Echoes of the Rebellion

The Year 1798 in Twentieth-Century Irish Fiction and Drama

by Radvan Markus (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 240 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 64


The 1798 Rebellion, a watershed event in Irish history, has been a source of both inspiration and controversy over the last two centuries and continues to provoke debate up to the present day. The ongoing discussion about the meaning of the Rebellion has not been limited to history books, but has also found vivid expression in Irish fiction and theatre.
The product of extensive research, this study provides a comprehensive survey of historical novels and plays published on the topic throughout the twentieth century, comparing them with relevant historiography. It draws attention to a number of outstanding but often neglected literary works, bringing together materials written in both English and Irish. Employing important theoretical concepts such as Derrida’s ‘spectre’ and Hayden White’s tropological view of history, the book probes the relationship between historiography and fiction to shed light on their interplay in the Irish context, including the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. This investigation illuminates a number of broader questions, including the most pressing of all: in what way should we deal with the ‘spectres’ of the past and their complex legacies?

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER ONE: Theoretical Preliminaries: History, Fiction and Ethics
  • Hayden White’s View of History
  • The Impact on Literary Studies
  • Boundless Relativism? Critiques of White
  • ‘Interweaving Reference’: History and Fiction According to Paul Ricoeur
  • Paul Ricoeur’s Ethics of History
  • Jacques Derrida and the ‘Spectre’
  • Conclusions
  • CHAPTER TWO: Squaring the Circle: The 1798 Rebellion in Historiography
  • R. R. Madden and his Predecessors
  • The Popular History by Patrick F. Kavanagh
  • ‘Revisionism’ and 1798
  • Reclaiming the United Irishmen: The Post-Revisionist Interpretation
  • Memoir, Polemic, Metahistory and History Combined: The Case of Tom Dunne
  • Outside the Circle? Oral Sources and the History of 1798
  • CHAPTER THREE: A Long Tradition of 1798 Novels and Plays: Literary Reflections of the Rebellion, 1900–1916
  • A Plea for Inclusive National Identity: George A. Birmingham’s The Northern Iron
  • Northern Irish Gothic: Andrew James’s The Nabob
  • An Ambiguous Novel: William Buckley’s Croppies Lie Down
  • The Ghost and the Vampire: W. B. Yeats’s and Lady Gregory’s Cathleen Ni Houlihan
  • CHAPTER FOUR: Presbyterians and Hidden Ireland: Literary Reflections of the Rebellion, 1916–2000
  • King Lear and the End of Hidden Ireland: Francis MacManus’s Men Withering
  • Presbyterians and the Irish Language: Séamas Ó Néill’s Play Faill ar an bhFeart
  • The Crumbling of Morality: Sam Hanna Bell’s A Man Flourishing
  • Crossing the Boundary between Life and Death: John McArdle’s Short Story ‘It’s Handy When People Don’t Die’
  • The Exuberant Music of the Piper: Colm Mac Confhaola’s Ceol an Phíobaire
  • Daemonic Violence: Gary Mitchell’s Play Tearing the Loom
  • Summary of Trends
  • CHAPTER FIVE: To Retain One’s Humanity Among War’s Horrors: The Mythical Method of Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s L’Attaque
  • The Dual Structure of the Novel
  • The Metaphors of Geas and Tóraíocht
  • Cattle and Táin Bó Cuailnge
  • Heroism and the Bad-Mannered Giant
  • Hidden Ireland and the United Irishmen
  • Ideologies, Native and Foreign
  • The Secret of Máirtín’s Life
  • CHAPTER SIX: ‘Bits of Broken Pottery’: The Fragmentary Method of Thomas Flanagan’s The Year of the French
  • The Year of the French and ‘Revisionism’
  • Destabilised Narratives
  • The Year of the French and Metahistory
  • Metaphors and Images
  • CHAPTER SEVEN: ‘The Half-Built, Half-Derelict Cottage’: Stewart Parker’s Northern Star
  • Allusion as a Structural Device
  • Northern Star as a Metadramatic Play
  • The 1798 Rebellion as Both Inspiration and Warning
  • Ideals and Symbols
  • Ghosts and the Future
  • Conclusions: Interpretations of 1798 in Twentieth-Century Fiction and Drama
  • Historiography vs. Literature: Interpretation on the Level of Content
  • Interpretation on the Formal Level
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

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The completion of this work would not have been possible without the help of many. First and foremost I would like to express immense gratitude to my wife Jana and all of my family, without whose constant support and tolerance a time-consuming project such as this would not have been possible. My heartfelt thanks go to my friend and colleague Ondřej Pilný, who read earlier versions of this work and made many helpful suggestions. Valuable support and advice were also generously provided by a number of scholars in the fields of history, literature and Irish Studies, including Louis Armand, Louis de Paor, Marianne Elliott, Roy Foster, Zdeněk Hrbata, Joep Leerssen, Mícheál Mac Craith, Síle Ní Bhroin, Éamon Ó Ciosáin, Ken Ó Donnchú, Pádraig Ó Liatháin, Martin Procházka and Jim Shanahan. My very special thanks go to Kateřina García, Michaela Marková and Ken Ó Donnchú for helping me to get hold of many materials necessary for my research. I am also greatly indebted to Eamon Maher, Christabel Scaife and Matthew Sweney for their diligent work towards the production of this volume. The responsibility for any errors in the present study, however, falls entirely on my head.

Earlier versions of parts of this book have appeared in the following articles and essays: ‘“The Half-Built, Half-Derelict House”: Interpretation of the 1798 Rebellion in Stewart Parker’s Northern Star’, in K. Jenčová, M. Marková, R. Markus and H. Pavelková, eds, The Politics of Irish Writing (Prague: Centre for Irish Studies, 2010), 156–66; ‘History, Fiction and Identity in the Works of Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur’, Litteraria Pragensia 20/39 (July 2010), 16–30; ‘“Níl an Focal Sin Againn”: Orality, Literacy, and Accounts of the 1798 Rebellion’, New Hibernia Review 14/1 (Spring 2010), 112–27; ‘“Bits of Broken Pottery”: Metahistorical Elements in Thomas Flanagan’s Historical Novel The Year of the French’, in M. Marková, R. Markus, H. Pavelková and K. Jenčová, eds, Boundary Crossings: New Scholarship in Irish Studies (Prague: Centre for Irish Studies, 2012), 16–29. ← vii | Viii →

The research for my project was largely financed by a grant kindly awarded to the Centre for Irish Studies in Prague by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Ireland, while additional support was provided by the Centre for Irish Studies, NUI Galway, and the foundation ‘Nadání Josefa, Marie a Zdeňky Hlávkových’. I am also grateful for the scholarships provided by the Association of Franco-Irish Studies (AFIS) and the International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures (IASIL), which enabled me to participate in conferences abroad held by these organisations. Grateful acknowledgement is also due to the Embassy of Ireland in Prague for their unswerving support of Irish Studies in the Czech Republic.

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The 1798 Rebellion, together with the political turmoil of the immediately preceding decade, is rightly regarded as a crucial period in Ireland’s modern history. This is not so much due to the direct political consequences of the event, but mainly because of its continuing status as a source of inspiration for subsequent political movements and its important role in forming Irish national identity. It was the first period when all the socioeconomic, religious and language groups who had lived in relative isolation from one another during the eighteenth century came into intensive contact … and conflict.

The results were admirable and disastrous at the same time. On the one hand, the political project of the United Irishmen, the principal instigators of the Rising, famously expressed in Wolfe Tone’s words – ‘to substitute the common name of Irishman, in the place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic, and Dissenter’1 – retains its inspiration to this day. On the other hand, the numerous bloody acts of sectarian violence committed not only by the government side, which exploited sectarianism to break up the fragile alliance of the rebels, but in many cases also by the insurgents themselves, show that the legacy of the Rebellion is far from being unambiguous. Also, the relevance of 1798 for the recent conflict in Northern Ireland cannot be disputed – as the 1790s saw the origins of both Irish Republicanism and the Orange Order, they have served as an ongoing source of inspiration for both sides of the political and religious divide.

Given both the importance and the complexity of the event, it is hardly surprising that it has inspired numerous, and often conflicting, interpretations not only in historiography, but also in politics, popular ballads and poetry, and, significantly, historical fiction and drama. This is also caused by ← 1 | 2 → the fact that the dramatic events of the Rebellion practically offer themselves for fictional treatment: the discussions and plans of the United Irishmen, the activities of government agents, and the battles and campaigns in the three principal areas where the Rebellion took place: County Wexford, and parts of Ulster and Connacht. The latter provides additional interest due to the involvement of a small French invasion force which arrived to help the rebels.2

For these reasons, the 1798 Rebellion offers excellent material for the exploration of the most important questions to be raised in this monograph. For example, if we agree that history is a matter of construction and negotiation rather than an objective narrative which can be woven from the given facts (and the theoretical basis will be provided for this underlying argument), where exactly is the place of historical fiction and drama in this process? Are they mere poetic embellishments of the ‘hard facts’ of history, or can they bring innovative interpretations, explore interesting connections, and reveal surprising aspects of the same facts? And how exactly is it possible to describe the relationship between these genres and historiography?

While looking for some answers to these questions, the material used in this study will be limited to literary treatments of 1798 (novels, plays, a set of tales and a short story) written in the twentieth century, especially after the year 1916. There are two reasons for this time delimitation. Firstly, it is dictated by the current state of research in the area. While 1798 novels written in the nineteenth century are extensively covered in a doctoral thesis by Jim Shanahan, and the remaining period until the Easter Rising has been given at least partial treatment by Eileen Reilly in her doctoral thesis and article,3 nothing substantial, apart from essays devoted to individual works, ← 2 | 3 → has been written about the topic of 1798 in novels and plays written from 1916 onwards. The present study therefore aims at addressing this gap in the relevant criticism.

The other reason is more directly related to the questions raised above: due to factors to be discussed in Chapters Three and Four, these later literary reflections of the Rebellion are more stylistically variegated and offer a wider range of innovative approaches than the earlier works, which are more conventional in terms of form, and often (although not always) more straightforwardly directed at addressing political issues of their authors’ present. The year 1916, year of the Easter Rising, was chosen for obvious symbolic purposes – the process of Irish independence, inaugurated by the event, was seen by many as a certain solution to the unresolved questions raised by 1798. While the Partition and the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland soon proved this solution to be incomplete, 1916 has to a large degree replaced the earlier rebellion in its status of an iconic, and at the same time controversial, event.4 The result was a relative diminishing of the relevance of 1798 as a topic of historical plays and novels, as well as the above-mentioned loss of political immediacy in a number of these works.

While the works selected for analysis will include novels and plays written predominantly in the English language, substantial space will be devoted to the Irish-language material as well. The reasons for this choice are again twofold. The first reason is that the Irish language and the response of Irish speakers to the historical event of the Rebellion feature as prominent topics in the English-language reflections of 1798, both in literature and historiography, and therefore it seems only just to give voice to the material written in Irish. In addition, one of the most interesting 1798 novels, L’Attaque by Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (1962), was written in that language. ← 3 | 4 →

The only significant omission in this study, as regards the material covered, is the poetry written about 1798 in the course of the twentieth century. This is partly due to the limitations of scope, but also to the fact that the method of the enquiry concentrates on the interpretation of history in narrative, which is at odds with the rather lyrical character of many of these poems. Throughout the nineteenth century, the principal poetic genre dealing with the Rebellion was ballads, some of which gained immense popularity, and almost canonical status. While the number of new 1798 ballads composed in the twentieth century is relatively small, the old ones retained their popularity. It is therefore not surprising that they often became an important reference point for newly written poems. This is definitely true of arguably the most famous twentieth-century poem about the Rebellion, Seamus Heaney’s ‘Requiem for the Croppies’, as well as Ciaran Carson’s collection The Twelfth of Never, which contains many imaginative reworkings of the better-known ballads.5 However, for the reasons outlined above, this undoubtedly interesting topic deserves a separate study.

The critical analysis of the chosen material requires a substantial preliminary discussion. Chapter One discusses the theoretical foundations of the present enquiry. The main emphasis is laid on the work of Hayden White, whose focus on structural similarities between historiography and fiction has prepared a theoretical basis which can be skilfully used for the analysis of literature dealing with history, as has been shown, for example, by the pioneering research of Mark Berninger in the field of contemporary British and Irish historical drama.6 However, the discussion of White’s theory does not exhaust itself with a simple statement of epistemological ← 4 | 5 → relativism as regards possible renditions of history, but gives voice also to White’s critics, who were often worried about the lack of ethical and pragmatic dimension in his theory. Accordingly, Hayden White’s findings are juxtaposed with relevant notions in the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, whose highlighting of ethical aspects of the historian’s work and the role of history in the forming of identities provides certain pragmatic correctives for White’s epistemological relativism. Despite its relevance, however, Ricoeur’s approach cannot be seen as definitive due to its exclusive orientation in the past. Therefore it will be supplemented also by Jacques Derrida’s notion of the spectre, which connects the past, present, and future, and bears direct relation to the manifold manifestations of the spectral to be encountered in the literary material.

Chapter Two traces the development of volatile historiographical and political opinion concerning the Rebellion since the beginning of the nineteenth century, with a focus on interpretations that were influential in the twentieth century and which could enter into a dialogue with views of the event expressed in the novels and plays to be discussed. Despite the fact that this subject has been already addressed in several recent studies, it is essential to illustrate the theoretical points made in Chapter One and to form a necessary background to the analysis of literary interpretations of 1798. Special attention will be devoted to the heated debates which accompanied the bicentenary of the event, as they, in many respects, exemplify the tension between Hayden White’s endorsement of the right to construct historical narratives for political purposes and Paul Ricoeur’s emphasis on the ethical commitment of the historian not to omit or marginalise important historical facts, especially those connected to the ‘history of victims’.


VIII, 240
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Irish history Fiction Theatre Historiography Legacy
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 240 pp.

Biographical notes

Radvan Markus (Author)

Radvan Markus teaches the Irish language and lectures on Irish literature at Charles University in Prague and Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic. He has published articles on literary depictions of 1798 and Irish-language prose of the twentieth century and is co-editor of The Politics of Irish Writing (2010), Boundary Crossings (2012) and Tradition and Modernity (2014). His translations from Irish to Czech include Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s L’Attaque and a collection of short stories by Pádraic Ó Conaire. He is working on an annotated Czech edition of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille.


Title: Echoes of the Rebellion
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