Stranger in Ireland: The Problematics of the Post-Union Travelogue

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"Amongst those many advantages, which conduce to enrich the mind with [a] variety of Knowledge, to rectify and ascertain the Iudgement, and to compose outward the highest story of perfection," remarked James Howell in 1642, was "Peregrination or Forraine Travell" (11). Historiographer to the King, author of a number of wide-ranging studies, Howell's mid-17th-century interpretation of the advantages accruing to the traveler suggests a familiar, if over-simplistic, story. In being exposed to the hazards and challenges of inter-ethnic complexity, Howell sees the traveler undergoing a radical transformation of self or, at the very least, a re-evaluation of previously held theories that make the very effort of traveling a beneficial and modernizing affair. Whether 17th-century traveling was ever as simple as Howell suggests and whether, given the increasingly involved nature of the activity itself, it could be performed with the sort of self-improving clarity and sense of purpose he envisions is, of course, another thing entirely. Certainly Edmund Spenser, in his A View of the Present State of Ireland (written in 1596 but not published until 1633), seemed to take a more political approach to the subject, one that tied the travelogue more directly to the ideological strategies of the day than to any program of intellectual enrichment or self-discovery: "This ripping up of ancestries is very pleasing unto me, and indeed savoureth of good conceit and some reading withall. I see hereby how profitable travel and experience of foreign nations is to him that will apply them to good purpose" (47). Establishing a direct link between the travel-narrative form and the necessities of empire, between the accumulation of information and the practicalities of colonial politics, Spenser identifies one of the single most important attributes of the travel-narrative form: epistemological power.

While several critical texts published in recent years have concerned themselves with the historio-literary aspect of travel writing, with its development, its self-motivation and its various audiences, another branch of criticism, following in large part from Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), is more interested in mapping the ideological configurations of the travel narrative and with setting, what is a particularly flexible and highly adaptive form, against the history of imperial and colonial discourse. Already in 1967, Alan Hodge had observed that, "The history of travel is a subject that can hardly be separated from the social, economic, and political conditions of the period in which the actual journeys took place" (1), but it was Said, on the cusp of East-West politico-critical discourse, who drew our attention to the specificities of the form and to its position on the very margins of inter-ethnic contact: "travel especially rich and makes a significant contribution to building the Orientalist discourse" (99). Dewpite its classification as a literary form, Said perceived that those highly developed and expressive formulas with which the travelogue managed to codify other terrains and cultures should be seen as absolutely central to the colonialist canon. Because travel writing privileged one form of discourse over another, and because it presented such information for the consumption of a specialized and lay reading public in such appropriable forms, it provided one of the clearest and most direct information-gathering systems available. As Rana Kabbani suggests, travelers were not just innocents abroad who simply enjoyed, and then divulged, the exploratory delights of their experiences, but individuals who "travelled for their patrie" and who, perforce, constituted "the seeing eye, and the recounting voice" of empire (6).

In this essay I wish to examine several travel narratives written about Ireland, and I want to look, in particular, at the strategies deployed in the construction of post-Union travelogues written in the first years of the 19th century. …