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Part II

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    As will be clear from the above (necessarily brief) intervention into a contentious field, the question of interpretation has become a very highly charged one in terms of reading Irish Gothic fiction (particularly the canonical works). The mobilisation of Frye’s term ‘symbolic spread’ is intended as a way of escaping from the interpretive bind in which an obsession with allegory has left critics. Of course, straightforward, ‘traditional’ allegory plays an extremely significant role in Irish life and writing and has done for centuries. For example, the allegorical representation of Ireland and Irish sovereignty as female can be traced to the image of the ‘sovereignty goddess’ in pre-Christian rituals designed to validate a new king. The physical condition of the goddess depended on the validity of the man to whom she was to be symbolically married, and she could change from old, ugly and barren to young, beautiful and fertile.54 In the ‘loathly lady’ tradition, a wizened hag would meet a group of young men and demand that one of them make love to her; this deed accomplished, the hag would transform into a beautiful young woman. In another tradition, a hag called Becuma marries the king, causing the land to become infertile and the crops to fail, a situation which could only be altered by the blood sacrifice of a young man whose life force would mingle with the soil and make it fertile once more. G. F. Dalton argues that we need to conflate these two stories: ‘As a preliminary to the king’s inauguration, a young man was put to death as a blood-sacrifice to the goddess, that this was considered a sexual union with her, and that the sacrifice was thought to rejuvenate the goddess and make her fit to marry the king.’55

    After the coming of Christianity, these practices were abandoned as living realities and instead oral and literary traditions kept current the allegorical valence of the old rituals.56 Certainly, allegorical images of Ireland as a woman can be found everywhere in eighteenth-century Irish literature. Much of the allegorical poetry written in Irish in the eighteenth century is Jacobite in political orientation and therefore operates as part of what Daniel Szechi has called a ‘discourse of opposition’.57 These poems use a variety of female names to designate Ireland, including Caitlín Ní Uallacháin (the name that would eventually become, in the 1902 play by W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory, Cathleen ni Houlihan), Síle Ní Ghadhra and Móirín Ní Chuilleanáin. In poems by Seán Clárach Mac Domhnaill, Séan Ó Tuama and Tadhg Gaelach Ó Súilleabháin, Ireland is variously depicted as a widow mourning the death of her husband or a young engaged girl whose suitor has vanished or a wife who has been abandoned and longs for her husband’s return. Usually the missing and greatly missed male is the Stuart Pretender. While the abandoned Ireland waits in hope for her Stuart saviour, she is more often than not also subject to the unwanted sexual attentions of a degenerate and dissolute pervert (usually George I or George II) determined to have her at any cost. While the majority of these poems end before the re-appearance of the hero, on rare occasions they express joy and happiness as the Stuart prince actually comes back.

    These are indeed national allegories very similar to those described by Fredric Jameson in that they carefully mingle together sexual relations and political aspirations, reading private and public histories together. A good example of such a poem is the anonymous ‘Síle Ní Ghadhra’ (c.1740) (first published in 1831, but circulating in the eighteenth century), where the allegorical Síle is found celebrating the return of her lover who has been missing and the subsequent freedom of her people because of this return. While waiting for her lover, she had to suffer the presence of the ‘enemies’ of Ireland, especially the ‘accursed English pup’ who had been harassing her since the departure of her ‘spouse’, but now, with the ‘Frenchman and his hosts’ who come ‘over the waves’ to assist her in her struggle against the unwelcome invaders of the house, things are looking up. The poem’s conclusion sees a future in which religious freedom is guaranteed to the Catholic masses.58 Síle’s appeal to Continental Catholic powers is relatively common in the period and shows that the Gaelic poets were aware that the Jacobite leadership pursued alliances with a number of European Catholic leaders in the mid-century.59 The Munster poet Aogán Ó Rathaille is a powerful representative of writers of the aisling in this century. His poetry constantly returns to the allegorical figure of Ireland waiting for her hero to return to her from his exile. In ‘An millead d’imthigh air mhór-shleachtaibh na h-Éireann’ (‘The ruin that befell the great families of Ireland’), Ireland is depicted as severely mistreated by foreign oppressors, waiting for a Stuart deliverance:

    Tír fá ansmacht Gall do traochadh!

    Tír do doirteadh fá chosaibh na méirleach!

    Tír na ngaibhne – is treighid go h-eug liom.

    Tír bhocht bhuaidheartha, is uaigneach céasda!

    Tír gan fear gan mac gan céile!

    Tír gan lúth gan fonn gan éisdeacht!

    Tír gan chothrom do bochtaibh le déanaí!

    The abandoned country suffering under English oppression,

    Downtrodden by the feet of outlaws.

    A chained land, sickening and weakening me.

    The poor, anxious, lonely and tormented land,

    A land without men, sons or husbands,

    A land without vitality, or spirit, incapable of making a sound,

    A land where the poor have to suffer injustice.60

    Images of rape and abduction are central to Jacobite poetry as ways of talking about politics and the relationship between Ireland and Britain. Indeed, marriage, rape and sexual desire are vehicles for imaging radical political ideas to eighteenth-century Gaelic poets, who combine an extremely personal and intimate language with that of national and international politics (the appeal to Catholic France for assistance). In eighteenth-century Irish writing, the personal is extremely political.

    According to the literary historian Breandán Ó Buachalla, the allegorical poetry which assigns commonplace names like Síle, Caitlín and Móirin to Ireland is part of a popular rather than a more formal aisling tradition where Ireland is given regal and even celestial titles such as Éire, Banba and Fódla. With the writing of these kinds of demotic poems, it became permissible to represent Ireland as an ordinary woman and to discuss high politics using the language of the domestic and erotic economy. From the eighteenth century onwards, it was increasingly common for Ireland to be represented by the lowly as well as the exalted, a practice which would eventually find expression in the nineteenthcentury national novel.61 The female figure is the main interest in these poems, her ordinariness a means by which the reader can identify with her and a way political sentiment can be directly and accessibly communicated to a popular audience. The act of political aggression figured in the relations with Hanoverian Britain is conveyed vividly in images of violence committed upon an innocent woman who needs help and protection from a suitably positioned and honest male. Current political issues are alluded to, but indirectly, and tend to be subsumed in a more general allegorical framework. These poetic allegories also form the background for the use of female names for Ireland by agrarian secret societies like the Whiteboys (in the 1760s) and the Defenders (in the 1790s). Whiteboys, for example, often declared their loyalty to figures like Queen Sive, a royal title, but also to more apparently commonplace figures like ‘Shevane Meskill’ and ‘Sieve Oultagh’, and when brought to trial, they insisted that names like Sive were references not to political aspirations but to actual old women who lived in the neighbourhood.62

    These are all examples of straightforward allegories. Seeing them as commentaries on Irish politics does not require recognising a symbolic spreading of resonance since such political poems would not be mistaken for anything other than allegorical comments on Ireland’s status in the eighteenth century. This has not always been clearly understood, and some commentators have theorised that the use of female names for Ireland in Irish language poetry was a way to occlude the poetry’s politics and ensure that, should the poem fall into the hands of the authorities, its treasonable orientation would either go unnoticed or be deniable. The collector John O’Daly, for example, argues that ‘as the sufferer was not permitted to complain openly, the voice of discontent was often veiled in the language of allegory. Ireland was usually designated by some endearing name’.63 Although this may sound plausible, when the actual poems themselves are taken into account it is clear that this theory is simply untenable. Far from occluding or disguising their political intentions, the poems are replete with very direct political references (to the Pretender, to the Jacobite cause). Their politics are overt rather than covert. Most importantly, these poems locate political and emotional resonance in the female body itself rather than simply in particular aristocratic or divine instantiations of it, so that ordinary women are incorporated as vehicles for political aspirations. As Máirín Nic Eoin argues, ‘in using vernacular names, eighteenth-century poets were above all reclaiming the emotive force of the female sovereignty figure’.64 Nic Eoin worries, though, about the stripping of female agency that can be witnessed in these songs. The allegorical female complains, mourns, bewails, desires, hopes, but never acts. There is no sense given in these poems that the female figure has the power to change things herself rather than wait for either the return of her lover or the arrival of foreign allies, and she is always dependent on male action. Change is effected, if at all, though the miraculous return of the displaced male, who saves the distressed female and by implication, Ireland. Indeed, this lack of agency is one of the strongest reasons why feminists have found the whole allegorical tradition problematic.65 For Nic Eoin, ‘the use of female personification, as part of a gendered ideology of kingship, hindered the process of radicalisation which was necessary if a revolutionary movement such as the United Irishmen was to gain widespread support’.66 It is difficult to see how this passivity could be avoided in traditional allegory, where there is a static and one-dimensional quality to the allegorical figures. However, in less straightforward allegories like the national and the Gothic novel, the female figure is more than simply a representation of Ireland (though also that) and symbolically spreads outwards to other potential meanings, and in this context the possibilities for character development and even agency become evident.

    Most commentary on anglophone uses of the allegorical tradition of female personification of Ireland concentrate on the emergence of the so-called national novel towards the end of the eighteenth century. This was the period when the issue of a political union between Great Britain and Ireland became a subject of major public debate and novelists intervened in the national conversation by allegorising the relations between the two countries in plots where Ireland is configured as a sensitive, sentimental, fresh-faced and innocent woman who, after a series of trials and tribulations, is happily married off to a rational man who represents Britain.67 This is the now infamous ‘Glorvina solution’ to the political divisions of the two countries as proposed by a number of writers, most importantly Sydney Owenson and Maria Edgeworth.68 The term derives from Owenson’s novel The Wild Irish Girl (1806), which served as a paradigmatic example of how the national novel worked. In this story, Horatio, the dissolute son of Lord M-, is punished by his father for his bad behaviour by being sent to the family’s estates in the west of Ireland, a place Horatio thinks of as a wild and foreign habitation full of weirdos. There he meets the Catholic Prince of Inishmore and his daughter, the beautiful and extraordinarily talented Glorvina, with whom he falls deeply in love, unaware that a marriage has already been arranged between her and his father. What happens in the course of the novel is essentially that Horatio’s initial suspicion and consternation regarding the bizarre Catholic Irish is transformed into a genuine respect as he (and by implication, the English reader) learns more about the true richness of Irish culture and history. Glorvina is given the job of overturning the ignorant prejudices of Horatio through a process of education, and by the end of the novel he has become convinced of Ireland’s status as an ancient civilisation deserving of great honour (though there is no implication that this rules out either his continued superiority over Glorvina herself or English hegemony in Ireland).69 The politics of the national novel appear quite uncomplicated in that the implication of such marriages seems to be that Ireland’s difficulties with England could be solved through love (between peoples) rather than violence, as long as Ireland remains the female partner (and therefore the subordinate party) in a union with a kinder though still dominant male England. The ‘union of hearts’ in the national novel acts as a grand allegory of the desired for, or already completed but contested, union, marriage suggesting an apolitical solution to deeply political problems, harmony found in love and family rather than political debate.

    The Wild Irish Girl has long occupied the central position in this traditional version of literary history, though recently critics have suggested that the national novel has been read too straight. In an important intervention into the study of the national tale, especially as treated by Charles Robert Maturin, best known as the writer of the Gothic masterpiece Melmoth the Wanderer, Christina Morin has argued that an emphasis on the harmony of the ‘Glorvina solution’ has ignored the tensions underlying the endings of such novels. Pointing to Maturin’s The Wild Irish Boy (1808), for example, she claims that it ‘showcases the ways in which the national tale’s allegorical project refuses closure and instead flirts threateningly with continued conflict’.70 Her study intensely scrutinises the discourse of the Union and the ‘Glorvina solution’ to the tensions between England and Ireland, ‘Anglo-Irish’ and ‘Gaelic’ Ireland, which posits a potential source of national and individual well-being in a happy ‘companionate’ marriage between the two sides of the binary. According to Morin, to this quasi-pornographic version of national union-as-marriage Maturin brings an alternative language of Gothic nightmare and chaos: rather than end in secure marriages his novels typically gravitate towards female madness and fragmentation. Chaos rather than order, and a language of nightmare rather than dream, characterises Maturin’s examinations of the national question. As Morin reminds us, even in The Wild Irish Girl itself, ‘the consent Glorvina offers to Horatio’s marriage proposal remains ambiguous at best’, as she grieves for the death of her father, a death she believes partially caused by the man she is in love with and is to marry.71 For Morin, the national tale and the Gothic novel never really remain separate genres and should be considered cross-fertilising influences on each other, the Gothic acting like a cultural acid undermining any romantic plot resolutions. In an Irish context, ‘allegorical’ marriages can never be simply imaged as uncontested or leading to an easy harmony.

    Just as to the aisling poems, what is central to these later novels is the connection maintained between public issues of constitutional importance and the supposedly more private matters between individual men and women. Like the Gaelic poets, the national novelists see the solution to Irish political discord lying in a marriage between an allegorical Irish woman and an English man (the Stuart Pretender for the Gaelic poets, a more generalised English male figure for the national novelists). The only alternative envisioned to such a marriage is sexual assault and continued unhappiness for the Irish woman. Both traditions could then be considered as symptoms of what Seamus Deane has called ‘the pathology of literary unionism’, though it is a term he directed most particularly at figures like Charlotte Brooke and Maria Edgeworth as they used culture as a weapon to seal the sexual deal, attempting to make ‘cultural reconciliation’ a reality before the possibilities of political union could be properly considered (a cultural project involving a ‘union of hearts’ that was forever being postponed because of various political ruptures such as the French Revolution and the 1798 rebellion).72 Recent historians of the national novel have argued that it was not, in fact, an invention of the early nineteenth century, and have traced the national allegory of marriage back to novels like Regina Maria Roche’s The Children of the Abbey (1796), the anonymous The Triumph of Prudence over Passion (1781) and The Irish Guardian (1775), written by ‘A Lady’.73 Most literary historians also accept that Jonathan Swift’s The Story of the Injur’d Lady and The Answer to the Injured Lady (written 1707, published 1746) are important precursors to the marriage trope in the national novel, but while Swift certainly politicises marriage and sexual contract and allegorises Ireland as a woman, he is, in fact, doing something very different from either the Gaelic poets or the later national novelists. The solution he offers to Ireland’s national difficulties is not marriage with an external English figure but a dependency by a female Ireland on the manly Irish Anglican nation, and therefore his work is not completely implicated in Deane’s pathology but rather suggests alternative possibilities, directing Irish attention inwards rather than outwards.

    This page titled Part II is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jarlath Killeen via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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