Catholic classical scholars and poets

O’Higgins perhaps underestimates possibilities enjoyed by Irish Catholics who could write, if they avoided signs of defiance, and professed gratitude to their Protestant patrons, to rise socially. The brilliant Enlightenment deist thinker John Toland came from destitution at Redcastle near Londonderry; rumour alleged he was the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest.41 But his intellect was noticed. Once he renounced his Catholicism, he received generous patronage from Protestant families. After he had studied at both Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, English Dissenters financed for him a period at the University of Leiden and another in Oxford. At Oxford he talked to scholars, used the public library and wrote a dissertation on Atilius Regulus (published in 1722), declaring that the story of his death, reported by Livy and Diodorus, was fiction. His next book was his anti-Catholic polemic Christianity not Mysterious (1696), which required a philological grasp of New Testament Greek.42 The book outraged many in Britain, but more in Ireland, where it was publicly burned and banned. Toland was reduced to penury.

He published more than a hundred books about republican authors such as Milton and James Harrington, the Whig principles of tolerance, reason and liberty and the evils committed by established religion. Some of his ideas were revolutionary. He was the first person to argue in Britain that Jews should be given citizenship and equal rights.43 His profoundly original 1720 treatise Hypatia used the barbarous treatment of this ancient mathematician and philosopher by the Alexandrian Christians in the early 5th century ce to attack Catholicism, and argued that women had advanced intellects.44 But in his anti-clerical and Whig convictions, Toland was an asset to the English intellectual classes who had adopted him and promoted his career.

Even one girl, poor, Catholic and endowed with a talent for classical languages, used them to facilitate her elevation into middle-class society. Constantia Grierson was born Constantia Crawley into an illiterate Irish-speaking family in Graguenamanagh, County Kilkenny.4’ Her father realised her intelligence and she was educated by the parish minister. She became an apprentice midwife, met the poet Laetitia Pilkington in about 1721 and thereafter moved in the same Dublin literary circles as Swift. Pilkington wrote in her Memoirs that Grierson had a command of Hebrew, Greek, Latin and French;46 in their Introduction in Poems by Eminent Ladies Colman and Thornton describe her as ‘a most excellent scholar, not only in Greek and Roman literature, but in history, divinity, philosophy, and mathematics’.47 She married the Scottish publisher George Grierson, a devout member of the Church of Ireland, and edited classical authors for him, including Virgil, Terence and Cicero; she was working on Sallust when she died young.

The work that won most admiration was her three-volume edition of Tacitus published in 1730. Swift wrote to Alexander Pope praising her Latin and Greek scholarship and calling her edition of Tacitus ‘fine’.48 The Lancashire Dissenting classical scholar Edward Harwood described it as ‘one of the best edited books ever delivered to the world. Mrs Grierson was a lady possessed of singular erudition’.49 She also wrote English-language poems, replete with classical allusions, including one in which she mocks another woman for her inadequate knowledge of Latin.’0

Grierson’s Tacitus is a re-edition of Johannes Theodor Ryck’s Leiden edition of 1687, but she has corrected errors and written an elegant Latin preface.’1 She presents herself as the loyal subject of the English crown, dedicating the work in unctuous terms to John Carteret, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland 1724-1730, who commissioned the work and has often inspected it during the printing process. She compares the suffering of the ancient Romans under the tyrannical rule of the emperors described by Tacitus with the blissful calm of life under English rule in 1730, in phrases with a Ciceronian ring:

Felices nos qui in eis temporibus nati sumus, quibus talia nefanda et deflenda Facinora nullo modo nisi ab antiquis Scriptoribus, aut exterarum Gentium Calamitate cognoscere possumus.52

Happy are we to be born in times when we can only learn about such evil and lamentable crimes from either ancient writers or the misfortune of foreign peoples!

A similarly obsequious tone marks a prologue she wrote for a play to be performed when Lord and Lady Carteret (‘As fam’d a Pair adorns this Isle and Age’) were in Ireland.’3

If a Catholic wanted to rise socio-economically, it never harmed to be noisily grateful to have been colonised. Henry Jones was a Catholic apprentice bricklayer born near Drogheda, Co. Louth, in 1721. He composed a flattering poetic tribute to Lord Chesterfield when he arrived with his wife to assume the Lord-Lieutenancy of Ireland in 1745. It emphasised that HIBERNIA, unlike Jacobite-loving SCOTIA, was an obedient and loyal subject:

No feuds intestine in Her Bosom jar

No Breath rebellious wakes the Trump of War.

Her martial Tribe a loyal Fervour feels,

And Virtue’s strength each Manly Bosom feels.54

The aristocrat swept the bricklayer off to London to embark on a writing career; before dying there in dissipated penury, Jones produced one successful play on English history. His largely sycophantic poems include an encomium of the Earl of Orrery’s translation of Pliny’s Epistles and one of William Pitt the Elder, likening his oratory in the early days of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) to Cicero’s against Catiline.’5

Another protegee adopted by the Protestant Ascendancy was Ellen Taylor, the Catholic daughter of an ‘indigent cottager’ living ‘in a poor hut on the commons’,56 who worked as a housemaid near Kilkenny. Her aesthetic sensibility was discovered when she was found weeping by a visiting gentleman as she gazed on a print in the drawing room she had just cleaned; it depicted a woman, perhaps Electra, in tears leaning on a classical urn.’7 The local well-to-do joined forces to publish a collection of her poems (1792); profits were to subsidise a permanent home for the informal school she ran for the poor.

The classically literate Irish Catholic child who made the biggest mark after the Acts of Union 1800 was Thomas ‘Anacreon’ Moore (1779-1852), an actor, singer and songwriter, well-known in Ireland as a prolific poet and for promoting Irish themes in literature,58 but in cultural history most famous for being partially responsible, as Byron’s literary executor, for burning his scandalous memoirs. Moore was able to graduate from Trinity College in 1795 (in 1793 it had at last allowed Catholics to enrol) and sought his fortune in London. His debut publication was Odes of Anacreon, Translated into English Verse, with Notes (1800); these are not authentic works by the archaic poet Anacreon, but the collection of late antique poems on erotic and wine-related themes known as the Anacreontea found in the same 10th-century manuscript as the Palatine Anthology. The Anacreontea had attracted the Anglo-Irish Protestant establishment in the 18th century, but this new, fluid translation was adorned with racy pictures and made an instant impact. It has been described ‘as a formative presence at the genesis of British Romanticism’.59 Moore also wrote a novel set in ancient Greece and Egypt, The Epicurean (1827), which is less interested in philosophy than the persecution of the Christians. Sadly, despite immense charm, cultivating an English accent, espousing conservative views and avoiding association with his radical fellow students at TCD, Moore was not always welcome in polite London drawing rooms, ‘his plebeian origins as a Dublin grocer’s son’ being held against him.60

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