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

"Whether the White People like It or Not": Edmund Burke's Speeches on India-Caoineadh's Cainte

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

"Whether the White People like It or Not": Edmund Burke's Speeches on India-Caoineadh's Cainte

Article excerpt

   I have no party in this business, my dear Miss Palmer, but among a set of 
   people, who have none of your Lilies and Roses in their face; but who are 
   the images of the Great Pattern as well as you and I. I know what I am 
   doing; whether the white people like it or not. 
   Edmund Burke to Mary Palmer 19 January 1786 (1) 

ALTHOUGH Edmund Burke (1729-97) is renowned for his ideological charge against the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France, he wanted most to be remembered for his speeches on behalf of India against the corrupt regime of the East India Company. Collecting his own notes and printed accounts to prepare for the publication of these orations, he wrote that they were to be his "monument." (2) In Burke's lifetime, and even today, the Indian speeches are regarded as too violent, too vitriolic, too emotional, too personal. They exist as a strange phenomenon in the landscape of eighteenth-century British oratory, and this article argues that they are best understood within the context of the Gaelic poetry of Munster, the region of Ireland in which Burke was raised and educated. (3)


Burke's maternal family, the Nagles, was one of the greatest surviving Catholic families in eighteenth-century Ireland, managing to escape the confiscation of property after the fall of the Stuarts at the Battle of the Boyne. Four branches of Nagles settled in the Blackwater Valley of North Cork, an area still known as "Nagle country," where the leadership of the region's Gaelic Catholic interest remained in the family's hands for the first half of the eighteenth century. In the 1750s the Nagles married into Galway's affluent Catholic gentry society--into the only other Gaelic Catholic group managing to protect its lands from restrictions of the penal laws and encroachment of growing middle-class interests. The Nagles, therefore, achieved a position of influence and connection unequalled by any other Catholic family in Ireland. (4)

Conversion to the Protestant religion--and subsequent "discoveries" by these converts of land illegally held by Catholics--became a routine part of conveyancing in eighteenth-century Ireland. Kevin Whelan has argued that "conversions" strengthened rather than weakened the Catholic position in Ireland, for prominent converts such as Anthony Malone, Lucius O'Brien, and John Hely-Hutchinson could now express their sympathy for Catholics in Parliament. Edmund Burke is best understood in this tradition. (5) His father conformed to the state church in 1722, when he was named executor to the estates of two uncles; because he had converted before his sons were born, they were considered Protestant. Burke's mother, however, remained a Catholic and, as was the custom, his sister, Juliana, followed her mother's religion. (6) Although officially viewed as Protestant, Burke himself married an Irish Catholic, Jane Nugent.

Burke's association with Catholic Ireland had deeper roots than those of most of his fellow converts. O'Connell argues that he was probably born in his Uncle James's house in the Nagle country at Shanballymore, in the townland of Ballywalter. (7) The young Edmund may have been put to nurse in North Cork, and from six to eleven he lived with the family of his Uncle Patrick Nagle in his mother's childhood house in Shanballyduff. In one of Burke's rare surviving personal letters, he remembers this uncle with affection and respect--as "one of the very best men, I believe, that ever lived ... the person I should wish myself ... the most to resemble. (8)

At Monanimy in the ruins of the great Nagle castle, Burke attended an unlicensed hedge-school that provided education for Gaelic Catholics in contravention of the Penal Laws; further instruction seems to have been supplied by the Jacobite poet Liam Inglis/English, master at nearby Castletownroche before he became an Augustinian friar in Cork city. …

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