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Part III

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    Longsword, and the various unmonstering strategies employed within it, were practice for the far more (historically) important treatment of Catholics and the Catholic Church in Leland’s later The History of Ireland from the Invasion of Henry II with preliminary Discourse on the Ancient State of that Kingdom (1773). Leland’s history was quickly condemned when it was first published by the very Catholics who had urged him to write it, primarily because it seemed to them to treat Catholics in exactly the same way as had previous histories. Leland had been urged to write a ‘philosophical’ history, a rival to that written by the Scottish philosopher David Hume, whose History of England (1754–2) treated Catholics in an appalling manner, as well as to ‘correct’ extremist Protestant views of 1641. As Joseph Liechty remarks, comparing Leland’s treatment of 1641 to that of David Hume’s supposedly philosophical treatment is very telling, as in Hume’s considered view the rebellion was ‘an event memorable in the annals of human kind’ because of its ‘cruelty’, ‘the most barbarous, that ever, in any nation, was known or heard of’, ‘worthy to be held in perpetual detestation and abhorrence’.58 For a supposedly model example of philosophical history, of course, Hume’s analysis of Ireland is now notorious for its lack of liberalism and impartiality, given his apparent conviction that the island was populated by ‘barbarous savages’.59

    Taking into account the influence of Hume’s ‘analysis’, a history from an equally respectable (though more qualified) figure was needed, and Leland was urged to write a work of what we would now call historical revisionism, to set Irish history on a ‘value-free’ foothold, an objective viewpoint above the clamour and tension of sectarian explanations that had not been at all helpful in the decades before the 1770s. Since the publication of his history, however, Leland has been found wanting in most respects, not only by his Catholic friends, who were frankly shocked at what he actually wrote, but also by subsequent historians, who have concluded that he was ultimately not up to the job at hand. Leland’s Catholic associates were certainly appalled, and John Curry immediately penned a response in pamphlet form, Remarks on certain passages in Dr. Leland’s History of Ireland (1773). Edmund Burke, too, while in an anonymous review in the Annual Register praised the History later tended to disparage it and express his disappointment with Leland’s treatment of 1641 claiming (rather cruelly) that once Leland began writing it ‘he thought only of himself and the bookseller’.60 More recently, Joep Leerssen has argued that ‘instead of being, as was expected, balanced and tolerant, Leland’s account of 1641 came down firmly on the side of the Temples and Humes, giving all the gory detail contained in the traditional anti-Catholic histories’.61 Indeed, one recent critic, Joseph Liechty, has put forward the publication of Leland’s history as a case study of ‘the depth of Catholic/Protestant conflict’ in Ireland demonstrating that even when inclined to be generous and impartial, a Protestant writer had no real choice but to adopt a biased position in relation to 1641.62

    This, I feel, is an unfair verdict to pass on Leland’s major work: not only is it a far more ‘philosophical’ history than Hume’s or any other historical work written about Ireland in this period, it is essentially as objective a history as a liberal Anglican could write, and it is more or less correct in its treatment of the events it narrates. As Clare O’Halloran correctly notes, Leland was ‘more moderate than either Hume or Harris’ in dealing with 1641 (though, it must be said, it would be difficult to be more extreme than either of these two ‘historians’).63 Leland did warn O’Conor he would write ‘like a protestant’, but it seems that O’Conor did not take his warning seriously enough or understand the point Leland was trying to convey (‘I replied that I had hopes that the protestant would still be under the control of the philosopher’).64 The greatest problem with Leland’s history also characterises the supposedly value-free histories written by revisionists in the 1940s and 1950s: it is as dull as dishwater. If Leland was attempting to write a controversial and popular account of Irish history he failed miserably. His book sold badly and, as Lietchy argues, his History ‘disappointed just about everyone’, not just his Catholic friends but also conservative Anglicans, who noticed that it gave not the slightest attention to any defence of the upholding of the penal laws.65

    It is important to make the point that there are philosophical and historiographical problems with writing any history with the passion taken out. One of these problems is that by attempting to be objective, the historian necessarily plays down what Brendan Bradshaw has described in another context as the ‘cataclysmic element of Irish history’, and what Frederick Jameson has called the ‘hurts of history’ are mitigated by reason and calm, objective observation.66 Twentieth century Irish revisionists wrote to absolve Irish history writing of the nationalist teleology and bitterness traditional to it by that time, an ideological position which often made their histories read as if they were written from the ‘British perspective’. Leland attempts the more difficult task of writing from within an Irish Anglican perspective, largely for Irish Anglican readers, while trying to bring them to a more broadly sympathetic view of their fellow-Irish neighbours, Catholics, a group of people they had been more used to seeing as monsters disguised as normal human beings. This is very delicate task as Leland’s job is to convince his own constituency – and we should never forget that Leland was a proud Anglican minister – to accept the basic humanity of a set of people they had been trained to see as the equivalents of vampires and zombies. After all, de-fanging the vampire is always more difficult than simply staking him.

    Although sectarian tensions in Britain had died down somewhat, and Catholics were now being judged more leniently by the British public, in Ireland, these tensions had not been allowed to dampen down at all, and indeed, by the time Leland actually started to write his history, the fires of sectarian hatred were being stoked again because of the beginnings of agrarian agitation in Munster. Bishop Woodward was soon to publish his infamous tract The Present State of the Church of Ireland, in which the traditional version of the Irish Catholic monster is restated firmly and clearly, if a little hysterically, and the split of Irish Anglicans along traditional and ‘liberal’, Patriot lines confirmed. If Woodward stood very clearly on one side of this division, however, Leland, as demonstrated in Longsword, and reinforced by his history, stood on the other. In neither work are Catholics depicted as monsters from the abyss involved in a global conspiracy with its headquarters in the Vatican with agents everywhere all of whom have probably entered into a pact with Satan. Once the Catholophobic environment in which Leland was writing is admitted then the radical and powerful nature of his two ‘Irish’ studies becomes clear. Longsword, far from really being about the state of England in the time of Henry III, is actually about whether Catholics can be trusted to hold high office – and it concludes that they are. Likewise, although Leland’s History is not a whitewashing of Irish Catholic history, or an indictment of the English relationship with Ireland, or an accusation that the real problem in Ireland has always been the Protestant presence, it is a relatively objective attempt by a committed Irish Anglican to cleanse as much sectarian bigotry from the Irish record as possible. Leland is motivated in this attempt by his desire to assist in the reform of the Irish political system (particularly the reform of the penal laws) being both urged by the English parliament at this time and vigorously opposed by conservative Anglican elements in the Irish parliament.

    Moreover, in terms of assessing the accuracy of Leland’s narrative of 1641, contemporary historians have concluded that he is almost always correct. If he does not present Catholics as martyrs who had to bear the brunt of historical pain during the 1641 rebellion this is because they didn’t, and Leland is correct to dispute the claims of Catholic historians like John Curry that the massacre at Islandmagee took place after fighting had broken out elsewhere, and he is more or less accurate in his attempt to determine how many Catholics were actually killed in that massacre. Although Catholics are not the heroes of his history, the most important point to make is that Leland does not resort to the kind of monstering he inherits as an Irish Anglican historian, and he goes to some pains to continue the pattern established in Longsword of ‘humanising’ the Catholic monster and replacing him with a sympathetic and fully human enemy who has been wronged many times in the past and is more to be pitied than damned.

    One of the difficulties Leland had to confront when writing his history was that, between the publication of Longsword in early 1761 and the final publication of his History in 1773, Irish Catholics appeared to be living up to their monstrous reputation. In County Tipperary in late 1761, agrarian disturbances broke out, organized by secret societies formed by Catholic tenants, protesting against changes to the rural economy, and this agitation spread to other counties soon afterwards. The agitation was basically caused by an attempt by certain landlords to change the system of rural economy through such measures as an increase in the tithe and enclosing common land. Agitation involved the breaking down of fences surrounding such enclosed land but also included threatening anyone involved in attempts to change the moral economy; the burning of houses; and, on one memorable occasion, the trial, torture and execution of a horse in substitution for its owner, a prominent magistrate intent on quelling discontent in his district. Disturbances continued sporadically until 1765. Although there was a social rather than a religious basis to these outbreaks of violent agrarian activity, conservative Anglican opinion insisted that these incidents were evidence of the unchanging nature of Irish Catholicism and claimed that the Whiteboys (or Buachailli Bána, so-called because they carried out their subversive activities with their shirts over their heads) were trying to re-enact 1641.

    As Thomas Bartlett explains, this sense of a Catholic conspiracy was heightened when an intrepid Anglican, the Reverend John Hewetson of County Kilkenny, infiltrated the Whiteboys disguised as a Catholic peasant. When he emerged he claimed he had uncovered a vertiginously vast Catholic conspiracy which involved every major Catholic player on the continent of Europe, stretching right up to the Vatican, in which the French hierarchy were playing a large part. Father Nicholas Sheehy was fingered by Hewetson as one of the ringleaders and was subsequently arrested and hanged for treason. The formation of the Catholic Committee, the furore caused by the beginnings of Whiteboyism in Tipperary, and the execution of Nicholas Sheehy all meant that the view of Catholics as arch conspirators against the state and against the Anglican hegemony in Ireland became once again very fashionable to maintain, and this made any ‘philosophical’ reading of Irish history much more difficult to effect.67

    The struggle Leland has in writing an objective history is explained clearly at the start of his narrative where he warns that his version of events will necessarily cause offence because ‘it is difficult, if not impossible, for a subject of Ireland, to write of the transactions . . . without offending some, or all of those discordant parties, who have been habituated to view them through the medium of their passions and prepossessions’. Despite this difficulty, Leland insists he remains committed to the view that it is the job of the historian (or at least, the philosophical historian) to ‘form a general narrative upon the best information to be obtained’ and that the attention to ‘truth’ must avoid ‘flattering the prejudices, or fearing the resentments of sects or parties’.68 The complications involved in maintaining an objective position on Ireland’s history are very clear from the start, and objectivity is ultimately impossible to maintain. For example, Leland repeats a number of well-worn and nonsensical views concerning the native Irish, of whom he writes suspiciously that they remained ‘attached to the remains of their respective tribes’ after the Norman invasion, and he complains that ‘in remoter districts’, the Irish ‘retained their original manners’ (Vol. 3, p. 87). Leland also makes it clear that he is no friend of Catholicism and holds the stubborn refusal of the natives to give up their religious prejudices to blame for a great many of their later difficulties. He insists that ‘far the greater number of inhabitants were obstinately devoted to popery’, and that the penal laws, while unfortunate, were only implemented when ‘the insolence of popish ecclesiastics provoked the execution of them’ (Vol. 3, p. 88). At times, the full force of this deep seated anti-Catholicism bubbles over:

    The ignorant herd of papists [Catholic priests] governed at their pleasure . . . [priests] bound solemnly to the pope in an unlimited submission . . . full fraught with those absurd and pestilent doctrines, which the moderate of their communion professed to abominate; of the universal monarchy of the pope, as well civil as spiritual; of his authority to excommunicate and depose princes, to absolve subjects from their oaths of allegiance and dispense with every law of God and man; to sanctify rebellion and murder, and even to change the very nature and essential differences of vice and virtue. (Vol. 3, pp. 89–90)

    At times Leland even gives in to the force of arguments about conspiracy and dark mutterings of hidden powers behind events like 1641 (a stark contrast to his sceptical treatment of conspiracy theorising in Longsword). He claims that an insurrection in Ireland had been planned since about 1634 ‘in foreign courts’, and that before the rebellion ‘ecclesiastical agents poured into Ireland’ to aid the conspiracy (Vol. 3, pp. 90–1). The novelist who was so careful to absolve Reginhald the mad monk of any pact with the devil becomes an historian ready to see something satanic about the activities of Sir Phelim O’Neil, who ‘was either transported to the utmost pitch of malicious phrenzy, or so alarmed at the well-known instability of his followers, that he determined with an infernal policy, to plunge them so deep in blood as to render their retreat or reconciliation with government utterly impracticable’ (Vol. 3, pp. 126–7). O’Neill is here transformed into an agent of the devil himself, revelling in the blood of Protestants and practically forcing his followers into a continued and open rebellion against the rightful civil authorities.

    The exaggerations of Temple are repeated to some extent in this section of the History, and, despite Leland’s attempts to remain ‘objective’, the language of damnation and disease is often evoked. The reader is told that O’Neill ‘provoked his savage and his barbarous followers to a degree of rage truly diabolical’ (Vol. 3, p. 127), a rage which led to the most despicable reversals in the order of nature, a series of what can be called monstrous births:

    Sometimes they enclosed [the English victims] in some house or castle, which they set on fire, with a brutal indifference to their cries, and a hellish triumph over their expiring agonies . . . Irish ecclesiastics were seen encouraging the carnage. The women forgot the tenderness of their sex; pursued the English with execrations, and embued their hands in blood: even children, in their feeble malice, lifted the dagger against the helpless prisoners. (Vol. 3, p. 127)

    However, it would be unfair to condemn the History as simply a repeat of previous stereotypical versions of Irish Catholicism. Leland makes a strenuous effort to enact a kind of exorcism of Irish Anglican history and a re-banishing of the ghosts that took place at the time of the Reformation. Although horrific things happen, Leland constantly insists that all these events are – more or less – ‘realist’: none of them have a demonic agency behind them. Although the actions of the rebellious Catholics may look ‘hellish’, or ‘diabolical’, they are not really in league with Satan, and it is only panic and bad memories that make the Anglicans who escaped being tortured tell exaggerated stories about the supernatural events supposedly taking place in the country. Leland dismisses all accounts of supernatural intervention as not just inherently unlikely but as hysterical inventions: ‘Miraculous escapes from death, miraculous judgements on murderers, lakes and rivers of blood, marks of slaughter indelible by every human effort, visions of spirits chanting hymns, ghosts rising from rivers and shrieking out REVENGE; these and such like fancies were propagated and received as incontestable’ (Vol. 3, pp. 127–8). And he icily turns his sceptical judgement upon his own enclave and does not pass over the vicious responses of Irish Anglicans to the rebellion. He reminds his co-religionists that they ‘forgot that their suffering brethren had, in several instances, been rescued from destruction and protected by the old natives’, detailing how ‘their abhorrence was violent and indiscriminate: and it transported them to that very brutal cruelty which had provoked this abhorrence’ (Vol. 3, p. 128), a reaction which could best be seen in the way Anglicans behaved during the Islandmagee incident. Although Leland is absolutely clear that this massacre was not the first occasion of violence – which would therefore justify the violent incidents carried out by Catholic natives – and condemns ‘popish writers’ (meaning especially John Curry, who had written about this incident at length) for representing Islandmagee with ‘shocking aggravation’ by exaggerating the number of those slaughtered, he still maintains that innocent Catholics, completely ‘untainted by the rebellion’ were massacred with ‘calm and deliberate cruelty’ (Vol. 3, p. 128).

    Leland’s treatment of the Islandmagee massacre was to provoke John Curry to immediate reaction. Curry wrote to O’Conor, asking him whether ‘Temple, Borlase, or Hume [is] as dangerous as enemy as your friend? – I am really sick’.69 However, Curry’s reaction misses two points: in the first place, Leland is historically correct, and his interpretation of the massacre at Islandmagee is essentially the one contemporary historians now support. More importantly, however, Curry fails to notice how Leland insists that the rebellion went on for so long because of the way it was repressed by those motivated only by a hatred of Catholicism. He insists it was the zealous nature of their desire to extirpate Catholic error which ‘served to awaken the fears and to enflame the resentments of the Irish’, especially when the state’s response was given over to the control of Sir Charles Coote, a man driven by ‘the most illiberal and inveterate prejudices’ whose ‘unprovoked . . . ruthless, and indiscriminate carnage’ in Wicklow ‘rivalled the utmost extravagances of the Northeners’ (Vol. 3, pp. 145, 146). Leland is contemptuous of conspiracy theory in his discussion of the moves against Charles I, and later refers to the ‘rumours of danger, of conspiracy, of invasion . . . industriously propagated. Pretended plots were discovered, and the most extravagant suggestions of fraud or credulity accepted and encouraged’, all because of an irrational and ‘virulent abhorrence of popery’, which also allowed people project the guilt of some Irish Catholics involved in the rebellion ‘to the whole set in both kingdoms’ (Vol. 3, p. 234).

    By insisting that both sides are capable of the hysterical murderous violence that previous Anglican historians had ascribed only to Catholics, Leland facilitates what the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer calls a ‘fusion of horizons’, whereby those divided either by strangeness or enmity can come to embrace the other by attempting to understand her. Gadamer emphasises that ‘every finite present has its limitations. We define the concept of “situation” by saying that it represents a standpoint that limits the possibility of vision. Hence essential to the concept of a situation is the concept of a “horizon”. The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular standpoint.’70 Horizons are what prevent groups from even understanding each other, and in this context, Leland’s novel and his History represent attempts to prepare for a potential fusion of the sectarian horizons and the creation of a more harmonious Ireland. The key point is that although in his History there is still a kind of alterity separating Anglicans and Catholics it is not a radical alterity, where difference is ultimately irreducible, but one where difference is possible to overcome because of a common humanity. Horizons fuse when individuals realise that the same set of circumstances can be looked at differently, the facts weighed differently, allowing different people to reach different conclusions. Once this realisation is reached, it becomes possible to see the other not as an implacably opposed enemy but as coming from a different perspective. In that way the temptation to monster opposing groups is circumvented. Overall, as Liechty emphasises, Leland ‘humanised Catholics by depicting them as not only sinning but sinned against, and he desanctified Protestants by exposing them as not only sinned against but sinning’.71

    Longsword was written in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Catholic Committee in 1760 and the beginning of conservative Anglican panic about Whiteboy activity, but it was written by a tolerant man deeply involved in the antiquarian enterprise, and the novel makes a considerable and laudable attempt to prevent any backsliding on the part of the liberal Anglicans who had lost the Money Bill battle but hoped to win the war against colonial slavery. Although Leland’s Catholic scoundrel Reginhald would later be reincarnated in monkish villains from Ambrosio and Schedoni onwards, in line with its author’s antiquarian and historical interests, Longsword also expresses a general respect for the Gothic past and an implied criticism of the dissipation of the Protestant present in comparison. Most importantly, it attempts to unmake the Catholic monster and replace him with an ordinary villain who just happens to be a Catholic monk. With The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley and Longsword, the Irish Gothic begins as a liberal and creditable attempt on the part of patriotic Anglicans to reimagine the past and their Catholic fellow Irishmen and women, and by doing so to free the future from the repetitious horrors of Temple and his successors. The Irish Gothic tradition constantly tied itself into narrative knots trying to reconcile anti-Catholic prejudice and tolerant inclusivity, Protestant paranoia and ecumenical understanding, often less successfully than in these initial experiments. Moreover, the past did not go away, and neither did the more straightforward horror stories told about it, and the Irish Gothic remained constantly in tension, with returns to the much more unambiguous nightmares of history found in the likes of Temple.

    This page titled Part III 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.

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