There is an Irish proverb that runs ‘a scéal féin scéal gach aon duine’; literally, ‘everyone’s story is their own story’, or more loosely, ‘everyone likes to be talking about themselves’. In keeping with this piece of folk wisdom, I’d like to begin tonight’s lecture by taking a few minutes to talk about my own initiation into the use of the vernacular literature as a historical source.
|Figure 1: Hugh MacCurtin, A Brief Discourse in Vindication of the Antiquity of Ireland (Dublin, 1717)
|Figure 2: NUIM MS. Murphy 11, pages 268 (line 1) and 269 (lines 2-4)
Is dóigh má ghabhaimse an cóta dearg so leo go rachad tar sáile,As with any work of literature, it is possible that the author may have given free rein to his imagination: if a poet chooses to speak in the voice of a soldier, it cannot be assumed that he really was a soldier. In any event, it may be noted that the crucial phrase in the poem is qualified: ‘má ghabhaimse an cóta dearg so’ (‘if I put on this red coat’). This leaves open the possibility that the poet never put on a red coat. Yet precisely such a claim occurs in one of the manuscript copies (RIA MS. 23 C 8) where the scribe’s introduction reads as follows: ‘Aodha baoi mc Cruitín cct ⁊ é a bhflóndras, a ccaith thighearna an chláir ⁊ súil aco re teacht go héirinn do bhain a bhfearann dúthchais do ghallaibh isan mbliain 1693’ (‘Aodh Buí Mac Cruitín composed when he was in Flanders, in Lord Clare’s regiment, and they hoping to come to Ireland to take their native land from the English in the year 1693’). My confidence in this scribal note was somewhat impaired by the date quoted: the king of England was not called ‘George’ in 1693. Furthermore, from other evidence, I knew that the poet was born circa 1680 and could hardly have enlisted at twelve or thirteen years of age. None the less, my feeling was that the poem had an authentic ring and that the poet really had put on the red coat of a soldier. With the energy and enthusiasm of youth—this was almost thirty years ago—I concluded that there was only one course open to me. Rather than leave such an important biographical question unresolved, I decided to visit the French military archives—then, as now, located in the Chateau de Vincennes on the outskirts of Paris. On the second day of my research there, I found what I was looking for in the muster roll of the Régiment de Clare:
a scóda leathan, a seolta scartha is an sról ’na mbratachaibh arda;
cóir ná ceannach ní gheobhaid ó Ghallaibh go dtógaid sealbh a n-áitreabh,
Is Seoirse a thachtadh le corda casta is is ceolmhar screadfas an chláirseach.
(I suppose if I put on this red coat, I’ll go with them over the sea, with sheets spread, sails deployed and silk in their banners on high; no justice or recompense will they obtain from the English til they take possession of their dwellings and strangle George with a twisted rope, and musically the harp will sound.)
|Figure 3: Service historique de la Défense MS. 1Yc 257, folio 114 verso
|Figure 4: Conchobhar Ó Beaglaoich, The English Irish Dictionary (Paris, 1732)
This belief places me in a small minority among historians of eighteenth-century Ireland. Almost invariably, historians of the period confine their research to sources in English and avoid any engagement with the vernacular literature. Yet Irish-language texts from the century are both extensive and varied. While only five hundred manuscripts in the language have survived from before 1700, about a thousand manuscripts are extant from the eighteenth century, many of them running to hundreds of pages. There are a further three thousand manuscripts from the first half of the nineteenth century, many of which contain texts composed during the previous century. These manuscripts provide a unique insight into the culture of the society in which they were produced—a more sensitive insight than could ever have been provided by printed sources because the barriers to manuscript production were so much lower. Essentially, manuscript production required only literacy, some paper, a bottle of ink and a goose quill. There was no need to engage a printer, to solicit subscriptions, or to arrange for distribution. Furthermore, while publications in English were monitored by the state, and their authors, printers, distributors and retailers were all liable to prosecution for seditious libel, it was comparatively easy for Irish-language authors and the scribes who recorded their work to evade detection. The vernacular sources are therefore much more unguarded than sources in English on such sensitive issues as the legitimacy of the reigning dynasty, the orthodoxy of the established church, or Ireland’s constitutional status. Although there were some instances of Irish-language authors being prosecuted, a small amount of discretion ensured that the risk was low and, for practical purposes, vernacular compositions of the period can be regarded as uncensored expressions of their authors’ opinions. It may be noted, however, that the scribe who penned the copy of MacCurtin’s poem in NUIM MS. Murphy 11 took the precaution of abbreviating the potentially incriminating words ‘Gallaibh’ and ‘Seoirse’.
|Figure 5: Two examples of scribal discretion in NUIM MS. Murphy 11
|Figure 6: Eoin MacNeill's analysis of literary texts in the O'Laverty manuscripts
|Figure 7: Two books by R. B. McDowell from 1944 and 1997
It may be said that too much attention has been paid to the opinions of ‘the thinking few’ (to borrow an expression from theological controversy) and that the outlook of the masses has been neglected. But perhaps it scarcely requires to be emphasized that the great bulk of the people were restricted by poverty and persecution to political speculations of the simplest kind ... the great output of Gaelic poetry through which they expressed their feelings does not contain any formulated political ideas.This is an extraordinary claim. In effect, McDowell dismissed the political and historical significance of the views held by the majority of the Irish population on such subjects as the American revolution, the Volunteer movement, the Rightboy agitation against tithes, Penal legislation, and the French revolution. Furthermore, he did so without ever examining the sources in which those views were expressed. In a second book, Crisis and Decline: The Fate of Southern Unionists, published as recently as 1997, McDowell was equally dismissive of the Irish-language sources:
Irish Public Opinion 1750-1800 (1944), pp. 5-6.
Within Trinity the courses and teaching closely resembled those in a British university—I nearly wrote, ‘in other British universities’. However, there was a school of Celtic studies and courses in Irish, and the comparatively few undergraduates who studied Irish were prone to assert vigorously the immense value, especially to Irishmen, of their own subject. Their assertions left me cold or, on controversial occasions, heated. I felt no impulse to learn Irish. My ancestral connections with the language, if they existed, were very distant; I was not a good linguist and my slight acquaintance with Gaelic literature, gained from translation, did not stimulate me to attempt to master the language.Once again, this is an extraordinary argument. As professional scholars, historians should be able to transcend their family backgrounds, their political sympathies and their personal aptitudes. For any historian, the need to familiarise oneself with the full range of sources relevant to the subject being investigated should be paramount. Instead, McDowell dismissed, unread, all of the sources produced by one of the two linguistic communities in eighteenth-century Ireland. His monograph was mistitled: in reality, the subject of his study was not Irish opinion, but rather Anglo-Irish opinion.
Crisis and Decline: The Fate of Southern Unionists (1997), pp. 205-6.
|Figure 8: S. J. Connolly, Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland 1660-1760 (1992)
When the County Kerry labourer Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin (1748-84) composed a poem on the American War of Independence, for example, his delight in the difficulties engulfing the Hanoverian dynasty was conveyed in a web of confused and inconsistent images, in which the American colonists were not mentioned at all, while ‘the Emperor’ was somehow imagined to be among Britain’s enemies.The truth is rather different. In reality, it was the historian, not the poet, who showed a lack of familiarity with the contemporary diplomatic and military contexts. The entry of France into the American war coincided with growing tensions between Austria, a French ally since the ‘diplomatic revolution’ of 1756, and Prussia. These tensions culminated in the War of Bavarian Succession in 1778-9. In Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, it was widely expected that the two wars—that between France and Britain in the Atlantic, and that between Austria and Prussia in Germany—would merge into a wider conflict, much as the colonial War of Jenkins’ Ear had previously merged with the War of Austrian Succession. In April 1778, shortly after the formal breach between Britain and France, Finn’s Leinster Journal reported that French forces had entered Brussels, capital of the Austrian Netherlands, and continued:
Religion, Law and Power: The Making of Protestant Ireland 1660-1760 (1992), p. 248.
we foresaw this might take place in consequence of a convention between the courts of Vienna and Versaille, according to which the French were to occupy the Austrian Netherlands as soon as the Emperor’s troops had retired from them.In its next issue (11 April 1778), the same newspaper advised its readers that George III’s continental possessions were about to be overrun by Austrian forces: ‘The Emperor is putting himself at the head of his army ... and Brunswick and Hanover are certainly to be the seat of war’. That Britain did not become involved in a German war can be attributed to two factors: first, the French were determined not to fight on two fronts; second, Russian opposition to Austrian claims in Bavaria persuaded the emperor to bring the war to an early conclusion. The War of Bavarian Succession is now a minor historical footnote, but at the time it was widely assumed that it would develop into a general European war involving all the major powers. Austria’s accession to the anti-British alliance was not only anticipated, but was reported as an accomplished fact in the Irish press. Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin’s song accurately reflects this expectation. Further references in the song to Comte d’Estaing, the French naval commander, and to Russian rejection of British overtures, show the poet to have been a well informed observer of contemporary European developments. His song vividly captures the sense of anticipation which spread among the Irish-speaking population of Munster in May 1778 as Germany teetered on the brink of war, as the French fleet put to sea, and as British hopes of a Russian alliance foundered. Far from being ‘confused and inconsistent’, Ó Súilleabháin’s song is an essential text for any historian who would trace the evolution of Irish opinion during the American revolution.
Finn’s Leinster Journal, 8 April 1778.
|Figure 9: Single-author anthologies of 18th-century verse in Irish only (on left) and with English translations (on right)
For many, the linguistic barrier remains a very real one; however, given the wealth of material that has been translated into English by bodies like the Irish Texts Society, it should not be an insurmountable one.This argument is simply untenable. The greater part, by far, of the vernacular literature of the eighteenth century has never been published in Irish—much less translated into English. It is preserved in manuscripts; those who would read it require a knowledge not just of the Irish language but also of Irish palaeography. The minuscule proportion of material available in English can be gauged by considering the large number of eighteenth-century poets, anthologies of whose work have been published without translations. In contrast, I can think of just one prolific poet from the eighteenth century whose corpus is available in translation: namely, Aogán Ó Rathaille. There are, of course, many individual poems and songs that have been translated, but these are invariably chosen for their literary merit and not for their historical value. Indeed, I suspect that there may be an inverse correlation between the two: good literature commonly concerns itself with universal, timeless themes, whereas useful primary sources for the student of history are invariably situated in a particular historical conjuncture. In fairness to Professor Ohlmeyer, her period is the seventeenth rather than the eighteenth century, and translations from the earlier period are somewhat more plentiful. None the less, when two members of the Irish department in TCD (Damian McManus and Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh) edited an anthology of five hundred previously unpublished bardic poems in 2010, their collection included approximately one hundred and fifty texts from the 17th century and none of these were translated.
American Historical Review, April 1999, p. 450.
|Figure 10: The Popular Mind in Eighteenth-century Ireland was reviewed in History Ireland, July-August 2017
The high value of Irish-language sources is demonstrated conclusively. The tractability of such evidence remains problematic, however. To what extent did poets write for each other? How representative were their views? Imagine, by analogy, extrapolating later twentieth-century popular political beliefs from those encoded in a stylised literary genre of that era—academic history?While apparently conceding the importance of the vernacular sources, Smyth questioned whether the views they express were really representative of the wider Irish-speaking community and drew a parallel between the Irish-language authors of the eighteenth century and academic historians of the present day. Clearly, the latter cannot be regarded as representative of society. Recruited largely from the upper middle class, they are subjected to intensive instruction for three to four years as undergraduates, followed by practical training for four to six years as they research master’s and doctoral theses. This allows ample opportunity for the historical profession to reproduce itself in its own image: to guide young historians into approved areas of research, to familiarise them with the conventional wisdom of their elders, and to advise them which sources are essential and which sources are merely optional—or even deprecated. Given such a long process of formation, it may well be possible to inculcate a professional viewpoint which differs from that of the wider society. But whether this is true or not, it can have no bearing on eighteenth-century literature in Irish. The authors of that period were all amateurs and received no professional training. Furthermore, they were socially differentiated and widely dispersed geographically. For example, it seems likely that songs from Munster had little currency in north Leinster or Ulster, and the reverse also seems to be true—although this is one of many important issues that await investigation. While some poets of the period undoubtedly received payments for individual compositions, none of them were employed by patrons or by institutions. The glib comparison drawn between their circumstances and those of modern professional historians is therefore devoid of merit and can be dismissed out of hand. The vernacular authors of the eighteenth century were recruited from, and commonly composed for, the Irish-speaking population at large.
History Ireland, July-August 2017, p. 63.
|Figure 11: Volume 3 of The Cambridge History of Ireland (Cambridge, 2018)
It is fashionable, in certain circles, to argue that the limits of this [state] archive can be made good by appealing to the corpus of Irish-language material, and recent work utilising its primary component—Gaelic poetry—has demonstrated its potential in divining the popular mind, but it has less to offer on economic, social, gender, intellectual, recreational and other aspects of Irish society with which historians also seek to engage and, inter alia, address here.
I suspect that Professor Kelly may be correct in relation to economic history, provided this is narrowly defined in terms of trade statistics, availability of specie, fluctuations of wages and prices, etc. But I am baffled as to why he imagines that sources in Irish are unimportant for those who would investigate social, gender, intellectual or recreational aspects of the Irish past. In relation to social history, the vernacular sources shed essential light on such key topics as penal legislation, landlordism and agrarian unrest. In relation to gender history, let us recall that Eoin MacNeill described twenty-six of the 333 compositions in the O’Laverty manuscripts—some eight per cent of the total—as ‘amorous’ or ‘indecent’. Can it seriously be argued that such works have nothing to tell us about gender relations at the time of their composition? Again, the long series of poems by multiple authors on the cross-dressing Seon Anna Prior must surely be of relevance to any historian of gender fluidity in the eighteenth-century. Kelly’s inclusion of intellectual history among the areas where the Irish sources have little to offer is more perplexing still because, in the very first chapter of volume 3 of the Cambridge History, literary compositions in Irish are the principal source used to characterise the ideology of Irish Jacobitism; I am the author of that chapter and Professor Kelly commissioned me to write it! Strangest of all is his inclusion of recreation among the areas in which the vernacular sources are found wanting. It should surely be evident that eighteenth-century texts in Irish represent our principal source for the popular literary culture of the period. They also shed incidental light on such topics as music and song, storytelling, dancing, card games, alcohol consumption, etc. I would have thought that even those who dispute the importance of the Irish sources for the political historian would at least accept their importance for the historian of popular culture.The Cambridge History of Ireland, III (2018), p. 14.
|Figure 12: Taxation, Politics, and Protest in Ireland, 1662-2016 (2019)
Such commentaries on taxation in the Irish language sources are rare, making this an especially valuable source, revealing as it does some insight into popular attitudes to taxation, attitudes that were rarely verbalised in the surviving documentation. Instead historians have been largely obliged to infer popular attitudes to taxation from instances of illicit distillation, protest, riot, or smuggling.I have now almost thirty years experience of working on eighteenth-century literature, and it does not seem to me that the vernacular authors of the period were particularly reticent on the topic of taxation. On the contrary, I feel that references to the subject are quite plentiful. In addition to the term that is now standard, ‘cáin’, other terms for taxation used in the literature of the period include ‘cíos’, which can also mean ‘rent’; ‘ráta’, which is often a land tax; ‘sraith’, which corresponds to ‘cess’ in English; ‘deachú’, the tithes payable to the established church; and the generic ‘íoc’ or ‘payment’. Furthermore, ‘tax’ is itself used as a borrowing from English; indeed, I suspect that it must be one of the most common English words in the Irish-language literature of the eighteenth century. But if references to taxation are not uncommon in the manuscripts, it probably is the case that they have rarely been translated. This is not difficult to explain: on the one hand, the dry-as-dust subject of taxation is unlikely to either attract or retain the attention of literary scholars; on the other, historians continue to avoid any serious engagement with the Irish sources.
Taxation, Politics, and Protest in Ireland, 1662-2016 (2019), p. 90.
|Figure 13: Books by Michael Stanford (1994) and Michael Howard (1991)
Languages ... act as a filter for the evidence. Any historian of Europe needs to be able to read several languages. Indeed, it is often necessary even for one’s own country. The history of the port of Bristol (a modest piece of local history, one might suppose) calls for, at least, English, French, Latin and Spanish.Another English author, the distinguished military historian Michael Howard, has written as follows in The Lessons of History:
A Companion to the Study of History (1994), p. 150.
we cannot know too many languages. We need them not so much in order to make ourselves understood but in order to understand. Without knowing the languages that shape and express their thought, our comprehension of other cultural communities will be dim and unreliable, however great in the abstract may be our knowledge of their past.Howard and Stanford are surely correct: an ability to read multiple languages is an important part of the professional historian’s craft. The historian of eighteenth-century Ireland needs to be (at least) bilingual because Irish society of the period was bilingual and the sources it has left to posterity were composed in two languages.
The Lessons of History (1991), pp. 12-13.
A monolingual historian who approaches the history of eighteenth-century Ireland can be likened to a profoundly deaf film critic. Such a critic could give detailed descriptions of the sets, costumes, make-up and lighting, and provide a reasonably accurate account of who did what to whom, when, where and how. But a deaf movie critic would be reduced to speculation when trying to answer the most important question of all: ‘why?’ If we cannot understand the dialogue, if we cannot listen to the characters expressing themselves, their motivations must remain obscure to us. As if to confirm this view, academic historians of eighteenth-century Ireland have seriously maintained that we cannot know how plebeian Catholics felt about the Penal laws, that Jacobite sentiment dissipated quickly after Culloden, that the Whiteboys of the 1760s were loyal to George III, that the Catholic population supported the British war effort during the American revolution. But none of these propositions will survive engagement with the Irish sources. A profoundly deaf movie critic would have a second handicap that should also be mentioned: such a critic would be unable to hear the soundtrack which is so important for creating a mood or atmosphere: whether it be one of tension or calm, grief or joy, fear or expectation. Societies too have their soundtracks, soundtracks that manipulate the emotions of their populations. The soundtrack we hear today is provided, in large part, by the mass media—whether it be the legacy ‘mainstream media’ or newer digital media. But in eighteenth-century Ireland, the soundtrack heard by most people in the greater part of the island consisted largely of song and verse in Irish. While much of this material has been lost, a considerable proportion of it is preserved in the literary manuscripts. Familiarity with this soundtrack is not an optional extra for historians of the eighteenth-century; it is an essential requirement without which their understanding of Irish society during the period must remain, in Michael Howard’s words, ‘dim and unreliable’.