The Irish Novel Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Irish Novel

The nineteenth-century Irish novelist wrote during a time of tremendous political, religious, and class tension, and all these matters found their way into the Irish novel. Shortly after an unsuccessful 1798 rebellion aimed at eliminating English rule in Ireland, the Act of Union (1800) yoked together the Irish and English parliaments, although Catholics were denied representation in this newly-joined government body until 1829. Ireland's nineteenth-century population was divided into two primary classes: the land owning, Protestant class with strong ties to England, and the peasant, Catholic class with deep Gaelic roots. Irish novelists, beginning with Maria Edgeworth (1768-1849) in 1800, rose out of and wrote about these two Irish classes. Edgeworth and her predecessors all attempted in some way to define, describe, illuminate, or explain Irish character, a national identity, contemporary socio-political issues, and Irish history, and more often than not their writing was targeted at a largely English audience. Critics such as J. C. Beckett and Thomas Flanagan note that the Irish novel was weakened by the conflict within Irish novelists who were attempting to make their writing appealing and interesting to English tastes and at the same time to avoid undercutting or betraying their country's national identity and values or their own sense of "Irishness."

With the publication of Castle Rackrent in 1800, Maria Edgeworth was the first Irish author to write, in English, a novel focusing on Irish characters and Irish themes. Born into the land-owning class and educated in England, Edgeworth at age 15 returned to Ireland and helped her father run their family estate. Like many critics, O. Elizabeth McWhorter Harden praises Edgeworth's powers of observation and her careful depiction of "provincial life and manners." Harden goes on to observe that in Castle Rackrent, Edgeworth presents an example for later writers to follow in her "respectful" representation of the Irish peasantry. According to Harden, Castle Rackrent is also the first "saga" novel, in that it follows the history of one family through several generations. In addition to these developments in content and form, Castle Rackrent is the first novel in which the point of view is that of a detached, minor character, told in the first person. While Harden praises this point of view in Castle Rackrent, critics such as William Howard argue that the novel's narrator is so extreme in his loyalty to the Rackrent family and that his personal eccentricities are such that his ability to serve as a "regional spokesman" is impaired. Howard contends that in this novel, Edgeworth's own upper class life and values were too far removed from that of the narrator for Edgeworth to successfully represent his social and racial biases. Howard argues that in Edgeworth's later novel, Ormond (1814), Edgeworth chooses a more appropriate narrative point of view and that in this novel, the gulf between Edgeworth's own views and those of the native Irish are revealed.

While Sydney Owenson, later Lady Morgan (1776-1859), was not born with the privileges of Edgeworth, as the daughter of an Irish actor and a Protestant English mother she had access to the upper echelons of Irish society. Of one of her most popular novels, The Wild Irish Girl (1806), J. C. Beckett comments that the English audience who made the novel so popular "was even more ignorant of the realities of Irish rural life than the author herself." Despite such criticisms, critics such as Colin B. Atkinson and Jo Atkinson observe that Morgan's novels emphasize sympathy and reconciliation between England and Ireland, Protestant and Catholic. In fact, Atkinson and Atkinson demonstrate, all Morgan's Irish novels feature the union of a Protestant with a Catholic. Similarly, Tom Dunne argues that while Morgan's novels are chastised for their frivolity and flamboyance, the author realistically depicts the conflict between two competing interpretations of Irish history and character.

Unlike Edgeworth and Morgan, Charles Lever (1806-72) gained little popularity with Irish audiences. He was born and raised in Ireland to English parents, and his writings are primarily concerned with the gentry. Lewis Melville observes that while English audiences viewed novels such as The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer (1839) and Charles O'Malley, the Irish Dragoon (1840) as humorous depictions of fun-loving Irishmen, Irish readers felt that Lever caricatured his countrymen and perpetuated cultural stereotypes.

Although Edgeworth and Morgan arguably presented fairer characterizations of the middle and lower Irish classes than did Lever, they nevertheless were in a position of observing these classes from the outside. In discussing Edgeworth's Ormond, William Howard observes that during the nineteenth century, the prevalent Romantic belief was that human nature was best understood and observed in the life and character of society's lower classes. While this presented a difficulty for Edgeworth and Morgan, novelists such as John Banim (1798-1842) and Michael Banim (1796-1874), Gerald Griffin (1803-40), and William Carleton (1794-1869) had an advantage.

The Banim brothers were sons of a middle class farmer and shopkeeper, and they intimately knew and understood the difficulties faced by the Irish peasantry. Louis Lachal argues that in the novels that formed the Tales by the O'Hara Family series, the Banims portray the negative characteristics of the peasantry—including ignorance, poverty, and cruelty—as the result of the persecution, both religious and political, that this class had suffered for so many years at the hands of English Protestants. Lachal also demonstrates that the Banim brothers attempted to present the more noble and generous characteristics of the Irish peasantry as well.

Like the Banims, Gerald Griffin was born into a middle-class Catholic family, his father being a brewer in Limerick. Horatio Sheafe Krans characterizes Griffin's depiction of the rural middle class Irish life in novels such as The Collegians (1829) and The Rivals (1829) as "sober, decorous, prudent, domestic." Krans also observes that like the Banims' writings, Griffin's works reflect his strong Catholic sympathies. Likewise, John Cronin finds in Griffin's work a vigorous interest in and sympathy for the deplorable conditions suffered by the Irish peasantry. Cronin maintains that even though Griffin's work is flawed by melodrama, sometimes in the form of absurd plot construction, novels such as The Rivals and Tracy's Ambition (1829) demonstrate Griffin's power to realistically portray rural Irish life and its implicit religious and class conflict. Additionally, Cronin argues that Griffin's portrayal of the Irish peasantry is a bit more soft and gentle than that of the Banim brothers.

The Irish novelist to rise from the depths of the country's lowest class, William Carleton was the son of Irish-speaking peasant tenants. Like Griffin, he gleaned an education from rural "hedge-schools," and the proper education of peasants became a theme in his writings. Benedict Kiely reviews the critical comparison of Carleton to Sir Walter Scott, commenting that in Scott's outsider view of the peasantry, the Scottish author was often "altruistic or antiquarian" in his portrayal, compared to Carleton who was so intimately knowledgeable about the lives and struggles of the peasantry. John Kelly surveys Carleton's treatment of the problems of the Irish peasantry, noting that in novels such as Art Maguire (1845), Valentine M'Clutchy (1845), The Black Prophet (1847), and The Emigrants of Ahadarra (1848), Carleton examines such issues as alcoholism, Protestant bigotry, famine and the problem of absentee landlords, and the flight of the Irish from their homeland. Kelly studies the influence of Ireland's cultural conflicts and political and religious strife on Carleton's writings. In discussing Carleton's later conversion to Protestantism, Kelly finds evidence in The Black Prophet that speaks to Carleton's growing interest in Protestant theology. Despite some critical backlash regarding Carleton's conversion, many modern critics agree that Carleton remains one of the greatest of the Irish fiction writers not only of the nineteenth-century, but of all of Ireland's history.