The relationship between the Irish and the Greco-Roman world has always been intense, as their literature in both Gaelic and English reveals. Competence in Latin was fostered across even some of the lowest classes by Roman Catholicism and the informal education that a proportion of the poorest Irish children received at informal ‘hedge schools’. These were run by educated men disqualified from earning a professional salary under the Penal Laws, which from the 1690s outlawed teaching by Catholics, along with the right to own land or weapons, to vote or hold political office.[1] The widespread knowledge in Irish communities of Latin (sometimes even Greek) baffled the Protestant British governing classes, who associated classical expertise with social prestige. In 1797, the painter George Holmes was astounded to meet, ‘in the uncultivated part of the country’, some ‘good Latin scholars’ who could not speak a single word of English. The bafflement aggravated the British fear of Irish insurgency, since ancient history was associated with the Republican ideology of French revolutionaries. When Irish radicals came to England during the Chartist unrest of the 1840s and 1850s, the classical expertise of even those from poor backgrounds often caused astonishment.3

Richard Lovell Edgeworth, a prosperous County Longford Anglo-Irishman, supported Catholic emancipation. He was far from the worst oppressor of his Catholic countrymen. Yet in 1808, he reported from Ireland to the Board of Education,

improper; they inculcate democracy and a foolish sense of undefined liberty; this is particularly dangerous in Ireland.4

Some working-class Irish people were indeed incited to rebellious thoughts by classical authors. The 18th-century blind poet of Tipperary, Liam Dall O hlfearnàin, describes his utopian vision of British masters being driven from his land, and blackbirds singing even more sweetly ‘Than the notes brought by scholars / Over the sea from Rome’.5

Pride in classical accomplishments shines through fine Gaelic poetry. This is a verse in a popular drinking-song by Eoghan Rua O Sûilleabhàin (Owen Roe O’Sullivan, 1748-1782), a labourer, teacher and poet often compared with Robert Burns, in an English translation first published in 1855:

My name is Ô Sûilleabhàin, a most eminent teacher;

My qualifications will ne’er be extinct;

I’d write as good Latin as any in the nation;

No doubt I’m experienced in arithmetic.6

In another poem, where he asks his friend Seamus, a blacksmith, to lend him a spade, we hear that Seamus is a wit, ‘Greek-tinged and poetic’.7 Eoghan is going to Galway to sell his labour for a daily wage of‘breakfast and sixpence’; if exhaustion prevents him from completing the day’s work, he will soften the steward’s ire by reciting poetry:

Then calmly I will tell him of the adventure of death

And of classical battles that left heroes weak.

Of Samson and high deeds I will talk for a while,

Of strong Alexander eager for enemies,

Of the Caesars’ dictatorship, powerful and wise,

Or of Achilles who left many dead in the field,

Or the fall of the Fenians with terrible slaughter.8

For Gaelic poets, Ireland’s tragic history could compete with the wars and heroes of classical antiquity; Irish, moreover, was a suitable vehicle as an ancient tongue itself, older than English.1’ O Sûilleabhàin inspired Yeats’ alter ego Red Hanrahan, the ‘hedge schoolmaster, a tall, strong, red-haired young man’, who always carries a copy of Virgil.10 He is mentioned as a fiery poet in John Millington Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World." He is revived as Owen MacCarthy, the hard-drinking, womanising, red-headed, multi-lingual poet and schoolmaster, obsessed with Ovid and Virgil, in Thomas Flanagan’s distinguished novel about the brutal suppression of the 1798 Irish rebellion, The Year of the French (1979).12

Yet the few references to Classics in a collection of English-language verses by poets, mostly Protestant weavers, from County Antrim and County Down, seem disrespectful. John Dickey remembers wandering through hedgerows looking for yellowhead flowers or wild beehives while avoiding going to school, ‘deeply to explore/The rules of English, Greek or Latin lore’.1’ James Campbell (1758— 1818) resorted to a traditional use of Aristotle in rhyme:

I’ve oft laid down my shuttle

To meet my friends and bottle,

And like great Aristotle,

I’ve made my brains to reel.14

Sarah Leech, a Protestant weaver from Donegal who called herself ‘a peasant girl’, published a collection of poems in 1828. (Figure 10.1) She both claims to admire the example of Sappho and undercuts the notion of classical authority by reminding readers that she is herself‘unskill’d in classic lore’, having not studied at college, and knows nothing of‘authors sage ... / Like those who speak the Greek and Latin’. She caustically reassures them she will not be leaping off any local cliffs, as Sappho did, out of unrequited love for Phaon.15

But the weavers’ insouciance towards classical authority is just one amongst multifarious ways in which ancient Greek and Roman culture has haunted English-language literature by Irish authors. The genealogy proceeds from even

Frontispiece and title page of Sarah Leech’s Poems (1828), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection

FIGURE 10.1 Frontispiece and title page of Sarah Leech’s Poems (1828), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.

earlier than Jonathan Swift’s dazzling Lucianic satire in Gullivers Travels (1726), via Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Janies Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), W.B. Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’ (1923) and Louis MacNeice to Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and the dramatists Frank McGuinness and Marina Carr.16 The earliest complete English-language translation (rather than adaptation) of Aristophanes, The World’s Idol; or, Plutus the God of Wealth, is a politicised version by an educated Irishman designating himself as published in 1659. As Rosie Wyles

has shown, The World’s Idol was a landmark in the reception of Aristophanes because it rethought how drama might be used politically, even where theatrical activity had been curtailed. The author was probably the Catholic playwright Henry Burnell, central to the Kilkenny Catholic Confederacy, formed after the 1641 Irish rebellion; the introductory ‘Discourse’ makes a cryptic case against English colonial military interventions in Ireland and the ignorance which led the English to dismiss the common Irish people as ‘barbarous’ and in need of civilising. The pain of the dispossessed Irish consequent upon the 1652 Act for the Settlement of Ireland is palpable.17

Swift’s Jacobite friend Sir Charles Wogan, like O Suilleabhain and Burnell, saw classical literature, adopted into either Gaelic or English works, as consonant with his defence of the Irish poor, victims of colonial oppression. After his arrest on a charge of High Treason, he escaped to France from Newgate Prison. Using a motif which became commonplace, he wrote to Swift that the Catholic Irish

are reduced to the wretched condition of the Spartan helots. They are under a double slavery. They serve their inhuman lordlings, who are the more severe upon them, because they dare not yet look upon the country as their own; while all together are under the supercilious dominion and jealousy of another over-ruling power.18

The brutal floggings meted out to the Irish peasantry also attracted the attention of Dennis Taaffe, a Catholic priest and brilliant polemicist active in the Dublin political underground, who fulminated in 1798 that unenfranchised Irishmen ‘are the helots, doomed to toil, torture, or death, at the pleasure of their task-masters’.19

These men belonged to the broad tradition of Irish classicism, explored in other chapters of our book,20 as well as in one of the most important works in Classical Reception Studies, Ireland and the Classical Tradition (1976) by William Bedell Stanford, then Regius Professor of Greek at Trinity College Dublin. This tradition is not only a matter of ethnic, linguistic or national identity. The Irish labouring and mendicant poor, dominantly Catholic, were always subject to oppression resulting from their class position, however much it took racist expression, at the hands of their Anglo-Irish middle-class masters.21 The near-total absence of autobiographies by Irish Catholics from the 19th century, in contrast with the plentifulness of those by Anglo-Irish subjects,22 reflects the convergence of boundaries drawn by religion and class. Investigating the subjective experience of the Irish multitude is impeded by the near-absence of pre-1800 records, except for those concerning lawbreakers and recipients of Protestant charity.23

What is clear in Ireland’s unique political context, however, is a bewildering complexity marking the intersection between identities grounded in a combination of class origin or affiliation, political views, language, religion and (in the case of the Scots Irish) original ethnic derivation. A vivid case is the troubled career of the distinguished painter James Barry, some of whose most famous works were allegorical studies of classical mythology (‘The Birth of Pandora’, Jupiter and Juno on Mount Ida’ and ‘Orpheus Instructing a Savage People’). He was born to a lower-middle-class Protestant father, who operated a cargo coaster out of the Port of Cork. But he enthusiastically adopted the faith of his Catholic mother, whose family had once owned lands but had become poor when they had been confiscated. He was saved from working as a sailor by Edmund Burke, no less, who spotted his talent, took him to England and subsidised his artistic education in Rome, although the two men were in frequent disagreement about politics and Barry’s attitudes to authority. The tension between them is sardonically expressed in Barry’s 1776 painting ‘Portraits of Barry and Burke in the Characters of Ulysses and a Companion fleeing from the Cave of Polyphemus’.24 Barry was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy in 1782. But his coarse speaking style, slovenly clothes (he was sometimes mistaken for a beggar),2’ support of Irish peasants, the French revolution, Abolition and Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism led to disputes which culminated in his expulsion from the Academy in 1799 and death in abject poverty seven years later.26 His inability to embrace the British artistic and political establishments wholeheartedly was undoubtedly related to his confused religious and class identity.

The complexity can also be illustrated by the diverse uses to which people other than Catholic critics of English imperialism named above put the ancient Greeks and Romans. Some of the more colourful of these uses form the subjectmatter of this chapter, concluding with the foundational working-class novel of literature in English, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists (1914), an extended meditation on working-class consciousness fundamentally informed by Plato’s allegory of the cave.

  • [1] 2 forbidden. Such abridgements of these histories, as I have seen, are certainly
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >