Charlotte Brooke: 'a glow of cultivated genius'

Celebrating Irish women writers: ‘in translating the work of the Gaelic poets into English, she was to influence Thomas Moore and later William Butler Yeats. Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry, published in the year of the French Revolution, was and remains revolutionary’

Charlotte Brooke is a woman without a face, at least in history. No portrait of this pioneering 18th-century scholar and literary translator is known. Nor is her exact date of birth, which is now believed to have been between 1750 and 1760, about a decade later than previously assumed. Much of her fame rests on being the youngest child of poet, playwright and political pamphleteer Henry Brooke, whose influence shaped her or perhaps, in fairness to both, inspired her.

As we celebrate Ireland’s literary women, hers will not be among the more obvious names. An even earlier 18th-century literary figure, the colourful Laetitia Pilkington, who died on July 29th, 1750, possibly before Brooke was born, may come to mind far more readily.

Pilkington is remembered as a popular poet, wit and indefatigable gossip. Born Laetitia van Lewen, she had a flair for lively soundbites such as “But I have been a Lady of Adventure, and almost every day of my life produces some new one”. Her memoirs, which include a personal account of the final days of her friend Jonathan Swift, are her legacy. She was a character in an age when women were expected to be subdued. Despite or possibly because of the situations in which her antics, including a notorious divorce, placed her, she was also a witness.

Charlotte Brooke’s achievement is very different; in translating the work of the Gaelic poets into English, she was to influence Thomas Moore and later William Butler Yeats. Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789), published in the year of the French Revolution, was and remains revolutionary in the context of scholarship. The anthology, divided into several genres ranging from heroic verse to popular folk songs, published with the help of various sponsors, many of whom were associated with the then recently established Royal Irish Academy – an institution of which Brooke, as a woman, was not eligible for membership – is comparable to Bishop Thomas Percy’s three-volume Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). Another of her cultural equivalents is Scots poet Allan Ramsay, who popularised medieval to 18th-century Scots songs, ballads and vernacular poems.


Brooke lived at a time when the Protestant upper classes in Ireland were becoming increasingly interested in Gaelic culture. Not only were gentlemen antiquarians examining field monuments and other archaeological artefacts, they were looking to the by then somewhat underground native literature which was largely an oral tradition.

Brooke, always something of a marginal specialist figure in Irish literary history, features in Volume I of the first edition of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991) in the section The Shifting Perspective: 1690-1830, the period spanning the Battle of the Boyne to Catholic Emancipation, during which, as the co-editors, Andrew Carpenter and Seamus Deane, state: “two civilisations, one Gaelic and one English, existed side by side in Ireland.” Reliques of Irish Poetry was a major development in trans-cultural co-operation between Protestant antiquarians and Catholic Gaelic scholars and scribes.

In an extract from her preface to Reliques of Irish Poetry which is quoted in the anthology, Brooke wrote: “…it is really astonishing of what various and comprehensive powers this neglected language [Irish] is possessed. In the pathetic, it breathes the most beautiful and affecting simplicity; in the bolder species of composition, it is distinguished by a force of expression, a sublime dignity, and rapid energy, which is scarcely possible for any translator fully to convey; as it sometimes fills the mind with ideas altogether new, and which, perhaps, no modern language is entirely prepared to express. One compound epithet must often be translated by two lines of English verse, and, on such occasions, much of the beauty is necessarily lost; the force and effect of thought being weakened by too slow an introduction on the mind; just as that light which dazzles, when flashing swiftly on the eye, will be gazed at with indifference, if let in by degrees.

“But, though I am conscious of having, in many instances, failed in my attempts to do all the justice I wished to my originals, yet still, some of their beauties are, I hope, preserved; and I trust I am doing an acceptable service to my country, while I endeavour to rescue from oblivion a few of the invaluable reliques of her ancient genius; and while I put it in the power of the public to form some idea of them, by clothing the thoughts of our Irish muse in a language with which they are familiar, at the same time that I give the originals, as vouchers for the fidelity of my translation, as far as two idioms so widely different would allow… The productions of our Irish Bards exhibit a glow of cultivated genius – a spirit of elevated heroism, – sentiments of pure honor, [sic] – instances of disinterested patriotism, – and manners of a degree of refinement, totally astonishing, at a period when the rest of Europe was nearly sunk in barbarism: And is not all this very honourable [sic] to our countrymen?......

“As yet, we are too little known to our noble neighbour of Britain: were we better acquainted, we should be better friends. The British muse is not yet informed that she has an elder sister in this isle…”

From about 1750 onwards the educated and, in most classes, privileged classes began investigating Gaelic culture, possibly because it was no longer a threat to their own. An increasing number of this social elite began to consider themselves as Irish. The collecting, and more importantly, the copying and translation of Gaelic manuscripts began in earnest. Scholars hoped that the study of antiquarianism, native literature and history would help unite the various ethnic groupings in Ireland.

Brooke was the product of a remarkable and obviously male education, which placed an emphasis on the classics and languages, as well as maths, science, astronomy and geography. In common with novelist Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), Brooke was a literary daughter. Just as Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817) had believed in stimulating a child’s curiosity; Henry Brooke (c.1703-1783) also subscribed to Rousseau’s methods and opened the world of books to Charlotte. Hardly surprisingly, both women came to regard themselves as extensions of their fathers.

In a letter written in 1792, the year before her death on March 29th, 1793 from a fever while living in a friend’s cottage in Longford, Charlotte Brooke wrote: “I have ever lived for my father, and shall not now divide my little rivulet from the parent stream. In life, my soul is his – in death I trust it shall join him!” About a decade earlier, about the time of his death, she had written: “While my father survived, I lived but for his comfort, & now he is dead, I live but for his fame. Born in his later years, I considered myself as born for him alone, - a purpose of which I am prouder than any other for which I could been sent into the world.”

Her remarks there support suggestions that her birth date is now believed to have been between c.1750 and 1760, rather than the previously accepted dates of c.1740 and 1750, as Henry Brooke is believed to have been born c.1703.

This “child of his old age” as she described herself was born in Rantavan House, in the parish of Mullagh, near Virginia in Co Cavan. It is accepted that she was the youngest of possibly 22 children fathered by Brooke, although this figure (admittedly also matched by Bach) may also be including the children born to Brooke’s brother as their respective families shared the one house. Charlotte’s mother was Catherine Meares, a Methodist from Westmeath, and although it is known than she nursed her mother through a long final illness which ended in 1772, Charlotte Brooke was obsessively devoted to her father who had developed her intellect and influenced what was to become her life’s work.

Not only was she emotionally devastated by his death, she also became destitute because of an ill-advised investment in a cousin’s model village project. The publication of Reliques of Irish Poetry in 1789 restored her finances, and three years later she published School for Christians, a volume of dialogues for children. Written in the form of a series of moralistic conversations between a father and child, it was most probably based on Brooke’s memories of her father. Somewhat more economically successful was her re-issuing, in 1792, an edition of her father’s works in a bid to correct an earlier, poorly-edited version.

She never married, had no children, remained true to her father's Church of Ireland beliefs and tended towards the role of observer in company. John Wesley, the Methodist preacher, once remarked of her: "I admired Miss Brooke for her silence; her look spake, though not her tongue. If we should live to meet again, I should be glad to hear, as well as see her." Brooke was an opinionated individual, not quite the fragile, helpless woman she tended to present. When she applied to the Royal Irish Academy for the position of housekeeper, she pointed out in her application that she was a daughter of a great man, and a man valued as a friend by many of the members, and when she was turned down in favour of a man who had no claim to her intellectual prowess, she wrote a spirited letter of complaint to Bishop Percy in his capacity as an academy member.

Their shared interests caused Brooke to form a close friendship with Joseph Cooper Walker (1761-1810), acknowledged in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing – indeed his entry is the one before Brooke’s – as one of the outstanding Irish scholars of the late 18th century. He wrote important works on Irish bards and music while his pioneering study, Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards (1786) includes in an appendix, a life of Turlough Carolan which contained the first translations of the blind harper’s poems – two of the translations were credited to “A Lady”, known to be Charlotte Brooke. Cooper Walker had been intending to write a biography of Brooke and had gathered her correspondence but died before completing the project. The main sources on Brooke’s life are Charles Henry Wilson’s Brookiana (1804) and Aaron Crossly Seymour’s Memoirs of Miss Brooke, written as an appendix to the second edition of Reliques of Irish Poetry in 1816.

As a translator Brooke was known to fashion politely sanitised versions of often earthy material and certainly was not opposed to poetic licence. According to Seymour, Charlotte Brooke taught herself Irish over the course of about two years by consulting books. This seems most impressive but she was a committed scholar, and it does appear likely that she may have known some Irish by living in area of Cavan that was still strongly Irish-speaking.

Brooke set out to offer a broad selection of odes, elegies, songs and heroic poems demonstrating the range of the Gaelic literary tradition. She also wanted to counter to the Ossian controversy begun by the Scot James Macpherson who claimed that many of the Irish myths and legends featuring Cuchulain, Fionn Mac Cool and Oisin, were in fact Scottish. As the daughter of a political pamphleteer, Brooke often inserted implied political comments such as alluding to Ireland’s superior cultural relevance within the British Empire, as evident from her “elder sister” remarks made in the passage from the preface quoted above.

Reliques of Irish Poetry is a crucial landmark in the recognition of Gaelic culture. Brooke was intent on proving that the Irish poets were sophisticated and educated. English reviewers tended to regard Gaelic poets as primitive and disputed their familiarity with the classics. Irish poets, they felt, would not have read Ovid. Charlotte Brooke thought otherwise.

If ever a scholar was to find a champion more than 200 years after her death, Brooke found it in Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, whose annotated edition of Reliques of Irish Poetry is meticulously sensitive to Brooke’s material. It is an extraordinary representation, not only as a collection of stylistically and thematically diverse poems but also for its stories within stories, the defining subplot. Carolan’s Elegy, is a lament written by harper Charles MacCabe in honour of his departed friend Carolan. MacCabe was considered the finer musician of the two and although he came from the same part of Cavan as Brooke she made no reference to this nor did she praise the poem.

If she often softened or eliminated the sexual content of a work, Brooke was also capable of changing it completely and injecting political opinion. Charlotte Brooke was far more concerned with content and meaning than replicating literary style. As a scholar she certainly believed in her judgement. The two praise poems by Carolan are typical of his eulogies and stand on their own. The first is dedicated to Gracey Nugent, whose husband and brother were patrons of Carolan’s patrons. Rather more subtle is Mabel Kelley, dedicated to an heiress who never married. A popular song in its time, it was one of the airs played at the assembly of Irish harpers in Belfast in 1792 and was collected by Edward Bunting.

Brooke the woman remains a mystery yet her contribution, literary legacy and enduring influence helped shape Anglo-Irish literary cultural awareness in an intellectual climate that flourished in the 19th century and was to be championed and nurtured by Yeats, Lady Gregory and their Gaelic Revival circle. As we celebrate Irish literary women we should also praise Charlotte Brooke, scholar and translator, who proved herself a tenacious custodian of the Gaelic bards.

A definitive edition of Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry edited by Lesa Ní Mhunghaile was published by The Irish Manuscripts Commission in 2009. As a feat of scholarship, this book is a tremendous achievement. Ní Mhunghaile has also contributed 17 translations of her own. There is a further dimension: it is a superb example of the high-quality academic publishing being produced by Irish publishers.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times