Richard Head's the Miss Display'd and Irish Restoration Society
Gillespie, Raymond, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies
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. While the former appears likely since nothing by Head seems to have been published after that date, the latter may also be possible but in any case both accounts agree that he drowned while going to the Isle of Wight. (5)
Despite spending the last ten years of his creative life in England, Ireland was at the centre of Head's writing activities. He is probably best known for his work The English Rogue, the first part of which, authored by Head alone, appeared in 1665. Francis Kirkman subsequently added further parts. This is a thinly disguised autobiography in which Meriton Latroon, the hero, represents Head. A great deal of the work is devoted to Latroon's experiences in Ireland, that seem to closely accord with Head's own. The Irish context can be read into other of Head's writings also. Even when Ireland is ostensibly absent it is often there, discernible in a thinly disguised form. In his 1673 tract, The Floating Island or a New Discovery Relating the Strange Adventure on a Late Voyage From Lambethana to Villa Franca alias Ramallia to the Eastward of Terra del Templo, the floating island which is encountered has a number of Hibernian features. It is, for example, ruled over by a viceroy, while the natives are characterized as lazy. The economy is predominantly pastoral; the inhabitants are not given to tillage but instead practise transhumance, moving about with their cattle, all attributes of the Irish as they were depicted in contemporary socio-political descriptions. Furthermore, the floating island is a liminal world; neither one thing nor the other, neither kingdom nor colony, earth nor sky. In many respects this could characterize Ireland--and the Irish author writing in England--in the later seventeenth century. (6)
Head's writing may also be characterized as a floating island, neither English nor Irish, but drawing a certain energy from both. It may be because he has fallen between two distinct cultural worlds--that of England and that of Ireland--that the corpus of Head's work has attracted very little critical attention from either historians or literary scholars. The English Rogue receives a mention in text books of seventeenth-century literature as an example of the rise of criminal biographical writing or as evidence of the growing market for popular narrative of a rather lurid sort. Only his play Hic et Ubique has received any real critical appraisal. (7)
One of Head's works may cast considerable light on the perception of changes in late seventeenth-century Irish society. The Miss Display'd With All Her Wheedling Arts and Circumventions first appeared in London in 1675 and there may have been another edition two years later. Like the English Rogue it claims to be a 'historical narration' and the settings are specific. Locations in Dublin are clearly described; ale houses which are known to have existed, such as 'The Globe' near the Castle and the 'Nags Head' in …
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Publication information: Article title: Richard Head's the Miss Display'd and Irish Restoration Society. Contributors: Gillespie, Raymond - Author. Journal title: Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies. Volume: 34. Issue: 2 Publication date: Autumn-Winter 2004. Page number: 213+. © 2008 Irish University Review. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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