George Moore, "Parnell and His Island", ed. Carla King; Standish James O’Grady, "Sun and Wind", ed. Edward A. Hagan; Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, "Irish Recollections", ed. Patrick Maume, in the series ‘Classics of Irish History’, General Editor: Tom Garvin. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2004.
The latest three of the seventeen volumes that have appeared in this series contains one very exciting title, Moore’s "Parnell and His Island", which has the reputation of a "livre maudit". An honest, indiscreet and sharp-tongued man, George Moore underestimated the prickly sensitivities and long memories of Irish nationalists. He had to absent himself from Ireland for twelve years after publishing this work, and the venomous pen of Susan Mitchell was still citing it against him three decades later. It was never republished. Steeped in the naturalism of Zola, Moore may have had no consciousness of being a bird who fouls his own nest. The mirror held up to Ireland in the great novel he composed at the same time, "A Drama in Muslin" (1886), is just as unflattering, but its focus is primarily on the foibles of the Ascendancy, whereas ‘Parnell’ pours vials of Swiftian scorn on the peasantry as well.
Moore’s fluent style and judicious ordering of his material make Parnell and His Island a very readable book. His beloved desolate landscape of lake and bog is a lyrical backdrop to eye-opening vignettes of Irish life at the time of the Land League agitation. These are gripping documents that merit a place among "Classics of Irish History". Moore poses as a spoilt Parisian aesthete, at first enthralled by the beguiling externals of his native land: ‘Seeing Dalkey one dreams of Monte Carlo, or better still of the hanging gardens of Babylon, ofmarble balustrades, of white fountains, of innumerable yachts, of courts of love’ (p. 2), but this vision of an ‘Irish France’ (p. 5) comes crashing on the squalid reality of the dowdy uncultured capital and the ruins of the countryside. There is a touch of self-mockery in the way he chronicles how ‘a primitive country and barbarous people’ (p. 89) shock his refined soul. The climactic scene is a harrowing description of an eviction.
Chapters like ‘A Hunting Breakfast’ already show the influence of Turgenev’s "A Sportsman’s Sketches", which later served as the model for "The Untilled Field", and to which Moore with his horsy, hunting background must have been drawn from early on. Turgenev was his artistic hero alongside Manet and Zola, and he met him once in December 1876. He wrote a Fortnightly Review article on Turgenev in 1888. Moore’s sketches could have been as influential as Turgenev’s, which prompted the Emancipation of the Serfs in 1861. But middle class Ireland, squeamishly distancing itself from “pigs in the parlour,” was in no mood to tolerate this outspoken, angry writing.
The work first appeared as "Lettres sur l’Irlande" in Le Figaro in the summer of 1886 and then as "Terre d’Irlande". Carla King reproduces (with some irritating inaccuracies) and translates the passages omitted in the English version, generally of an erotic nature, including a melodramatic evocation of a homosexual scandal involving the Royal Irish Constabulary (p. 104). The English original of these passages appears to be lost. King identifies the French writers Moore quotes, but does not trace the quotations themselves. She points to Balzac’s "Les paysans" and Huysmans’ "En rade" as sources of inspiration.
She chastises Moore for presenting a tenant farmer as belonging to a degenerate pre-Celtic race, linking this to the simian caricatures of Punch and ponderously explaining that ‘the archaeological record now suggests a level of cultural and economic development in Ireland prior to the Celtic period that is far from Moore’s insinuation that these were somehow closer to an anthropoid type’ (p. 116). Moore’s ‘extraordinarily racist’ portrait shows ‘all the prejudice and class fear of the Irish landlord’ (p. xvii). Moore’s language is indeed indefensible, but some allowance should be made for the extravagances of humour and the less politically correct mentality of his times. Usually, he was in advance of his times, as in his opposition to the Boer War; and even his attacks on Ireland have a reforming purpose.
Moore’s attitude to Catholicism shows a similar ambiguity, as King notes (p. xviii). In this work we meet ‘The Priest’ , a figure who fascinates Moore in The Untilled Field and The Lake: ‘Father Tom was very anxious to convince you of his modernity, and curiously enough this is the very quality that he is lacking in’ (p. 45). The rocklike continence of the clergy bemuses him: ‘their utterances on the altar savour strongly of incentive to murder, but of other immorality they know nothing’ (p. 44).
There is a steep drop in literary level from Moore to Standish O’Grady’s essays on Greek heroes in "Sun and Wind", and a still steeper drop to Charlotte Tonna’s religious memoir, "Irish Recollections". Are these really ‘Classics of Irish History’? Edward Hagan presents O’Grady’s work (composed between 1911 and 1928) as ‘the final testament of the “Father of the Irish Literary Renaissance”’ (p. vii) and parses its ideological debts to French and Russian anarchism and socialism, showing how its utopian account of prehistoric Greece provides ‘prescriptions for an ideal Ireland’ (p. ix) and for ‘avoiding entry into history’ (p. x) and ‘attempts to reconstruct Irish Catholicism’ (p. xviii). This anarchic ‘back to nature’ message was opposed to that of O’Grady’s fellow classicist, Mahaffy, who invoked the civilization of Athens as a model for backward Ireland. Hagan makes the rather strained claim that ‘O’Grady reveals himself as a thoroughly modern writer in his belief that the old ways had failed and that the writer must be a new kind of cleric, preaching a vastly different salvation’ (p. xx) and that the very title "Sun and Wind" suggests that he ‘had become a modern ecologist’ (p. xxi). To talk of the book as offering a ‘programme for Ireland’ (p. xi) and as ‘striving to keep the Irish free from the traders and the dissipation that accompanies contact with them’ (p. xvi) is misleading, since Irish issues are touched on only on a few pages and in the cloudiest way. The sad fact is that O’Grady’s effusions do not speak to us now, and probably did not then either.
Charlotte Tonna (1790-1846) writes the jargon of a thousand tracts. Her brutal first husband dragged her to Ireland in 1818 and she was active in ‘a well-established Evangelical subculture centered on the Ossory Clerical Association’ (p. ix). Her second marriage, to the 29-year-old Lewis Tonna in 1841, provoked comment. She opposed Catholic Emancipation, and ‘attacked those postmillennialist providentialists who held that God governed the world through immutable economic laws’ (p. xiii). She authored, anonymously, one of the first English social novels, Helen Fleetwood, in 1843. She saw Ireland as ‘mystically linked to the Jews, whom the Irish had never persecuted’ (p. xiv). The interest of her memoir for Irish history lies in its reflection of ‘the sense of siege felt by small Protestant communities during the agrarian violence of the 1820s’ (p. xvi). Through the enveloping piety of her language some scenes of Ireland at that time emerge vividly enough from time to time: a bonfire night enlivened by jigs and strange pagan rituals (pp. 10-11), a ‘gentle, affectionate, elegant nun’ (p. 38) in Kilkenny, who seeks to convert Charlotte even as Charlotte seeks to convert her; the cruel penances imposed by two priests on a woman guilty of ‘having heard the bible read, and having prayed in the company of heretics’ (p. 78) – but these pickings are scanty.
Joseph S. O'Leary
Journal of Irish Studies 20 (2005)