A History of Ireland in Ten Englishmen (3): Anthony Trollope

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For those who know nothing beyond his Barchester novels, the fact that Trollope lived and worked in Ireland and held in considerable affection might come as a surprise. Like many before him, Trollope went to Ireland to make a career for himself. He was a civil servant, working in the English Post Office and went to Ireland, in 1841, to restart a failing career.

In Ireland, living in Clonmel and then Mallow, his Post Office career took off, he found himself a wife and he began writing. His first two novels were set in ireland. The Macdermots of Ballycloran and The Kellys and the O’Kellys were both set in Ireland. He was in Ireland for almost twenty years, and it was there he wrote the first three Barchester novels.

So why Trollope? There was long a myth held by Irish nationalism, perhaps especially by the Gaelic League, that 19th century Ireland did not care for English literature. That is a myth. The best selling English novelists were also best selling novelists in Ireland: as everywhere, Dickens was hugely popular. English poetry was also widely read and loved. Any study of the great age of Irish literature shows the ubiquitous influence of its 19th century English forbear: no Keats, no Yeats. The obvious truth is that the great flowering of Irish literature at the turn of the last century was a product of interaction between English and Irish cultures (and both, of course, beyond the islands).

Much has been made of English portrayals of the Irish in the nineteenth century, such as this by the great cartoonist, Tenniel, in Punch.

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The relationship is one of antipathy, in which the monstrous simian Irish came face to face with England, anarchy with law and order. And, that is true in part, but only in part. Even Tenniel has two Irelands: the Fenian monster, and the beautiful Hibernia. Other Englishmen saw other things in the Irish (or at least in the Irish stereotype): for Matthew Arnold, the stolid Anglo-Saxon needed an admixture of Celtic soul.

In his fiction, Trollope would return to Ireland, in the form of Phineas Finn. The comedy of Irish manners mixed with the comedy of English. later, Somerville and Ross would delightfully and wittily dissect a similar intersection. In the 1980s, The Irish RM was a hit TV series, much filmed near Naas and Robertstown, in Kildare. My mother, not long moved from England, was living but a few miles from where it was filmed: she loved that series.

Looking back, the Oirishness of Bryan Murray seems so stereotypical. But then, Peter Bowles’ Major Yeates was no less stereotypical. Therein lay the appeal: the interaction between the two. The history of these two islands, for all the conflict, have always been more about that interaction, and shared loves, amusement and enjoyment of differences.

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