Was There An Irish Enlightenment?

In 2005 the Cambridge intellectual historian John Robertson published a very original contribution to the scholarly debate about the Enlightenment. In one respect The Case for the Enlightenment: Scotland and Naples 1680-1760 was the reverse of original because it aspired to move the debate about the Enlightenment backwards. For many years the intellectual tide had set against the view that the Enlightenment was one thing — a view which derived ultimately from Kant’s famous essay Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?), and which found its most extreme form in Croce’s formulation of 1938 that the Enlightenment was “a perpetual form of the human spirit”.

The revisionists suggested that Kant had been mistaken in both the number and the tense of the verb in his famous question. The Enlightenment had been not one thing but many things, and it had been an historical episode in the intellectual history of the West, rather than a perennial aspect of humanity’s life of the mind. Led by the commanding figure of John Pocock, the revisionists discerned a number of discrete, and often only loosely affiliated, Enlightenments. They were divided along the axes of chronology, geography, and political tendency. There were, so we were now assured, early, “high”, and late Enlightenments. There were English, French, Arminian, and German Enlightenments. There were radical Enlightenments, and there were conservative Enlightenments.

Robertson resisted this “retreat into pluralism”, and nailed his colours to the mast of an argument asserting the essential unity of the Enlightenment. For Robertson, the intellectual coherence of the Enlightenment could be found in its commitment “to understanding, and hence to advancing, the causes and conditions of human betterment in this world” — a deceptively simple formulation which in fact yielded a rich agenda for research.

More eye-catching than Robertson’s assertion of the fundamental unity of the Enlightenment was his decision to illustrate its intellectual coherence by means of a comparative study of Scotland and Naples. Both of these peripheral states had seen a remarkable intellectual flourishing in the course of the 18th century. Robertson focused on the works of Vico and Hume to explore the affinities between these two episodes of intellectual renewal occurring at opposite ends of Europe. In both he discovered an intellectual substratum made of up a bricolage of Augustinian and Epicurean elements; in both he detected a foundational engagement with the work of Pierre Bayle; and in both he saw a commitment to the goal of human betterment in this world, pursued by means of the relatively new discipline of political economy. Struck by these similarities, Robertson went on to postulate that political dependency and relative economic immiseration might be, nothing so crude as the causes of the rise of enlightened thinking, but at least enabling conditions which in Scotland and Naples had encouraged Enlightenment to take root.

It is a fascinating argument, but it provokes an immediate question. If political dependency and economic depression make for Enlightenment, why was there no Irish Enlightenment? For in respect of both politics and the economy, Ireland’s position at the end of the 17th and throughout the 18th century was much worse than Scotland’s, at least in the eyes of the Irish, as Swift’s anti-Union tract, The Story of the Injured Lady (1707), makes plain. Why had Enlightenment energies flourished so remarkably in Edinburgh and Naples, but not in Dublin?

Michael Brown’s lavish new survey of enlightened impulses and writings in Ireland between the the War of the Two Kings (1688-91) and the United Irish Rising (1798) does not respond explicitly to the vacancy mutely indicated by Robertson’s argument.  But he does engage head-on with the easy assumption that the Enlightenment somehow remained becalmed at Holyhead. Masterfully guided by Brown, whose comprehensive gaze embraces books both canonical and obscure, texts written in Gaelic as well as those written in English, works written by women and men, and writings emerging from all fractions of society, we are led to see traces of Enlightenment in the most unlikely places. This is exemplary history. It both reformulates an important problem, and draws swathes of new material into the scholarly conversation.

Brown’s argument falls into three broad chronological sections, each devoted to a different aspect of the Irish Enlightenment as he sees it. He begins by describing a “Religious Enlightenment”, in which he analyses how each of the three confessions between which the Irish population was divided — Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian — availed themselves of different intellectual resources created or galvanised by the Enlightenment. Each confession seems to have been drawn towards a particular mode of Enlightenment thinking. For the Presbyterians, rationalism allowed them to “rethink their condition in the early decades of the 18th century”: for them, the key problem was how to secure toleration within an Anglican state. For the dominant Anglicans of the Church of Ireland, empiricism seemed to offer the most direct route to their objective, which was to retain confessional supremacy by mounting an argument for the continuing vitality of the current church-state settlement. For the Catholics — by far the most numerous religious group, but still in large measure dispossessed of their ancient lands, and labouring under various forms of legal and political discrimination — the key problem was how to restate and restore their intellectual legitimacy in the wake of the dynastic failure of the Stuarts and the devastating defeats of the Boyne and Aughrim. They turned to a revived and refreshed Scholasticism to make a case for “the continuing pertinence of traditional doctrine and worship”.

These very specifically Irish circumstances, in which there was an initial and formative engagement with Enlightenment in the field of religious apologetics, were followed by the second stage of the Irish Enlightenment. This was a Social Enlightenment, in which — with the endemic Irish confessional tensions seemingly in retreat — “various figures reached out across the confessional divides to confront the economic problems which beset the country”. On the basis of rationalism and empiricism, a language of sociability and civility was formed and adapted to the circumstances of Ireland. It ranged over the domains of manners, improvement, aesthetics, and political economy. It was also deliberately non-confessional in character. What mattered was how people behaved, not what they believed.  This Social Enlightenment re-configured the settings of social interaction in Ireland.  Alongside the established venues of churches, libraries, and state-sponsored theatre, there now grew up unofficial networks of coffee-houses, taverns, bookshops, and theatres — a “counter public-sphere” which nourished association across confessional boundaries. This counter public-sphere had the best of intentions, aiming at “the polite reform of behaviour, the raising of educational standards, the extension of charity to the deserving poor, and the creation of commercial opportunity in mercantile associations.” What was not to like?

Plenty, apparently. This Irish Social Enlightenment unintentionally brought about the premature thwarting of the Enlightenment in Ireland before it had had a chance to send down deep roots. The third phase of Brown’s Irish Enlightenment, the “Political Enlightenment”, describes how the curtain fell on Ireland’s flirtation with enlightened modes of thought. It was the very ambition of the Social Enlightenment to transcend confessional division which, in the context of Ireland, provoked authoritarian revanche:

the un-confessional nature of the Enlightenment project posed a structural challenge to a state administration which rested its legitimacy on a claim to confessional supremacy. Ironically, the very power of the Enlightenment to posit political questions tore apart the Enlightenment settlement, grounded as it was on the presumption of social tolerance and the collaboration of empirical and rationalist methodologies. Hence the period of Political Enlightenment foreshadowed the movement’s close.

As those who were dominant in Irish public life around 1760 attempted to make sense of the thorny question of political identity — thorny always and anywhere, but particularly thorny then and in Ireland — what emerged was the impossibility of trust.  The Anglicans, in the end, and when push came to shove, would not incorporate with the Catholics and the Presbyterians. A gradual descent into violence followed, culminating in the “unseemly and violent” civil war of 1798. The remedy for that conflict — the Act of Union of 1800 — shifted the nature of the Irish problem:

the Act of Union . . . altered the question from one of confession and civility to one of sectarianism and nation. . . . The question “Who is Enlightened?” gave way to the toxic query “Who is Irish?”

This was the desolate endgame of the Irish Enlightenment.

Such is Brown’s argument. It is surely attractive, combining conceptual subtlety with great documentary reach. If, however, one wished to push back against it, where might one do so?

In the first place, one might question the inclusion of some of the texts on which Brown draws. The natural assumption is that an Irish Enlightenment was something that happened in Ireland; and, as we have seen, Brown tailors the overall contours of his argument so as to match up with the peculiar problems which beset the island of Ireland after the War of the Two Kings. But that strict geographical focus — which is one of the main sources of the attractive specificity of Brown’s argument — is necessarily diluted when Brown draws into the scope of his exposition texts written by Irishmen, to be sure, but published elsewhere in very different settings. Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer was premiered in London in 1773, and its setting seems thoroughly English.  Nevertheless, Brown sees its comedy of social misprision as a dramatic meditation on the tensions between rank and sentiment which he has diagnosed in Irish society.  Maybe so, and the fact that the play apparently takes its cue from an actual blunder committed at the house of the Featherstone family in Longford is intriguing. But if the play is really to be conscripted into an argument about the Irish Enlightenment, then ideally some evidence would be produced of Irish responses to Dublin productions of the play which corroborated Brown’s specifically Irish reading of it.

Burke is a particular victim of Brown’s intellectual colonialism. His Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful was published in 1757, a full seven years after he had uprooted himself from Dublin to London. In what sense, then, can this text be claimed for an Irish Enlightenment, unless that term is being used without any of the geographical strictness which Brown’s argument requires? A study of great and enlightened books written by men and women of Irish birth and published in the 18th century might be a worthwhile academic project, but it is not the project that Brown has said he is pursuing.

Similar qualms are raised by Brown’s use of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. First published in 1790, and at a moment when Burke’s attention was focused firmly eastward, in the first place towards the dissenting circles in London which had created the conditions for Richard Price’s provocative sermon of 1789 “On the Love of Our Country” (which was of course the proximate cause of Burke’s Reflections), and beyond that to France and the Continent, the Reflections does not concern itself at all explicitly with Irish affairs, and if it does so latently, it is only at a very deep level. It is certainly true that in the final years of his life Burke was deeply troubled by what he saw as the injustice (and consequent imprudence) of the Ascendancy. But it is hard to detect that particular anxiety at work in the text of the Reflections. Undeterred by such considerations, Brown discusses the Reflections at some length, and he clearly wishes us to associate Burke’s analysis of the errors of the French revolutionaries in some way with his own analysis of the Irish predicament. But the nature of the affinity or link is never made explicit.

It may be that Brown was caught between two stools. An account of the Irish Enlightenment without a discussion of works by Goldsmith, Burke, and Swift would be Hamlet, not just without the prince, but also without Horatio, Laertes, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude, and even young Fortinbras.  These works and these authors have to be included somehow. Yet they form no organic part of Brown’s argument, which is not so much a ringing defence of the vibrancy and mysteriously overlooked strength of the Enlightenment in Ireland as a subtle and finally melancholy dissection of the conditions which ensured that, insofar as enlightened impulses and aspirations were at work in Ireland, they tended to emerge in compromised, curdled, transient, or thwarted forms.

As Brown makes clear, few other European countries stood in such grievous need of Enlightenment as Ireland; and within Ireland there was no shortage of women and men who understood and yearned for the benefits that Enlightenment could bring.  However, it seems that need and yearning were necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for the flourishing of Enlightenment.  What Ireland lacked was a resident central genius — a Vico or a Hume — around whom Enlightenment energies could crystallise. 

Who might have played that commanding role? Burke and Goldsmith were in England, Hutcheson was in Glasgow. Swift, whose relationship with Enlightenment was utterly unstraightforward, and who thought of Ireland as “that slavish hateful shore”, was resident, but estranged, deliberately peripheral, and ultimately insane. Diaspora, disaffection, and dementia were obstacles that, in the end, the well-intentioned and sincere, but insufficiently compelling, Enlightenment impulses of more ordinary Irish men and women were unable to surmount.

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