Nation baptised in a font of learning

Scholars and Rebels in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

July 13, 2001

In Scholars and Rebels , Terry Eagleton examines the signal works of members of Ireland's intellectual elite who flourished during the establishment of the tenets of modern Irish nationalism and the conceptualisation of the idea of the Irish nation, roughly the period from the 1820s to the 1890s. It completes his proposed trilogy, the first two volumes being Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995) and Crazy John and the Bishop and Other Essays on Irish Culture (1998).

At the centre of Eagleton's book is Antonio Gramsci's distinction between traditional and organic intellectuals. The former group fosters an anti-modern faith in values bequeathed from the past to the present and promotes the disinterested acquisition of knowledge. The latter group is made up of individuals engaged in promoting the public good as natural or social scientists, political theorists or politicians, or as employees of the state. For them, knowledge has use only if it is practical and can be applied to help better understand the nature of freedom.

In the wake of the rebellion of 1798 and the Act of Union (1801), one might expect Ireland's traditional intellectuals to spring from the Protestant ascendancy, a network of established commercial families in Dublin. Similarly one might expect the country's organic intellectuals to be rooted in the middle class, Catholics and Presbyterians from small farms and the urban professions determined to undo the union and secure religious equality and expand civil liberties.

Eagleton focuses on the Anglo-Irish intelligentsia and finds the boundary between the two types of intellectuals permeable. The ascendancy, he explains, found itself at a cultural disadvantage in a milieu that was more aggressively becoming Gaelic and Catholic. The traditional intellectuals of the ascendancy caste found a new role placing their formidable intellectual resources at the service of the very national movement that was threatening to exclude them from the nation. It was as if the ascendancy could resolve its identity crisis by allying with the cultural enthusiasts who were looking to the traditions of an ancient Gaelic world and to the lessons of Irish history to resolve their own identity crisis. Ascendancy insecurity led its traditional intellectuals into the study of Irish culture and into state-sponsored employment and, in some cases, into political intervention against the state - all activities more in common with the pursuits of organic intellectuals. This engagement in a determined, non-political attempt to bridge political and religious divides, Eagleton points out, was not as absurd a project as it first appears, given a colonial nation where language, religion, ethnic identity and popular custom cut across class lines.

To survive as writers, the colonial intellectuals had to be men (and women) of letters who could synthesise information from a variety of sources. Many were amateur scholars. The interests of John Pentland Mahaffy, for example, encompassed theology, philosophy, modern and ancient languages, ancient history, classical studies, music and cricket. William Wilde, Oscar's father, one of Dublin's premier conversationalists and most colourful characters, was a medico-historian, an aural and ocular surgeon, demographer, topographer, ethnologist and antiquarian. Isaac Butt was a lawyer, novelist, linguist, political economist and politician.

Eagleton's sketches of such ascendancy's scholars are engaging, revealing successes by the colonial metropolis - particularly in medicine - that penetrate the shadow cast over it by the imperial capital. Eagleton's achievement lies in his straightforward depiction of the work of these ascendancy hybrids: imaginative, traditional intellectuals supplying knowledge and understanding in support of the pragmatic work of the organic.

Sometimes the support was oblique, as in the case of the burgeoning antiquarian research manifested by individuals and by antiquarian and archaeological societies. The disinterested study of the ancient past, in conjunction with descriptions of the country's natural resources, was useful to Irish cultural enthusiasts. George Petrie, Ireland's foremost antiquarian scholar, published an essay on the round towers in Ireland that showed them to be not of Danish or Phoenician or any other exotic origin - Jbut products of native Irish genius. Petrie's dispassionate approach served those who were intent on connecting the past to the present to define the Irish nation as exclusively Gaelic. The essay was extracted in the national schools' readers, one of the few selections with distinct Irish content. The gentleman scholar W. E. H. Lecky's calm, public rebuttal of J. A. Froude's Social Darwinist depiction of Irish people and his sympathetic portrayal of the native Irish in his multi-volume History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1878-96) were also co-opted by nationalist historians and polemicists. They pointed out in their own books and periodicals how Lecky's search for historical truth reinforced their own narration of seven centuries of conquest, colonisation, confiscation and corruption.

With issues of rent, land tenure and proprietorship supremely important in Ireland, and with the social manifestations of the economic choices made by landowners and tenants visible everywhere on the landscape, the work of Irish political economists could only fall into the orbit of the organic intellectual. It was impossible for Butt to divorce economic issues from social and political ones; John Elliot Cairnes, chair of political economy at Trinity College, denied that there were any exclusively economic questions because matters of public morality always intrude. For him, political economy was the handmaiden of the study of history, and his study of both disciplines led him to conclude that the British colonial enterprise in Ireland had outlived its usefulness. Political economists Cliffe Leslie and John Kells Ingram also contributed to the subjectivist political economy that characterised the Dublin school of economic thought. The engaged work of the Irish political economists prompts one to wonder about the roles played in the same period by ascendancy members whose careers were spent in the service of the country, as lawyers, judges and members of the bureaucratic elite.

Eagleton concludes with a short chapter on Young Ireland, a mixed bag of the classes and the masses, conservative nationalists and a few revolutionaries who were not exactly radicals. He shows that Young Ireland as a group were tolerant and pluralist; inconsistency in the social and political thought of its leading lights was as much a hallmark of the movement as the brief uprising in 1848. Thomas Davis, the spiritual godfather of later Irish cultural nationalists, promoted education in all things Irish as a prerequisite to political freedom. John Mitchel blasted out Anglophobic columns in the Nation but supported slavery in the American South. James Fintan Lalor wanted to abolish landlords and aimed to repeal the conquest; repeal of the union meant little if anything to him. Young Ireland's diverse band of writers was, however, consistently as fine in crafting their literary style as the ascendancy's contributors to the Dublin University Review , but with a fundamental difference: the ascend-ancy's intellectuals caught the attention of Young Ireland, while Young Ireland's propagandists caught the imagination of the people.

Lawrence McBride is professor of history, Illinois State University, United States.

Scholars and Rebels in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

Author - Terry Eagleton
ISBN - 0 631 21445 3 and 21446 1
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £50.00 and £14.99
Pages - 177

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