French historians have long studied mentalities among the general population, but in Ireland their counterparts have concentrated more on high politics. Consequently, their focus has been on the documents left in archives by the winners of conflicts. “Tradition” – how ordinary people remembered things – seemed of far more interest to folklorists. The refusal of so many historians to use sources in the Irish language had a remarkable effect, argues Vincent Morley in this elegant and luminous study: “it consigned the bulk of Irish people to the role of nonspeaking extras in the historiography”.
It would be hard to imagine French people paying much heed to a history of their country written by someone with no working knowledge of its language; but they do (or did) these things differently in Ireland. And the study of mentalities was also retarded by another factor: the narrowly linguistic focus of many in Irish departments that did understand and study Gaelic texts.
This situation was already deplored by Daniel Corkery in the introduction he wrote to The Hidden Ireland (1924), which was hugely influential in the early decades of the Free State and can still be read as a vigorous account of the world that produced Aogán Ó Rathaille, Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin and Brian Merriman. It is also an act of profound literary criticism, discriminating between the outraged bardic hauteur of Ó Rathaille, the tinkling musicality of Ó Súilleabháin and the homely downrightness of Merriman. But it was written by a man who soon became a professor in an English department. In those days, people in Irish or History didn't do that sort of thing.
In his overtly nationalist account, Corkery got some important details wrong. He refused to recognise the existence of a Gaelic middle class; and he insisted that vernacular poetry came only from an impoverished peasantry. In a famous reassessment of the book published in 1969, economic historian Louis Cullen (who knew Irish well) suggested that the resentment voiced in the poetry spoke not for a whole people but on behalf of a disempowered Gaelic gentry, and on behalf of poets who might have enjoyed a higher status as bards, had the old order not been broken after the defeat at Kinsale.
Dr Morley, though critical of Corkery’s apparent indifference to questions of social class, believes that the poets were not lineal descendants of the bards so much as amateur authors, belonging mostly to the middling rank of farmers, priests, publicans and craftsmen. In his view, the anger they expressed spoke for the wider community – especially when it embraced the Jacobite anti-Protestantism downplayed by the modern nationalist Corkery.
Vincent Morley demonstrates that, far from being a dead formula, the aisling remained a live form through which the writers celebrated contemporary events (for instance, the colonial rebellion in America).
His book provides an impressive range of texts to bear out these claims. The songs reproduced seek to abolish the Penal Laws, to overthrow “tiarnaí tacair” (arrivistes posing as aristocrats) and reassert Ireland’s rights as an equal kingdom, Catholic in religion, under a king of Milesian descent, who would also wear the crowns of Scotland and England.
Some of the verses are remarkably sectarian. I can recall reading, during my third-year undergraduate course in Irish at Trinity, their blood-curdling denunciations of “clann Liútéir, lucht Bheelzebub”, while all around me in the 1937 Reading Room sat the kindly descendants of those so demonised. It was a strange experience.
Morley suggests many things which will be challenging for republican and revisionist alike. Catholicism and national identity were linked explicitly in the early 1600s; and it was then (and not in the 19th century) that the word “náisiún” began to appear. He notes a growing anti-clericalism in some authors of the later 18th century, however, as the state began to conciliate the ecclesiocracy and certain writers grew a little more affluent.
Central to his argument is the contention that the version of the Irish past propounded by Seathrún Céitinn in Foras Feasa ar Éirinn – a Catholic people, whose lineage survived Norse and subsequent depredations – was disseminated in less mandarin language by rhymesters and songsters.
Morley, as befits the author of Washington i Gceannas a Ríochta, is alert to international dimensions of his material, but he never overstates them. The Whiteboys are less "a French-inspired conspiracy" than "an alienated population goaded into action by economic distress". The large numbers who joined the 1798 Rebellion suggest not a passing ideological republican infatuation but a direct continuation of Jacobite disaffection.
This challenge to Anglocentric versions of the subject is largely convincing. However, Morley may understate the extent to which Ireland even in the 18th century had already in many places become a bilingual community. His focus on Gaelic texts has been so unrelenting that the analysis of a Defender song in English on page 249 comes with explosive effect. Yet the macaronic ditties so prevalent through the period clearly presuppose a bilingual audience. And although the “courts of poetry” may not derive vertically from the old bardic system, they may have had horizontal elements in common with the clubs that met in English-speaking coffee-houses.
Morley can find no connection between the authors he describes and the “bourgeois public sphere”, identified by Jurgen Habermas as rooted in 18th-century print culture: but any reader might be struck by the ways in which oral tradition can mimic print culture. After all, even the periodical essays and poems of the Augustans were written to be read aloud to groups.
The analogical conditions in both Irish and English-speaking worlds produced broadly similar effects: the decline of old patrons is as lamented by Dr Johnson as by Ó Rathaille; and the mock-heroic note struck in both languages suggests a domestication of epic, based on a shrewd awareness that a pragmatic middle class is replacing a haughty aristocracy.
The major (and crucial) difference, of course, is the limited availability of printing for writers of Irish (other than those working on religious texts). By the 1820s, however, the collector Crofton Croker could find it “extraordinary that the most positive treasons should for many years past have been published in Ireland, apparently without notice”. The folk researchers were at last getting in under the nationalist radar.
Near the close, Morley reproduces an O’Connellite aisling and admits it is “doggerel in both languages”. Yet few of the preceding texts arise above banality. They have the supreme political importance which Morley finds in them, but little literary merit, compared with works that preceded them in Irish bardic poetry or would follow in the English of the cultural Revival. They lack telling phrases or memorable lines and many readers will be amazed that they were so popular (as the proliferation of manuscripts versions attests). But that simply proves what Morley says: they embodied deeply-held convictions and answered a felt need.
His book, along with Breandán Ó Buachalla's Aisling Ghéar, is one of the most radical remappings of Irish Studies to appear in the past 30 years.
Declan Kiberd teaches Irish Studies at Notre Dame. His book After Ireland will be published this year by Head of Zeus in London and Harvard University Press in Boston.