airt Ui Laoghaire”. But more centrally to Brown’s argument, it illustrates in detail how the Volunteer movement and the Patriot party within the Irish parliament both fractured on the questions of parliamentary reform and the enfranchisement of Catholics. The contrast drawn between the different viewpoints of the Anglican Frederick Jebb (writing under the pen-name of Guatimozin, the last Aztec emperor) and the Presbyterian Joseph Pollock (supposedly writing the “Letters of Owen Roe O’Nial”) is striking. While they had much in common, including an unqualified view that the British connection in practice was exploitative and tyrannical, their rationales were quite different; Jebb relied on an empirical rubric and demonstration from facts while Pollock deployed a rights-based register and deductions from self-evident principle.

An even larger contrast, not developed by Professor Brown, existed between adherents of the Enlightenment and the majority of the Protestant Ascendancy, also empiricists; that majority, it would seem, were unreconstructed defenders of the status quo, motivated primarily by a desire to defend their relatively newly acquired property, position and privileges as the dominant class in the kingdom. They saw themselves as realists, distrusted all political innovation and viewed their opponents as either malevolent conspirators or naive fools, drenched in optimism regarding human nature and human capacity. Their hold on the levers of power and their success in retaining support from London ensured that the final act of the long eighteenth century drama in Ireland resembled its beginnings – dark and envenomed, written in blood, in every respect more Gothic than refined. The Enlightenment dream faded; the near civil war, which had been festering since 1794, aggravated by agrarian unrest, flared into rebellion and the immediate future belonged to coercion and repression, revolt and Redcoats, yeomanry, militias and Orangemen, the United Irishmen and the Defenders, floggings and burnings, the pitchcap and the pike.  

Within Part III, some features of Brown’s narrative, alluded to or implied but not developed, are particularly interesting. There is the question of London or Dublin as a potential supporter of redress for the Catholic community, which had a curious after-life. One of the strongest theoretical arguments for the Act of Union which closed out the century was that only London was likely to deliver in this regard; and the failure of such reputed reformers as Flood and Charlemont to live up to their reputations lent credence to this view. In the event, Emancipation was delayed for a generation. This suggests that O'Connell’s claim to trust his fellow-countrymen rather than London was based on hope rather than experience. (One of the facts I did not learn at school was that the Union was supported by the then Catholic archbishop of Dublin).

The Irish Convention Act of 1793, which banned the holding of politically motivated conventions, was an important weapon in the armoury of reaction to growing radicalisation. It sprang from the numerical weakness and psychological insecurity of the dominant confession and it represented a response by the unreformed Irish parliament to past and potentially future rivals to its own power and status. Conventions were a fashion in Enlightened political thinking, in the Presbyterian churches, among the Volunteers and for the increasingly organised Catholics. Fear of the “Back Lane Parliament” was more than a jibe. Burke’s” Speech to the Electors of Bristol” (1774) distinguished between the function of a delegate (as to a convention, bound only to carry out the wishes of those who chose him) and that of a parliamentary representative (who also owed his electors the duty of his honest judgement).

Brown is not concerned with matters of reader reception, private correspondence or personal biography. While this is understandable in terms of organising his material, the absence of biographical elements does reduce somewhat the receptivity of his own text, in terms of human interest. In his Iindex, for example, there are only three references to Tone, one a brief quotation about the Irish as slaves; other United men, Drennan, O'Connor and Russell, get more extensive coverage. Is this because, as a prototype Enlightenment figure and thus a modern man, and as a strongly rights-based nationalist, Tone illustrates the limitations of Enlightenment thinking? Put another way, did the Enlightenment contribute not only to the French Revolution but also to twenty years of fraternal war in Europe? At a greater remove, does Enlightenment thought carry some responsibility for the rancorous nationalisms of the nineteenth century, and for the twentieth century world wars? In any event, the tension between Tone’s thought (especially his stress on the common name of Irishman) and his political legacy (especially the increase in inter-confessional animosities following the 1798 rebellion) merits greater attention. Brown does mention the movement away from the relatively harmless eighteenth century question, “Who is enlightened?”, towards what he calls the toxic nineteenth century question, “Who is Irish”?

The thirteen pages of the conclusion chapter seem to me to be the weakest in the book. It is useful to be reminded that the Act of Union ensured that empirical retrenchment in the nineteenth century would be conservative; in this, Ireland resembled not only Scotland but also in social terms, the United States, where the Revolution had been as much a defence of privilege as a demand for natural rights. And it is a neat ploy to introduce the new century through three Irish novels – Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl (1806) and Thomas Moore’s Captain Rock (1824). Indeed, Brown introduces a more sinewy and relevant Moore than is usual, one who articulates the power of national and sectarian animosities, especially in dealing with such then contemporary issues as the Rockite agitation and the Tithe War.

But perhaps the author works too hard to draw artificial contrasts between eighteenth and nineteenth century Irish history. It is no great help to say that the Enlightenment project failed after the Act of Union because there was no agreement on what made up “the community of the Irish”; that was even more true earlier. Similarly, the extent to which the eighteenth century confessional state seriously sought conversion rather than compliance is moot; that did not change much after 1800 either. And to see Repeal and Home Rule as romantically inspired, and guided largely by criteria such as proximity to the peasantry and Catholic observance is confused; what was important in the late nineteenth century was not so relevant in the 1830s through the 1870s. Above all, to ask if Irish religious hatreds were peculiarly resistant to the cures deployed on the European continent makes little sense; it could be argued that any “cure” which ended with twenty years of continent-wide revolutionary, anti-revolutionary and Napoleonic war was no better than the antecedent disease.

What would perhaps have been more useful in the conclusion would have been a more detailed attempt to situate the Irish Enlightenment within the wider contemporary context of its British and continental counterparts, and these analogues in turn within the broader scope and periodisation of European intellectual developments. There are few enough references to or comparisons with Locke and Hume, Montesquieu and the Encyclopaedists; and no mention at all of Pope, a key figure on the English literary side, who corresponded voluminously with Swift and whose great poem “An Essay on Man” contributed at least two signatory phrases to Enlightenment language, viz man as the “glory, jest and riddle of the world” and the programmatic “the proper study of mankind is man”. On the  broader issues, I am not at all clear as to how the Enlightenment led on to romanticism and positivism, what it contributed to political thinking, including Marxism, or how it influenced, at a certain remove, developments in psychology and sociology.

And what of its internal contradictions, actual or potential? According to Brown, Burke was an enlightened empiricist, whose view of political society was grounded on a partnership between law and history, sentiment and manners; But his overall vision had little or nothing in common with that of the majority of his fellow Anglo-Irish Anglicans, also defined as empiricists, to say nothing of that of Tone, the enlightened rationalist.

The American novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick believed that history-writing should incorporate judgement in addition to facts; that memory, both individual and collective, is a transforming function; and that continuity is preferable to rupture ‑ “I would rather inherit coherence than smash and (have to) start over again with enigma.” I would add the important qualifications that judgements may be false as well as valid or perceptive, that the transforming power of memory does not always serve truth, and that the preference for continuity is not an absolute principle. Taken together, this is an architecture of scepticism and balance.

Hegel famously held that the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only at dusk ‑ that we begin to understand historical conditions only when they have passed away. It can be interpreted more widely to imply that philosophy cannot be prescriptive because we understand best in hindsight; that experience comes before wisdom and that therefore experience is mostly painful. In short, history is closer to tragedy than to melodrama because life is lived forwards but understood backwards, and generally too late. This is a plea for humility and for not rushing to judgement. Professor Brown’s study provides a rich store of material, incorporating events, personalities, ideas and judgements in and about eighteenth century Ireland, to feed these and similar reflections.


 John Swift retired from the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs in 2006. His last posts were as ambassador to Cyprus, ambassador to the Netherlands and permanent representative to the UN (Geneva).