Ireland in English Literature

By C.Desmond Greaves

(Editor’s Note: This article was originally read on Greaves’s behalf as a lecture at the third conference on “Ireland: Culture and Society” organised in Halle, Germany, in 1981 by Professor Dorothea Siegmund-Schultze of the Martin Luther University, Halle-Wittenberg, who was professor of English there. Greaves did not attend the conference himself. So far as is known, in the course of his life he never set foot on the European mainland. The conference proceedings, including Greaves’s essay, were published in Irland:Gesellschaft und Kultur 3, Martin Luther Universitat, Halle-Wittenberg, German Democratic Republic, 1982. The proceedings of the other conferences were also published. For a decade or so these biennial conferences organised by Professor Siegmund-Schultze were the main occasions for the study of Ireland in communist Eastern Europe. In the last paragraph of this essay Greaves refers warmly to the poetry of Thomas Hood. He often compared his own later verse with that of Hood’s as being at once comic and satirical.. See in particular his Four Letters Verses and the Mountbatten Award and Elephants Against Rome).

It has been remarked that few colonized peoples have had so great an influence on the colonizing country as the Irish on England.1 This essay is an introduction to tracing that influence as shown in English literature. It is not concerned with Anglo-Irish literature. That is a direct product of colonization and undoubtedly reacts back on English literature. It is mostly consciously concerned with the results of colonization.2 It has produced world-famous figures in Yeats, Shaw, Joyce and O’Casey who as Professor Brown has put it present the “profound and excruciating issues” which came to a head in Ireland at the opening of  the 20th century.3 I am rather concerned with English literature proper, whether in Latin, French or English, whose parallel is Irish literature written in Irish. The object is to identify the cultural strands which compose English consciousness of Ireland and the Irish.

The Venerable Bede4was pro-Irish. True, he noted with satisfaction the massacre of ”heretics” at the Irish foundation of Bangor-on-Dee. But as a Northumbrian he recognised that he himself owed everything to the ”heretics” and heathen who had sheltered scholars and artists who fled from the rape of Gaul. When English students flocked to their schools, the Irish “willingly received  them and took care to supply them with food,  as also to furnish them with books for their studies and their teaching  free of charge.”5 A century and a half later Alfred gave Irish scholars an honourable reception and he is believed to have founded his laws on the Brehon code. The English chronicles have no anti-Irish tendency. Any conception that there is some built-in almost biological antagonism between the English and Irish peoples is disproved by history. 

When, then, did the trouble begin? After the coming of the Norman-French. In applying to Pope Adrian for permission to add Ireland to his dominions Henry II described its peoples as lawless savages living in woods and given over to heresy and impiety. The invasion began in 1169. But there was no immediate conquest. A literature of justification was required, of which the fons et origo was Giraldus Cambrensis. His work was translated into English from the fifteenth century onward and kept in print.

Giraldus, who visited only the occupied part of Ireland and believed the Shannon flowed northwards, portrayed the Irish as filthy ignorant savages, adulterous and incestuous, possessing no mechanical arts, linen or wool. The liberal historian J.R.Green described him as the forerunner of the modern journalist. He may not have known that according to Juvenal Irish wool was on sale in ancient Rome. But he probably knew well that the Welsh princes had brought over Irish harpers to instruct their bards. He gave the Irish what he could not deny them – they were the most skilful musicians in the world and (whatever about mechanical arts) fitted their harps with brass strings. Giraldus’s denunciations were accepted by Norman-French opinion which spread to the continent where, however, they were constantly contradicted by the arrival of learned refugees over the next few centuries.

Up to Elizabeth’s time England failed to govern the Irish but prevented them from governing themselves. Ireland was milked continuously but, so to speak, as a kicking cow. The libel of English policy (for libel read ‘handbook’) in 1436 published the couplet:

“Of silver and gold there is the more

 Among the wylde Irish, though they be poor.”

The readers were urged ”with all your might, take hede to keep Yreland that it be not loste.” The “wylde” Irish were those who, like Aesop’s fox, preferred a crust in freedom to a feast in captivity.

From references in the Wife of Bath it has been concluded that Chaucer was friendly to Ireland – it used at one time to be supposed that he visited the country.  It is a reasonable assumption that the Anglo-Norman attitude had not filtered down from the French-speaking ruling class. How far the memory of the old Irish world survived in the folk consciousness is of course a matter for speculation, but one cannot avoid the feeling, when reading the Arthurian romances, that Ireland is lurking in the shadows, not far behind the scene.6

It is in the sixteenth century that the change begins. Following the fall of Byzantium the discovery of America and the onset of primitive accumulation, nationally organized merchant capitals vied for supremacy in the Atlantic. Ireland acquired a strategic importance illustrated in the linking of Elizabeth’s Irish and Spanish wars. The doctrine of English hegemony in the “British” isles was proclaimed.7

An Ireland attached merely by loose feudal bonds was no longer adequately secure. Conquest and colonization became the aim.

Edmund Spenser was one of the spokesmen for this programme. He could listen to Irish music at his home in Co.Cork, have Irish tales translated to him to excite his fancy, and introduce fine descriptions of Irish scenery in The Faerie Queene, but he could gloat over desolated provinces and propose for any “rebel” that survived ”so to pluck him on his knees that he will never be able to stand up again.”8 He was all for extirpating the native Irish as far as was possible and planting the country with colonists. Francis Bacon also advised colonization but “not as a flash but as a solid and settled pursuit.”

The victories over Spain and Ireland naturally raised as many questions as they settled, and it is in Shakespeare that we best identify the “excruciating issues” which were up for resolution so shortly after his death. His patriotic tendency is obvious. The only visible focus of national identity was the monarch. But the absolute monarchy was in constant danger of relapsing into feudal anarchy, tyranny and bloodshed. It is inescapable that Ireland was a factor in this situation. The interesting thing is that Shakespeare was not anti-Irish. True, when Richard II is in the process of bankrupting his barons for the sake of his “Irish wars” he is made to speak of ”rough rug-headed kerns”. But the following two verses can bear a double meaning; the Irish 

“… live like venom where no venom else

 But only they have privilege to live.”

King Richard is denouncing the Irish as venom, but in words that admit the possibility that venom might think itself entitled to its own country. Elizabeth was fully conscious of the fate of her predecessor and on occasion Richard II had to be played without the deposition scene. This was said to be a great favourite with the supporters of Essex.

It has been remarked by Mathew Arnold and others that Celtic culture had a fascination for Shakespeare. Of various explanations offered9I favour his interest in the early history of these islands as recorded in Holinshed’s chronicles. Campion and Stanyhurst who contributed the Irish sections were not friendly, but unlike Giraldus they knew something about the country. A political motive may have supported Shakespeare’s antiquarian interest. If we suppose English interests demanded a union of Celt and Saxon, how was it to be achieved on a permanent basis? By military adventures that spawned rival war-lords, emptied treasuries and threatened the stability of the throne? Or by the procedures illustrated by the union of crowns of England and Scotland? Now such a union of nations implied a mutual recognition of cultures, and we see this foreshadowed in Macbeth with its many Irish allusions.

Both Lear and Cymbeline are set in “Britain”, though of no recognizable historical period. The plot of the first may, it has been suggested, owe something to the Irish story of the Children of Lir and a part of that of the second to the Sons of Usnach.  But on a political level Lear pays the penalty for abandoning sovereignty and dividing authority. And lest there should be any doubt that the kingdom is Britain, the nursery couplet which at present runs

“Fee, fi, fo. fum

I smell the blood of an Englishman” 

is transformed into

“Fee, fo and fum

 I smell the blood of a British man.”

To this day “British” is a politician’s and advertiser’s word. The words which possess the hearts of the people are “English”, “Irish”, “Scottish” and “Welsh”. Milton writes of the “God-given organ-voice of England”. Two centuries after Shakespeare a Welsh primer was announced as a “grammar of the British language”.   Are we to suppose Shakespeare unaware of what he was doing?  I suspect that in Lear, Macbeth and Cymbeline, the Celtic peoples are legitimized and the English are autochthonized. This was to presuppose the abandonment of modes of thought and self-identification that had persisted since the fifth century and are by no means dead today. In Henry V he has representatives of the four nations on the field together. The Scot is totally acceptable. The upstart who mocks the Welshman’s uncertain English is suitably reproved. But the Irishman, who appears only briefly, feels insulted when his country is referred to. Whatever the significance of this, English hegemony demands the recognition of four nations.10

I have dealt with Shakespeare at some length because it seems to me that while abating no jot of his English patriotism he thought seriously about relations between the island peoples. It was however Spenser’s policy that was followed in Ireland, and as the Irish were reduced, so they ceased to be the “wild” Irish and became the ”mere” Irish. No longer feared they came to be ridiculed and the stage Irishman stepped on to the boards.  Alan Bliss11refers to Dekker’s The honest whore and Stewtley which were both produced around 1600.  Irish jokes came into vogue and these were later collected. One collection went through seven editions.  Its author described himself as an Irishman, Mac O Bonniclabbero, knight of the mendicant order. The work was a collection of “punns, learned bulls etc. of the natives of Teague-land”. Those who had ruined them now mocked their poverty, ridiculed their English and turned their wit against themselves. 

But the seventeenth century also saw the birth of solidarity based on community of interest between the Irish people and emergent English democracy. When the English revolution was entering its declining phase Cromwell had great difficulty in persuading his army to fight for the reconquest of Ireland. The troops were under the influence of a brilliant pamphleteer, the “Leveller” Thomas Walwyn.12

As Brailsford has pointed out, the Levellers  “saw the Catholic Irish as their fellow-men whose claim to liberty was as valid as their own.”  The principle of international solidarity was proclaimed by the political forerunners of the English proletariat in relation to the reconquest of Ireland.

Walwyn’s manner was direct. He asked the soldiers “Will you go on to kill, slay and murder to make them (your officers) as absolute lords and masters over Ireland as you have made them over England? Is it your ambition… to fill their prisons with poor, to fill their land with swarms of beggars … to take down a monarchical tyranny and set up an aristocratical tyranny?13The army was purged and Cromwell set about the bloody work. The instrument of religious sectarianism was turned against Walwyn and he and his friends found their way to prison or exile.  The poison affecting present-day Belfast was brewed in London in 1649.

Milton remained with Cromwell to the last, presumably endorsing his Irish policy. When the Belfast Presbyterians protested against the execution of the king, Milton (in his official capacity as secretary) replied to them, describing their city as a “barbarous nook in Ireland”.  His reply, ”Observations on the articles of peace with the Irish rebels” by its very title denies internationalism.14  The Irish are described as “a mixed rabble, part papists, part fugitives, and part savages, guilty in the highest degree of all these crimes.” He characterizes the Catholic Church as Antichrist. He seems to have no suspicion that when Cromwell turned the forces of the revolution from the fulfilment of popular objectives and launched on foreign conquest he risked its ultimate defeat. After Cromwell’s death he conducted his post mortem in Paradise Lost, giving the verdict in Samson Agonistes.

D.M Wolfe comments: “Here was the blind spot in Milton’s mind…In his intolerance of Catholicism he was the representative, not of the choice spirits of his age but of the mass of bigoted Englishmen for whom he was later to speak such contempt.”15   How far sectarianism had taken root is shown by the comments of George Fox when he visited Dublin in 1669. He wrote that “the earth and air smelt, methought, of the corruption of this nation, which I imputed to the Popish massacres.”  These were largely imaginary, as Cromwell’s were real. Fox was the founder of the Quakers which many Levellers joined and were in no sense a persecuting sect. But the principles of the Levellers once enunciated could never be recalled. They lived on among dissenting congregations and reappeared with increasing insistence in the radical movements of the later eighteenth century.

I have sketched the historical origin of a number of attitudes to Ireland that appear in English literature. There is immense elaboration after 1649, but nothing generically new. It might be useful at this point to attempt a classification. The positions adopted by Bede, Shakespeare and Walwyn could be called respectively traditional, liberal and international; those illustrated by Giraldus, the anonymous entertainer and Milton, imperialist, derisive and sectarian.  There is of course no implication here that literary work can be sorted into neat categories and dropped into the appropriate slots. These attitudes to Ireland compete, combine and complicate within the general culture of the country. A few examples will illustrate.

Obviously there was little scope for development of the traditional mode, though the publication of Macpherson’s so-called Ossianic writings, despite the inventions and anachronisms, reopen a vein in the old mine and influence English writing.

For the international tradition it is only necessary to mention a few well known names. William Blake, supporter of revolution in America, France and Ireland, gave Erin a special place in Jerusalem and listed the counties of Ireland.16 I am not qualified to explain the meaning of this.17 Shelley, as is known, visited Ireland in 1812 and expressed the hope that Ireland would be the starting point of a universal liberation of the human spirit. I will no more than mention Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and William Morris. But too little credit has been given to Philip Harwood18, a theologically dissident Unitarian turned journalist who in the mid-century produced a history of the Rising of 1798 of which any Irishman would have been proud. But imaginative writers in England, who have created the most cosmopolitan literature in the world, and sung songs of many nations, have yet to set the epic seal on its longest continuous fight for freedom.

The liberal tradition is well-disposed to Ireland without transgressing the bounds of imperial interest. And perhaps this is the general category into which most serious writers fall. I can only give examples.  Dickens who, like Mrs Gaskell, came face-to-face with the hard-working, often impoverished immigrant, was shocked by the great so-called famine, but could suggest as a remedy only emigration. Trollope, who had lived in Ireland for fourteen years and knew the people well, was of all the nineteenth-century novelists best disposed to the Irish. His last novel, The Landleaguers made a serious effort to present the Irish point of view. Yet he was a staunch Unionist.

For bitter contempt not unmixed with sectarianism we need go  no further than  Froude.  The sceptical bent of the educated classes however provided no fertile soil for sectarianism. That was only for the mob. As early as 1724 Defoe’s Fortunate Mistress declares “in short, though I was a whore, yet I was a Protestant whore, and could not act as if I was Popish upon any account whatsoever.” It is as we go down the scale that anti-Irish hatred increases. It is common, for example, in boys’ adventure stories that the traitor who casts the ship into the hands of the pirates is depicted as an Irish Catholic. But R.L. Stevenson could write The Wreckers for an adult public.

The dregs of anti-Irish propaganda have usually been found in journalism. The participants in the Rising of 1798 were depicted as savages. Between 1840 and 1860 cartoonists in the popular weeklies converted the savage into an anthropoid ape19with commentary appropriate to the conception. It is as well to note that at this time Irishmen were active in the Chartist movement and the establishment of the national trade unions. The anti-Irish joke is still with us today. It will disappear with its raison d’etre, when there is a united independent Ireland.

And what of Thackeray?  His contact with seedy impoverished squireens, to say nothing of his wife’s relations, seems to have soured him. Barry Lyndon is the story of a worthless man in a worthless world, and if he is an Irishman, at least the English in the book are no better. When Gavan Duffy, the Young Irelander, asked Thackeray what he would have done in 1848 if he had been an Irishman, he said he would have fought.  Some of his humorous verses in the Irish “brogue” can be uproariously funny – provided you do not feel yourself the butt of the humour; then they can be enraging. Trollope’s coachman once challenged him: “Ye hate us, Mr Thackeray.” The novelist was greatly hurt. Perhaps he thought his Irish wife gave him a license denied to others.

By contrast with Thackeray I will name my final example. Thomas Hood wrote justly celebrated serious poems showing strong working class sympathy, for example the Bridge of Sighs and Song of a Shirt He later developed a humorous style for which his ingenuity in inventing unusual rhymes peculiarly fitted him. His humorous poem the Irish Schoolmaster is not written in “brogue”. This means that he is at liberty to turn serious. He is poking mild fun at the Irish, but is not displaying them in the course of providing entertainment for their betters. He describes the hedge schoolmaster, unhosed, in leaky slippers, in a clay cabin with the inevitable pig, sitting on a beechlog in the intervals between reducing his unruly charges to attention to their Latin, French and Greek taught in the Irish tongue. When school is over they tumble out in their bare feet and set about playing breaking each others’ heads with mock shillelaghs.  The schoolmaster goes to attend his cow and collect potatoes and colcannon. Then comes the last stanza which converts light satire into a song of the dignity of Labour. I will conclude with it.

“And so he wisely spends the fruitful hour,

Linked each to each by labour, like a bee,

Or rules in Learning’s halls, or trims her bowers:

Would there were many more such wights as he,

To sway each capital academie

Of Cam and Isis, for, alack! at each

There dwells, I wot, some dronish Dominie,

That does no garden work, nor yet doth teach,

But wears a floury head, and talks in flowery speech!”


1.  cf. E Strauss, Irish Nationalism and British Democracy, London 1951, for a development of this theme.

2.  Fr. Stephen J.Brown, Ireland in Fiction, New York 1969, lists nearly 2000 titles and gives summaries which show how unavoidable is the national question in Anglo-Irish literature.

3.  cf. Malcolm Brown, The Politics of Irish Literature, Seattle, Washington 1972

4.  Benedict Fitzpatrick, Ireland and the Making of Britain, New York 1922, has many references to Bede whose history he suggests may have been inspired by the work of Adamnan.

5.   Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, ed. A.M.Sellar, London 1912, p.204

6.   A.L Morton in his essay The Matter of Britain, London 1966, show Celtic themes were added to those already existing in the Arthurian corpus. How many of these originally derived from Ireland is shown by Proinsias Mac Cana in his monograph on the second branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen Daughter of Llyr. University of Wales 1958.

7.  A study group of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1939 published its Political and Strategic Interests of the United Kingdom, Oxford 1939. In their first chapter the group considers the occasions when England has been invaded from or through or in alliance with Scotland, Wales and Ireland and enunciates the doctrine of the “strategic unity of the British Isles”.

8.    A View of the State of Ireland, 1596

9.   The others were (1) A Catholic father, (2) the survival of spoken Welsh in parts of Warwickshire, (3) a possible visit to Youghal in the south of Ireland. cf. Plunket Barton, Links between Ireland and Shakespeare, Dublin 1919.

10.  A.L.Morton in Shakespeare’s Historical Outlook (op..cit, p.47) calls the Henry V scene “a climax of absurdity” on the ground that “The implication of a ‘British’ nation is not only absurd for the fifteenth century but almost equally so for Shakespeare’s own time.”  Of course this is quite right.  It only becomes comprehensible against the background of English hegemony.

11.  cf. A New History of Ireland, eds. T.W.Moody, F.X.Martin and F.J.Byrne, Oxford 1976, ch.XXI, Alan Bliss “The English Language in Early Modern Ireland”.

12.  cf. W.Haller and G.Davies (eds.), The Leveller Tracts, Columbia 1944.

13.  Quoted in H.N. Brailsford,  The Levellers and the English Revolution, London1961.  It is explained that it is not absolutely certain that the pamphlet quoted is Walwyn’s, but that there is the strongest possible presumption.

14.   cf. J.S.Reid,  History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Belfast 1867, Vol. II, pp 88 ff.

15.  cf. Don M.Wolfe, Milton in the Puritan Revolution, New York 1941, p.87

16.    Jerusalem.  There have been attempts to trace some connections between Blake and Ireland, mainly by tracing Irish words. I would think these originate with Macpherson.

17.    cf.  David  Erdman, Blake, Prophet Against  Empire, Princeton N.J. 1969.  He suggests that in Jerusalem ”Erin” replaces America as the symbol of freedom.  Without a very extensive knowledge of Blake’s constantly profliferating symbolism it is difficult to say much more than this.

18.   Philip Harwood, A History of the Irish Rebellion of 1798, London 1844

19.  cf. Lewis P. Curtis, Apes and Angels: the Irishman in Victorian Caricature, Newton Abbot 1971