The Irish Enlightenment by Michael Brown review: a controversial study

An engaging take on Irish thought challenges the stereotype that, as a people, we were too keen on imagination, and averse to reason, to have an Enlightenment

The Irish Enlightenment
The Irish Enlightenment
Author: Michael Brown
ISBN-13: 9780674045774
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Guideline Price: £21.25

For many, the idea of an Irish Enlightenment is a contradiction in terms. The Irish, as stereotype had it, were dreamers of dreams, mystical poets and music makers, inventors of myth and magic, but averse to thinking. The English, by contrast, were the thinkers – rational, empirical, scientific, pragmatic. Such a view consorted with a binary ideology on both sides: the Irish, in the face of countless military defeats, could maintain their superiority in matters of imagination and spirit; the English could justify their colonial domination of Ireland according to the adage “the Celts can stay quaint and stay put”!

Michael Brown's The Irish Enlightenment challenges this fantasy without fully debunking it. Over the course of 600 pages of sumptuous scholarship (150 of them footnotes), the author demonstrates the existence of a significant Enlightenment project in Ireland in the 18th century, a project premised on the basic humanist principle that "man, not God, is the starting point of understanding". In so doing, Brown recommends that we go beyond the received view of Ireland as a culture crippled by sectarian politics and restore its intellectual heritage within a more capacious horizon of European and Atlantic history.

Against the colonial prejudice that saw Ireland as a place of mayhem and barbarism, Brown constructs a counter-narrative of a vibrant intellectual culture informed by ideas of civility and tolerance. He claims that an important Irish Enlightenment flourished for a period between the War of the Two Kings (James and William, 1688-1691) and the 1790s, before regressing into conflicts of ethnic and religious identity in the 19th century. The enlightened question “what does it mean to be human?” was replaced by the national question “what does it mean to be Irish or English?”.

The first question, which Brown endorses, believes that human beings and the human sciences are the basic measure of things, inspired by principles of secularity, autonomy and democracy. Its philosophical heroes were rationalists and empiricists who declared that “where the end was once the glory of God, it is now the welfare of mankind”.


For Brown, the main opponent of the rational and empirical methods – which argued from logical deduction and sensible experience – was “scholasticism”: namely, the recourse to authority and doctrine (Aristotle and the church). This scholastic counter-Enlightenment tended to identify modern thought with libertinism, atheism, amorality and political rupture. It preferred to settle matters by invoking tradition rather than by opening up free discussion about the present and future state of things. Eighteenth-century Ireland, Brown suggests, witnessed an ongoing battle between these opposing intellectual movements.

For all his breathless erudition, masterful writing and retrieval of forgotten chapters of Irish intellectual history, Brown is sometimes prone to simplification; his tripartite analyses can be a tad too neat. For example, in dividing the Irish religious enlightenment into three categories – Presbyterian (rational), Anglican (empirical) and Catholic (scholastic) – he risks sanctioning the very confessional divisions he aspires to overcome. And since he broadly identifies the rational and empirical methods with Protestantism and the scholastic with Catholicism, he seems to place the former on the side of enlightenment and the latter against. (As if the various Gaelic Catholic writers he documents as scholastics were not also availing of the rational-empirical methods of Aristotle, branded by Luther as "the whore reason".)

Nor does Brown give sufficient credence to the pioneering research of recent scholars, such as Philip McGuinness, Alan Harrison and Luke Gibbons, who reveal a more complicated picture of certain 18th-century Irish thinkers as both pro- and anti-enlightenment. A typical example of this is the thinker John Toland, featured in the introduction, who was at once a free-thinking rationalist after Locke and Leibniz – his Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) was burned by the public hangman in Dublin – while simultaneously advocating a return to the ancient spirituality of the Celtic Culdees. For all his alleged apostasy, the persecuted Toland was given sanctuary by the Franciscans in Prague, who recognised a fellow Gael from Donegal. (Some even claimed Toland's father was a Jesuit.) One of his Irish pseudonyms was Eoghan na Leabhar, or John of the Books. Brown does recognise Toland's importance, but he neglects his complexity, the fact that he was a dramatic cross-cultural contradiction.

Likewise, when Brown gives generous homage to great Gaelic scholars and scribes, he tends to highlight their anti-enlightenment role as Jacobite apologists, scholastic conservatives and nostalgic romantics (though in fairness, Brown's citation of large tracts of Irish verse in the original is deeply moving). There is scarcely a word of their "enlightening" virtues as dissident, visionary minds. No mention of the liberating learning of hedge-school masters, such as the fictional Hugh Mór in Brian Friel's Translations.

But perhaps these complicating knots of the “hidden Ireland” (Daniel Corkery) are an inevitable casualty of Brown’s avowed concentration on “public debate” rather than oral culture, private correspondence and personal biography. Of course, Brown cannot do everything. And the existing 625 pages are already exhaustive in their chosen coverage.

Brown seems ultimately more interested in the social aspects of the Irish enlightenment than the religious. Here he comes into his own, brilliantly documenting those who engaged in bold conversation about civil society and the common good, freed from confessional prejudice. According to Brown, the Irish Social Enlightenment – from the 1690s to the 1790s – blended rationalist and empirical methods in the service of a discourse of civility around “politeness, improvement, aesthetics and political economy”. Here, behaviour, not belief, was the crucial criterion of inclusion. Brown is clearly fascinated by an unofficial “counter-public” of coffee houses, taverns, bookshops and theatres which transgressed confessional divides and opened a real debate about issues of progress. Here, at last, was a space for living ideas rather than the inhuman abstractions lampooned by Swift in his satire of Laputa.

Brown tracks the rise and fall of “civilised discussion” in Ireland – up to the “civil unrest of 1798”. Then everything fell apart. The dream of a cross-confessional society was over.

Brown attributes the collapse to the inability of the dominant Anglican polity to accept Catholic and dissenting communities into its formal political deliberations. Enlightenment talk of fraternal socialisation threatened the colonial hegemony. Hence the difficulty of the Irish Volunteer movement of the 1780s to speak for the "whole people of Ireland".

Brown concludes that while the seeds of the 1798 rebellion germinated in the soil of the Irish Enlightenment, the Act of Union, which followed in 1800, fatally altered the question, from one of civility and tolerance to one of nation and sectarianism. The inclusivist question “who is enlightened?” gave way to the exclusivist question “who is us and who is them?”

This controversial reading of the modern Irish mind is a very welcome addition to the ongoing 2016 debates about where Ireland comes from and where it hopes to go. It is a timely and engaging publication.

Richard Kearney is a professor of philosophy at Boston College in Massachusetts. His books include Postnationalist Ireland, The Irish Mind and Navigations: Collected Irish Essays 1977-2007. His most recent publication is Reimagining the Sacred (Columbia University Press, 2016)