Frankenstein’s Ireland: A ‘wretched’ place with ‘traces of civilisation’
Ireland’s place in Mary Shelley’s 1818 masterpiece has been monstrously overlooked
Boris Karloff in a promotional portrait for the 1931 film Frankenstein, directed by James Whale. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
In 1818, Ireland was in the midst of a horrendous typhus epidemic that may have claimed as many as 100,000 lives. In July that year, the Church of Ireland clergyman Charles Robert Maturin, whose Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) is a classic of Gothic literature, published Women, a tale of doomed love and damaged psychology. Towards the end of the novel, its heroine remarks on “that terrible sensation so common in the imaginations of the Irish, of a being whom we believe not to be alive, yet knowing not to be dead”.
Women sold strongly but its reputation has been eclipsed by a novel published earlier that year, a book also concerned with breaking through “the ideal bounds” between life and death. Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a Gothic masterpiece. Yet while many readers have remarked on the Irish resonances of Stoker’s novel, few have noticed the place of Ireland in Shelley’s masterpiece.
The story is well known – even if the being is often mistakenly given his maker’s name. Central to it is a Swiss student, Victor Frankenstein, who seeks to create human life and ends up making a monster. The book opens and closes with Victor’s miserable journey across a desolate Arctic landscape, in pursuit of his creature.
On the ice the young student meets the explorer Robert Walton, to whom he recounts his early life and education, his dabbling in arcane human sciences and his terrible creation story. In a reference to the rebirth of British polar and Arctic explorations at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Walton is voyaging in search of the fabled North West Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But Mary Shelley knew that Britain’s imperial reach already took in territory much closer to home and she threads the case of Ireland into her global narrative of ambition, exploration and exploitation.
Appalled at the creature’s capacities, Victor reluctantly agrees to make a mate for him: in return the creature promises to flee to “the vast wilds of South America”. Victor establishes his laboratory on the Orkney islands but, in despair following an argument with the creature who has pursued him, he decides to submerge his scientific equipment in the sea, just off the Orkneys. The creature has already “shot across the waters with an arrowy swiftnesss”, headed, we later learn, to Ireland. Having fallen asleep in his boat, Victor wakes with no option but to “drive before the wind”, avoiding “the wide Atlantic”. Blown across hazardous waters, he finds himself in Ireland, a “wild and rocky’ place with ‘traces of civilisation’.
Murder at sea
On shore, some fishermen (including one Daniel Nugent) have already observed “a strong northerly blast rising” and seen the boat put into the harbour. A murder has taken place – the creature has killed his creator’s oldest friend, shipwrecked in Ireland – and Victor is presumed guilty of this crime. He spends the next two months in an Irish prison until finally released thanks to the intervention of a kindly magistrate, Squire Kirwan. Victor Frankenstein departs from Dublin via Holyhead, leaving behind “the detested shore” of a “wretched country”.
When northeasterly winds carry Frankenstein from the Orkneys to the coast of Ireland, Shelley asks readers to imagine islands joined by sea, buffeted by wind and weather. There are many references to the miseries of travel by sea in the journals and letters of the Shelley circle: routine delays, squally weather and seasickness all feature. Her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, had himself taken the arduous route to Dublin via Holyhead on visits in 1812 and 1813, when he sought to reawaken a republican politics. Victor Frankenstein is hardly so purposeful, however, more often lost between waking and sleep. In October 1814 the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont had considered founding a utopian community in the west of Ireland. Perhaps Frankenstein’s strange dreams and improbable experience of hospitality in an Irish prison connect back to this idealised moment?
Only two contemporary reviewers made anything of the Irish scenes. One was Percy Bysshe Shelley, who published an anonymous review of his wife’s novel. Admiring its originality, he finds “only one instance … in which we detect the least approach to imitation; and that is the conduct of the incident of Frankenstein’s landing in Ireland”. The reference is to his father-in-law, the novelist William Godwin, to whom Mary Shelley dedicated her novel. The unfairly accused hero of Godwin’s Caleb Williams; or, Things as They Are (1790) decides to “bend my course to the nearest seaport on the west side of the island, and transport myself to Ireland”. For Godwin, however, Ireland is fatally entangled with Britain and “a place of less security than most other countries which are divided from it by the ocean”.
John Wilson Croker, the other reviewer alert to the role of Ireland in Frankenstein, held views on Irish politics that differed sharply from Godwin’s. Croker, born in Galway, was secretary to the admiralty and a Tory MP. One of the most notorious critics of the day, he was the author of a vicious review of Endymion that was said to have killed John Keats. He details the geographical range of Frankenstein in mocking detail, claiming to admire the “laudable minuteness” of the Irish scenes. Finding something implicitly ridiculous in the use of such Irish names as Kirwan and Nugent, Croker remarks that “it would, however, have been but fair to have given us also those of the impartial judge and enlightened jury … at the assizes of Donegal.’
Why does Croker specify Donegal, which is nowhere mentioned in the text of Frankenstein? Might he have known that Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley’s grandmother was born in Ballyshannon? Or perhaps Croker just follows the route of the novel’s imagined geography? However unlikely a route from the Orkneys to the north of Ireland may seem (we must imagine Frankenstein’s “skiff” battling with prevailing southwesterly winds while navigating treacherous Hebridean currents), Donegal is a probable point of arrival. The Irish names suggest specific references: Paul O’Brien (author of Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland) speculates that the novel’s fisherman is named for the United Irishwoman Catherine Nugent, a Dublin friend and correspondent of Percy Shelley. And when Croker fastens on the name of the magistrate, might he have had other known individuals in mind?
Adaptations of the novel provide no answers to these questions. Even a film that declares its faithfulness to the original novel and one with a Belfast-born director to boot – Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from 1994 – omits the Irish scenes.
Irish political commentary, though, sustained the connection between Ireland and Frankenstein. In 1824, Thomas Moore compared the 1801 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland to “Frankenstein’s ghastly patch-work made up of contributions from the whole charnel-house of political corruption”. After the Famine, the novelist William Carleton remarked that the Irish landlords had created a monster in their cultivation of a class of subdivided tenant farmers (the forty shilling freeholders) to do their bidding. Now disenfranchised in the aftermath of Catholic emancipation, these forty shilling freeholders represent an evil, Carleton said, that “Like Frankenstein in the novel … pursues them to the present moment, and must be satisfied or appeased in some way, or it will unquestionably destroy them.” The Victorian cartoon The Irish Frankenstein, confuses the creature with his creator as it depicts a ragged population coming to ugly life.
The resonances of the references to Ireland in Frankenstein echo in literary works that probe the boundary between life and death. From Maturin and Stoker through to Anne Enright’s evocation of a corpse awaiting burial in The Gathering and Colm Tóibín’s startling account of the revived Lazarus in Testament of Mary, Irish fiction continues to imagine bodies that cross boundaries between worlds.
Claire Connolly is professor of modern English at University College Cork and 2018-19 Parnell Fellow in Irish Studies at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge. She is writing a book on Irish Romanticism for Cambridge University Press