There has been much recent critical discussion of whether “Irish Gothic” constitutes a “tradition”, a “canon”, a “genre”, or a “mode”. The terminological difficulty arises from the lack of a clearly defined beginning and ending to Irish Gothic, as, on close examination, Gothic tropes, motifs and themes appear everywhere in modern Irish literature. In a discussion of American Gothic, Fred Botting argues that in the United States “the literary canon is composed of works in which the influence of romances and Gothic novels is…overt”, so much so that American literature seems “virtually an effect of a Gothic tradition. Gothic can perhaps be called the only true [American] literary tradition” (p. 16). This is even more the case with Irish literature. It is not that Ireland merely produced a large number of important Gothic writers such as Regina Maria Roche, Charles Robert Maturin, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde, and Bram Stoker, but that, as Vera Kreilkamp notes, the “marginalised Gothic mode…permeates virtually all Irish writing” (248): the Irish Gothic is a canon, a tradition and a mode all at once. Explaining this Gothic diffusion has been a serious difficulty for theorists of Irish writing although many have pointed out that because of the impact of colonialism, authority has been very much contested fields in Ireland so that distinguishing between the real and the unreal has been a function associated with power. In such circumstances the paraphernalia of the unreal, and a language of fragmentation, paranoia and schizophrenia, have seemed more useful to many writers in representing Ireland than the tools of literary realism.
An additional difficulty for Irish writers was that in the view of their audience, “Ireland” was already configured as a Gothic space by English writers. The Celtic peripheries had always been defined in direct opposition to England, a contrast intensified by the Enlightenment, so that the wilds of Scotland, the hills and valleys of Wales, and the boglands of Ireland were configured as atavistic zones of the irrational, populated by primitive monsters, against which England appeared normal, rational and progressive. Siobhán Kilfeather has emphasised the juxtaposition of the strange, dangerous and the Irish in early Gothic fiction. Sophia Lee's The Recess (1783-5) includes Ireland as a wild and dangerous – though sublime – space, and Ireland also makes a cameo appearance in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818). The tradition of using Ireland as a convenient shorthand for the bizarre is not confined to the early Gothic but continued in Walt Disney's Darby O'Gill and the Little People (dir. Robert Stevenson, 1959), and Dublin reappears as the location for the origin myth of the title character of the television series Angel (1999-2004).
The version of Ireland as a Gothic madhouse had to be confronted by Irish writers, but this does not explain why they would want to apparently perpetuate this view themselves by allowing the tropes and forms of the Gothic to infect practically everything they wrote. It may be helpful to think of “Irish Gothic” as a “discourse” which Michel Foucault defines as characterised by
different oeuvres, dispersed books, that whole mass of texts that belong to a single discursive formation – and so many authors who know or do not know one another, criticise one another, meet without knowing it and obstinately intersect their unique discourses in a web of which they are not the masters, of which they cannot see the whole, and of whose breadth they have a very inadequate idea (p. 143).
The crucial point about a discourse is that it is not confined to generic or formal boundaries but tends to infiltrate all representational media in a given time and space. The ability of the Gothic to appear in so many places and forms in Irish writing suggests that it amounts to such a discourse, and does so specifically in relation to the Irish Protestant community where it found its first expression and for whom it provided a means to express political, social and ultimately existential identity. If Gothic is seen not simply as a set of literary devices but a means of articulating and devising subjectivity, its centrality to Irish writing can begin to be understood.
The uses of the Gothic to the Irish Protestant community become clear when we consider them as what Mary Douglas calls an “enclave” (1984, p. 12). An “enclave” is a shared cultural space in which ideas about time and space, ethics, physical nature, metaphysical reality, human relationships, are held in common so as to allow the individuals who occupy that space to negotiate their relationship to reality and to others outside the enclave as successfully as possible. The cultural ideas shared by the individuals and groups within the enclave have to be both flexible enough to allow real engagement with reality, the external world, and changing historical circumstances, and, simultaneously static enough to ensure a robust understanding of where the borders of the enclave lie. The most important issue for the enclave is the mapping of its own limits and the policing and maintenance of its borders. The enclave must keep others out and its own members in, and the most effective means of doing this is through a process whereby those outside the border are “othered” – defined as inherently threatening and monstrous – and by warning its own members of moral and physical abandonment should any “betray” the enclave through associating with, joining, or admitting the reviled Other. The discourse of the Gothic has proved very useful in sustaining the life of enclaves since the Gothic is very much about border disputes. Tzvetan Todorov divides fantasy (in which the Gothic is included) into two broad categories, that dealing with the “Not-I” and that concerned with the “I”, and in both boundaries are central features. Fantasy of the “Not-I” concerns relations between Self and Other (such as between Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic), and involves protecting the Self from external threats; fantasy of the “I” concerns expelling the “Other” hidden within the Self, expelling the treacherous aspect of the Self (defined sociologically or psychologically) and making the Self pure again. These disputes have been powerfully literalised in two basic Gothic plots: typically, a small, tightly-knit community is attacked by a monstrous invader who must be expelled and destroyed; alternatively, an individual finds that they are internally fractured because of strange and unwelcome aspects of the interior mind or body.
The Self whose borders are under threat in early English Gothic writing has been correctly read as tied to a nationalist Protestant mentality which emerged from the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688, the threatening Other manifesting in the shape of monstrous Continental Catholicism. As an enclave, Irish Protestants had a threatening external group much closer to home, since they were surrounded and vastly out-numbered by Irish Catholics. Self-consciously enclosed by this threatening monstrosity, the Irish Protestant community sought numerous ways to protect itself and also sought to provide a coherent narrative of itself that would reassure and protect against invasion and internal upheaval. It found that the Gothic was peculiarly equipped to do both, not only warning of the dangers of those outside righteous Protestant communities, but also demonstrating vividly what happened to those who happened to capitulate to the attractiveness of the Other. The Gothic offers to those who remain within the borders of the enclave moral purity and safety from annihilation, and while it might detail the surface attractiveness of the Other, its exotic seductiveness – hence the form's preoccupation with licentious and sexualised versions of Catholicism – it does so only to reveal that beneath this veil of eroticism lies a rotting corpse: to give way to its attraction is to consign oneself to eternal damnation. At times, of course, the Irish Protestant community could offer its inhabitants material reward for remaining within the enclave's borders – political and social power – but as the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, and rolling concessions were offered to Irish Catholics by the British government, such power came to seem increasingly ephemeral and illusory, and moral and religious purity was offered in exchange.
The parameters of the Irish Protestant enclave became a cause for concern after the 1641 Rebellion (a revolt by both Old English and native Catholics against the “new English” Protestants who had been granted land and political rights in the aftermath of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century plantations), when the social and psychological walls dividing the community from Irish Catholics were fortified, but the isolation of the enclave was emphasised by the fact that many within it felt abandoned by their ethnic and religious “allies” on the British mainland, a feeling that only increased in the two centuries that followed. Throughout the eighteenth century, sermons from Anglican divines spoke of “a Wall of Defence” built by God around His elect community, and this wall was reinforced by the tropes and images used by Irish Protestants to describe those who lived on the other side of this wall. In England, John Foxe's Acts and Monuments (1563), had demonised Catholics and provided a basic source for the imagery of the monster in the later Gothic tradition; in Ireland, Sir John Temple's historical “analysis” of 1641, The Irish Rebellion (1646), fulfilled the same role, explaining the latter as having been incited by the great deceiver himself, Satan. For Temple, Irish Catholics were literally contagious pollutants of the blood and evil fiends who could not be trusted and who were involved in a huge international conspiracy – effected through secret societies – to wipe out heretics, and against which Irish Protestants must enforce a social, political and psychological separation. Temple's was one in a series of texts which produced and defended the notion that Irish Catholics were demons in need of policing (and perhaps exterminating), including William King's The State of the Protestants of Ireland (1691), Richard Woodward's The Present State of the Church of Ireland (1787), and Richard Musgrave's Memoirs of the Various Rebellions in Ireland (1801). They all emerged in response to a sequence of apparent confirmations in the political realm of the nefarious intentions of the Catholics, and their (biological) proclivities towards evil: the “Papist Plot” of 1679, the Williamite wars of the 1690s, intense agrarian agitation in the west in 1711-12, the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, agrarian agitation in the form of Whiteboy activity in 1760's Tippperary and Rightboy disturbances in Munster in 1785-7, the general rise of a Catholic middle class and increased Catholic political organisation from the mid-eighteenth century, the formation of the secret society the Defenders in 1784, the emergence of the United Irishmen in 1791, and, finally, the 1798 rebellion. These texts operated as a proto-Gothic nexus providing, in the shape of the evil Catholic, the template for the invading external monstrosity basic to the Gothic tradition and reinforcing the political panic that made the policing of enclave borders so compellingly attractive. Irish Gothic inherits from this proto-Gothic literature,the version of the Catholic as a morally defiled outsider group in opposition to a community of virtuous and righteous Protestant insiders, often a remnant left alone to proceed against the horrific monstrous foe, a trope basic to texts such as Regina Maria Roche's Children of the Abbey (1796), Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's “Carmilla” (1872), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).
As well as instilling sectarian paranoia, these texts also blamed the racial and theological impurity of the Irish Protestant enclave itself for the threat of 1641 and insisted that all such impure internal elements be cleansed. The emphasis on the protection of internal purity through surveillance also found expression in the intense moralism of various millennial and evangelical movements which made their way into Ireland from the late eighteenth century and reached a crescendo in the “Second Reformation” of the 1820s onwards. A claustrophobic concern for the moral coherence and purity of the Self migrated into the Gothic in the tradition of the isolated individual breaking down due to psychological fracture and a collapse of interior cohesion. The grand master of such psychological Irish Gothic is Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and the effects of isolation and psychological surveillance can be traced in “Green Tea” (1872) and Uncle Silas (1864), but this theme was also exploited by Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890).
Thus, elements basic to the Gothic were pervasive in eighteenth-century Irish writing, but a full-blown Gothic did not appear until the 1760s. Irish Protestant paranoia and self-examination were certainly prevalent in this decade. In the aftermath of the parliamentary disputes in the mid- and late-1750s and the apparent willingness of the government in Westminster to grant rolling concessions to Irish Catholics, Irish Protestants felt divided and at risk, and this feeling was heightened when in 1760 an official Catholic Committee was formed to lobby on behalf of Catholics. This more organised Catholic agitation was darkly echoed by the outbreak of agrarian agitation in County Tipperary in the autumn and winter of 1761 by an underground secret society calling itself the Whiteboys. Although the primary aim of the Whiteboys was to protest against changes in the rural economy, it was interpreted by many Protestants as an element of a vast Catholic conspiracy reaching back to 1641.
This chauvinist and panicked “othering” collided with a very different element in the Irish intellectual ether: an increase in Protestant Irish interest and investment in the Irish past. Given the conviction that they were being both betrayed and abandoned by their ethnic and political relatives in London, and also given that the English tended to elide the cultural differences between the Irish natives and newcomers, Protestants living in Ireland had from the late seventeenth century begun to not only accept the national designation “Irish”, but celebrate and internalise it psychologically. A general interest in the Celtic past was sweeping over Europe anyway, given increased fervour with the publication of James Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760). This Celtophilia manifested in publications such as Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Charlotte Brooke's Reliques of Irish Poetry (1789), but also in a more widespread antiquarianism which sought to root Irish Protestants to the Irish past. Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime and its connection to ancient temples, obscurity and the superstitious past helped to lend a certain kind of aesthetic respectability to the retrieval of history (even Catholic history), so that the Celtic and Catholic past became ambivalent spaces of nostalgic desire imbued with a sublime and awesome power, as well as zones of horror.
The full-dress Irish Gothic can be seen as a meeting of Irish Protestant paranoia, anti-Catholicism, and psychological claustrophobia with nostalgia (for a past of which they were never a part), desire for the Catholic Other, and sublime respect for history. This division is expressed in two competing tendencies in Irish Gothic writing: a Whiggish, “progressive”, modernising view of Ireland as moving away from and expelling the superstitious trappings of the Catholic past defined in ruined churches and castles, libidinous monks and priests and female rape, towards a new and prosperous future; and a nostalgic longing for the existential and social security of the past and the sublime power of the chivalric Middle Ages, including its religious expressions. Paranoia and monstrosity dialogue with desire and toleration; the ability of the Gothic to express such competing positions explains why it pervades Irish Protestant writing – as existential and geographical hesitators (between England and Ireland, Protestantism and Catholicism) they needed a language of hesitancy and ambivalence to articulate identity, and the Gothic was uniquely positioned to provide that language.
The first Gothic novel, the Irish Protestant historian Thomas Leland's Longsword (1762) – which appeared two years before Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto (1762) – was written in the immediate aftermath of the formation of the Catholic Committee in 1760 and the beginning of panic about Whiteboy activity, but written by a man deeply involved in the antiquarian enterprise. Leland was a Fellow of Trinity College Dublin and in general very tolerant of Catholics, being the first to open the University's library to Catholic scholars and on good terms with the pioneering Irish Catholic historians Charles O'Conor and John Curry. Leland was later asked by both O' Conor and by Edmund Burke to write a “philosophical” history of Ireland; they believed that an objective account of Irish history from the pen of a liberal Protestant, but which demolished the “myths” surrounding 1641, would have more political and social impact than one produced by a Catholic. They were to be disappointed. Although his History of Ireland (1773) was much more balanced in its treatment of the events than Temple's, Leland still resorted to terms such as “barbarous” to describe the Catholic leaders of the rebellion and claimed that Phelim O'Neill, the Ulster leader, was motivated by “a rage truly diabolical”. This should not have surprised them given the degree of anti-Catholic paranoia to be found in Longsword. The novel is set in the High Middle Ages, probably the reign of Henry III, and its Gothic elements involve scenes of imprisonment and forced marriages with a corrupt Catholic Church at the centre of machinations, driven by the poisoning monk, Father Reginald, who would later be reincarnated in monkish villains from Ambrosio and Schedoni onwards. However, in line with its author's antiquarian and historical interests, the novel also expresses a general respect for the Gothic past and an implied criticism of the dissipation of the Protestant present in comparison.
This ambivalent dialogue between Catholophobia and Catholophilia, progressivism and nostalgia, the future and the past, English rationalism and Irish atavism, runs through the Irish Gothic. The works of three of the most important Irish gothic writers, Regina Maria Roche, Maria Edgeworth, and Sydney Owenson (later Lady Morgan) were written in the tumultuous period leading up to and in the aftermath of the 1798 Rising. The hysterical anti-Catholicism of Maturin's Gothic was forged in the growth of beginnings of both “Second Reformation” Protestantism and a strengthening campaign for Catholic Emancipation. Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's intellectual outlook was shaped in part by his family's isolation during the Tithe War (1831-26), and also by his strident opposition to Daniel O'Connell. Bram Stoker's work can be read as part of a response to the spectre of republican terrorism that was usually configured in the British press as atavistic and monstrous – finding brilliant realisation in the feudal Catholic Count Dracula effecting a reverse invasion of England. The twentieth-century novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote in the wake of the consolidation of the power of the Catholic middle class in the post-revolution Ireland, and her Big Houses are more haunted by the remnants of the Anglo-Irish than inhabited by them. Thus, in the face of constant threats to existential coherence, Irish Protestants produced a consistent narrative of boundaries and exclusions, monstrosity and hauntings.
However, it is important to remember that as a narrative of the self – that is, as a means of providing a coherent sense of community and individual identity – the Gothic tends to failure, usually collapsing under the weight of its own importance. Elizabeth Napier long ago pointed to the incoherent, inconsistent and incomprehensible aspects of the Gothic, and William Patrick Day has demonstrated that the Gothic narrative frequently ends in collapse rather than resolution. It for this reason that Irish texts of the Irish Protestant enclave which seem in one sense straightforwardly romantic national tales, or realist novels, have their narratives of reconciliation disrupted and dissipated by the invasion of Gothic elements – narrative devices, tropes and themes preventing settlement and closure. Thus, much Irish writing, while not fully-blown Gothic, is “interrupted” by Gothic as if to remind the reader of what the historian Brendan Bradshaw (p. 204) has described as the “catastrophic dimension of Irish history”. The typical fragmentation and disintegration of the Gothic text – most evident, perhaps in Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer and Stoker's Dracula – speaks of the general terror of disinheritance or disputed inheritance which W. J. McCormack has identified as a significant feature of Gothic writing in Ireland.
Catholics reacted in a number of ways to the discourse of repulsion and desire running through the Gothic. Many Irish Catholics, and others sympathetic to the position in which Catholics found themselves, chose to “write back” using the conventions of the genre as a weapon. This is evident in, for example, Edmund Burke's appropriation of the discourse of the Gothic to describe not Jacobite monstrosity but its Jacobin mirror image, so that in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) the Catholic Church and the institutions of the ancien régime are precisely those under Gothic attack rather than the agents of Gothic terror themselves; it is the proponents of modernity who violate the bedroom and the propriety of the female body in their assault on Marie Antoinette, rather than the inquisitorial Catholic Church undermining female virginity and chastity through its confessional. James Clarence Mangan so thoroughly appropriated the paraphernalia of the Gothic that he became a living incarnation of Melmoth the Wanderer, literalising the language of the Gothic to parodic extreme. The Catholic-born Mangan's satirical take on Gothic was matched by the crypto-Catholic Oscar Wilde's demolition of it in “The Canterville Ghost” (1887), where the Gothic is reduced to a mechanical and hammy piece of amateur theatrics. Where they were not reversing or parodying the Gothic, other Catholics accepted the monstrous attributes given to them by the genre and used these attributes to warn and threaten those who marginalised and tried to silence them. In Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire [Lament for Art O'Leary] (composed 1773), Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill strikingly uses the version of Irish Catholics as vampires to her own purposes, and, as she drinks the blood of her slain husband, she warns his killers that revenge is due. Many Irish-language Gothic texts speak of the power of the living dead and the inability to kill that which is most frightening, a tradition which includes Seán Ó Coileáin's “Machtnamh an Duine Dhoilíosaigh” [“Thoughts of the Heartbroken”] (1813) to Máirtin Ó Cadhain's Cré na Cille [Churchyard Clay] (1949).
Of course, other Catholics, meanwhile, simply absorbed and internalised the tropes of the Gothic and used them to revile Catholicism, becoming Protestants manqués in the process. This is, perhaps, clearest in the case of William Carleton, a convert to the Established Church. Much of his career was devoted to depicting the Catholic Church in the monstrous terms typical of Temple and Maturin. His most explicit Gothic tale, “Confessions of a Reformed Ribbonman” (later renamed “Wildgoose Lodge”) (1830), portrays a Catholic agrarian society attacking and brutally killing Protestant women and children. Carletonian styles of paranoid anti-Catholic Gothic infect much nineteenth- and twentieth century Catholic writing, and even the trite version of the Catholic Church as an inquisitorial institution and the priest as a lecherous and monstrous child abuser, central to Melmoth the Wanderer, was resurrected in documentaries like States of Fear (1999) – covering the industrial school system from the 1860s to the 1970s – and the depiction of the Magdalene Laundries in, for example, Peter Mullan's The Magdalene Sisters (2002). Patrick McCabe's brilliant “bog Gothic” The Butcher Boy (1992), and Neil Jordan's 1997 film adaptation can both be accused of powerfully reproducing the anti-Catholic paranoia of the Gothic in their version of 1960's Catholic Ireland as a pornotopia of violence and perverse sexuality.
In Dracula, Bram Stoker warned that far from having been banished to the past, the Gothic was as up-to-date as the phonograph and the train timetable. The challenge for contemporary Irish Gothic is to move away from a now tired attack on the mid-twentieth century as a site of horror and repression, a view which suggests a contrast with the supposedly liberal and progressive Celtic Tiger of the new millennium. Can this new shiny Ireland also be reconceived as a space in which horrors lurk, perhaps produced by the very post-modernity we are all imagined to embrace?
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Citation: Killeen, Jarlath. "Irish Gothic". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 03 July 2008 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php?rec=true&UID=5531, accessed 02 October 2022.]