The Emergence of Irish Gothic Fiction: Locating the Gothic

The Emergence of Irish Gothic Fiction: Locating the Gothic
© Photograph by Olga Mayorova

The Irish Gothic fiction tradition is a central one in terms of Irish writing, and, according to many critics, one of the most important connections between many of the writers in this tradition is their inhabitation of an “Anglo-Irish”, “Ascendancy” world, though we need to acknowledge that these terms elide much in the way of class, theological and political difference, and it is best to be more specific.

In an influential formulation, Robert Fitzroy Foster argues that the Irish Protestant Ascendancy, especially Charles Robert Maturin and Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu “pioneered the nineteenth-century tradition of Irish supernatural fiction” as an expression of their investment in “Protestant Magic”, which included Freemasonry, folklore and esoteric philosophies like Swedenborgianism. This is a view echoed by Terence Francis Eagleton, for whom the “fact that Anglo-Irish writers should have exhibited such fascination with madness and the occult, terror and the supernatural” is explicable because the Gothic operated as that community’s “political unconscious the place where its fears and fantasies most definitely emerge”.

In a previous study, I, too, argued that the Gothic is best seen as an expression of what I called the “Irish Anglican Imagination”. Although this apparently obvious relationship between Irish Anglicans and Irish Gothic has been challenged in recent years, one possible reason for the attractiveness of the Gothic for the Anglican community in Ireland is that it is a genre peculiarly obsessed with questions of identity. As Robert Miles has argued, the Gothic is particularly concerned with “representations of the fragmented subject”, and Irish Anglicans had to tackle a great deal of such fragmentation in the eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries as a function of what Toby Christopher Barnard has called this community’s “crisis of identity”. Indeed, the difficulties and upheavals in Irish Anglican identity throughout its history have been so great as to pose serious problems to historians who want to provide a convenient, shorthand term to label this community.

“Finding yourself” might be a rather irritating hobby of far too many in these post-modern times, but identity has always been a tricky problem for us humans. The inhabitants of Ireland are, of course, notorious and perennial navel gazers, perpetually asking what it means to be Irish and dogged in our desire to embrace (good football players) or reject (bad novelists) potential candidates depending on the national mood. Though clearly, “Irish identity” means a great deal to us, we have not been without some helpful analysts who could not see what all the existential fuss was about. In the early eighteenth century, Philip Yorke, later the first earl of Hardwicke, had a simple explanation of “Irishness”. As he explained in the House of Commons, “the subjects of Ireland were to be considered in two respects, as English and Irish, that the Irish were a conquered people, and the English a colony transplanted hither and as a colony subject to the law of the mother country”. This Manichean version of Irish identity was, however, unsatisfactory to most who lived on this benighted island, not least the “English” colonialists who became almost tormented in their search for the Self. Toby Christopher Barnard warns historians not to overestimate the existential unease of the Irish Anglican community and insists that “the inhabitants of eighteenth-century Ireland agonised less about their own identities than do the rootless and perplexed enquirers of the late twentieth-century”, but of course, this goes without saying (not least because we are living in a post-Freudian age), and in no way mitigates against the kinds of uncertainties evident in the expressions of existential angst found in the ruminations of Irish Anglicans.

Irish Anglicans certainly thought they constituted a discernible community in the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century. Ireland, as Sir Richard Cox put it, was divided sharply into civilised Anglicans and barbaric Catholics, and he most definitely lived in Hibernia Anglicana (1689–90). William Molyneux explained the sense of a unity of purpose many within this community felt, pointing out that “Your Majesty has not in all Your Dominions a People more United and Steady to your Interests, than the Protestants of Ireland”.

Commentators have tended to agree that the different communities inhabiting the island of Ireland encountered the world in often startlingly different ways, and that cultural differences became distinct ways of understanding reality, psychological divisions which made conflicts and tensions harder to resolve. For example, Oliver Ormond Gerard Michael MacDonagh’s brilliant and seminal ‘States of Mind: Two Centuries of Anglo-Irish Conflict, 1780–1980’ (1983) ascribes very different views of time and space to different communities living in Ireland, discussing things such as “the Ulster Protestant sense of territoriality”, “the Irish nationalist concept of space”, “the peasant’s view of property”. It is important to note that Oliver Ormond Gerard Michael MacDonagh’s study is an attempt to trace mental states, to document not events but collective mental attitudes. In his seminal study of competing Irish cultures, Francis Stewart Leland Lyons, too, argues that much of the conflict in Irish history can be put down to the fact that its different communities understand the world in such different ways that they have become “seemingly irreconcilable cultures, unable to live together or to live apart, caught inextricably in the web of their tragic history”.

Discussion of “mentalities” is actually quite common in historical and sociological research. “Social memory” has been brilliantly theorised by Paul Connerton as a communal memory which involves folklore, mythology, tradition and literature. In his study of “collective memory” Maurice Halbwachs insists that individual memory is best seen through the prism of collective memory since the individual constantly depends on her version of the past being reflected and corroborated by the community to which she belongs. We remember the past not merely as individuals but as parts of a collective and community — “knowable communities” have memories, and one way of getting at these memories is through an analysis of the literature that the community has produced. This book argues that the Irish Gothic tradition, for example, is one, very telling, way to examine the mental world of the community that (generally) produced it: the Irish Anglican community.

Some critics have protested strongly against any resort to terms like “the Irish mind”, “the Irish Protestant mind”, or (worst of all?) “the Irish Anglican imagination”. For Richard Haslam, for example, “the definite article should be treated with caution and caveats when employed categorically (‘the Irish Gothic mode’). Even more intellectual vigilance is necessary when ‘the’ prefixes prosopopoeia Extreme caution is required when dealing with hazardous materials like Freudianism, especially when hypostasized creations like ‘the Ascendancy literary imagination’ are psychoanalyzed in order to expose ‘the return of the repressed’ Thus, although presumably intended to function as historical shorthand, Killeen’s references to entities entitled ‘the Protestant character’, ‘the English mind’, and ‘the Irish Protestant mentality’ are distinctly problematic.”

Let me acknowledge that there is a genuine problem in attempting to generalise and articulate a view about the mentalité and psychology, but also the general characteristics, of a given culture, and that it is not only inadvisable but impossible in the strictest sense to essentialise any given set of people because there will always be exceptions and differing versions of the same community. It is certainly strictly true to say that “the Irish mind” or “the Protestant imagination” or “the English personality” do not exist except in the most hypothetical and abstract terms. There are a few more points to be made in respect to this, however, the first being the rather obvious one that substituting the prefix “an”, or “one version of”, for the definite article, does not really help matters, and that qualifications while useful can be not only cumbersome but very misleading. After all, surely only the paranoid reader would consider that terms such as these are meant to be treated literally in the first place. So, although I can easily concede the point that “the Irish Anglican imagination” does not exist, I continue to insist that it is perfectly possible to discuss “the Irish Anglican imagination”.

Finding the correct term(s) to describe the post-Cromwellian Protestant settlers in Ireland has always, of course, been a peculiarly difficult task. Not that people have been unforthcoming with suggestions: “the Anglo-Irish”, “the Protestant interest”, “the king’s Irish subjects”, “the English in Ireland”, “English Protestants of Ireland”, “the whole people of Ireland”, “the Protestant Ascendancy”. Deciding between these labels is not simply a matter of politics (usually explicit) but often of ontology (usually implicit), and all decisions are in the end self-defeating, not least because members of the community themselves could not make up their own minds.

Irish Anglicans constituted a community that was, to say the least, conflicted about its own identity, and often split by very public disagreements. Many were deeply attached to the English connection and asserted an English identity very strongly. Others quickly adapted to being in Ireland and appropriated an Irish identity — indeed, many styled themselves the “whole people of Ireland” (ignoring the substantial body of Catholics who had a rather different perspective on national identity). Others hesitated between Irishness and Englishness, walking the existential high-wire along the hyphen. Scott C. Breuninger usefully argues that many thinkers in the “transitional phase” in the 1720s “displayed a bifurcated vision of ‘Irishness’: a type of dual identity dependent upon specific contexts”. Others adopted a different identity depending on the audience they were addressing: to one group they would adopt the tones of the English settler, to another they could speak as if they had deep roots in Ireland.

Attitudes to the “native” population (primarily meaning the Catholics) contributed to the identity crisis, as did the attitude of the “natives” to the newcomers. Again, some Catholics saw the Anglican community as a gang of interlopers, invading aliens displacing the natural inhabitants of the country; others (though fewer in number) embraced the Anglican community more congenially. It is generally accepted that there is a historical dimension to the identity crisis: in the seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-centuries, Anglicans in Ireland felt reluctant to call themselves “Irish” for a variety of reasons — not least that they had inherited a view of the Irish as degenerate savages that would make anyone hesitant about adopting the term to describe themselves. However, slowly, over the course of the eighteenth-century, and especially as Anglicans in Ireland began to realise that, from an English perspective, they were as Irish as the native Catholics, the term “Irish” became more acceptable, and indeed, increasingly attractive, and many began to adopt the label with enthusiasm. Such a chronology is, of course, a largely theoretical construction and bears only strained resemblance to the social and psychological realities of living in this existentially confused community. The constant re-making of Irish Anglican identity should come as no surprise to those acquainted with sociological and philosophical theories of identity. As Steven Shapin, a historian of the seventeenth-century points out, “identity has to be continually made and is continually revised and remade, throughout an individual career in contingent social and cultural settings”.

It is certainly understandable that Irish Anglicans reacted to English perceptions. After all, according to Charles Taylor, “our identity is partly shaped by recognition or its absence, often by the misrecognition of others — and so a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves.” To be Anglican in Ireland meant to be considered too Irish by English commentators, yet generally not Irish enough by Catholic fellow inhabitants of the island, and this was not a comfortable existential position in which to be stuck. Being stuck “in-between” two antagonistic or at least sceptical interpreters, surely helped in the development of what Dame Mary Douglas has called an “enclave” mentality. An “enclave” is a shared cultural space in which ideas about time and space, ethics, physical nature, metaphysical reality and human relationships are held in common so as to allow the individuals who occupy that space to negotiate their relationship to reality and to others outside the enclave as successfully as possible. The cultural ideas shared by the individuals and groups within the enclave have to be both flexible enough to allow genuine engagements with reality, the external world and changing historical circumstances but also static enough to ensure a robust understanding of where the borders of the enclave lie.

The most important issue for the enclave is the mapping of its own limits and the policing and maintenance of its boundaries, keeping its members inside and blocking the entrance of detested outsiders.


Also published on Medium.

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