The Colonial Conan Doyle: British Imperialism, Irish Nationalism, and the Gothic

By Catherine Wynne | Go to book overview

Chapter 2

Colonial Topographies: Bogs, Moors, and Shifting Grounds

In Realities of Irish Life, W. Steuart Trench records an interesting historical anecdote concerning members of the Ribbon Society—an agrarian secret organization and parent body of the Molly Maguires—who performed an abortive raid on the house of a Mr. Hall in County Tipperary in 1840. After successfully escaping from the house, the robbers temporarily hid in the adjoining bog. The Ribbonmen were later apprehended only when the police raiding the houses of suspicious characters discovered men whose countenances were blackened with bog-mold—such evidence was initially sufficient to arrest them, and they were later identified by Hall's daughters, who had witnessed the robbery. The culprits were duly convicted and transported. Vengeance was later visited on Hall when he was shot dead in a field full of people planting their potato crops. His assassin seamlessly disappeared into the surrounding workers. 1

On a historical level the story demonstrates the nature of agrarian crime in nineteenth-century Ireland, while the silence of the potato workers is indicative of the muteness of a community that is rendered complicit in crime through sympathy or through fear. Symbolically, the bog attains an interesting resonance that reverberates throughout nineteenth-century Irish fiction. By simultaneously serving the dictates of lawlessness in its hiding of the Ribbonmen and of the law in the recognition and consequent apprehension of the suspects, the bog functions as an ambiguous and uncontrollable entity. In this instance, the unstable landscape provides a symbolic mapping of the complex colonial politics of Victorian Ireland. Even the Ribbonmen's bog-blackened faces designate their racial otherness.

Sodden ground also emerges in a fiction that is equally preoccupied with the control or ownership of land, where there are racial factors, criminal intent, and an environment in which the landscape is terrorized and its

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