Conquering England: Roy Foster Introduces a New Exhibition on the Irish in London in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Opening at the National Portrait Gallery on March 9th

By Foster, Roy | History Today, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Conquering England: Roy Foster Introduces a New Exhibition on the Irish in London in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries, Opening at the National Portrait Gallery on March 9th


Foster, Roy, History Today


NOT ALL IRISH EMIGRANTS TO VICTORIAN BRITAIN were working class. Less glamorous than Fenian revolutionaries or decayed Ascendancy, the Irish middle class deserve a place in the remarkable story of how Ireland stamped its mark on British consciousness. Until quite recently, one used to hear that nineteenth-century Ireland didn't 'have a middle class'; but now historians are placing class, and class cultures much nearer the centre of Irish social history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part of this story should include the way that Irish people colonised London metropolitan life--notably in journalism, the law, medicine, the arts and politics.

In many cases they were involved in publicising views or interpretations of Ireland. This reached a climax at the beginning of the twentieth century, but earlier Irish cultural entrepreneurs showed remarkable enterprise in the Victorian capital. Ireland was at the centre of Victorian Britain--and not just in the sense of building roads, working in factories and digging canals: London was the magnet for generations of middle-class Irish arrivistes determined to make their mark. As George Bernard Shaw put it, 'Every Irishman who felt that his business in life was on the higher planes of the cultural professions felt that he must have a metropolitan domicile and an international culture; that is, he felt his first business was to get out of Ireland.' And he knew what he was talking about.

This exhibition depicts the integration of a prominent Irish presence in the worlds of art, literature, intellectual life and politics as well as showing the kind of images of Ireland produced in London and displayed for a metropolitan audience, from the early years of Victoria's reign up to the very early twentieth century.

Not all influential Irish writers in early Victorian London were nationalists; the circle around Fraser's Magazine brought in a wide range of opinions, and provided--for instance--Thackeray with much of the material he used for his portrait of the Irish journalistic subculture in his novel Pendennis. William Maginn, the editor of Fraser's, was a Corkman; Daniel Maclise's drawing of 'The Fraserians', published in 1835, includes Francis Mahony and Thomas Crofton Croker with Carlyle and Thackeray. Maclise himself was an influential creator of the iconography of British Victorian identity, through his history murals for the Houses of Parliament, while his fellow-Irishman John Henry Foley sculpted a large part of the Albert Memorial.

The interlocking worlds of professional Irish writers and artists in London must be seen against the background of recurrent political crises in Ireland, and the uneven attempts of the British government to deal with them. Through the 1830s and early 1840s a series of ineffective attempts were made to grapple with Irish poverty, Irish religious affairs, Irish education, though none could obscure the clear fact that the Union was operating as 'a partnership of loss'. All this was thrown into stark relief by the Great Famine. The images of Irish famine in the Illustrated London News and the Graphic may represent a prettified representation of horror but the amount of space devoted to them is nonetheless striking.

Ireland continued a dominant presence in illustrated magazines. Less noticed is the rich trawl of images of Irish politicians from the early 1870s. The caricaturists in Punch and Vanity Fair made much of the Irish MPs; but by the 1880s Irish issues were threateningly near the centre of the London political world. In 1887-91 the young W.B. Yeats used to go to the House of Commons to hear Parnell and Healy debate, and his memoir of the 1880s and 1890s stands as a portrait of an era when to be Irish in London was to be at the centre of things, in terms of political excitement and literary endeavour.

From the late 1880s a new energy was infused into London's Irish literary and journalistic circles, and Yeats's precocious talent was a key element. …

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