How could we forget Brooke?


We owe a debt to Charlotte Brooke, the largely neglected Cavan-born translator of Gaelic poets into English, whose achievement later influenced Thomas Moore and Yeats, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

SHE IS A woman without a face, at least in history. No portrait of the pioneering 18th-century literary translator, Charlotte Brooke, is known. Nor is her exact date of birth. Much of her fame rests on being the youngest child of playwright and political pamphleteer Henry Brooke.

Yet her achievement, in translating the work of the Gaelic poets into English, was to influence Thomas Moore and later William Butler Yeats.

Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry(1789), published in the year of the French Revolution, was suitably revolutionary. 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.

Charlotte Brooke lived at a time when the Protestant upper classes were becoming increasingly interested in Gaelic culture. Not only were gentlemen antiquarians examining field monuments and other archaeological artefacts but they were looking to the native literature, which was largely an oral tradition. It is interesting to see that Brooke, for so long forgotten in Ireland, is included in the Oxford Companion to English Literature, and now has an entry in the third and final edition of Boylan’s A Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Reliques of Irish Poetrywas a major development in what Irish scholar Lesa Ní Mhunghaile refers to in her handsome new edition of Brooke’s classic anthology as a “transcultural co-operation between Protestant antiquarians and Catholic Gaelic scholars and scribes”. From about 1750 onwards the educated and – in most cases – privileged classes began investigating Gaelic culture, possibly because it was no longer a threat to their own. An increasing number of this upper class 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.

CHARLOTTE BROOKEwas the product of a remarkable and obviously “male” education, with 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 (c1703-1783) also subscribed to Rousseau’s methods, and he 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, 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!”

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 suggest that her birth date is more likely to have been between about 1750 and 1760, as Ni Mhunghaile suggests, rather than the more usual dates of about 1740 and 1750. 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 born to Henry Brooke, although this figure 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 that 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 her life’s work.

Not only was she emotionally devastated by his death, she also became destitute because of an ill-advised investment. The publication of Reliques of Irish Poetryrestored her finances, while in 1791 she published The School for Christians, a volume of dialogues for children. Modelled on 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 reissuing the following year of her father’s works, intended 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.”

Ní Mhunghaile reckons Brooke was a strong-minded individual, not quite the fragile, helpless woman she portrayed herself to be. “For example 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, she wrote a spirited letter of complaint to Bishop Percy in his capacity as an academy member.”

An interest in 18th-century antiquarianism had initially led Ní Mhunghaile to Joseph Cooper Walker (1761-1810) and his pioneering work Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards(1786). Her research on his life and work included the first translations of harper Turlough Carolan’s poems – two of the translations which were credited to “A Lady”, known to be Charlotte Brooke – that subsequently introduced her to Brooke, with whom Walker had been close friends. He 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 Poetryin 1816.

As a translator Brooke was known to fashion politely sanitised versions of often earthy material, and she certainly availed of poetic licence. According to Seymour she taught herself Irish in two years by consulting books. However, Ní Mhunghaile believes that she would have learnt some Irish by living in an area of Cavan that was still strongly Irish-speaking.

BROOKE SET OUTto offer a broad selection of odes, elegies, songs and heroic poems demonstrating the range of the Gaelic literary tradition. She also wanted to counter 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 Oisín were in fact Scottish. As the daughter of a political pamphleteer, Brooke often made implied political comments, such as alluding to Ireland’s superior cultural relevance within the British empire.

Reliques of Irish Poetryis 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.

There are many fascinating works gathered here, of interest not only as poems but as stories within stories. Carolan’s Elegyis a lament written by harper Charles MacCabe in honour of his departed friend. 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. “She really took liberties with things,” agrees Ní Mhunghaile, who has undertaken literary translations of the 17 poems in the selection and points out that Charlotte Brooke was far more concerned with content and meaning than with replicating literary style. 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.

Charlotte Brooke the woman remains a mystery but her legacy and enduring influence helped shape Anglo-Irish literary cultural awareness in an intellectual climate that flourished in the 19th century, and was nurtured by Yeats and his circle.

Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry, edited by Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, is published by then Irish Manuscripts Commission, price €50