|The Book of Irish Writers Chapter 16 - Charlotte Brooke, Around 1740–1793
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a great ‘Literary Revival’ in Ireland. Poems, books and stories in the Irish language were translated into English, adapted and brought to a wider audience.
But this kind of activity was actually already being carried on at least a century before – and Charlotte Brooke was one of the key figures of that earlier period.
Charlotte is best remembered for her anthology, the ‘Reliques of Irish Poetry’
Published in 1789, this was a pioneering work in many ways - not least in Charlotte’s claims about the quality and antiquity of poetry in Irish - especially as compared to English poetry.
The productions of our Irish Bards exhibit a glow of cultivated genius - a spirit of elevated heroism, - sentiments of pure honour - instances of disinterested patriotism - and manners of a degree of refinement totally astonishing at a period when the rest of Europe was nearly sunk in barbarism.
This amounts to a reversal of the attitude, established over several centuries, that the Irish were barbarians … especially compared to the English!
Charlotte’s background is interesting as it reveals the shift in cultural - and to some extent political attitudes during the 1700s.
She was born in Rantavan in Co. Cavan in around 1740. Her father, Henry Brooke, was a writer who, early on, combined expressions of Protestant patriotism with anti-Catholicism - though he did later revise these views and argued for the alleviation of the ‘Penal Laws’.
Henry Brooke also developed an interest in Irish history and literature. There was a widespread interest in the Celtic past and its culture at this time – and it was initially even more advanced outside Ireland than among the Anglo-Irish in Ireland.
One example is the Scot, James Macpherson, who in the mid-eighteenth century claimed to have discovered an old manuscript containing Scots Gaelic versions of the ‘Fenian Cycle’- with it’s tales about Fionn Mac Cumhaill. He published these in 1765 as ‘The Poems of Ossian’. The work was hugely popular and influential – and Macpherson pulled off his literary fraud largely because it appeared to offer access to an ancient culture that increasingly intrigued writers in England and Europe.
Charlotte Brooke was educated by her father and she inherited his interest in Irish history and literature.
There’s also a story that it was hearing Irish spoken by the labourers on her family’s land that really fired her enthusiasm. A slightly more elaborate version has her overhearing a labourer reciting to an appreciative audience in the fields!
But we do need to be wary of anecdotes like this - if only because they are so reminiscent of romantic poems, in which the speaker encounters some supposedly primitive figure giving voice to an ancient culture. For example, In William Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’ the poet hears a Highland lass singing a song in a language which he cannot understand. In Wordsworth’s poem the speaker continues on his way, without ever finding out what the ‘highland lass’ is singing, he’s more interested in his own emotions and imagination than in the actual content of what he’s heard.
But Charlotte Brooke was interested in the content of Irish poetry – and it’s this scholarly interest that is pioneering.
She was increasingly in touch with others who shared her passion - and her first publication was a verse translation of the Irish harper and composer Carolan’s ‘Song For Gracey Nugent’ –
Of Gracey’s charms enraptur’d will I sing
Fragrant and fair, as blossoms of the spring;
To her sweet manners and accomplish’d mind
Each rival Fair the Palm of Love resign’d
This appeared in her friend Joseph Cooper Walker’s collection of 1786 - ‘Historical Memoirs of the Irish Bards’.
Charlotte’s own ‘Reliques of Irish Poetry’ appeared in 1789. It collected a wide range of material from the ‘Fenian Cycle’ up to the 17th Century - and it deliberately set out to remedy the more sensationalist aspects of Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’.
Brooke thought that she was performing a ‘service to my country’ by rescuing -
A few of the invaluable reliques of her ancient genius.
She also insisted on the ‘fidelity of my translation’ and supplied the originals to back this up.
In Charlotte Brooke then we have an Anglo-Irish figure who claims Gaelic culture as her own, and who talks about it as a culture to potentially be shared by everyone in Ireland.
There’s also a further political aspect to her project:
As yet we are too little known to our noble neighbour of Britain; were we better acquainted, we should be better friends. The British muse is not yet informed that she has an elder sister in this isle; let us introduce them to each other!
This hope that better political relations may follow from increased cultural knowledge was to be severely tested in the upheavals of 1790s and beyond …