October 3, 2003


Seminar: Irish Studies, 535


Meeting Date: October 3, 2003


Chair: Mary McGlynn


Speaker: Dr. Eileen Reilly

Associate Director of Glucksman Ireland House, New York University


Title of Talk:   ŅPolitical Fiction: The Home Rule NovelsÓ


Rapporteur: C—il’n Parsons


Attendees: Joseph Lennon (Manhattan College); Ed Hagan (Western Connecticut State University); Catherine McKenna (CUNY Graduate Center); Martin J. Burke (CUNY Graduate Center); Alice Naughton; Diane Menagh (Fairfield University, Connecticut); Rita Loughlin (American Irish Teachers Association); Peter M. Leahy (CUNY Graduate Center); Terry Byrne (College of New Jersey); Frank Naughton (Kean University); Maria McGarrity (Long Island University); Gertrude Hamilton (Marymount College of Fordham University); Sˇamus Blake (WFUV, Fordham University); Patrick McNierney (Columbia University); Joseph V. Hamilton, Jr., Esq. (Ret.); Bob St-Cyr (Blackwater Valley Museum).


ŅPolitical Fiction: The Home Rule NovelsÓ

A copy of the paper that Dr. Reilly gave has been deposited with University Seminars.  The following is a synopsis.


Political fiction at the turn of the last century focused predominantly on the issue of Home Rule.  In the aftermath of ParnellÕs fall, nationalist writers looked to cultural nationalism as the only hope, while unionists sounded warnings about the dangers of capitulating to nationalist demands.  S.R. LysaghtÕs novel, Her MajestyÕs Rebels (1907) was a plea for moderate Home Rule led by the landlord class.  Annie SwanÕs A Son of Erin (1899) features Parnell himself, and a hero who is an Englishman who discovers his true Irish identity and becomes committed to Home RuleŃa trope that is repeated in Joseph HockingÕs Rosaleen OÕHara (1912). 

George A. Bermingham (real name James Owen Hannay, a Church of Ireland clergyman and ardent supporter of the Gaelic League) urged the propertied classes, and Protestants in particular, to take up the challenge of leading the Irish people in achieving a Home Rule that would not be Rome Rule.  His first novel, The Seething Pot (1904), which propounded his theories about Home Rule, met with controversy, and he was forced out of the Gaelic League.  It was Catholic clergy who orchestrated the successful campaign to have him removed, an act that revealed the hollowness of the supposed non-sectarian nature of the society. The Seething Pot did not offer a panacea, but illustrated the fact that the political vacuum left by the Protestant ascendancy was being aggressively filled by the Catholic church, and that a religiously defined society was becoming increasingly inflexible.  His next two novels, Hyacinth and Benedict Kavanagh steered clear of parliamentary politics in favour of themes of national regeneration and reconciliation. His novel The Red Hand of Ulster (1912) is set in an imagined future time in which the province of Ulster is in armed rebellion against the British crown, dissatisfied with its leniency towards Home Rule.  The novel illustrates the paradox that resulted from claiming loyalty to the Crown and disloyalty to the government.  The original ending had seen Germany offering aid to the Unionists, who were forced to give up the rebellion and face the enemy alongside Britain, but this ending was changed at the insistence of his publisher and the Foreign Office.

Unionist novels, such as The Siege of Bodike focus on the spectre of resurrected Fenianism, as well as Catholic clericalism.  The novel recognises the sentimental hold that Ireland has over its hero, but the hero is also English and loyal enough to recognise the dangers of granting Home Rule to Ireland.  William PalmerÕs Under Home Rule depicts a Home Rule Ireland in thrall to a Cardinal who rules Ireland as a dictator, with a secret police and concentration camps.  With the help of Britain, the Irish people rise up against the Cardinal and Home Rule is revoked.  These novels prophesy doom for Ireland under Home Rule and appeal to their readers to be vigilant and prevent Home Rule being granted.


Q. Are you familiar with the newspaper The Irish Protestant?  The theme of German intervention was rampant on both sides of the political divide.  Pearse discussed which of the sons of the Kaiser to enthrone in Ireland.  Casement was also fascinated by Germany,

A. Yes, there was a very common fascination with war.  In William PalmerÕs novel the hero, Jack, sets up a flying corps of soldiers equipped with wings.

Q. George Bermingham seems to predict Stormont.  He is not quite as looney as he seems.

Q. The inscription in your copy of A Son of Erin is to a boy on his 12th birthday.  The fascination with the technology of war suggests that this is similar to childrenÕs fiction.  Who was the audience?  Were they bought by lending libraries?

A. There are no publishing records for Ireland--much of the literature was published in London.  Convents and religious schools were the biggest buyers of books at the time.  There was a lot of juvenile fiction being published.  The Irish Booklover had a discussion in it about the need for Irish childrenÕs books.  There were also some lending libraries.

Q. Except for the last book, most of the female characters seem to be evil.  Were there books for female readers?

A. Yes, there were many.  The popular writer B.M. Croker typically sold 25,000 volumes in the first printing.  Most of the books for a female audience were romances.  In the Home Rule novels women are, for the most part, functions of the plot.

Q. I was asked recently whether there was a major novel about Parnell.  It seems A Son of Erin was such a novel.

A. Parnell was difficult to deal with, and JoyceÕs Portrait was one of only a few novels about him.  He is a presence throughout all of this fiction, and was probably very common in popular fiction.

Q. What was George BerminghamÕs real name?

A. James Owen Hannay.

Q. The plot of an Englishman discovering his true Irish character rings of Arnold and Meredith.  Was there much filtering down of plots?

A. Yes, there was a lot of borrowing and repetition.

Q. Do you pick up any hints of racial theories in the novels?

A. Yes, there is a lot of discussion of Irish and English degeneration.

Q. Is there any reference to Aryans?  This is common in fields such as philology.

A. Not that I know of.

Q. Does the plot about Parnell have any references to supernatural happenings after his death?

A. I donÕt think so.

Q. How did you go about finding these novels?

A. I started with Bermingham and was interested to see whether there were more.  The Bodleian has a huge collection of all the novels, as it is a copyright library.  There is a bibliography by a Jesuit, Stephen BrowneŃA Guide to Irish FictionŃthat has a representative list.

Q. Is there a difference between the ways the historical novels and contemporary novels deal with the issue of Home Rule?

A. No, the approach in all is broadly the same.

Q. You speak of the Unionist novels having a broadly international audienceŃthis is a very interesting reversal of the standard narrative, which always posits the anti-colonial side as being necessarily international.

A. The nationalist material appeals to Irish-American market.  Gill books were co-published by Benziger in New York City.  Unionist novels appeal to a worldwide colonial audience.  Some titles appear in the Colonial Library.  One author in particular stops the plot to appeal to readers in Canada and New Zealand.  A novel about EmmettÕs rebellion by Lucy Gilbert stops the text to appeal to the reader, to say that the Irish nationalists have had their way for too long, and that unionists must now write against their narrative.

Q. Many early novels begin with an advertisement to the reader.  Do these novels do that or do they just drop the reader into the story.

A. The novels did both.  Particularly in the 1880s, with large three-volume novels, there was all kinds of packaging.  Some writers were more accomplished and did not rely on this.  Indeed, many were not interested in carrying the reader into their world.  There is a wide range of writing abilities.  I have certainly not found the great undiscovered Irish novel!

Q. Were the novels serialised?  Were they important parts of the newspapers?

A. Some were serialised.  I doubt that they would have run on the front page.  Some were published in multiple titles.  I do not have a good sense of where they were publishedŃit would be a daunting task to track this.

Q. There seems to be an easy divide between nationalist and unionist fiction.  Do you think there are more similarities than differences between them?  Would they cohere stylistically?

A. Yes, there were similarities, as well as many middle-ground attempts to work out a solution.