Richard Head's the Miss Display'd and Irish Restoration Society

Article excerpt

Ways of reading Irish literature have been significantly changed by the realization that each literary text is embedded in a material world and participates in the society that it describes. Such re-reading has concentrated on nineteenth-century works. (1) For the period before 1750 there is less research of this nature. Part of the explanation for this is the narrow definition of what constitutes Irish writing in English in the early modern period. There is little material before the eighteenth century that can be characterized as 'Irish writing in English' if by that is meant works written in English in Ireland and published there. Before the era of Jonathan Swift the Irish print trades had little inclination to produce any Irish writing in English of real significance. As a result much of what the inhabitants of Ireland read came not from local printing presses but through book-imports, mainly from London.

The implications of the uncertain status of Irish writing in English in this period are worth considering. The fluidity of the author figure, moving between Dublin and London, reflected the reality of relations between Ireland and England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Both the middling and upper sorts of people moved easily between the two regions, yet remaining distinct in each place. Dublin and London, for instance, had enough cultural commonalities to allow for such mobility without much social dislocation. (2) Therefore a corpus of Irish writing in English in the early modern world cannot be constituted from texts written and published in Ireland alone. Rather, the literature of Ireland written in English is to be found in both Ireland and England and was written by those who moved between the two places. Indeed the tension which such diverse contexts (and cultural contacts) provided contributed to what was significant in the emergence of Irish writing in English in the seventeenth century. Market forces dictated that writers produced a literature acceptable to both English- and Irish-based readers and yet was sufficiently distinctive to mark it off as 'Irish writing'. This may help to explain why many of the early examples of the novel form emerge out of this 'Anglo-Irish' context. The well-known blurring of boundaries between drama and prose explicitly set out in William Congreve's Incognita (1692) may be related to his own crossing of boundaries between England and Ireland. (3) Within Ireland the unstable nature of Anglo-Irish identity in the late seventeenth century may have been a force in the construction of the anonymous Irish Princess which its modern editor identifies as a precursor of Richardson's Pamela. (4)

There are a number of writers who may be representative of Anglo-Irish writing in the seventeenth century partly because of their liminal status. They have, in the main, escaped notice because of their divided geographical position and ethnic allegiances but they deserve attention precisely for these reasons. A good example of this sort of author is Richard Head. Head lived the sort of peripatetic life that characterized this group of authors. He was born at Carrickfergus in the late 1630s and following the outbreak of the rising in 1641 he, together with his mother, fled to England, his father having been killed in the rising. He spent some time in Bridport before entering New Inn Hall, at the University of Oxford. Failing to take his degree he subsequently became apprenticed to a bookseller in London. It seems he fled London in the 1660s because of debt and moved to Dublin. There he wrote at least one play, Hic et Ubique or the Humours of Dublin, which, unusually, was printed in Dublin, possibly as a result of Head's connections with the book trade. How long he stayed in Dublin is unknown but he was probably back in London by the middle of the 1660s. He failed in bookselling and took to 'scribbling' for the booksellers at twenty shilings a sheet. Contemporaries offered two dates for his death, 1676 and 1686. …