Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros70VariaAscendancy and the 1798 Rebellion...


Ascendancy and the 1798 Rebellion in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Ennui (1809)

Timothy McInerney
p. 285-307


La rébellion irlandaise de 1798 est omniprésente dans les romans Castle Rackrent et Ennui de Maria Edgeworth. Pourtant, les commentaires les plus frappants sur l’insurrection et ses causes sont souvent dissimulés dans des passages en apparence inoffensifs. Partant d’une étude de quelques unes des transformations sociales de l’Irlande pendant la phase de la rébellion, cet article s’intéresse aux différentes manières dont celles-ci sont reflétées dans les romans d’Edgeworth. Il explore la façon dont la rébellion est utilisée pour lier les deux romans, et dont sa présence insidieuse informe leurs critiques respectives et complémentaires de la mauvaise gestion de cette phase par l’élite irlandaise.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

Under the long discipline of the penal laws, the Irish Catholics learnt the lesson which, beyond all others, rulers should dread to teach. They became consummate adepts in the arts of conspiracy and disguise. (Lecky 1: 167)

  • 1  Banshee, from the Irish bean sídh, literally translates as “woman-fairy.” The English word “fairy, (...)

1Both Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Ennui (1809) begin with the cry of a banshee: the former heard only by its infamous narrator, Thady Quirk, and the latter in the form of the nursemaid Ellinor Noonan. This “species of aristocratic fairy,” Castle Rackrent’s editorial persona explains in a footnote, “sing[s] in a mournful supernatural voice under the windows of great houses, to warn the family that some of them are soon to die” (71).1 Certainly, it is fitting that such a symbolic portent of death and decline should open two novels that chart the hierarchical implosion of an ancient Anglo-Irish dynasty. Yet, even more significant than the banshee’s omen of death is her abandonment of this duty: Edgeworth’s fictional editor in Castle Rackrent notes that, in recent years, the banshee’s activities have been “latterly discontinued,” while Ellinor’s deathly laments do not attend her master’s death at all, but rather foreshadow the dissolution of his identity as master, lord, and even as an Englishman (71). The death-cry of the banshee, in both novels, is issued from the murky, unseen world of peasant superstition, yet it presumes to dictate the fate of a colonial élite; her patronage signifies the sinister blessings of ancient Ireland on its equally ancient invaders, and thus her failure to even acknowledge their decline is, of course, far more damning than the decline itself.

2These novels do not just chart the decay of power, they examine its transfer, dissipation, and re-appropriation; moreover, they portray elitist rule in Ireland as a kind of pretence – humoured only in order to maintain a very different kind of power, which is emanating from an unseen and unregulated sphere. This is a world where the roles of master and servant are decidedly interchangeable, and where even the ideas of linear dynasty and aristocracy are mutable and unsure. It is in this unsettling aspect of Edgeworth’s works that we must remember the context in which the novels were published: Castle Rackrent and Ennui emerged from a country wherein social order had been turned upside down by one of the most violent episodes in its history – the 1798 rebellion. Ireland, in the last years of the eighteenth century, was a place where vigilante militias roamed the fields and secret armies hid in every roadside village; where neighbours lived in perpetual mistrust, where foreign invasion was expected at any moment, and where the ruling élite lived in mortal fear of their own servants.

Inter-religious Collaboration and the 1798 Rebellion

3To understand the significance of the 1798 rebellion in Maria Edgeworth’s novels, we must first consider the train of dramatic events that had transformed Ireland’s political and social make-up in the last two decades of the eighteenth century. For close to a hundred years, the Irish Penal Laws had established a sectarian-based hierarchy: Catholics and (to a lesser extent) Dissenters were systemically disenfranchised through a ban on public office, disarmed through a ban on weapons, and impoverished through the mandatory subdivision of inherited land. The entire political framework, indeed, was designed to bolster a minority Episcopalian over-class, who ran the country from a close-knit, Dublin-based oligarchy known as the Ascendancy. It was, in fact, the Irish hierarchy’s fundamental reliance on religion as a social barrier that would leave it so vulnerable in the face of secular nationalism in the 1790s. The Society of United Irishmen, who would go on to lead the rebellion, exploited the weakness of sectarian laws by simply rejecting them. Following the example of the French revolution, this collection of mostly middle-class Episcopalians and Dissenters openly supported Catholic emancipation and denounced sectarian tradition entirely. Their most prolific leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone, courted the political support of all Irishmen in 1791, proclaiming that

if the odious distinction of Protestant and Presbyterian and Catholic were abolished and the three great sects blended together under the common and sacred title of Irishman, what interest could a Catholic member of parliament have distinct from his Protestant brother [?] […] When I contrast the National Assembly of Frenchmen and Catholics with other great bodies which I could name, I confess I feel little propensity to boast that I have the honour to be an Irishman and a Protestant. (111-25)

  • 2  This is due to the repeal of the Irish Declaratory Act and the amendment of the medieval Poyning’s (...)

4Crucially, the very same recognition of sectarianism as a weakness in the architecture of Ireland’s subjugation had already emerged in the radical movements of Dissenting Ulster. With its own troops sent to war in America, Ulster’s isolated Presbyterian community had assembled a vast private army in 1778. The army, known as the “Volunteers,” was originally formed as a gesture of British loyalism – yet, when its numbers swelled to 100,000 in only two years, the sheer political potential of such military force (in a community that was officially denied a voice in public office) became obvious. The more members they accrued, the more powerful the Volunteers could become, and very soon they were openly flouting the Penal Laws by admitting Catholics (Black 4; Bartlett, Rebellion 18). Within just one year of its establishment, and with the support of Dublin’s Patriot Party, the Volunteers had rallied in front of the Irish parliament buildings to demand “free trade, or a speedy revolution,” and, remarkably, Westminster gave in to their demands (Bartlett, Rebellion 19). “The merchant, the tradesman, the manufacturer, the farmer, the labourer, the Catholic, the Dissenter, the Protestant,” reported Dublin’s beleaguered new viceroy, the Duke of Portland, in 1782, “all sects, all descriptions of men […] unanimously and most audibly call upon Great Britain for a full and unequivocal satisfaction” (qtd. in Bartlett, Rebellion 20). By 1782, with the support of the Volunteers, the pro-independence Patriot Party’s political reforms had made the Dublin Parliament more legislatively independent than it had been for three hundred years.2 Two years later, James Caulfield, 1st Earl of Charlemont, welcomed Irishmen of all religious persuasions into the Belfast Volunteers: “a general union of all the inhabitants of Ireland,” he pronounced, “is necessary to the freedom and prosperity of this kingdom” (qtd. in Andrews 8). In fact, on this occasion the (overwhelmingly Presbyterian) Belfast Volunteers collected £84 amongst themselves for the construction of a new Catholic church in the city (8). Though inter-religious fraternity was not always so enthusiastic (to say the least), gestures such as this represented a profound shift in the island’s political dynamics: for the first time in Irish history the threat to British rule was not a case of Catholic versus Protestant or native versus planter, but the unforeseen scenario of colonists and colonised alike forming a political front. In July 1790, notes Bartlett, the Volunteers marched through Belfast “not to celebrate the Battle of the Boyne, but the fall of the Bastille” (31).

5Certainly, the deliberate whitewashings of Protestant involvement in the rebellion by loyalist propagandists demonstrates that inter-religious co-operation was significant enough to warrant wholesale censorship. Accounts of the 1798 rebellion such as that of Richard Musgrave in 1802 laboriously stressed that the insurrection was a purely Catholic phenomenon:

I saw the horrid wretches kneel on the quay, lift up their hands, seeming to pray with the greatest devotion […]. The town priests then, and not till then, made their appearance. The leader of the murderers called to his men, in these words, which I distinctly heard, “Come my lads! We will go now; blessed be God, we have sent some of their souls to hell!” They went off really as if they had been performing a praiseworthy and religious action. (18-19)

In fact, Andrews notes that only 3 per cent of Musgrave’s account of the rebellion refers to the Protestant counties of Antrim and Down, despite their having witnessed some of the rebellion’s bloodiest insurrections, as well as the British military’s most vicious dragooning for radicals (24). James Gordon’s account, published in 1808, even used pseudo-historical imagery to link the rebels of 1798 directly to the Catholic insurgents of 1641. Quoting Colonel Lawrence’s account of this Catholic uprising over a hundred and fifty years earlier, he uses Renaissance imagery of Irish Catholics as cannibals to speculate on the potential outcome of this present predicament:

  • 3  Gordon cites Richard Lawrence’s The Interest of Ireland (1682), 2: 86, 87.

“[T]hey digged corpses out of the grave to eat.” […] “We saw […] a company of miserable old women and children […] and betwixt them and the fire a dead corpse broiling, which as the fire roasted they cut off collaps and eat.” Similar scenes of desolation and famine would have doubtless followed the rebellion of 1798, if by a concurrence of lucky incidents its extension and continuance had not been prevented. (345-46)3

6The inescapable reality of the rebellion, of course, was that its architects came from the Protestant middle-class and even nobility (Lord Edward Fitzgerald, discussed below); that the country’s greatest centre of radicalism was in the Presbyterian north; and that Catholic support actually came relatively late. Furthermore, while the actual dynamics of inter-religious co-operation were fluctuating and prone to dissent, propaganda such as this underlines how dangerous the very rhetoric of a united Ireland could be. Landmark speeches such that of William Orr, a Presbyterian United Irishman from Antrim who was executed for treason in 1797, had the power to rethink Ireland’s assemblage of warring cultures as a vast united majority. At the gallows, Orr declared that

If to have loved my country, to have known its wrongs, to have felt the injuries of the persecuted Catholics and to have united with them and all other religious persuasions […] – if these be felonies, I am a felon, but not otherwise. (qtd. in Lydon 226)

On his execution “Remember Orr” became a popular dictum among the rebels of Antrim, while Dublin Castle was informed that he had become “the first Presbyterian to be regarded as a Catholic martyr” (Bartlett, Rebellion 72).

7As well as the united force of inter-doctrinal collaboration, the 1798 rising posed a serious threat of foreign invasion. In 1796, Wolfe Tone had escorted 14,000 French troops across the Celtic sea to declare an Irish republic in what was to be the greatest invasion of British territory since the Spanish Armada, only – all too much like the Spanish Armada – to have it blown apart by storms within sight of Irish land. It was on the fresh promise of French assistance, again, that coordinated insurrections broke out across the country in May 1798. This time, while a siege of the capital was quickly crushed, the provincial risings gained unexpected momentum: some 15,000 rebels armed with pikes occupied the town of Wexford on Ireland’s south coast, declaring a Wexford Republic; days later, violent insurgency broke out across the Ulster counties of Antrim and Down. No sooner had these risings been brought under control than 1,100 French troops landed on the west coast, occupying the town of Castlebar (some seventy miles from the Edgeworths’ estate) and declaring a Republic of Connacht. “Insurrections, which were to have been general and simultaneous […],” wrote Edgeworth in her Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, “proved that there existed in the country a deep and widely spread spirit of rebellion […] it was hardly to be doubted, that fresh attempts, in concert with foreign enemies, would be made in the future” (201). French assistance, however, ultimately amounted to too little too late – on the whole, the rebellion was violently suppressed and ended in Irish defeat on a vast scale. At the close of 1798’s bloody summer, 30,000 people had died, with 90 per cent of losses on the losing side – “more” notes Egenolf, “than in the French reign of terror” (49).

8Thus, during the two decades before Maria Edgeworth published Castle Rackrent and Ennui, Ireland had witnessed the near-collapse, and subsequent violent re-establishment of its sectarian hierarchy; the Dublin parliament had flirted with national independence, descended into the chaos of martial law, and subsequently become bound into inescapable political union with Britain; two revolutionary republics had been declared in the provinces, inviting large-scale attempts at French invasion; the countryside’s patchwork of violent vigilante groups had been absorbed into a massive underground network of guerilla militias, forming a ubiquitous and secret military presence in every corner of the island; and, above all, the country had witnessed a nationwide wave of rebellions that had irrevocably transformed its social, cultural, and political landscape beyond recognition.

Papists, Pikes, and Pixies in Castle Rackrent

9Much of the humour in Castle Rackrent and Ennui rests on the intimation that a non-Irish reader might unquestioningly believe whole passages that those acquainted with Irish society immediately understand to be profoundly ironic. A pastiche of this very process is even played out in Ennui: the Irish noblewoman Lady Geraldine cynically feeds the English Lord Craiglethorpe fantastically false information about Irish culture, and delights in the fact that he plans to publish it all in a British travel account. Even when she mocks him behind his back for believing the peasants’ tall tales, her words are awash with disingenuousness: “There is not a man, woman, or child in any cabin in Ireland, who would not have wit and cuteness enough to make my lard believe just what they please,” she declares, when, all the while, it is only she and not the peasants that the reader sees to lead him astray (211, emphasis added). Castle Rackrent opens directly into this manifold rhetoric of falsehoods: the narrator Thady Quirk’s very first words, “Monday Morning,” are attributed a glossary entry (which the fictional editor has included for the sake of “the ignorant English reader”) referencing the manipulation inherent in Hiberno-English verbal culture (63). Irish peasants, the editorial persona asserts, interminably postpone their duties until Monday morning as a way to avoid them altogether – something which has been known to have been counteracted, by one landlord, by insisting that all projects start on Saturday (123). While Thady Quirk, then, has been exposed as manipulating his reader before he has even launched into his first sentence, the editor who claims to protect us from such peasant trickery can muster only an example of landlord gullibility – his anecdotal squire (and possibly himself) being insensible to the possibility that Saturday morning might be deferred as easily as Monday.

  • 4  The governing power of Grattan’s parliament assumed was, of course, dissolved through the 1800 Act (...)

10This wry play between blatancy and subtlety is broached in the novel’s full title: Castle Rackrent: An Hibernian Tale Taken from the Facts and the Manners of the Irish Squires Before the Year 1782. Quite aside from the satirical appellation of “rack-rent” for a family of Irish landlords, the title’s use of the year 1782 as a cut-off point for a certain kind of lifestyle is decidedly charged. This was the year when Henry Grattan’s nationalist Patriot Party made their landmark political reforms. Theirs was a vision of independence, however, which did not necessarily entail Catholic or Dissenter emancipation (an issue that divided the Patriot movement) – in fact, it was seen by many, the Edgeworths included, as the vindication of a landowning class that had long proved themselves corrupt, incompetent, and largely absentee.4 By referencing the social problems that existed before 1782, therefore, Edgeworth is sardonically proclaiming that Grattan’s parliament has remedied Ireland’s woes. Indeed, the disingenuous assertion that “things have changed” in Ireland since the action of the novel, is a consistent trope throughout Castle Rackrent. The openly satirical use of the word “formerly” punctuates Edgeworth’s prose: “childer,” she claims, is how those in Thady’s rank formerly pronounced the word “children” (childer is, in fact, a pronunciation still current in some areas of Ireland); Ireland was formerly over-run with middlemen (the culture of land-agent middlemen persisted throughout the nineteenth century, as evidenced in Edgeworth’s less “retrospective” novels); and every great house in Ireland formerly kept a barefooted “gosoon” to deliver messages (“gosoon” is still a common epithet for young boys in County Cork) (72, 73, 94). This novel about “former” times is anything but retrospective – rather it is a grim rumination on a very contemporary Ireland, falling head first into a nightmarish future by clinging to an unworkable and static past.

11The pivotal fact that the 1798 rebellion encompassed all of Ireland’s religious groups is reflected in the remarkable religious ambiguity of Castle Rackrent. Sir Kit’s unfortunate Jewish bride, his “Jessica,” is the only character in the novel whose religion is directly stated, and even she wears a diamond crucifix around her neck (83). Traditionally, it has often been assumed that the Rackrent family represents Protestant converts. Thady Quirk, the novel’s infamous narrator, declares that “[t]he family of the Rackrents is, I am proud to say, one of the most ancient in the kingdom. Everybody knows this is not the old family name, which was O’Shaughlin, related to the kings of Ireland” (66). This reference to name change, suggests Thomas Flanagan, makes it “likely that [Sir] Patrick had had to change not merely his name but his creed, which would have seemed to the old Catholic servant the deepest dishonour” (70). Yet, Flanagan himself makes quite a blind assumption here – that Thady is a Catholic. Doubtless, he plays the part of a “stage” Catholic Irishman to perfection, yet several details of the narrative call his religious faith into question – most particularly the fact that his own son, Jason, appears to be a Protestant. Jason, the narrative claims, is a legal attorney – a profession that would not open its doors to Irish Catholics until 1793, whilst all of the novel’s action, as has been noted, is set prior to 1782 (McCormack 120). Later, the reader hears of Jason buying property from Sir Condy, a transaction that, if he is indeed a Catholic and Sir Condy is a Protestant, would have been forbidden before the Relief Act of 1782 (CR 348, note 8). To confuse matters further, Thady imparts to the reader that he had “thought to make [Jason] a priest,” yet describes him as having attended grammar school with the young Sir Condy Rackrent – presumably a Protestant one since, prior to 1782, Catholic-run education was forbidden (74, 85). Elsewhere, Sir Condy seriously considers taking Thady’s niece Judy as his wife, introducing the notion that she too is perhaps a Protestant, and a relatively well-to-do Protestant at that (by the end of the novel, Sir Condy is no longer good enough for her). Indeed, if any family in this novel stand out as converts, it is the Quirks, rather than the Rackrents. Might not the Quirks have changed their religion to further their own ends as well as the Rackrents? After all, Thady introduces himself as Thady Quirk, while Judy, “the daughter of a sister’s son” of his, is a M‛Quirk (88). If so, what are we to make of the fact that Thady dreams of his son joining the priesthood, whilst sending him to a Protestant school? In the decidedly equivocal atmosphere of this novel, we must not ignore the possibility that both Thady and Jason are pretending to be Protestants, in order to reap the financial benefits that would otherwise be denied to them. Likewise, we might not dismiss the possibility that “Honest Thady” is pretending to be Catholic for the ignorant reader, thus sheltering under the assumption that he is a dithering, superstitious simpleton. In the Memoirs, Edgeworth wrote that it was generally understood in an Irish courtroom the term “an honest man” (as Thady refers to himself) “pronounced with peculiar emphasis, meant […] exclusively a Protestant” (208). Meanwhile, the Rackrents are equally mired in religious ambiguity. Sir Murtagh, like Jason, is a lawyer, and thus nominally Protestant, yet his own wife seems to be Catholic. Lady Rackrent insists that all her servants strictly observe the Lenten fast, and when one maid unwittingly consumes a mouthful of meat, she summons the local priest to give her penance. Even more interestingly, Lady Rackrent runs a “charity school for poor children” (as opposed to the grammar school attended by Jason and Sir Condy), leading to further intimations of institutional deception in the supposedly sectarian education system of pre-1782 (69). If the Rackrent men really are Protestants, they certainly seem to have no problem marrying outside their religion, as Murtagh’s wife, Kit’s wife and possibly Judy M’Quirk amply demonstrate. Could the Rackrents too be feigning their Protestantism? Or, if they have embraced Protestantism in a cynical move to retain their property rights, is this not tantamount to the same thing? Certainly, contemporary suspicions of religious deception amongst Ireland’s ruling élite is reflected in the fact that in 1798 Edgeworth’s own father, a proclaimed Unionist, had been attacked by a loyalist mob who charged him with secret allegiance with the rebels – on account of the fact that he allowed Catholic tenants into his private militia (Memoirs 212; Flanagan 63).

12Thady’s verbal disingenuousness and religious ambiguity make him the vehicle for some of the novel’s most suspect undertones. Amongst the most commonly acknowledged of these is his apparently casual reference to a “great coat” in the novel’s opening pages: “Now I’m come to poor Thady”; he declares “for I wear a long great coat winter and summer” (65). The reference may be a throwaway comment for Thady, but certainly not for the novel’s editorial persona, who recounts that the greatcoat or mantle, a typical item of “native” Irish costume, had been closely associated with rebel insurgency since the earliest days of plantation. The glossary’s lengthy quotation from Edmund Spenser plainly tells the reader that “Honest Thady” is wearing a garment of one who has been “banished from the towns and houses of honest men,” one indeed that is “a fit house for an outlaw, a meet bed for a rebel, and an apt cloak for a thief” (65, emphasis added). A meet bed for a rebel indeed: innocuous as it might seem in the singsong cadences of Thady’s narrative, it is a great coat that will signal the hidden presence of United Irishmen in Ennui. That novel’s hero, Lord Glenthorn, is warned that a local boy has found a great coat in a nearby sea cave, the pocket of which contains “the broken head of a pike” and plans detailing the “three hundred that have sworn to make you their captain” (261). The exact owner of this mysterious great coat, as Susan B. Egenolf has noted, is never identified. Yet, if “Honest Thady” is indeed involved in subversive politics, he has long perfected his act as a blameless servant. “Thady is a Caliban in the guise of a quaint stage-Irish Ariel,” claims Tom Dunne, “his devious and false servility a direct product of the colonial system, and destined through his crucial aid for his son, to be its nemesis” (qtd. in Butler, CR 9).

13The novel’s juxtaposition of Thady, a figure of permanence who seems as ancient as the Rackrent dynasty itself, with the succession of transient, failed generations of landlords, plays out the displacement of power that is so integral to the narrative. Thady speaks as if he lives solely for the family, but as they cursorily appear and disappear from his narrative, it becomes clear that this world belongs to Thady, and that they are merely temporary guests. The Rackrents’ very ownership of Irish land – their raison d’être as colonial landlords – is insecure at best. McCormack notes that Castle Rackrent changes hands five times during the novel, “and though only the acquisition by Jason Quirk is effected basically by commercial means […] there is little prior experience in the family of direct inheritance by a son and heir” (109). Rather, the Rackrents appear as a centre of ambivalent, unrooted power, compelled to action only by the forces that surround them: the bog, the fairies, the weather, and above all the beady eyes of their tenants. The pathetic, drunken Sir Condy paints a picture of an abandoned élite wantonly decaying in a crumbling estate, whilst a tide of merciless insurgents slowly closes in around him. Sir Condy’s servants exploit his weaknesses right up to his death, with Jason steadily isolating his property by the parcel, and Thady pushing Judy to marry him just before he dies in a bid to wrest his penniless title. Indeed, the steady, not-so-subtle transfer of landed power from the Rackrents to the Quirks over the course of the novel would suggest that Thady, writing retrospectively, is now enjoying a considerably more comfortable position than he held during the novel’s action. When Thady nods fondly to a family portrait “now opposite him,” McCormack takes it as a symbol of the Rackrents’ loss of social esteem (67). “Where,” asks McCormack, “does it hang now?” (114). A far better question to ask, however, might be: where does Thady sit now?

14The events of 1798 suddenly transformed the most powerful Landlords, the most unyielding rulers, into the most vulnerable targets of insurgency: “those [landlords] who were conscious of making themselves objects of dislike to the lower class of people were naturally afraid,” wrote Edgeworth in the Memoirs, “that, if disturbance arose, they should be the first victims” (207). Indeed, the Edgeworths’ own tenants were not exempt from suspicions of treachery. Maria records her tenants’ reaction to the French invasion of Connacht in 1798:

Those who were really in communication with the rebels […] were so secret and cunning, that no proofs could be obtained against them; while the eagerness to gain information laid proprietors in the middle and higher classes open to treachery, and to double danger from informers, who often gave them false clews, to involve them still farther in darkness and error. […] At last came the dreaded news. The French, who had landed at Killala, were, as we learned, on their march towards Longford. The touch of Ithuriel’s spear could not have been more sudden or effectual, than the arrival of this intelligence, in shewing people in their real forms. In some faces joy struggled for a moment with feigned sorrow, and then, encouraged by sympathy, yielded to their natural expression. (Memoirs 210)

  • 5  “Fairy mounds” or raths are innumerable circular earthen banks found throughout in the Irish count (...)

15One of the most intriguing allusions to military activity in both novels is the use of fairy rhetoric by the servant characters. Early in the Rackrent saga, Thady describes Sir Murtagh as having had the misfortune to dig into a local fairy mount,5 thus bringing a curse upon the family for generations. For the “ignorant English reader,” the glossary explains: “these high mounts were of great service […] when Ireland was invaded by the Danes. Watch was always kept on them.” Underneath were “spacious subterranean palaces inhabited by the good people, who must not on any account be disturbed,” and may have been used as “granaries or magazines by the ancient Irish inhabitants, and as places to which they retreated in times of danger” (130). The glossary neglects to mention, of course, that the sídh are referred to as the “good people” in Ireland out of fear (lest they overhear). In fact, for the same reason they are likewise euphemised as the “gentry,” making for an interesting comparison with the disingenuous flattery evinced by Edgeworth’s servant characters to their masters (Yeats 197). More importantly, this entire episode has a strange yet crucial counterpart in Ennui, which features a remarkably similar description of an iron-age souterrain in the form of a sea cave, already discussed above. In fact, the estate agent Mr Devereux almost directly quotes Castle Rackrent when he describes the underground passage on Lord Glenthorn’s estate as having “been formerly used as granaries by the ancient inhabitants” (218). This is the same cave, of course, in which the mysterious “great coat” is found, which transpires to be the hideout of the local rebel leaders – lending Thady’s insinuation that Sir Murtagh should have left this stronghold of the “good people” alone a decidedly sharp edge. As has been noted, it is Thady, and no one else, who hears the Banshee’s cry just before Sir Murtagh’s untimely death. Indeed, as Egenolf has pointed out, the terminology of Ireland’s secretive sídh seemed to have “entered into native parlance as terms loaded with the weight of insurgent and militia activity” (64). One of Maria Edgeworth’s letters from 1794 uses fairy rhetoric to describe local sightings of the rebel Defenders: “we never thought the danger near until to-day,” she writes, “it is supposed that the sight of two red coats will keep the evil sprites from appearing to mortal eyes” (Hare ed. 38, vol. 1). Mary Leadbeater, one of Edgeworth’s correspondents who directly experienced the insurgent occupation of Baltimore, County Cork, recorded in 1798 that “now and then a person was missed and this misfortune was unfeelingly accounted for by saying that ‘[a] Brownie had eaten them’” (qtd. in Beatty 197).

Secrecy, Deference and Power in Ennui

16In Ennui, a novel wherein the mundane and the fantastical frequently overlap, the figurative import of the banshee is given a human face – that of a former wet-nurse. “Old Ellinor’s sudden appearance before Glenthorn at his gate,” notes Butler, “is the most striking manifestation of the banshee in the either novel” (CR 27). Like a banshee, Ellinor appears at the hour of Glenthorn’s “death,” when he falls from his horse (an accident, of course, that was induced by the presence of this banshee herself). Like a banshee too, Ellinor is an adept in the art of caoineadh, or “keening,” the Irish practice of bewailing the dead – a spectacle the “deadman” himself is fortunate enough to witness: “The footman ran off; and my old nurse, on seeing me, burst into an agony of grief,” recounts Lord Glenthorn, “I did not understand one word she uttered, as she spoke in her native language; but her lamentations went to my heart, for they came from hers.”

17Ellinor’s entry into the narrative marks a fundamental change of direction in the story. Once she has sounded her banshee’s cry, and Glenthorn has experienced his mock-death, his life will never be the same again. In their critical studies of Ennui, both Allan Warne (who describes the plot as “highly improbable”) and Marilyn Butler (who dismisses the novel’s central action as “a wild flight of romance”) make the perplexing claim that the novel’s merit is diminished by the implausibility of its action from this point on (Warne 47; Butler 1972, 369). Quite aside from the obvious questions such a puzzling statement inspires (which turn-of-the-century novels, for instance, have these critics earmarked as so very “probable”? Or, since when has plausibility ever been the arbiter of a novel’s merit?), this criticism misses out on an entire, crucial facet of Edgeworth’s narrative. The arrival of Ellinor hurtles Lord Glenthorn, whose ancien régime indulgences have afflicted him with a splenetic depression (ennui), down a rabbit hole of cultural absurdity. The Ireland he visits as his ancestral home is a land where nothing is as it appears to be, and where no action can be trusted to result in its “probable” outcome. Indeed, one of the most changeable elements of this strange world is the relative position of master and servant. When Glenthorn arrives at his family estate he is thrilled at the power he can wield over his downtrodden tenants: “These people seemed ‘born for my use’,” he muses when he first approaches his castle, “[they] gave me more the idea of vassals than of tenants” (178). Yet Glenthorn is soon to discover that the overwhelming subservience of his “vassals” is, in itself, an artful form of control – the pantomime deference of his tenants is actually calculated and relentless, designed to exploit Glenthorn’s every weakness. Moreover, their flamboyant displays of loyalty only serve to blind him from what turns out to be violent treachery. Glenthorn adopts the likeable simpleton, Joe Kelly, as his favourite servant because he likes to laugh at him, to keep him as a “butt.” Yet when the estate’s imported English servants flee Ireland from fear of insurgency, it becomes clear that Glenthorn has been the simple, loyal fool all along. He notices, with unconcerned curiosity, Kelly’s unusually savage mockery of his abandonment: “though he was willing to be laughed at, Joe Kelly could in his turn laugh; and now he ridiculed without mercy” (244). Kelly, of course, is a secret agent of the United Irishmen. Furthermore, his treachery does not just exploit, but relies on his English lord’s belief in derogatory Irish clichés in order to gain greater power over him. The reduction of the Irish to a collection of stereotypes is, in itself, being used by the Irish as a form of control over their English masters; the fictive, Anglocentric version of Ireland, suggests Edgeworth, just like Lord Craiglethorpe’s travel account, is exactly what allows the dark reality of Irish insurgency to flourish unabated.

18Ellinor Noonan is both the face of Glenthorn’s peasantry and the vindicator of his ostensibly inborn nobility. In several respects she re-presents the character of Thady: she is a “special” servant, who has nursed Glenthorn since infancy, it is through her obfuscated perspective that Glenthorn (and often the reader) initially experiences Irish society, and her comedic subservience to her master makes it clear that the family of Glenthorn is her life’s sole concern. Like Thady, her rhetoric is superlatively submissive, yet unlike him, Ellinor is not quite so adept at masking the true motivations behind her caricatured servility. At two key points in the narrative, each of Ellinor’s sons, Christy and Owen, are accused of involvement with the United Irishmen. In the first instance Ellinor proclaims Christy’s absolute innocence and Glenthorn does not hesitate to believe her – indeed, her avowed ignorance is reminiscent of Thady’s hear-no-evil relationship with Jason. In the second instance however, when Owen is accused of being directly involved in a plot against Glenthorn himself, Ellinor suddenly become anxious. Glenthorn refuses to grant Owen his freedom and the old nurse’s carefully managed facade gives way to a startling show of cruel, merciless art: without warning she confesses that she herself is Glenthorn’s real mother, and if he does not give her what she wants immediately, she will make his true birth known to everyone and wilfully usurp the Glenthorn dynasty. Her speech – at once that of a mother, a substitute mother, and a risen servant – is an electrifying image of Ireland in rebellion. The small, impoverished, simpering old woman transforms before our eyes into a potent vessel of rage, capable of toppling centuries of colonial rule. She threatens, with a flick of the tongue, to dissolve the fickle power of a deluded master she has merely puppeted until now for her own good:

he who is now slaving at the forge, to give me the earnings of his labour; he that lives and has lived all his days, upon potatoes and salt, and is content […] – I tell ye, he it is who should live in this castle and sleep on that soft bed, and be lord of all here – he is the true and real Lord Glenthorn, and to the wide world I’ll make it known. Ay, be pale and tremble, do; it’s your turn now: I’ve touched you now […]. (272)

“It’s your turn now” – Ellinor’s words could easily encapsulate the greatest fears of the landed classes under threat of a peasant rebellion. This alarming glance at Ellinor’s true face, deceitful, scheming and intimidatingly ruthless, necessarily sheds new light on the character of Thady, to whom she bears so many similarities. In fact, by far the most sinister aspect of Ellinor’s violent turnabout is the sheer ease with which she can revert to her old self, once the threat has passed:

It’s a mistake! It’s all a mistake, and I was a fool to believe them that brought me the word […] my son’s not one of them, nor ever was […] I beg your pardon entirely […] Forgive all I said in my passion, my own best jewel: you was always good and tender to me, and be the same still, dear. I’ll never say a word more about it to anyone living […]. (272)

Edgeworth paints a profoundly disturbing picture of the thoroughly Irish relationship between master and servant, where the former is mired in a web of opportunistic corruption, and the latter is predisposed to abuse any sense of advantage to be gained. The Irish ruling élite may be a despotic institution, she suggests, but its tenantry has long followed suit. Thady and Ellinor represent endemic duplicity and conspiracy amongst the closest, most trusted servants of the household, a long-instilled trait that could only prove disastrous in the midst of a rebellion.

19Yet, the simmering insurgency of Ennui is not confined to the lower classes. The Irish noblewoman “the Lady Geraldine ---------” presents a vision of Irishness that quickly becomes a source of genuine bewilderment for Glenthorn. “Her voice was agreeable,” he says in confusion,

she did not speak with the Irish accent; but, when I listened maliciously, I detected certain Hibernian inflections […] something that was more interrogative, more exclamatory, and perhaps more rhetorical, than the common language of English ladies […], peculiar, unusual, but not affected […] [s]he was uncommonly eloquent, and yet, without action, her words were sufficiently rapid to express her ideas. Her manners appeared foreign, but it was not quite French […] I should however, have pronounced it more French than English. (202-03)

Once again, Edgeworth is making an Irish in-joke at the expense of the English reader. Though Glenthorn describes his new love interest as peculiarly exotic, what he is actually describing is Irish aristocratic culture – which, as an absentee Irish nobleman since birth, he has never witnessed. Indeed, Lady Geraldine actually showcases a uniquely Irish brand of nobility, since she is evidently a member of the “Old English” – a wave of (French-speaking) Norman settlers that had established themselves back in the Middle Ages, and were generally considered more “authentic” than the more recent (post-Cromwellian) “New English” that comprised the core of the Episcopalian élite. Yet the joke is even more blatant than that; the fact that Geraldine seems somehow “more French than English” does not just wryly reference her Norman lineage; it plays on the blatant connotations of her first name and quietly sardonic suppression of her surname – again, something that an Irish reader could not fail to miss, but might easily have been passed over elsewhere. The Fitzgeralds, otherwise known as the “Geraldines,” were the most infamous family in Ireland, and one of the most notorious elements of the 1798 rebellion. The oldest aristocratic family in the country and vocal opponents of Ascendancy absenteeism, their townhouse stood as the architectural centerpiece of Georgian Dublin, while their ancestry had given rise to some of the most prolific historical figures of Irish armed resistance. Above all this, however, loomed the inescapable silhouette of their most scandalous son – Lord Edward Fitzgerald, who became the military architect and symbolic champion of the 1798 uprising.

20Since childhood, Lord Edward had been exposed to radicalising influences. His mother, the Duchess of Leinster, was a firm advocate of Enlightenment philosophy, personally requesting that Jean-Jacques Rousseau oversee her children’s education (an offer he courteously declined). From the age of ten, Edward was educated in France, and as a youth he went to fight with the British army against the American Colonies, there named an honorary chief by the Iroquois. By the 1790s however, he had thoroughly subscribed to the doctrines of the United Irishmen. Handsome, idealistic and zealously republican, Lord Edward was a perfect figurehead for the rebellion, lending the United Irishmen “a glamour and an instant pedigree of centuries of Geraldine resistance” (Tillyard 205). Fervent in his new cause, he married a young Catholic of radical French descent, and publicly renounced his aristocratic title for that of “Citizen,” warranting a scandalous dismissal from the army. He abandoned his horse and carriage in favour of walking the streets, and wore a tricolour cravat with his hair cropped short in revolutionary style, pioneering the “Croppie” image that would thenceforth characterise the Irish rebels. He attended royalist functions of the Ascendancy only to hiss at “God Save the King” and soon became an infamous outcast from Dublin high society, including his own family. To the working people of Dublin he was a hero and a revolutionary icon; to the British administration in Dublin Castle, he was a villain and a marked man; to Ireland’s radical nationalist movement he was the leader they had all been waiting for (Bartlett, Rebellion 91-3; Tillyard 205-66). With their famed “Old English” successor at the helm, the United Irishmen could woo the public with a vision of rightful, noble, rulership reclaiming its position of power from tyrannous middlemen and Absentee peers. Furthermore, when Fitzgerald was assassinated shortly before the rebellion broke out in Dublin, he was instantly proclaimed a martyr to the cause of Irish independence. In 1831, the poet Thomas Moore recalled seeing Fitzgerald walking down Dublin’s Grafton Street in 1797: “[I] remember (as if it had been yesterday) having once seen him […] I ran anxiously after him,” he recalls, “desirous of another look at one whose name had, from my school days, been associated in my mind with all that was noble, patriotic, and chivalrous” (Moore, Fitzgerald 153).

21Thus, Lady Gerladine’s very presence in the narrative is one of the novel’s biggest jokes: all the while Glenthorn has been skulking, paranoid, around his gothic estate, where peasant rebels hide in sea caves and beneath his nose as loyal servants, the greatest symbol of the rebellion he meets is, in fact, a landed noblewoman. Geraldine represents a cultural component without which the rebellion could never have happened, and which was being wilfully overlooked in English understandings of the insurgency – the nationalist Ascendancy. In this regard, of course, though she is given a voice and a reasonable amount of credibility, Lady Geraldine can never become the salvation of Lord Glenthorn; the Ascendancy nationalism that she represents is ultimately not the future of Irish governance that Edgeworth propounds. Instead, she portrays quintessential “Geraldine” idealism at its most confident and querulous, just before the rebellion that would dash its hopes forever. Her unconventional charm is magnetically attractive and beyond reproach (accentuated all the more by her insipid companion, Miss Bland), but despite her inherent skill at playing princess to her Irish subjects, she no more represents social reform than Glenthorn. Lady Geraldine embodies the radicalisation of a denigrated aristocracy; a rulership whose sense of identity had become violently inflamed in the face of the unremitting dismissals of cultural prejudice. Her promotion of “Irishness” is a particularly reactive one, maintaining childish humiliation of the English at its core. Her awareness of her own Irish nobility, though engendering a close relationship with her tenants and their culture, has overflowed into bombastic pride: where Ireland needs a reasonable, practical and pragmatic government, Geraldine and the caste she represents only offers it imperious resentment and haughty entitlement. The same lack of decorum that allows Geraldine to become the voice of Edgeworth’s nastier, more spiteful observations of the English in Ireland also singles her out as rather too hot-headed to rule a nation. As Glenthorn discovers more about his love interest, he discovers an ancient culture of Irish nobility that is fundamentally different from its British counterpart, yet no less unaware of its own inherent vulnerability. “High-born and high-bred,” he thinks to himself of the young noblewoman,

frank, candid and affable, yet opinionated, insolent and an egoist [...] the representative of an ancient house. Confident of her talents, conscious of her charms, and secure of her station, Lady Geraldine gave free scope to her high spirits, her fancy, and her turn for ridicule. She looked, spoke and acted, like a person privileged to think, say, and do what she pleased. Her raillery, like the raillery of a princess, was without fear of retort. (205)

22Echoing the endemic failures of generations of landlords in Castle Rackrent, the highly ‘improbable’ switched-at-birth scenario in Ennui questions the very basis of Ascendancy rule in Ireland. Indeed, it interrogates the value of hereditary entitlement itself. The inadequacies of the absentee Irish lord are exposed, through Glenthorn, as not only ineffective but actively damaging to Irish society. Furthermore, his noble upbringing in London has had nothing but negative effects on his abilities to govern. “Among the higher classes,” he declares, “whether in the wealthy or the fashionable world, who is unacquainted with ennui?” (144). This affliction, recasting the ideals of gentlemanly disinterestedness in the light of a splenetic disease, leads him to slowly self-destruct in the most aristocratic of fashions: his indolence first leads him onto the Grand Tour, then to fashionable watering places, on to excessive consumerism, to high-stake gambling, into a loveless, financially based marriage, to immense gluttony, to riding horses to their death for sport, to collecting Egyptian artifacts, and finally, to attempted suicide. Geraldine too acts on typical assumptions of unchallenged superiority. As a practical joke, she arranges for Lord Craiglethorpe and his surveyor to temporarily switch identities, luring the gullible Miss Tracey to court the wrong man in the mistaken belief that he is a nobleman. For her, the joke rests on the preposterousness of a gentlewoman not being able to tell true nobility at an instance. “Of course your Lordship will know which is the real lord at first sight,” Geraldine reassures Glenthorn; “[h]e is a full head taller than Gabbit” (209). Little does Geraldine realise, of course, that the man she is talking to is an impostor aristocrat himself. Far from being the son and heir of a magnificent earldom, Glenthorn is no more than the child of an Irish nursemaid (incontrovertible evidence proves that on this point, at least, Ellinor is not lying), yet his conviction of his own nobility has made him indistinguishable from his peers. Meanwhile, Christy Noonan, the “real” Lord Glenthorn who has spent his life cutting turf and possibly colluding with rebel insurgents, has hardly shone through his humble upbringing – as literary aristocrats misplaced at birth so often tend to do. Both figures make an obvious case for the predominance of nurture over nature, but even more interestingly, neither figure is competent enough to run the Glenthorn estate.

23It is Glenthorn’s own, artificial sense of noble duty that inspires him to put the novel’s class disorder to rights, and sign over his estate to Christy as its born heir. The swap makes for a brutal commentary on both characters, whose arbitrary rank designations have superseded all sense of reason. Glenthorn’s noble upbringing has left him as defenceless as a child; only when he gives up his estate does he realise that he is unable to perform even the most basic tasks for himself. “It was new and rather strange for me to be without attendants,” he notes, “but I found that, when I was forced to it, I could do things admirably well for myself, that I had never suspected I could perform without assistance” (292). Christy is equally dominated by strict adherence to noble ideology; he is reluctant to accept the position that Glenthorn offers him: “I always thought and knew I was best as I am […] because if I was to be born a jantleman at all, I’d wish to be of a ra-al good ould family born” (281). Of course, this is exactly what Christy is – a born, titled gentleman of an ancient family, yet considering he has been reared in a family that is so conditioned to squalor and destitution that his mother cannot even handle the demands of a modern cottage, it is little wonder that he proves himself so inept at managing a vast estate. The deterioration of Castle Glenthorn under the peasant supervision of Christy is a glib parody of upper-class mismanagement in Ireland; certainly Christy’s lack of delicacy in spending his newly acquired riches only echoes Glenthorn’s own profligate behaviour at the beginning of the novel:

[The estate had become] a scene of riotous living, and of the most wasteful vulgar extravagance […] [Christy’s] wife filled the castle with tribes of her vagabond relations; she chose to be descended from one of the kings of Ireland; and whoever would acknowledge her high descent […] were welcome to live in all the barbaric magnificence of Glenthorn Castle. (309)

24Instead of graphically depicting the bloody events of the 1798 rebellion, Castle Rackrent and Ennui interrogate a world in which it has saturated the fabric of social order. Edgeworth’s dark visions of the Irish big house all the time threatening to crumble to the ground is, above all, a call of urgency – an appeal for reform in a country whose ineffective and outmoded line of governance had exposed, through the rebellion, a society ready to implode. The potent irreligiousness of Castle Rackrent showcases the inadequacy of a sectarian society, and the myriad ways if fosters duplicity and corruption rather than deference and subservience. The ubiquitous presence of sprite-like, almost ethereal rebels highlights the sheer isolation and vulnerability of those who were supposedly keeping order in the Irish countryside. Indeed, the ghostly, changeable presence of family servants like Thady and Ellinor, ingratiating themselves into the veritable positions of father and mother, only furthers the trope that the 1798 rebellion was everywhere, not just on the battlefields – and while the insurgents kept their friends close, they had long learned to keep the ruling classes closer. The naiveté of Glenthorn and the arrogance of Geraldine likewise explore a caste of rulers that, on both extremes of the political divide, have long become irrelevant to the society they assumed to lead. The Ireland of Maria Edgeworth is not governed by the great estate but by the unseen eyes peering at it from the trees, a dangerous and anarchic set of influences that are feasting on the decaying leftovers of an obsolete regime. These novels leave aside high-blown nationalist rhetoric, and assault the unpardonable mechanics of systematic mismanagement at every level of rural Irish life – and in this, they tackle the matter of the 1798 insurrections at its most immediate, most pertinent, and most intimate level.

Haut de page


Primary sources

Edgeworth, Maria. Castle Rackrent and Ennui. Ed. Marilyn Butler. London: Penguin, 1992.

Edgeworth, Maria. Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Begun by Himself and Concluded by His Daughter Maria Edgeworth. Shannon: Irish UP, 1969.

Edgeworth, Maria. The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth. Hare, Augustus John Cuthbert ed. London: E. Arnold Year, 1894.

Gordon, James. History of the Rebellion in Ireland in the Year 1798 &c. London: T. Hurst, 1808.

Lecky, William Hartpole. A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. Vol. 1. 1892. London: Elibron Classics, 2006.

Moore, Thomas. The Life and Death of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. 1831. New York: P. M. Haverty, 1855. 13 May 2010.

Musgrave, Richard. Memoirs of the Different Rebellions in Ireland: From the Arrival of The English Also, a Particular Detail of That Which Broke Out the XXIIId of May, MDCCXCVIII; with the History of the Conspiracy Which Preceded It. 2 vols. Dublin: Archer, 1802. 23 Apr. 2010.

Scully, Denys. A Statement of the Penal laws which Aggrieve the Catholics of Ireland: with Commentaries, Part 1. Dublin: H. Fitzpatrick, 1812. 25 Feb. 2010.

Wolfe Tone, Theobald. The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone 1763-98. 3 vols. Ed. T. W. Moody, R. B. McDowell, & C. J. Woods. Oxford: Clarendon, 1998.

Yeats, William Butler. Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. London: Walter Scott, 1888. Project Gutenberg. 28 Oct. 2010.

Secondary sources

Andrews, Stuart. Irish Rebellion: Protestant Polemic 1798-1900. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Bartlett, Thomas, ed. Revolutionary Dublin, 1795-1801: The Letters of Francis Higgins to Dublin Castle. Dublin: Four Courts, 2004.

Bartlett, Thomas, Kevin Dawson & Dáire Keogh, eds. Rebellion: A Television History of 1798. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1998.

Beatty, John D., ed. Protestant Women’s Narratives of the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Dublin: Four Courts, 2001.

Butler, Marilyn. Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography. Oxford: Clarendon, 1972.

Curtain, Nancy J. The United Irishmen: Popular Politics in Ulster and Dublin. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 30 Apr. 2010.

Dunne, Tom. Maria Edgeworth and the Colonial Mind. Dublin: National University of Ireland, 1985.

Egenolf, Susan B. The Art of Political Fiction in Hamilton, Edgeworth and Owenson. Burlington: Ashgate, 2009.

Flanagan, Thomas. The Irish Novelists 1800-1850. New York: Columbia UP, 1959.

McCormack, W. J. Ascendancy and Tradition in Anglo-Irish Literary History 1789-1939. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

Tillyard, Stella. Citizen Lord: The Life of Edward Fitzgerald, Irish Revolutionary. New York: Farrar, 1998.

Warne, Alan. A Guide to Anglo-Irish Literature. New York: St. Martin’s, 1981.

Haut de page


1  Banshee, from the Irish bean sídh, literally translates as “woman-fairy.” The English word “fairy,” however, is a misleading equivalent: the sídh dwell underground and are closely associated with death and sterility, often taking the form of succubae. Pre-Christian mythology identifies them as Ireland’s original people, the Tuatha dé Danann (people of the goddess Danú), who were banished underground by Celtic settlers.

2  This is due to the repeal of the Irish Declaratory Act and the amendment of the medieval Poyning’s law, which had ensured that the Irish parliament remained subordinate to Westminster.

3  Gordon cites Richard Lawrence’s The Interest of Ireland (1682), 2: 86, 87.

4  The governing power of Grattan’s parliament assumed was, of course, dissolved through the 1800 Act of Union – put into effect less than a year after the publication of Castle Rackrent.

5  “Fairy mounds” or raths are innumerable circular earthen banks found throughout in the Irish countryside. They are usually the remains of iron-age settlements, having maintained their shape on the landscape for millennia precisely because it is considered bad luck to disturb them. They are frequently underlain with souterrains, as described above.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Timothy McInerney, « Ascendancy and the 1798 Rebellion in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Ennui (1809) »XVII-XVIII, 70 | 2013, 285-307.

Référence électronique

Timothy McInerney, « Ascendancy and the 1798 Rebellion in Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) and Ennui (1809) »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 70 | 2013, mis en ligne le 01 août 2016, consulté le 27 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Timothy McInerney

Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3
Lauréat du prix de Master 2011

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search