Ireland’s Invisibilities

Owen Dudley Edwards

  • Ireland in the Age of Imperialism and Revolution 1760-1801 by R.B. McDowell
    Oxford, 740 pp, £28.00, December 1979, ISBN 0 19 822480 X

Dr R.B. McDowell knows and tells far too many relevant good stories to require the enhancement of his prose by specimens of the ‘Irish bulls’ of Sir Boyle Roche, who single-handedly did so much to make them the symbol of the age under discussion, but the published volume seems to embody a set of paradoxes that approach bullish status. The author’s text goes on for over seven hundred pages, and his felicitous style and speed of narrative hold the audience’s interest better than most works one-third the size. The general reader may occasionally be bewildered by the mass of detail, yet cannot fail to enjoy a book whose publishers have priced it so firmly out of his reach. The high price is offset by some of the worst proof-reading and copy-editing with which the Clarendon Press has to date seen fit to favour its readers. The book is worthy to be placed on the same shelf as that 19th-century masterpiece, Lecky’s multi-volume History of Ireland in the 18th Century, but it will find the proximity of works of its own century much more uneasy company. Not only does the title invite endless tutorial discussions on why this particular period should be singled out as the ‘Age of Imperialism and Revolution’, but the meaning of ‘Ireland’ as here discussed opens up a Pandora’s box of controversy.

Whatever the disagreements on Dr McDowell’s approach, his industry and detail of primary research deserve all praise. The least he and we could have expected, therefore, would have been that his illustrious publishers could be trusted to deal with spelling errors, consistency in capitalisation, accuracy and comprehensiveness in index-references, elimination of undue repetition, clarification of allusion to persons by their old names and their new peerages, and the provision of a couple of useful maps. In fact, the publishers seem to be operating under some new Parkinson’s Law: copy-editing contracts in inverse proportion to the rise in net price. We meet ‘Queen’s Country’ (for ‘County’) on page six, ‘suprising’ on page 16, Blakeney, the defender of Minorca, is ‘honoured by a statute in Dublin’ on page 62, Chief Secretary Rigby is ‘shrewed’ (not, one assumes, a chauvinistic allusion to his wife) on page 209, the Regency crisis of 1788 is in part ‘a constitutional problem with gave implications’ (page 339), page 286 tells us twice in three lines that William Ogilvie was a Scotsman; Whitley Stokes is ‘thanked for his answer to Paine by the board of Trinity College’ on page 199, with the exact words repeated (apart from the belatedly respectful capitalisation of ‘Board’) in the ensuing footnote; John Fitzgibbon, Earl of Clare, is variously Clared and Fitzgibboned all over pages 602-3 with maximum confusion for readers who do not know he was both; and, as Bertie Wooster would say, so the long day wore on, so to speak. Occasionally the text is in flat self-contradiction. Page 263 tells us that ‘Ireland was not a target’ for French invasion ‘in 1779’, but page 503 makes it clear that initially it was (although the author might, have added that ‘Edward Bancroft, the American diplomat’ suggested by Lafayette for preliminary reconaissance, was also Edward ‘Edwards’ the English spy, which may have had something to do with the failure to hit the target).

But the real difficulty about the book lies in the meaning of the word ‘Ireland’. And it was also the real difficulty about the period. ‘Ireland’ meant one thing to the British Government, another to the Irish Protestant Episcopalian Ascendancy, a third to the Presbyterians of Ulster labouring under civil disabilities, a fourth to the Catholic bourgeoisie slowly rising despite even graver penal legislation, a fifth to the largely Gaelic-speaking Catholic peasantry and labourers. Dr McDowell quite clearly shows the changes in some of these different ‘lrelands’ from the beginning to the end of his period, but he does have difficulties in defining them, and even, it often appears, of remembering that some of them existed. The book’s price in this respect tells more than its blurb. We are largely dealing with the Ireland of the ‘haves’, not that of the majority, the ‘have-nots’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in