The story is told of an Irishman who appeared on Mastermind and took as his special subject modern Irish history. Who was the first female President of Ireland? he is asked. ‘Pass,’ he replies instantly. Which neighbouring island once had sovereignty over the whole country? ‘Pass,’ he responds unhesitatingly. Which crop failed in the Great Famine? ‘Pass,’ flashes back the contestant. The embarrassment in the studio is growing palpable when an Irish voice shouts out from the audience: ‘That’s right, Mick – tell the bastards nothing!’
From the secret societies of 18th-century rural agitators to the interrogation centres of modern Derry and Belfast, the Irish have been well-practised at telling the bastards nothing. The custom is reflected in one of Seamus Heaney’s most quoted lines: ‘Whatever you say, say nothing.’ The one place where you might as well cough, however, is the gallows, as is clear from this volume of last speeches edited by the indefatigable Irish historian James Kelly. The speech from the gallows, along with the sermon, the sectarian pamphlet, the tall tale, the statement from the dock, the denunciation from the church altar and the address from the hustings, are among the most venerable of Irish literary genres. They are performative rather than representational pieces of discourse, as befits a society where, from Swift and Sterne to Bram Stoker and James Joyce, literary realism never really took root, and where the frontier between art and politics was never exact.
An Irish scholar boasted in 1684 that his far-flung sector of County Galway, Iar Connacht, was so law-abiding that none of its inhabitants had been brought to the bar or executed for thirty years. He did not mention that the law in the region was so ill-defined it was hard to know how to break it. Irish bandits in the 17th century were known by the Gaelic-derived name of Tories, a word still associated with daylight robbery, which was then derisively applied to those in Britain who resisted the new Williamite political order. Picturesquely holed up in mountain, bog and forest, some Irish Tories were rumoured to be popular champions or Robin Hood figures, genteel Catholic Jacobites who had squandered or forfeited their estates and now robbed the rich to give to the poor. Most of them, however, made do more modestly with simply robbing the rich. Like many an Irish dissident, they had no ardent objection to particular laws, just to the law itself. What never fully managed to sell itself in Ireland was legality as such, redolent as it was of imperial rule. Recent moral outrage over the introduction of wheel-clamping in Dublin would suggest that old anti-colonial habits die hard.
Tories may not all have been the Zapata figures they have been cracked up to be, but Irish rebellion was not without its aura of romance. Agrarian secret societies such as the Whiteboys, Rightboys, Defenders, Dingers, Black Hens, Blackfeet, Rockites, Shanavests and Caravats were Hobsbawmian ‘social bandits’, midnight legislators seeking by organised violence to regulate lands, wages, rents and tithes in the countryside. But they also formed a whole countercultural underground, with their carnivalesque iconography of cross-dressing, exotic oaths, bizarre pseudonyms, mythologised leaders and esoteric initiation ceremonies. In the early 19th century there were Caravat and Shanavest pubs, wren-boys, mummers’ teams, songs and dance tunes. Nicholas Hanley, chief of the Caravats, was a flamboyant dandy who strutted about with a blunderbuss and brace of pistols, returned to his plundered victims any items he thought it beneath his dignity to pocket, and ostentatiously threw his elegant cravat to the mob from the gallows. Another bandit chief, Captain Wheeler, was a devout adherent of matrimony, having wangled himself three simultaneous wives and murdered an entire family to gain a fourth.
These primitive rebels shaded into the illicit world of Tories, smugglers, faction fighters and poteen brewers; in some parts of the country, smuggling and poteen brewing were key economic activities, so that normality required its deviation just to stay alive. Every decade from 1760 to 1840 witnessed at least one major outbreak of rural discontent, though for much of this period Ireland was not a particularly belligerent place, perhaps less so than Britain. Non-agrarian crime was remarkably rare. Even in recent times the record has been in some ways impressive: only 12 police officers were murdered in the country between 1970 and 1990, a statistic which might interest the mayor of Miami. The felons whose last words are recorded here are robbers and murderers rather than rural militants, but that is because they were executed in Dublin. There is one Tory among them, whose heart, liver, lights and members were burned after his execution, and whose head was set on the gaol, ‘two yards higher than any of the rest’, complete with its hat and wig.
One modern Irish historian, eager in revisionist spirit to dismantle images of Irish barbarism, points out emolliently that in mid-Victorian Ireland only 45 per cent of those killed died of gunshot wounds, while 30 per cent died of head injuries, 11 per cent of less precisely specified injuries, and 7 per cent of stabs and cuts. It is gratifying to learn that the Irish were such a pacific bunch. The same historian adds that ‘few landlords were fired at more than once,’ further testimony to the rural tenantry’s high moral tone. Agitators’ attitudes to their landlords could indeed be ambivalent: it was not unknown to read the squire a loyal address on the morning of his wedding while creeping out that very night to disembowel his cattle. Nineteenth-century Ireland still had twice as many policemen per head of population as Britain, along with garrisons of troops and yeomanry, and witnessed an average of one coercive Act a year. But things were at least not as dire as when a legal judgment of 1758 had declared that a Catholic existed in law only for the purpose of punishment. Threatening letters to landlords, which for some reason worthy of scholarly investigation tended to peak in March and slope off in April or May, continued unabated; but one such missive, after issuing a lurid death threat, concluded with impeccable courtesy: ‘Hoping to find you in good health as this leaves me at present.’ Deference was clearly not dead.
Something of the theatrical spirit of the secret societies pervaded the later insurrectionary Ireland of Yeats, Maud Gonne and James Connolly. Nationalism is an aesthetic sort of politics, in which fact and fiction easily interbreed. Connolly’s Citizen Army staged an assault on Dublin Castle one foggy night without being sure whether the operation was real or simulated. The labour leader James Larkin was smuggled into a Dublin hotel disguised in a count’s cloak and false beard, while Maud Gonne, who had played an old crone in Yeats’s play Cathleen ni Houlihan, played one again to smuggle herself back into the country when banned from its shores. The printing press for the 1916 insurrection was installed in the Abbey Theatre, and the first man to be killed in the uprising was an Abbey actor who had been playing the lead role in a drama by James Connolly, who in turn played a leading role in the revolution. An Irish nurse attending wounded British soldiers in Dublin was rewarded with a bit part in a West End revue.
Rural militancy gathered steam in the mid-18th century; and it was around that time, so Kelly informs us, that the vogue for broadsides of last speeches began to wane. Of the 62 gallows speeches reprinted here, 58 fall in the period before 1740. Since the speeches were less spontaneous confessions than a stratagem of the state, dramatising the submission of miscreants to its august authority, it is hardly surprising that they should be less in fashion as social dissent became more clamorous. As the country slid towards the ethnic cleansing of the revolutionary 1790s, the populace were less likely to relish accounts of each other’s mutilation at the hands of a brutally inequitable law, let alone derive moral admonishment from them. From the 1740s onwards, so the editor informs us, the Irish were also less likely to take capital punishment as such lying down. Mobs would lay the bodies of hanged men at the door of their prosecutors, hangmen were occasionally stoned and gallows pulled down, while bodies left dangling on gibbets were taken down for revival, waking or burial. (Incredulous non-Irish readers should recall the Irish meaning of ‘wake’.) And there was always a minority of the condemned who chose to ‘die hard’ by avowing their innocence or just keeping their mouths shut. Among this intrepid company was Larry, felonious hero of the magnificent Irish ballad ‘The Night before Larry Was Stretched’, who perversely insists on regarding the gallows as an Ideological State Apparatus:
When one of us asked could he die
Without having truly repented,
Says Larry, ‘That’s all in my eye,
And first by the clergy invented,
To get a fat bit for themselves.’
Just as a sadist requires the active response of his prey, so the law risks falling into disrepute if those whom it penalises fail to affirm it. Rather as there is no literary work without a reader, so power lives only in the response of its victims. Indeed, Hume held that ‘force is always on the side of the governed,’ since it is impotent without assent. Power is the effect of obedience, rather than vice versa. There is no more effective resistance to authority then genuinely not giving a toss for it, which is not the same as despising or resenting it. Barnadine, the psychopathic convict of Measure for Measure, is so morally indolent that he objects to his impending execution only because it interferes with his sleep. The state must therefore defer his dying until he has been persuaded to embrace it, otherwise his punishment will lose much of its point. Unless he somehow performs his own death, appropriates it as authentically his own, it will fail to constitute an event in his life and thus lapse from the sphere of meaning to the domain of mere biology. At the point of death, the most rebarbatively real of all occurrences, one is called upon to be an actor, as the rapists and footpads of 18th-century Dublin were expected to speak to a prepared text with the rope around their necks, striking pious or remorseful poses on the edge of eternity.
The question of consent to law is especially relevant to Ireland, since its Anglo-Irish governors were able to practise power but not, by and large, to enjoy hegemony. It thus comes as no surprise that hegemony – the notion that power thrives only on assent and affection – is the abiding theme of the greatest of all Irish political thinkers, Edmund Burke. The law for Burke was essentially male, but to work effectively it had to engage in a spot of strategic cross-dressing just like its agrarian antagonists, kitting itself out seductively as a woman. Kelly has his doubts about the hegemony thesis, since gallows speeches were beamed at different audiences with variable effects. But one of their intentions was doubtless to legitimate an authority increasingly uncertain of itself. They belonged to what one historian has called ‘the theatre of the scaffold’, an arena in which violence must not only be done but must be seen to be done. On this view, a private execution would be as pointless as an orgy of one. If rebels had their spectaculars, so did the sovereignty they challenged.
Gallows speeches involved the death of the author as well as of the miscreant. As Kelly comments, they drew on the combined output of offenders, clergy, printers, publishers, and possibly family members, jailers and fellow prisoners. They were heavily formulaic affairs, set moulds into which a convict could pour his or her own particular mix of autobiography and spiritual reflection; and this blending of art and reality was reflected in the proto-Postmodern practice by which hawkers would sometimes sell broadsheets of last speeches at the execution itself, in time-warping, life-imitating-art style. If these texts were political acts, they were also commercial commodities. Moreover, they combined fact and fiction in their content as well as in their occasion and mode of production. Edward English, a butcher executed for robbery in 1707, tells us that he was ‘Born at South-Gate in Cork, and lived there for the space of Fourteen Years; during which time my poor Parents endeavour’d to keep me to School; soon after I left Cork, and came for Dublin . . . where [my father] did endeavour like an honest Man to get his Bread and did keep me at School full Two Years more, and then bound me Apprentice to one William Carter, Butcher in New-street.’ Later, having fallen prey to ‘Cursing, Swearing, and Lewd Women’ (a remarkable number of these crooks claim to have been brought low by floozies), he turned to robbery. The passage could be lifted from an 18th-century picaresque novel, as could the perfunctory phrases of contrition with which the speech concludes.
In fact, gallows speeches as a literary genre betray a contradiction which is also built into the realist novel. Some of their readers, Kelly comments, consumed them for their narratives rather than their moral lessons; but this is also a problem with Moll Flanders, Tom Jones and Clarissa, where we are supposed to do both. The novel is born of the subversive, soap-opera-like recognition that routine reality, the sheer quotidian flow, can be endlessly captivating, and that the mere representation of this process can be an enthralling end in itself. But this pleasure in the real is ideologically suspect, since like most pleasure it appears to be amoral. Reality must have a point, and narrative must double-code the stuff of the world so that it is at once itself and symbolic, empirical and moral, individual and typical. Otherwise we are in danger of wallowing in our senses, becoming enmired in the material signifier, mistaking the trees for the wood. The basis of major realism is thus also the rationale behind tabloid exposures: from the Newgate novel to the News of the World, the sensational is in the service of the socially responsible.
The story, in short, must have a moral. This moral will not convince us unless it is fleshed out in grippingly particularised form; but the more this happens the more realism becomes a sensuous pleasure in itself and so threatens to undermine the moral truth it is meant to illustrate. If God resides in the moral whole, the devil lies in the realist detail, and as usual he has all the best tunes. The more fascinating the narrative, the more endangered is its exemplary status. Richardson wrote to a friend that he did not want to announce that Clarissa was fictional, but neither did he wish the reader to think that it was genuine. To disclose its fictional status would risk undercutting its realist impact, but readers who took it as real-life history might miss its allegorical import. In his later fiction, Richardson is still pretending that his story is genuine but taking no pains to make the pretence plausible; he is, so to speak, pretending to pretend.
The drunks, thieves and fornicators of these orations are expected, like the realist novel, to treat themselves as individual and exemplary at one and the same time. The symbolic space of the gallows, like that of the literary narrative, transposes them for the duration of their fifteen minutes of fame from the empirical to the ethical, the descriptive to the prescriptive. Dying as real men and women, they are reborn in the same moment, down where the hawkers are touting their broadsheets, as fictional or mythological figures, dead marks on paper which will nevertheless live a lot longer than they did themselves. In one of the most celebrated of Irish poems, ‘Easter 1916’, Yeats will do just the same by the performative force of his rhetoric to the executed leaders of the Dublin uprising, gathering them from the contingency of history into the artifice of eternity.
Yet it is not easy to be simultaneously oneself and something else, and most of these amateur orators make something of a hash of it. If the empirical bits of their narrative are too dully digressive, incongruously at odds with the high drama of the occasion, the ethical or exemplary bits (‘I die a Roman Catholick, and the Lord have Mercy on my Poor Soul Amen’) are too tritely tacked on. One does not expect those who are just about to be topped to rise to Ciceronian heights of expressiveness; but it is interesting even so that the way in which so many of these pieces are botched reflects some of the structural problems of a newly emergent realism. It is not, one presumes, a point which would have been foremost in the mind of the plundering butcher Edward English.
As a champion of the common life, the novel is a genuinely democratic form. We can now only dimly imagine the baffled excitement of readers reared on a diet of tragedy, elegy and pastoral on first perusing a page of Defoe, where the everyday has suddenly become alluring in its own right. It is not an unqualified advance, for now the most humble of men and women can serve as tragic protagonists. You no longer have to rise high in order to fall with a suitably eye-catching splash. In fact, the more down-at-heel your life, the more precarious and potentially tragic it is likely to be. This is one reason the new heroes of 18th-century writing are whores and orphans rather than knights and dowagers. The other symbolic space which proves particularly hospitable to the dispossessed is the gallows, where absolutely anybody can play the leading role, and where you do not need to rise all that high in order to drop.