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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 9. National Folk-ballads and other writings

With the later years of the eighteenth century begins that period in Anglo-Irish literature when the brief but brilliant era of Irish parliamentary independence gave an impulse to literature, art and music in Ireland which survived the passing of the Act of union for quite a generation. Apart from the patriotic poems of Drennan and such national folk-ballads as The Shan van Vocht, and The Wearing of the Green, and the brilliant oratory of Grattan, Flood and Curran—there was a revival of interest in Irish native poetry and music, evidenced by the publication of Charlotte Brooke’s Reliques of Irish Poetry, the holding of the Granard and Belfast meetings of Irish harpers and the consequent issue of Bunting’s first and second collections of Ancient Irish Music, which inspired Moore’s Irish Melodies. Magazines began to appear in Dublin, Belfast and Cork, which gave employment to Irish men and women of letters. Learned societies sprang up and flourished. Schools of art were founded and state-aided popular education succeeded the hedge-schools. But these movements were interrupted and marred by intermittent political agitations, and Dublin lost more and more of its prestige as a capital. The writers, artists and musicians who would have rallied around the leaders of an independent Ireland were gradually led to seek their living in London; and, for the same reasons, the mental vitality they had showed at the end of the previous century declined even more decidedly in Belfast, Cork and Limerick.

Two groups of Irish patriots, however, the one more purely political, the other, owing to race, less actively so, conferred literary credit upon Ireland even at a time when she was suffering from unsatisfactory land laws and the imposition of a poor law contrary to the character of her people.

One of these groups, the Young Irelanders, carried on its literary propaganda very much as a protest against what they regarded as the continuous misgovernment of their country; the other group remained faithful to literary efforts for Ireland in spite of the existing condition of the country; and, thus, though in a large measure opposed to one another in politics, the two bodies worked side by side, more especially in universities and learned societies.

George Petrie, a distinguished artist, archaeologist, musician and man of letters, and a man of as much personal charm as versatility of talent, drew around him the most eminent of the non-political group of Irish writers referred to, in association with Caesar Otway, who, somewhat late in life, discovered literary gifts of a high order which he employed in writings descriptive of Irish life, scenery and historic remains. He started The Dublin Penny Journal and conducted it with spirit and marked ability for a year, and, ten years later, The Irish Penny Journal, which he carried on, this time as sole editor, with equal enthusiasm and skill for the same short period. The physician William Stokes, whose Biography of George Petrie is a standard Irish work of its kind, is, however, constrained to say, that, though, next to politics and polemics, the subjects treated of in these two illustrated magazines, namely, the history, biography, poetry, antiquities, natural history, legends and traditions of the country, were most likely to attract the attention of the Irish people, yet,

  • there is no more striking evidence of the absence of public opinion or the want of interest in the history of the country on the part of Irish society than the failure of these two works, and it is remarkable that the principal demand for them was from London and the provincial towns of England. In literary merit, they were anything but failures and, indeed, it is told of Southey, that he used to say, when talking of these volumes, that he prized them as among the most valuable of his library.
  • The Irish writers who deserved this favourable verdict from Southey were Carleton and the Banims, Crofton Croker, Mrs. S. C. Hall, Anster, Martin Doyle, Wills, D’Alton and Furlong.

    Besides Petrie himself, author of two archaeological works—Origin and uses of the Round Towers and Essay on Tara Hill—each a masterpiece of scientific reasoning, and of a series of descriptive articles relating to Clonmacnoise, the isles of Arran and other places of Irish antiquarian and other interests, which possess a charm as delicate and wistful as his Welsh and Irish water-colour paintings, we find ourselves in the company of Otway, of whom Archer Butler has well said:

  • Among all the panegyrists of Irish natural beauty, none has ever approached him. You are not, indeed, to expect much method or system in his sketches, but he had a higher and rarer gift. He was possessed by what he saw and felt. His imagination seemed to revel in the sublimities he described: his sentences became breathing pictures, better, because more suggestive, than painting itself.