Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Standish James O'Grady: Between Imperial Romance and Irish Revival *

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

Standish James O'Grady: Between Imperial Romance and Irish Revival *

Article excerpt

STANDISH JAMES O'GRADY is one of the most enigmatic and influential figures of late-nineteenth-century Irish cultural history. He praised aristocratic values and denounced the aristocracy; Lady Gregory called him a "Fenian Unionist," and Pearse acknowledged his influence. There have been two recent substantial studies; (1) both emphasize his use of saga material. This article analyzes some previously unknown journalism, and relates O'Grady's social criticism and work on Elizabethan Ireland to his attempt to reconcile unionism and nationalism through nineteenth-century British Romantic social criticism and the eighteenth-century Patriot tradition.

Standish James O'Grady was born in Castletownbere, Co. Cork, on 18 September 1846, a younger son of Thomas O'Grady, Church of Ireland Rector of Castletown Berehaven and his wife Susanna (nee Dowe). The O'Gradys were Waterford small gentry. Attorney-General Standish O'Grady, uncle of O'Grady's father, prosecuted Robert Emmet in 1803; he became a judge and was created first Lord Guillamore. Standish James's uncles General Standish O'Grady and Admiral Hayes O'Grady distinguished themselves in the Napoleonic Wars; the Admiral fathered the Celtic scholar Standish Hayes O'Grady, and the General features in Lever's novel Jack Hinton.(2) This contributed to O'Grady's lifelong admiration for the military ethos.

The Dowes arrived during the Munster Plantation and intermarried with McCarthys; Susanna inherited a small estate at Three Castle Head in West Cork. O'Grady's parents are affectionately portrayed in his boy's stories The Chain of Gold and Lost on Du-Corrig, whose heroes are modeled on his elder brothers. (O'Grady appears as the telepathic youngest son, Charlie. (3)) Susanna inspired the heroine of O'Grady's historical novel Ulrick the Ready, whose blending of Planter and Gael through intermarriage reflects O'Grady's pride of ancestry. The boy's stories draw on childhood memories of sea-fishing, bird-shooting, exploring cliffs and caves. Standish played with local children, went to the village school, and visited every cottage on the estate: This contributed to his later sense of brotherhood with the common people and idealization of aristocratic paternalism. Indeed, this was a selective vision. During the Famine Rev. Thomas O'Grady and his friend William Allen Fisher, Rector of Kilmoe (whose parish included Three Castle Head) refused to work with Catholic priests on famine relief and were accused of "souperism." (5)

In 1856 O'Grady became a boarder at Tipperary Grammar School. He distinguished himself as both a scholar and an athlete but found separation from home traumatic. Like many other boarding-school survivors, he idealizes boyhood as a lost paradise: In 1864 O'Grady won an Exhibitionership to Trinity College, Dublin. There he won a classical scholarship and medals for debating, ethics and philosophy, graduating with a B.A. degree in 1868. O'Grady was a successful college athlete and debater, a member of the "hockey" [hurling] team. College friends thought he could have had a brilliant legal career but for his eccentricities. (7)

Trinity further separated O'Grady from boyhood. O'Grady's parents were staunch Evangelicals; in 1900, he still thought the evangelical clerics that his parents admired the finest men in the Ireland of his youth. (8) In 1911 O'Grady compared William Allen Fisher to a saint of the early Irish Church because he dedicated life and fortune to a remote West Cork headland, refusing preferments that would have removed him from the duties God had assigned him. (9)

O'Grady entered Trinity to study divinity but lost his faith at college, later compiling a selection of Shelley's anti-Christian arguments, Scintilla Shelleiana. (10) He might then have moved toward the rationalist and elitist liberalism of a Lecky (another former clerical student), but was unwilling to dismiss the beliefs of his family and childhood, even if he no longer shared them. …

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