What’s wrong, sweetie? It’s just a church, that’s all.63
In highlighting here the importance of the connection between Irish Gothic and the Irish Anglican community, I am repeating and endorsing the long-held view that the Gothic is essentially a Protestant genre. I am not the only critic who thinks that Protestantism is a necessary precondition for Irish Gothic, of course. W. J. McCormack has opined that Irish Gothic is ‘distinctly protestant’,64 and in a recent return to the subject, Roy Foster has also re-emphasised the importance of ‘Protestant insecurity and self-interrogation’ to the development of the genre in Ireland.65 Luke Gibbons too considers Gothic as a genre oppositional to Catholicism, writing of it as ‘following through the cultural work of the Glorious Revolution . . . expunging the traces not only of feudalism but its archaic Catholic remnants from the social order’, which accounts for the constant re-appearance of ruins – ruined convents, ruined monasteries and ancient and ruined castles – in texts like Roche’s The Children of the Abbey.66 However, the association between Irish Gothic and Irish Anglicanism has been seriously questioned by a number of substantial and important critics.
Seamus Deane has pointed to the existence of what he calls a ‘Catholic-nationalist Gothic’, highlighting James Clarence Mangan’s Autobiography (written 1848; published 1883), as a major text in this body of work.67 Richard Haslam takes both McCormack and myself to task, rightly protesting that there is a substantial body of Gothic writing composed by Irish Catholics,68 including John Banim, Michael Banim, William Carleton (though, of course, Carleton did convert to Protestantism), James Clarence Mangan, John Banville, Neil Jordan and Seamus Deane – to which list I would add Gerald Griffin, Oscar Wilde69 and James Joyce – there are distinctly Gothic elements to stories like ‘The Sisters’ (1904) and ‘The Dead’ (1914), as well as the Circe episode of Ulysses (1922). Claire Connolly agrees, and argues that ‘not solely associated with a besieged Anglican tradition, then, Gothic modes pervade the writing of the 1820s . . . Richard Haslam is surely correct to suggest that thinking of the Gothic in terms of mode rather than confessional affiliation “assists in the pursuit of Catholic-nationalist Gothic”’.70 In a study of Gerald Griffin’s ‘The Brown Man’ (1827), Sinéad Sturgeon has protested the traditional association between the Gothic and Protestantism, arguing that ‘the work of Griffin, a Catholic raised in post-1798 Limerick, whose father reportedly assisted the Irish peasantry in the severe repression that followed the rebellion, provides an opportunity to widen the parameters of criticism to explore what Richard Haslam has postulated as “an Irish-Catholic-nationalist Gothic mode”’.71
For such commentators, the claim that Gothic, and Irish Gothic in particular, is a Protestant (or Anglican) genre is disproved by pointing to the existence of a substantial and growing number of Catholics who write Gothic fiction. This is, however, a fallacious objection to the original argument, and multiplying the number of Catholic Gothic writers would not help in the slightest either since the issue does not relate to authorship but to the politics (and theology, in this case) of form. Unfortunately, this kind of mistake is what happens when terms like ‘genre’ and ‘tradition’ are dismissed from the critical vocabulary, because without them the ideological and theological commitments of a particular form become invisible. As Terry Eagleton puts it, ‘there is a politics of form as well as of content. Form is not a distraction from history but a mode of access to it’,72 an observation supported by the studies of Susan Wolfson and Richard Cronin, who both insist that form is as political and ideological as any other aspect of a text.73 That Catholics produced Gothic fiction in no way changes the ideological commitments of the genre any more than the fact that some feminists make pornographic films would mitigate the basic misogyny of pornography itself. The existence of Irish Catholic Gothic writers in no way negates the original point made by McCormack and Foster, and rearticulated by myself, which is that Irish Gothic is a Protestant mode because Gothic itself is a Protestant mode. The point being made here is not that Irish Gothic was written only by Irish Protestants (though it mostly was), but that the form itself is Protestant.
The relationship between Catholicism and modern forms of literature has been fraught. In an essay entitled ‘Catholic Literature in the English Tongue, 1854–8’, delivered in 1859, John Henry Newman claimed that, in terms of modern English writing, ‘we have . . . a Protestant literature’.74 Newman obviously went too far in this declaration since, as he observed, William Shakespeare could be considered a Catholic writer, and the canon of modern English literature would have to include figures like Richard Crashaw, John Dryden and Alexander Pope. If he had contented himself with reference to the novel form, however, Newman would have been on much more solid ground. After all, literary historians have been keen to stress not just that the Gothic is essentially Protestant but that the novel form itself is Protestant, and that Catholics who write novels are interlopers in an alien tradition.75 Newman was echoed, though from a less sympathetic position, by George Orwell in the twentieth century, who asked contentiously, ‘How many Roman Catholics have been good novelists? Even the handful one could name have usually been bad Catholics. The novel is practically a Protestant form of art; it is a product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual’.76 You need not necessarily agree with Orwell’s association of freedom with Protestantism to endorse his central intuition that the novel and Protestantism are deeply connected – indeed, so closely connected that a claim that the novel is interpellated by Protestantism may not be an overstatement.
In her article ‘The Englishness of the English Novel’ (1980), Q. D. Leavis argued that ‘the glories of English literature are innately Protestant in character’ and that ‘the English novel owes more than anything else to the fact that it has traditionally been the product of an essentially Protestant culture’.77 The claims of Newman, Orwell and Leavis have largely been supported by over a century of literary scholarship. Ian Watt’s seminal The Rise of the Novel (1957) contended that ‘it is . . . likely that the Puritan conception of the dignity of labour helped to bring into being the novel’s general premise that the individual’s daily life is of sufficient importance and interest to be the proper subject of literature’.78 This was echoed by Michael McKeown’s The Origins of the English Novel (1987), endorsing a connection between the ‘Protestant mind’ and the form of the novel.79 Clearly, this is not all that needs to be said, and the relationship between the novel and Protestantism would have to be qualified by its simultaneous connection with the romance. However, it is probably best to articulate the relationship between the novel and the romance as one of critical dependency (in the same way that Protestantism, being a belated Christian denomination, depends on Catholicism as a way to define itself). Something very similar might be said of Gothic fiction, which is both driven by Catholophobia – it is a form which is inextricably bound up in, one of whose major functions is, attacking Catholicism – and yet which also displays constant and repeated Catholophilia, a desire for that which has been rejected. This is a fairly basic point about the Gothic made by very many serious scholars of the genre, including Victor Sage, Cannon Schmitt and Patrick O’Malley, who have done much to elucidate this disgust–desire dichotomy driving the Gothic forward.
In the 1960s, Maurice Levy argued that the Glorious Revolution leading to the Protestant Settlement was of basic importance to Gothic writers,80 and Victor Sage has supported this, insisting that ‘the penetration of Protestant theology into every aspect of English culture since the Settlement acts as a most intimate, and at the same time a most objective, conditioning factor in both popular belief and literary culture’.81 The Gothic tradition is formed partly from the images of horror abstracted from that great founding text John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (Book of Martyrs) (1563), whose raison d’être is precisely the demonstration of Catholic monstrosity and, as John Henry Newman pointed out in his ‘Lectures on the Present Condition of Catholics in England’ (1850), versions of Catholics-as-monsters pervaded English culture as a long and pernicious tradition:
this Tradition does not flow from the mouths of the half-dozen wise or philosophic, or learned men who can be summoned in its support, but is a tradition of nursery stories, school stories, public-house stories, club-house stories, drawing-room stories, platform stories, pulpit stories; – a tradition of newspapers, magazines, reviews, pamphlets, romances, novels, poems, and light literature of all kind, literature of the day; – a tradition of selection from the English classics, bits of poetry, passages of history, sermons, chance essays, extracts from books of travel, anonymous anecdotes, lectures on prophecy, statements and arguments of polemical writers made up into small octavos for class-books and into pretty miniatures for presents; a tradition floating in the air.82
Patrick O’ Malley rightly insists that ‘in its ideological structure, the English Gothic novel, though it typically represents Catholicism, is fundamentally a Protestant genre’.83
It is rather too easy to compile a list of prominent Catholic novelists as a way to refute the thesis that the novel is a Protestant form, but such an approach would completely miss the point, and this can be said for the Gothic also. One use Catholic writers made of Gothic motifs and tropes was as a mode of writing back, a kind of ‘reverse Gothic’. Emma McEvoy has recently pointed out that when Catholics write Gothic they often use it in order to uncover the anti-Catholic basis of the genre: it is ‘possible for Catholic-sympathising writers consciously to rewrite or renegotiate the Gothic’ by ‘inflect[ing]’ the conventional tropes of the Gothic ‘differently’. This does not change the basic theological orientation of the genre but it does means that Catholic writers have tried to experiment creatively with inherently unsympathetic material.84
The most obvious example of this kind of writing back is in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), where he takes the prevailing Catholic demonology of the Gothic and overturns it so that the Gordon rioters of 1780 become implicated in the evil and perversity ascribed to Spanish Inquisition monks and Continental nuns and priests and monks by Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe. Burke’s appropriation of the discourse of the Gothic to describe not Jacobite monstrosity but its Jacobin mirror image, so that the Catholic Church and the institutions of the ancien régime are precisely those under Gothic attack rather than the agents of Gothic terror themselves, proved seminal to Catholic writers. For Burke, it is the proponents of modernity who violate the bedroom and the propriety of the female body in their assault on Marie Antoinette rather than the inquisitorial Catholic Church that undermines female virginity and chastity through its confessional. As Luke Gibbons perceptively notes, in Burke’s writing as a whole, ‘the brutality of British colonialism in India, and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, meant that [a] new form of state terrorism was now unleashed upon the world, driven by a form of Locating the Gothic 55 zealotry and intolerance which Burke, in the Reflections, traced back to the Cromwellian period’.85
James Clarence Mangan so thoroughly appropriated the paraphernalia of the Gothic that he became a living incarnation of Melmoth the Wanderer, literalising the language of the Gothic to parodic extreme. The Catholic-born Mangan’s satirical take on Gothic was matched by the crypto-Catholic Oscar Wilde’s demolition of it in ‘The Canterville Ghost’ (1887), where the Gothic is reduced to a mechanical and hammy piece of amateur theatrics needing to be put out of its misery by the virginal innocent usually terrorised within it. Where they were not reversing or parodying the Gothic, other Catholics accepted the monstrous attributes given to them by the genre and used these attributes to warn and threaten those who marginalised and tried to silence them. In Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire [Lament for Art O’ Leary] (composed 1773), Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill strikingly uses the version of Irish Catholics as vampires to her own purposes, and as she drinks the blood of her slain husband she warns his killers that revenge is nigh. Many Irish-language Gothic texts speak of the power of the living dead and the inability to kill that which is most frightening, a tradition which includes Seán Ó Coileáin’s ‘Machtnamh an Duine Dhoilíosaigh’ [‘Thoughts of the Heartbroken’] (1813) and Máirtin Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille [Churchyard Clay] (1949).
In fact, the ‘writing back’ possibilities of the genre were highlighted from the start by Horace Walpole who, in his preface to The Castle of Otranto, outlined how the ideological intent of a particular medium could be undermined and undercut by intelligent readers and writers. In the preface to the first edition, Walpole’s fictional ‘editor’ described how print was ideologically Protestant and was a means by which the original reformers hoped to convert Europe. Others, however, saw the new medium as a way they could disguise their nefarious designs to instil superstition and fear in the population:
Letters were then in their most flourishing state in Italy, and contributed to dispel the empire of superstition, at that time so forcibly attacked by the reformers. It is not unlikely that an artful priest might endeavour to turn their own arms on the innovators, and might avail himself of his abilities as an author to confirm the populace in their ancient errors and superstitions. If this was his view, he has certainly acted with signal address. Such a work as the following would enslave a hundred vulgar minds beyond half the books of controversy that have been written from the days of Luther to the present hour.86
In one sense, therefore, by using an anti-Catholic weapon as a means of self-defence, and even pre-emptive attack, Catholic Gothic writers were exploiting the subversive potentialities already inherent in the genre.
Of course, other Catholics simply absorbed and internalised the tropes of the Gothic and used them to revile Catholicism, becoming Protestants manqués in the process. This is, perhaps, clearest in the case of William Carleton, a convert to the Established Church. Much of his career was devoted to depicting the Catholic Church in the monstrous terms typical of Temple and Maturin. His most explicit Gothic tale, ‘Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman’ (later renamed ‘Wildgoose Lodge’) (1830), portrays a Catholic agrarian society attacking and brutally killing Protestant women and children. Carletonian styles of paranoid antiCatholic Gothic infect much nineteenth- and twentieth-century Catholic writing, and even the trite version of the Catholic Church as an inquisitorial institution and the priest as a lecherous and monstrous child abuser, central to Melmoth the Wanderer, was resurrected in documentaries like States of Fear (1999) – covering the industrial school system from the 1860s to the 1970s – and the depiction of the Magdalene Laundries in, for example, Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters (2002). Although it would take far too much space to demonstrate completely here, too many twentieth-century Irish Catholic writers who use Gothic motifs in their work adopt almost wholesale the monstrous version of Catholicism basic to the Gothic novel. For example, Patrick McCabe’s brilliant ‘bog Gothic’ The Butcher Boy (1992), and Neil Jordan’s 1997 film adaptation can both be accused of powerfully reproducing the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Gothic in their version of 1950s Catholic Ireland as a pornotopia of violence and perverse sexuality. Indeed, commentary on Ireland in the 1950s as a whole often descends to a reproduction of well-worn Gothic tropes and themes, and figures like the paedophile priests Brendan Smith and Séan Fortune have also taken their place as caricatured versions of a typical Gothic villain in many accounts. Catholics have certainly used and abused the Gothic genre in complex, problematic and also sometimes brilliant ways, but the form itself remains an alien one. The genre is a Protestant one, and in Ireland, the Gothic novel emerged in response to a specific political crisis within the Irish Anglican enclave, to which I now turn.