While the Gaelic-speaking people of Ireland were restricted to traditional legends, songs, and histories, a library was provided for those who used English by the genius and industry of men whose names have vanished—a fate common to them with the builder of the Pyramids, the inventor of letters, and other benefactors of mankind. Moore has given, in Captain Rock, an imperfect catalogue of this library. The scientific course seems to have been rather limited, as Ovid’s Art of (let us rather say essay on) Love was the only abstract work; but it contained biographies of Captain Freney the Robber, and of Redmond O’Hanlon the Rapparee—wherein, we fear, O’Hanlon was made, by a partial pen, rather more like Freney than history warrants; dramas such as the Battle of Aughrim, written apparently by some Alsatian Williamite; lyrics of love, unhoused save by the watch; imperial works, too, as Moll Flanders; and European literature—Don Beliants, and the Seven Champions. Whether they were imported, or originally produced for the grooms of the dissolute gentry, may be discussed; but it seems certain that their benign influence spread, on one side, to the farmers’ and shopkeepers’ sons, and, on the other, to the cadets of the great families—and were, in short, the classics of tipsy Ireland. The deadly progress of temperance, politics, and democracy has sent them below their original market, and in ten years the collector will pay a guinea apiece for them.
During the Emancipation struggle this indecent trash shrunk up, and a totally different literature circulated. The Orange party regaled themselves chiefly with theology, but the rest of the country (still excepting the classes sheltered by their Gaelic tongue) formed a literature more human, and quite as serious. There occasionally is great vigour in the biographies of Lord Edward, Robert Emmet, and other popular heroes chronicled at that time; but the long interview of Emmet with Sarah Curran, the night before his execution, is a fair specimen of the accuracy of these works. The songs were intense enough, occasionally controversial, commonly polemical, always extravagant; the Granu Wails and Shan-Van-Vochts of the Catholic agitation cannot be too soon obsolete. The famous Waterford song:—
“O’Connell’s come to town,
And he’ll put the Orange down,
And by the heavenly G—— he’ll wear the crown,
Says the Shan Van Vocht!”
is characteristic of the zeal, discretion, and style of these once powerful lyrics. A history of the authorship of these biographies and songs would be interesting, and is perhaps still possible. The reprint in the series of Hugh O’Reilly’s Irish history—albeit, a mass of popular untruth was put at the end of it—shows as if some more considerate mind had begun to influence these publications. They, too, are fast vanishing, and will yet be sought to illustrate their times.
In the first class we have described there was nothing to redeem their stupid indecency and ruffianism; in the latter, however one may grieve at their bigotry, and dislike their atrocious style, there were purity, warmth, and a high purpose.
The “Useful Knowledge Society” period arrived in Britain, and flooded that island with cheap tracts on algebra and geometry, chemistry, theology, and physiology. Penny Magazines told every man how his stockings were wove, how many drunkards were taken up per hour in Southwark, how the geese were plucked from which the author got his pens, how many pounds weight of lead (with the analysis thereof, and an account of the Cornish mines by way of parenthesis) were in the types for each page, and the nature of the rags (so many per cent. beggars, so many authors, so many shoe-boys) from which the paper of the all-important, man and money-saving Penny Magazine was made. On its being suggested that man was more than a statistician, or a dabbler in mathematics, a moral series (warranted Benthamite) was issued to teach people how they should converse at meals—how to choose their wives, masters, and servants by phrenological developments, and how to live happily, like “Mr. Hard-and-Comfortable,” the Yellow Quaker.
Unluckily for us, there was no great popular passion in Ireland at the time, and our communication with England had been greatly increased by steamers and railways, by the Whig alliance, by democratic sympathy, and by the transference of our political capital to Westminster. Tracts, periodicals, and the whole horde of Benthamy rushed in. Without manufactures, without trade, without comfort to palliate such degradation, we were proclaimed converts to Utilitarianism. The Irish press thought itself imperial, because it reflected that of London—Nationality was called a vulgar superstition, and a general European Trades’ Union, to be followed by a universal Republic, became the final aspirations of “all enlightened men.” At the same time the National Schools were spreading the elements of science and the means of study through the poorer classes, and their books were merely intellectual.
Between all these influences Ireland promised to become a farm for Lancashire, with the wisdom and moral rank of that district, without its wealth, when there came a deliverer—the Repeal agitation.
Its strain gradually broke the Whig alliance and the Chartist sympathy. Westminster ceased to be the city towards which the Irish bowed and made pilgrimage. An organisation, centring in Dublin, connected the People; and an oratory full of Gaelic passion and popular idiom galvanised them. Thus there has been, from 1842—when the Repeal agitation became serious—an incessant progress in Literature and Nationality. A Press, Irish in subjects, style, and purpose, has been formed—a National Poetry has grown up—the National Schools have prepared their students for the more earnest study of National politics and history—the classes most hostile to the agitation are converts to its passions; and when Lord Heytesbury recently expressed his wonder at finding “Irish prejudices” in the most cultivated body in Ireland, he only bore witness to an aristocratic Nationality of which he could have found countless proofs beside.
Yet the power of British utilitarian literature continues. The wealthy classes are slowly getting an admirable and a costly National Literature from Petrie, and O’Donovan, and Ferguson, and Lefanu, and the University Magazine. The poorer are left to the newspaper and the meeting, and an occasional serial of very moderate merits. That class, now becoming the rulers of Ireland, who have taste for the higher studies, but whose means are small, have only a few scattered works within their reach, and some of them, not content to use these exclusively, are driven to foreign studies and exposed to alien influence.
To give to the country a National Library, exact enough for the wisest, high enough for the purest, and cheap enough for all readers, appears the object of “The Library of Ireland.”
Look at the subjects—A History of the Volunteers, Memoirs of Hugh O’Neill, of Tone, of Owen Roe, of Grattan, Collections of Irish Ballads and Songs, and so forth. It would take one a month, with the use of all the libraries of Dublin, to get the history of the Volunteers. In Wilson’s so-called history you will get a number of addresses and 300 pages of irrelevant declamation for eight or ten shillings. Try further, and you must penetrate through the manuscript catalogues of Trinity College and the Queen’s Inns (the last a wilderness) to find the pamphlets and newspapers containing what you want; yet the history of the Volunteers is one interesting to every class, and equally popular in every province.
Hugh O’Neill—he found himself an English tributary, his clan beaten, his country despairing. He organised his clan into an army, defeated by arms and policy the best generals and statesmen of Elizabeth, and gave Ireland a pride and a hope which never deserted her since. Yet the only written history of him lies in an Irish MS. in the Vatican, unprinted, untranslated, uncopied; and the Irishman who would know his life must grope through Moryson, and Ware, and O’Sullivan in unwilling libraries, and in books whose price would support a student for two winters.
Of Tone and Grattan—the wisest and most sublime of our last generation—there are lives, and valuable ones; but such as the rich only will buy, and the leisurely find time to read.
The rebellion of 1641—a mystery and a lie—is it not time to let every man look it in the face? The Irish Brigade—a marvellous reality to few, a proud phantom to most of us—shall we not all, rich and poor, learn in good truth how the Berserk Irish bore up in the winter streets of Cremona, or the gorgeous Brigade followed Clare’s flashing plumes right through the great column of Fontenoy?
Irish Ballads and Songs—why (except that Spirit of the Nation which we so audaciously put together), the popular ballads and songs are the faded finery of the West End, the foul parodies of St. Giles’s, the drunken rigmarole of the black Helots—or, as they are touchingly classed in the streets, “sentimental, comic, and nigger songs.” Yet Banim, and Griffin, and Furlong, Lover and Ferguson, Drennan and Callanan, have written ballads and songs as true to Ireland as ever MacNeill’s or Conyngham’s were to Scotland; and firmly do we hope to see with every second lad in Ireland a volume of honest, noble, Irish ballads, as well thumbed as a Lowland Burns or a French Beranger, and sweetly shall yet come to us from every milking-field and harvest-home songs not too proudly joined to the sweetest music in the world.
This country of ours is no sand bank, thrown up by some recent caprice of earth. It is an ancient land, honoured in the archives of civilisation, traceable into antiquity by its piety, its valour, and its sufferings. Every great European race has sent its stream to the river of Irish mind. Long wars, vast organisations, subtle codes, beacon crimes, leading virtues, and self-mighty men were here. If we live influenced by wind and sun and tree, and not by the passions and deeds of the past, we are a thriftless and a hopeless People.