Displaying Ireland: Sydney Owenson and the Politics of Spectacular Antiquarianism. (1)

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The rise of cultural nationalism in early-nineteenth-century Ireland coincided with a growing interest in Gaelic antiquity and history. Fed by a passion for things Gaelic, the antiquarian movement forged a tight link between Ireland's material culture and national feeling, a link of immense political consequence for both nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism. I want to stress, however, that neither the Irish nor the Anglo-Irish antiquarian appetite for Gaelic Ireland existed as a cultural phenomenon with a genesis confined to Ireland. Rather, this emerging antiquarian discipline was closely related to those discourses produced by nineteenth-century British imperialism, the same discourses imagining Ireland as yet another of England's many symbolic Others. Edward Said notes that antiquarianism belongs to the group of disciplines--travel literature, geography, ethnography, archeology, science--whose institutionalization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of the "specifically modern structures of Orientalism." (2) Interestingly, the museum and museum-like exhibitionary practices, another field specializing in the lost past of the antiquarian, is absent from Said's study of Orientalism, although conceptually and ideologically informed by its logic. Exhibitions catered to the expanding interest in travel and geographical exploration; as Richard Altick notes, "the broadened sense of history, one of the most influential developments in nineteenth-century culture ... prompted exhibitors to reach into areas of the past not represented in the old conventional collections of `antiquities.'" (3) Nineteenth-century England was, indeed, "the Staring Nation" par excellence, (4) one whose sense of national identity was inextricably tied to the gaze at the Other staged by museums and related public shows. What happens when one such "Other" attempts an appropriation of, as Joseph Roach calls them, "ocularcentric practices" (5) for the purpose of promoting a certain type of national ideal? My discussion of this question centers on Sydney Owenson, a pivotal figure in an early-nineteenth-century cultural movement seeking to rekindle Irish national feeling through the museological deployment of antiquarian practices. (6)

Today, Owenson is acclaimed as the pioneer of the Irish national novel (7); however, for her contemporaries she was first and foremost a patriot, the passionate partisan of Irish causes, or, as the Freeman's Journal called her, "one of the greatest ornaments our country could ever boast of." (8) No matter how trite, such praise was apt, for Owenson passionately sought to restore dignity to Ireland by recovering its most treasured ornaments--its language, history, music, and antiquities. One can regard Owenson, then, as a literary antiquarian/ethnographer/archeologist--or as an orientalist (9) whose first "national tale," The Wild Irish Girl (1806), (10) helped reinvent a glamorous Irish past and establish Ireland, as Patrick Rafroidi puts it, as a "fashionable subject that ... everyone ... set out to explore." (11) But Owenson's orientalist antiquarianism bears another, rather unique, characteristic: it is inflected by a heightened museological imagination allowing her to stage her vision of a displayable Irish nation. Owenson's orientalizing mode of writing Ireland is thus complicated by her contradictory self-created image as an exotic curio to be displayed largely before English audiences. For just as Owenson framed The Wild Irish Girl in the spectacular imagery of display, she exhibited her public persona as "the wild Irish girl" in the salons of an Anglo-Irish and English aristocracy both before and after the publication of the novel. (12) In these folkloric performances, she posed as her fictional heroine Glorvina or, as her biographer records, "played her harp and danced for the entertainment of those Ascendancy lords and ladies who professed to love the quaint Irish custom. …


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