Anglo-Irish radicals

The Anglo-Irish community produced radicals as well as conformists like Southerne anxious to pursue careers in England. In 1778 Thomas Campbell, a Church of Ireland clergyman dismayed by the ignorance of Irish affairs he encountered in England and by the dreadful policies that resulted, published a survey of rural life in Ireland aimed at changing opinion (James Boswell facetiously described it as ‘entertaining’72). Campbell argued for reform of the penal code, and when describing the reaction of some Irish cottagers to their new landlord, followed Sir Charles Wogan in writing that they, ‘like the Helots, were afraid of the lash of their accustomed masters’.73 Helotage as metaphor for oppression of the Irish was also used by the noted Church of Ireland champion of Catholic emancipation, William Toddjones, a man subsequently imprisoned for his political activities. In 1784 he complained that the way that the unemancipated Irish were treated meant that ‘the ancient faith and ancient arms of Ireland ought to merge in the infamy of Grecian Helots’.74 Eight years later, Jones said that the despotic power of the English settler ‘over his Irish feudatory’ was as bad as Spartan helotage.75 He compared the licence that ancient Spartans had to kill helots with the outrageously lenient punishment received by a Protestant for killing a ‘mere Irishman’. Irish writers frequently go beyond comparison or analogy to a subjective identification of the Irish with helots, in the most extreme instances using ‘Helot’ as a pseudonym, as in the Letters of an Irish Helot (1785) by the Presbyterian William Drennan, who was tried in 1794 for sedition.76

Jones and Drennan were both from Ulster and members of the United Irishmen, the early Irish republican movement, active between 1791 and 1798, which proposed an independent Ireland run by all religious denominations on an equal basis.77 The focus of their activity and that of other local radicals was the Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge, which developed out of the Belfast Reading Society, founded on 13th May 1788 on the model of Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia.78 Its founders were ‘worthy plebeians who would do honour to any town, [of whom] not one among them was of higher rank than McCormick the gunsmith or Osborne the baker’.79 There were similarly politicised initiatives in Dublin and Cork: the Cork National Reading Room was not just a meeting place and a library but a focus of political debate and Fenian agitation.80 But there were higher literacy levels in Ulster.81 There was a book club in Doagh, County Antrim, founded by local schoolteacher William Galt in 1768; in County Down the Newry Literary Society was founded in 1768, the Portaferry Literary society the same year, the Newtownards Society for Acquiring Knowledge in 1789 and the Ballnahinch Reading Club in 1790. Their collections always included popular classical authors such as Homer and Plutarch. But ‘many of these northern societies were looked on with suspicion by the ruling class and the government, and some were to suffer accordingly’.82 The libraries of the Doagh Book Club and the Newry Literary Society were destroyed after the 1798 rebellion.83

Originally a subscription society, for which the fee was kept to only one shilling a month,84 the Belfast Library helped earn Belfast’s reputation at that time as the ‘Athens of the North’; the scientific and literary achievements of its people, facilitated by access to the sea for commerce and early industrial development, especially after Nicholas Grimshaw opened his water-powered spinning mill at Whitehouse in 1784. Education was advanced; a school opened in the High Street in 1760 by David Manson taught pupils of both sexes to read with teaching cards, books and grammars which revolutionised education across Ireland; there were two circulating libraries by 1775.

The earliest members of the Belfast Society almost all had radical tendencies and carried a motion as early as 1792 that Catholics must be admitted, which was noticed with dismay by the administrators at Dublin Castle and Westminster; women were also allowed membership.85 Its second president wrote approvingly in 1793 that it did ‘much honour to the sansculottes of Belfast ... sensible and reading mechanics’.86 The library, which contained books on science, natural history, philosophy, the arts and all kinds of literature, including classical authors, acquired a museum and moved to Ann Street (in 1801 it moved again to the White Linen Hall), resolving to establish a Free School for the education of the sons of the poor. This was instrumental in the excellent provision of elementary education in 19th-century Belfast.87 But the 1798 rebellion saw several of the Society’s members arrested for the possession of seditious material, along with other United Irishmen across the country. Its charismatic librarian Thomas Russell, an expert classical scholar whose republicanism was fed by his interest in ancient history and literature, and who had been the one to suggest turning the reading group into a more public-facing educational institution,88 was one of them.

Russell was home-schooled in Greek and Latin by his father, a classicist who had trained for the Church of Ireland at Kilkenny College until he was expelled for reading banned books. The youth, born at Betsborough, Dunnahane, Co. Cork, in 1787, was well-read; few, it was said, ‘even with the advantage of a university education, could enter on the world better informed’.89 He went to India to serve in the army but left after five years, disgusted by ‘the unjust and rapacious conduct pursued by the authorities in the case of two native women’.90 On his return, he met Wolfe Tone, a founding member of the United Irishmen, whose father was a Church of Ireland coach-maker but whose mother had been raised a Catholic. They spent the summer of 1790 together. Russell then acquired a position in the 64th regiment, quartered at Belfast.91 He was a committed Christian, but objected to the regime’s insistence that people charged with crimes were obliged to declare their religious denomination.92

He was impressed by the intellectual and political awareness of the northern Irish, observing that

there does not exist a class of people in the same line of life, who possess the same enlarged ideas, or minds as well stored with knowledge, as the farmers and manufacturers of the province of Ulster.93

He admired their progressive views; they took responsibility for their poor not only by setting up accommodation and education for them but by attending to the city’s paving, lighting and plumbing.94 After attending a 1791 meeting of the Belfast Whig club held to celebrate Bastille Day, Russell abandoned the army and helped found the Belfast Society of Irishmen, leading its County Down militia. His friend and political ally, the physician Dr. James McDonnell, secured for him the post of librarian to the Belfast Society. Russell’s 1796 polemic Letter to the People of Ireland proposes social, economic, political and constitutional reforms and support for the abolition of slavery; he was arrested at the library and held captive for six years in Dublin and Fort George in Scotland. His military skills meant that he was regarded as a particular threat, and he was unable to join in the 1798 uprising. He was exiled to Hamburg in 1802, but went instead to Paris, and thence to Ireland, where he participated in the doomed 1803 rebellion organised by Robert Emmett. This led to his arrest and execution, like Emmett, for High Treason. At the age of 32, he was first hanged, then beheaded.

Russell’s roughly jotted diaries, which were never intended to be read by anyone else, reveal that his social ideas were informed by classical authors. He quotes Latin, argues about Horace at a dinner party with Tories and translations of Virgil with other Belfast radicals, and writes a whole essay criticising the Stoics, including Marcus Aurelius, for arguing that poverty is not an evil and for persecuting Christians.’’ He notes with approval that there are Catholic schools in the Cavan hills where children learn Latin, and that a reading society (probably the Doagh Book Club) had originated, as in Belfast, ‘among the lower orders’ and that most of the books were on history, philosophy and politics.’6 But it was as main contributor to the United Irishmen’s newspaper, the Northern Star, that his classical learning was put to political use.

A target was fellow Irishman Edmund Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, in a satire worthy of the Swiftian tradition, by Russell and a radical barrister named William Sampson. It consisted of instalments of a review of a fictitious epic poem called The Lion of Old England. The apocryphal poem related the adventures of the English Lion, silenced by Burke’s flattery. A flavour is conveyed by its discussion of the supposed Canto IV, on the Etonian Richard Howe, Commander of the Channel Fleet in the French Revolutionary Wars:

We now find the Lion once more at sea with Lord Howe, in sight of the French fleet. The various ships which compose each line, are described in a very lively manner, also the personal qualities of each commander—we are sorry however to find too servile an imitation of the descriptions of Homer and Virgil.’7

The satire parodies both patriotic British eulogies of leading men and the pompous classicism of literary journalism, larded with inept quotations from, for example, Plautus’ Captivi.9*

The epic’s purported climax, published in Northern Star on October 31st, 1793, comes when Burke is appointed Prophet in the ‘Temple of the Constitution’ and in Canto XII delivers a panegyric of the Lion:

Most noble and redoubted Lion bold,

Know that the glories which you here behold,

Beneath this temple’s venerable dome,

Are the proudest boasts of Greece or Rome—

Even, as the spacious firmament on high,

Is to the frail crust of a mutton pye.”

The verbose Prophet continues, hilariously, to compare the temple with the Roman amphitheatre [i.e. Colosseum] ‘which has properly been denominated Amorphous, consisting of so many sides, curves, and angles, as to baffle all measurement’ and to

‘that inextricable labyrinth in Crete, in which it was impossible to expatiate without being lost’. The Island of the English Lion ‘stands alone, like a bright gem on the bosom of the Ocean, which occasioned the poet of antiquity to say of its inhabitants, that, they were “penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos” (‘Britons utterly separated from the whole world’, Virgil, Ecl. 1.67). The orotund Prophet claims that Britain’s origin is ‘lost in the clouds of antiquity, which proves it divine’.100

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >