Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Atlantic Exile and the Stateless Citizen in Irish Romanticism

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Atlantic Exile and the Stateless Citizen in Irish Romanticism

Article excerpt

A recurring difficulty, and opportunity, in Irish studies turns on the fluid conceptualization of Ireland's geographical position across the period of colonial domination. In global terms, Ireland was variously positioned "on the edge of Europe," in Joep Leerssen's phrase, or on the cusp of the transatlantic. Within the British archipelago, it was often framed as part of the "Celtic Periphery" or as a province that is only partly integrated into a metropole-defined British Isles. In his survey of Early Modern studies of Ireland, Andrew Murphy examines a range of these geographical positions as discussed in recent historical scholarship in order to argue for "an approach to early modern Ireland which engages with the archipelagic in parallel with the transatlantic" (31). For writers of the late 18th and early 19th century, however, the archipelagic and transatlantic are not easily grasped as "parallel," partly because of their different implications for understanding English rule and the place of Irish subjects in the empire, especially outside of the British Isles. Here, I would like to examine texts from the middle of the Romantic Century which consider the transatlantic as the means by which Irish subjects, individually or collectively, could ameliorate or escape archipelagic subordination. These literary works, moreover, trace a transition from Enlightenment models of progress and citizenship in which mobility is valorized to Herderian assumptions about the national subject's affective ties to the land which render exile tragic.

The transatlantic, by allowing the national subject's movement beyond the archipelago, extends the discussion of the relationship between personal and national sovereignty, and between sovereignly and geography, beyond the usual binary of Ireland versus England. While nationalism can be traced in early centuries, theorists such as Benedict Anderson, Anthony D. Smith, and E.J. Hobsbawm argue that a distinctive ideology appeared after the French Revolution, one that stressed the popular legitimation of political authority and territorial sovereignty. In the late 17th century, John Locke argued for the individual's sovereignty as the basis for national sovereignty (325); that is, individuals cede their sovereignty to a sovereign state, on terms that would allow moving from one nation to another. The importance of the land as the foundation of national identity and the focus of political sovereignty set aside Locke's transferrable personal sovereignty in favour of a relationship between land and people through which sovereignty flowed. National subjects' attachment to each other, to the land, and the land as a source of a unique national identity constituted the basis for the people's right to govern that land and themselves. 18 th-century Irish nationalists, from Charles O'Conor at mid-century to William Drennan in the late 1790s, focused on the people's collective will on terms indebted to Locke, but the land as the affective basis of political legitimacy gradually superseded the Lockean model in 19th-c. Ireland. During the same period, the Irish diaspora grew significantly, spurred by first the failure of the 1798 Irish Uprising and then by the ravages of the cholera epidemic and the Great Famine in the 1830s and 1840s.

Anderson proposes that diaspora lies at the root of nationalism's focus on the land, graspable in the Irish context as migrant nostalgia for the "auld sod," a phrase common in American writing after the Famine (the phrase still thrives, for instance, in a company of that name that is licensed to export Irish soil to the United States). But these shifting notions of nationhood also arise in part from a contradiction at the heart of modern nationalism. As Smith argues, nationalism emerges from the intersection of neoclassical values, primarily universal education, bureaucratic centralization, and the march towards progress, and a Herderian Romanticism in which identity is rooted in the past, rather than a progressive future, and cultural distinctiveness, rather than generalized enlightenment. …

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