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What The People Thought

Alan Titley

The Popular Mind in Eighteenth Century Ireland, by Vincent Morley, Cork University Press, 256 pp, €39.00, ISBN: 978-1782052081

This is a book that I have been waiting for all my life.

I came to learn about Irish literature in the first instance by studying the best of eighteenth and seventeenth century poetry, wrestling with half-understood aislingí and gawping in wonder at the verbal dexterity of the early modern. Although as students the poems were often presented to us divorced from their contexts, enough of what they were saying came through to give a picture of politics and society. This picture never accorded with what I was reading in standard books on the history of Ireland.

This was because, on the one hand, I was a student of the literature of Ireland, and on the other I had need to read our history. The literature and the history seemed to inhabit two entirely different worlds. It took me some time to realise that most of the history of Ireland which I read was actually the history of English government in the country. Something inside so strong screamed out: “The history of a people should not just derive from the privilege of official documents.”

In primary school we had a history book which told us of Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel. I always thought that Perkin Warbeck would make a great name for a rock band. He landed in Cork as a pretender to the English crown in 1491, Cork consisting of two straggly streets and a few muddy, wattled hovels at the time. Lambert Simnel ended up as a spit-turner (that is, turning hogs on the fire) for Henry VII, who pardoned him for his rebellious tendencies, although there is no restaurant named after him yet.

Yet, as I began to read through Irish literature, mediaeval and early modern, no mention did I find of these two buckos. So, even in the heyday of de Valera’s nationalist Ireland, two insignificant chancers become prominent characters in our Irish historiography, even in the primary school.

I cite these as symbols of what happened to Irish historiography in later years. In the cliché of clichéd criticism, history was often seen as a matter of “kings and dates”; it might be said that Irish history was a matter of “laws and legislation”.While “laws and legislation” always impact hugely on how a polity is ruled and how it is governed or crushed, they do not tell us what people think or feel. And what people think or feel is the single most important fact in the undercurrent of official history: it is that which is the seedbed of change and of revolutions.

Vincent Morley has drawn attention in his own blog, Cúrsaí Staire, to the lack of interest in the history of “mentalities” in Irish historiography, and has demonstrated that in this case it is quite behind that of other countries, particularly France. In that spirit this study is an examination of what the ordinary people of Ireland thought and felt and imagined about their political and social situation during what is often called “the long eighteenth century”. Chopping centuries up according to one-hundred-year arbitrary dates makes no sense: thus the “long eighteenth century” lasts most naturally from the destruction at Aughrim until sometime in the nineteenth century on the cusp of the Famine, when notions of our then traditional politics were lost – for the time being. Thus, while the book speaks about “the eighteenth century”, it actually covers closer to 140 years from the late seventeenth to the earlyish nineteenth centuries.

For those who might not get what “the popular mind” means, it is quite simply what the majority of the population thought during those years. Whatever the popular mind thought could not be found in government documents, as is obvious even today, but could best be found in what the unofficial mob were saying and singing and propagating. This was found in the poetry, songs and compositions of those ordinary people, almost entirely in the Irish language, which was the majority (or often the only) language of most of the people during the period in question.

The thesis of this book should not be, or should not have been, a revolutionary proposition. It should have been normal, conservative and part of the furniture of common historical discourse. It should have been that historians always and everywhere should have referenced sources in Irish while they wrote about the country where it just happened to be the language of most of the people. Was this a mad proposition or what?

Vincent Morley’s book quite simply examines the sources which expressed the will of the ordinary people in their own language during this period, and draws a devastating, simple conclusion. You can be as subtle as you like in nuancing the threads of the ideological tapestries which make up our story, but no matter how it was to be done, and who was to do it, the one word which resonates through Irish political poetry and discourse was the idea of “saoirse”: quite simply, “freedom”.

The ghost behind this book, of course, is Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland. It is a book which has been rightly criticised for its history, for its exaggeration, for its social inaccuracies, even for its literary criticism (and it was a book of literature, rather than a book of history), but which, for all its faults, still lives with a resonance which many more scholarly works lack. It lives because of one simple, profound concept, the concept that is professed in the title. There was a “hidden Ireland”.

In his introduction, Corkery excoriated Lecky’s History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century: Lecky, he wrote, spent hundreds of pages on the aristocracy, but did not cast one baleful glance on the ordinary person, “the man on the street” as we say today, “an fear ar an gcnoc” as Dineen has it in his dictionary. In the best English, one would have thought that it might have improved in the meantime.

There is a way in which it has. There have been a number of serious historical works beginning to look at the question of the Irish language in and of itself, and as a historical source. I am thinking of James Kelly and Ciarán Mac Murchaidh’s collection of historical essays Irish and English: Essays On the Linguistic and Cultural Frontier 1600-1900; Liam Mac Mathúna’s Béarla sa Ghaeilge; Aidan Doyle’s Oxford History of the Irish language; Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh’s recent I mBéal an Bháis, which examines the impact of the Famine on the language; and maybe quite significantly Nicholas Wolf’s An Irish-Speaking Island, which leaves little doubt that there was much more Irish around in just about every domain than had ever been imagined.

These studies would have been inconceivable a generation ago. And as Morley acknowledges, there is a huge difference between the sources referenced in the Gill History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century from the 1970s and Ian McBride’s volume of about ten or eleven years ago, when suddenly Irish-language sources rise up and speak. This revolution has not been necessarily repeated in other volumes, but is nonetheless significant. But while some rivulets of history may be dribbling towards a greater fullness, most academic and popular histories simply ignore anything that has been written or thought in Irish. I have a little list and copious examples, but this is not the place for exposing them.

The point about a “hidden Ireland” is that it should never have been hidden. It was only hidden to those who knew nothing about it. There was nothing hidden about it for those who lived it. The history of Ireland, and of other colonised societies, is like one of those mirrors in which the vision is one-way; those on the inside can look out but those on the outside cannot look in. In other words, to turn on its head and paraphrase one of the dead in Brian Friel’s’ Freedom of the City: “We knew everything about them, but they knew nothing about us.” Vincent Morley’s study is often about what we knew about them, and what they did not know about us.

Even in Irish-language studies, the aisling or vision poem, which foresaw some political saviour coming from abroad, was often depicted as “focail, focail, focail”. Breandán Ó Buachalla’s Aisling Ghéar, and Éamonn Ó Ciardha’s Ireland and the Jacobite Cause disabused us of this notion of the aisling as being just a fancy framework of words, and English historians themselves have reinstated the reality of Jacobite sentiment throughout much of the eighteenth century.

This study, more than anything else, demonstrates that Jacobitism was the abiding political philosophy of the common people for nearly a hundred years after Aughrim, but that it was only ever a vehicle, a vessel, a launching pad, an excuse for a more abiding ideology, one that is not surprising but rather normal among most peoples and tribes and groups and nations, which is that of desiring freedom from foreign or outside rule.

I often instance the case of Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, a Cork poet, scholar and scribe who lived from 1766 to 1837. His first poems were Jacobite. An ideologist might say they were royalist. He later wrote in support of Rightboys and Whiteboys and other agrarian disturbers, as they were called. When 1798 broke out, he took part in the rebellion and wrote some great songs supporting the rising. In his later years he was quite sympathetic to O’Connell and to his efforts to get voting rights to Westminster for some privileged male Irish Catholics. All of this would mean, if we were to believe the obvious ideological narrative, that he started out as a royalist, then became a supporter of sectarian land agitation, transmogrified into a libertarian republican, and ended his life as a conservative parliamentarian. Nothing could, of course, be further from the truth. We wanted freedom and dignity, nothing else, no more than anybody else, and any vehicle would do.

This book is an examination of the ways in which the ordinary Irish people expressed their desire for freedom and dignity over the best part of a century and a half. It is organised around the great themes which exercised their minds – land, politics, religion, memory – and instances the great events which shaped their lives – battles, dispossessions, parliaments, rebellions, the church. Each chapter is preceded by a poem, usually a very long one, which deals with the social or political issues of the moment. Most of these poems have been edited and translated by Vincent Morley for the first time – that is to say, he may have published them before in Eighteenth Century Ireland, or in his several volumes of commentary on historical Irish poetry such as Washington i gCeannas a Ríochta and Ó Cheitinn go Raiftearaí. He is the person who has brought them to light and placed them in their proper context. This in itself is a remarkable achievement, as many Irish scholars have spent their lives editing texts from manuscripts without uttering one word about their importance or their literary quality. Morley’s editions are impeccable, and his translations are as properly plain and clear as can be made with often knotty poetry given to rhetoric and flourish.

While we may often be beguiled by Romantic and post-Romantic ideas of poetry and find little enough in many of these to be “poetical” in a more modern sense, nonetheless there are some which are eminently artistic and aesthetic no matter what criterion you employ. Yes, the poetry of the ordinary people served many everyday purposes and did not always reach the gates of Parnassus, wherever that might be, but it was rarely just doggerel, but more usually cogent, generally artistic, always passionate and occasionally of the highest order.

I encountered poets here whom I had never heard of before; others I knew something about but only by hearsay; yet others who were familiar but who had written poems that were not part of their obvious canon. Not only is Vincent Morley an original historian, he is an Irish scholar of significant achievement. Not every eighteenth century Irish scholar will have edited as much as he has with flair and with accuracy.

A first question will be asked: how representative are the sources he quotes for the argument which he makes? It is often said that poets of what is generally known as the Bardic period were aristocratic, in the employ of the nobles, and this was indeed generally true. But Vincent Morley points out, in the first instance, that none of the poets he quotes derive from, or are descended from the hereditary poetic families. More importantly, in the second instance, he takes great care to tell us of the background, class and occupation of his poets. Yes, there are one or two, like Piaras Mac Gearailt, of a strong farming class, but the others are usually day labourers, weavers, tailors, journeymen, travellers, spalpeens, jobbers, hucksters, gardeners, blacksmiths – just about every craft or job that the lower orders were allowed to do. If they weren’t representative of the common people, then who was?

James Kelly quite rightly reminds us that what was printed in the eighteenth century would most likely conform to government thinking; and Vincent Morley adds that what was oral or circulated in manuscript was going to be less restrained than the official stance. Thus he discovers that there is not one piece of literature, verse or prose, in the entire eighteenth century which praises or defends an English monarch – not one, zilch, nada, nothing; and similarly not one poem or verse which celebrates an English military victory during the same period. This reminds us that during the Napoleonic wars, about a quarter of the British troops were Irish (some say it could have been as many as one third), but that the songs and the poems of the people in Irish and in English support Napoleon. So, we have yet again another wonderful Irish paradox. You can fight for England, but you hope that its enemies win. This is in strong contrast to Gaelic Scotland where there are no songs in favour of Napoleon, but rather many fearing his approach. It would appear that Scotland got clobbered into the imperial clutch before we did.

Was much of this political poetry bigoted and sectarian? Yes it was, at least in our own modern, that is to say, as we like to have it, civilised terms. The references to Calvin and to Luther are legion, and the legions are usually those of the devil: “Ní bheadh Cailbhin ná a chogal / Inniu in áit phobal Dé”; “Cailbhin coiteann is Liútar craosach”; “Grathain-sproit chealgaigh Chailbhin an éithigh.” If Irish poetry was to be believed both Luther and Calvin are well roasted in the nether regions of hell by now.

“Cuirim leis Elizabeth phéisteach / Nár phós fear is nár stad ó aon neach.” “I put with him the monstrous Elizabeth, who never married a man and never abstained from anyone.” This is Morley’s very accurate translation. A more vicious literary translation might be something like: “And salacious Elizabeth had them all / The Lord, the groom, and the stable boy.” At least that would be my rendering of the sense of what the poet was trying to say. This was not true, of course, but it made good copy.

In these days of wonderful ecumenical understanding when very few of the clerisy obey the clergy, it doesn’t matter very much. But religion is always much more of a social, class-ridden and political fly-catcher than anything to do with ultimate truths. Religion was quite simply a statement of your ultimate political loyalty. This did not mean that the Irish were a priest-ridden people, one of the more common clichés popular among the priest-baiting classes. This book shows the strong anti-clerical note which arose during the late eighteenth century, when the penal laws were being relaxed. Even St Patrick himself did not escape from the lash, as he too was a foreigner just like those who were involved in the exploitation.

Much of this anti-clerical Catholic note emphasised that the home clergy was seen to be just as exploitative as the foreign one. Demanding too much money for a burial or for a baptism was never going to be popular. “Is ná tugaidh puinn do shagartaibh, tá beatha acu thar meon”, as an anonymous song from Cork around 1785 put it. Or again, “is tugadh gach n-aon de réir acmhainn dóibh, is má thaitneann leis níos mó.” Basically, let everyone give according to his means, and everyone get according to his needs. Now, where did we hear that again?

One of the great “what ifs” is that if we had got our independence in 1798 the power of the church would not have been as great as it subsequently became. The other vague idea, usually half-articulated, was that the Irish poets – that is, the common people – did not write or compose about their social plight. The poetry supporting the Whiteboys and the Rightboys and the other agrarian gangs should be enough to scotch this idea. What this book demonstrates is that their understanding of social justice was never completely divorced from their political project.

Not surprisingly, therefore, while this poetry was Jacobite and largely Catholic and anti-landlord, and pro the dispossessed, and largely careless of the parliament, such as it was (although Grattan does get some faint praise in a few poems, which was very quickly withdrawn), there is much also which makes a clear distinction between Irish as the language of Ireland, and English as the language of conquest. Victory would bring “sciúrsa is scaipeadh ar dhíorma an Ghalla-Bhéarla”, or as Seán Ó Neachtain put it from his house in Pimlico: “leagadh léir ar aicme an Bhéarla chráigh mo chlí” (the complete overthrow of the English-speaking set who have tormented us), or the wish to see “béaraibh an Bhéarla cloíte”. This is most clearly expressed in a poem by Art Mac Cumhaigh, where there is a debate between a ruined mediaeval church in Faughart, Co Louth, and a newly-built Anglican one. The Anglican church speaks in English, and the native church speaks in Irish. This theme faded with the spread of English among the common people, as did Republicanism, as did the love of the rotten Stuarts before that, as did O’Connellism itself as the bigger political picture changed.

Joep Leerson’s interesting booklet Hidden Ireland, Public Sphere shows how all of this world view becomes transmogrified into a new kind of ideology and iconography represented in print, in new buildings and in monster meetings in the early nineteenth century; but this book challenges, or even demolishes, the idea that Irish Ireland had no public space. The public space is laid out in these pages, pages which were read in the heads of the people with a message which was not regional, or partial, but thoroughly spread throughout the country.

We recall that there was huge debate in our own public space about revisionist history and historians. Of course, every historian must be a revisionist. There isn’t much point in writing the same old thing all over again. But revisionism was often seen as a discourse which argued that things weren’t all that bad, the Famine didn’t quite crucify the country, the British conquest had some good things to be said for it, that the old jingle-jangle and claptrap that we had been fed at school about what had happened to us had to be ditched and dumped. This book is a revision of the revisionists. It is never polemical, as it could easily have been, although there are some unsubtle barbs. It lays out the facts, the ideas, the dreams, the ideology of the vast majority of the Irish people for the best part of a hundred and forty years.

Breandán Ó Buachalla’s monumental work on Irish Jacobitism and political thought, Aisling Ghéar, has never been challenged. In fact, it has hardly been reviewed. I look forward to the examination of this groundbreaking book by professional historians. They may need, however, to revisit the same sources, and to delve into others from the same background. I fear that I may be waiting quite a long time.

A word of congratulations should be given to Cork University Press who have produced a magnificent book, as they always do. It is the premier academic press in Ireland. It is a pity that others do not follow its wonderful example, despite their also occasionally wonderful work when required.


Alan Titley is emeritus professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork and is the author of novels, stories, poetry and plays.