Sunday 30 October 2011

Anglo-Irish writers of the first rank


I was reading a memoir of Nevill Coghill (Inkling and Oxford Professor of English - a scholar and translator of Chaucer and Langland) - and I was struck by the remarkable, indeed truly amazing, concentration of literary genius among the Protestant Irish gentry (the Anglo Irish) in the days when Ireland was ruled by Britain.


With no effort, I came up with Jonathan Swift, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Oliver Goldsmith, Richard Steele, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, WB Yeats, J.M Synge, Samuel Beckett, CS Lewis - all of whom are of the first rank in their genres within English Literature - plus a similar sized group of minor or lesser-known figures.

Indeed, considering that there are only few canonical playwrights, this is an extraordinarily high proportion (the only ones missing before the 20th century are ?Marlowe, Wm. Shakespeare (of course), ?Ben Jonson, ?Congreve...

...but really I am scratching around for anyone other than The Bard who is performed as often and provide such enjoyment as Sheridan (The Rivals, and School for Scandal), Goldsmith (She Stoops to Conquer), Wilde (mostly The Importance of Being Earnest) and (of course) Shaw (with a couple of dozen plays done frequently - perhaps even more than Shakespeare himself?).


Among the indigenous Irish I would only put James Joyce and Flann O'Brien into the same quality bracket.

At any rate, the number of Anglo Irish/ Protestant Ascendancy writers of the first or second rank in English Literature is grossly disproportionate to the small absolute size and minority status of their population.

And gives rise to the interesting question of the nature of the (much vaunted) Irish literary genius: it was certainly real, but actually mostly consisted of the English-living-in-Ireland (since expelled).

Note: Another first-ranker (among English poets) is Edmund Spenser, who was among the first of the English upper class to settle in Ireland as recent conquerers: the first of the great Anglo-Irish literary figures.


S. Brady said...

I have noticed this too and the following is just speculation on my part. The Anglo-Irish are probably descended from the 'fittest' who survived the natural selection processes that were described by Gregory Clark in his book 'Farewell to alms'. One of the characteristics improved upon during this period (1200-1800) was probably verbal ability which in turn influenced literary ability. In the book 'Gaelic and Gaelicised Ireland in the Middle Ages', Kenneth Nicholls wrote that downward mobility was occurring among the native Irish (probably up to 1600AD) and an increasing proportion of people were of (Gaelic) noble descent in a given kingdom as each generation passed.

I suspect that maybe one trait selected for might have been greed for more land, but not literary ability. Downward mobility was also occurring in England, but in this case the descendants of the middle classes were filling up the country and so different traits were being enhanced. Although many Anglo-Irish belonged to the nobility, they usually had to earn this status in the first place by accumulating wealth. I am interested in how evolution contributes to national/ethnic characteristics and I would be curious to know what bgc and other commenters on this blog think of this hypothesis.

Bruce Charlton said...

Reading Farewell to Alms was a major event in my intellectual development.

I regard hereditary differences (including genetic) as the major (default) cause of national/ethnic characteristics: e.g.

Anonymous said...

I did not know that those authors were actually Anglo-Irish -- thank you for your post, as this is an interesting detail.

Living in Ireland I always hear that the mentioned authors were "Irish", though I have thought for a while now that perhaps it would be better to call them British, given the period in which they lived and given the possibility that they hand genes from elsewhere in the British Isles.

Regarding the opening of your post, is it appropriate to consider Ireland having been "ruled" by Britain? Would it not be better to conceptualise it as having been "part" of Britain? -- it just seems wrong to call it "ruled" by Britain.

Mike Kenny said...

There's Bram Stoker, who I believe was Anglo-Irish, and Sherida Le Fanu, who was not English ethnically but rather Huguenot according to Wikipedia, and born in Ireland. 'Tis the season for these authors!

Bruce Charlton said...

@MK - yes indeed - I left them out because they are genre classics rather than canonical: another similar one would be Lord Dunsany.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Anon - well you knew what I meant.

Strictly, I believe Ireland never was part of Britain, but of the United Kingdom.

Britain is England and Scotland (with the Principality of Wales subsumed in England, because Wales was never a proper country).

Hence the phrase: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland.

Thursday said...

You forgot Edmund Burke, though his mother was Catholic.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - I didn't forget him but did leave him off because although he is indeed first rate of his type - I think he is *not* regarded as primarily a literary figure, more of a political and philosophical writer.

Daniel said...

This has no bearing on your post, since he was an Englishman with some tenuous Irish roots and who only took an Irish-sounding name as a pen-name, but I am put in mind of Patrick O'Brian.

Have you read his novels, and do you like them, Dr. Charlton? I consider him behind only Tolkien when it comes to 20th Century writers of fiction in English. Lewis was more important overall, but his fiction is inferior to O'Brian's. O'Brian had a heart to match Jack Lewis's and a technique to match Tolkien's. And he managed his gorgeous stories a full 40 years after those two titans, when our civilization had already suffered some really heinous degradations that T and L could only guess at.

(Ranking this way is odious, I know. I just mean to say that O'Brian is first-rate in my opinion, and importantly so.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - no I haven't read O'Brain - although I gace Master and Commander a five star (top) rating in my private and personal rankings.

I just don't read many novels at all - and have not done so for more than 20 years. And when I do, they tend to be quite light and humorous: e.g. Terry Pratchett, Miss Read and Barbara Pym.

And then I always re-read books I have liked, so I don't get through many.

I came across some stuff about O'Brian a couple of days ago when looking-up Nikolai Tolstoy (his step-son) because I had been reading his book about Merlin.

S. Brady said...

I would like make another speculative point. Ireland is often considered to be highly religious in contrast to its secular counterparts in Europe. However, for a great deal of the past two millennia the sexual and marriage practices of Ireland were far less influenced by religion than in other European countries (read 'Sex and Marriage in Early Ireland'). In fact they resembled the liberal practices that are becoming the norm in the western world (divorce, women's rights, etc.).

I suspect that the relative paucity of achievement in engineering, science and literature among the native Irish may have caused by these mating patterns. Liberal mating practices, despite being supposedly 'fairer' for men and women, generally entail that polygamy becomes more accepted. Traits for aggression, charm and dominance will be sexually selected under these circumstances.

In a monogamous system (as would be the case in a strict christian society, excepting rare sects), characteristics that predispose people to being innovative in a complex field of endeavour have a higher chance of being transmitted to the next generation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@S Brady - sounds plausible.

From work by Lynn, it seems likely that Ireland has had a lower average IQ than mainland Britain - perhaps about 97. This could be from factors such as you describe, plus differential emigration - which probably also affected Scotland over the past couple of centuries.

Essentially, there was, over centuries, diff emigration of the most intelligent to London and spilling into the environs.

Until the advent of mass immigration to London - which confuses the picture - this made the South East clearly the most intelligent region of Britain. Indirectly, this probably led to the intellectual dominance of southern New England (especially Massachusetts) in the USA, when middle class East Anglians migrated to that part of the Americas.

Thursday said...

I think he is *not* regarded as primarily a literary figure

But he is a first rank literary figure. Much like Plato, Hume, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche in that respect.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thursday - well, okay - but Hume is not canonical in Eng Lit. He is categorized as a philosopher.

The Eng Lit canon is very selective - or at least it was until 30 some years ago. Students had to read it all before age 21-2.

However, non-fiction, non-dramatic prose is a much less clearly defined canon than fiction and drama. For example, I noted Sir Richard Steele who, with Addison (in The Spectator), is credited with a major influence, leading to The Novel. Sam Johnson is a major figure - for his multi-faceted output - but from which the fiction and drama are not the most notable.

I particularly love The Essay as a form - but somehow this never really found a secure role in the canon - perhaps because it spreads-out into philosophy, history, science and all sorts of other more *substantive* matters...

So there are people like Burke, Gibbon, Thomas Browne, or Izaak Walton - as well as 'pure' Belle Lettristic essayists like Bacon, Lamb, RL Stevenson, Chesterton and Belloc...

But perhaps nothing like so clear-cut a canon as for novels and plays.

S. Brady said...


It's true to say that differential migration patterns lowered the Irish IQ to a certain extent. But this only started to occur in the past few centuries. Compared to equivalent European populations, the native Irish fared relatively poorly in the arts and sciences up to say, 1700AD. Even a small country like Serbia produced geniuses such as Tesla. I think that the liberal marriage practices selected for genes that promote behaviours that do not encourage such accomplishments. I'm not sure that if the natural selection described by Gregory Clark also happened in Ireland as it did in England.

Many of the great 'Irish' scientists, like Robert Boyle, were actually Anglo-Irish. I suspect that the somewhat liberal marriage practices dominant throughout Europe today are causing a reduction in the alleles that facilitated the achievements of the Anglo-Irish. Thus, dysgenics is occurring through sexual selection and an absence of natural selection (as was the case up to a few hundred years ago).