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“No Dumb Ireland”: Robert Burns and Irish Cultural Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century

From: Éire-Ireland
Volume 47:3&4, Fomhar/Geimhreadh / Fall/Winter 2012
pp. 251-268 | 10.1353/eir.2012.0014

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In September 1853 Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited the Great Exhibition in Dublin and examined a Parian statuette group of Daniel O’Connell surrounded by a collection of male and female Irish peasants. Victoria and Albert noted the excellent likeness of the central statue to its subject, but nevertheless, to the disappointment of royalist nationalists reporting on the event, decided to buy a statuary group entitled “Burns and Highland Mary.”1 Although Queen Victoria’s Scotophilia is well documented, the tale of the two statuettes really seems to prove what David Lloyd has termed “the apparently inevitable declension of the icons of authentic national culture into kitsch.”2 The nineteenth-century impulse to celebrate “great men” and see them as representative of larger historical and/or national identities was as prevalent in Ireland as in Britain. What is interesting is the extent to which Burns was admired by Irish nationalists yet at the same time represented a challenge to Irish claims to cultural legitimacy. From the midcentury through the Revival, an Irish intelligentsia bent on promulgating an indigenous literary culture sorely felt the country’s lack of an equivalent to Burns. Cultural and political nationalists in Ireland accepted Carlyle’s dictum that “the Nation that has a Dante is bound together as no dumb Russia can be.”3

There is, of course, a certain irony that the Queen should have chosen a sentimental portrayal of a republican over a triumphal one of the staunchly royalist O’Connell. The sentimental cult of Burns in the nineteenth century was predicated on emasculating his radical politics while aligning him with a middle-class celebration of meritocracy and hard work.4 O’Connell’s demagoguery, on the other hand, obscured the extent of his regard for British royalty. However, from the point of view of Irish cultural nationalism, what was important was not that the Queen chose Burns over O’Connell but rather that “Burns” and “O’Connell” represented different discourses of the nation—one cultural, and therefore sentimental, reassuring, and unifying; the other political and therefore potentially polarizing and partisan. Robert Burns offered a perfect synecdoche of Scottish nationality, one that lent itself to easy reproduction. Ireland’s “representative man,” however, was too closely tied to a particular political and sectarian position to ever act as a unifying symbol of the whole nation. “Folk art and kitsch,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “ought for once to be regarded as a single great movement that passes certain themes from hand to hand, like batons, behind the back of what is known as great art.”5 Burns was perhaps unique among writers in occupying all three points on Benjamin’s triangulation, and it was his status as folk hero, literary genius, and kitsch commodity that determined his reception in Ireland. Looking at how Burns was received by Irish cultural nationalists, then, can not only tell us about an individual author’s reception but also reveal the often occluded strategies involved in conceptualizing a national literature.

Burns had been a constant presence in Irish cultural programs and literary productions from the 1780s on. His connections with Ulster Scots poetry are perhaps the most obvious examples of a wider series of networks between Ireland and Scotland in the Romantic period. Katie Trumpener has argued for a “transperipheral literary life” between the two in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and Burns was a central figure in cross-channel cultural contact.6 Liam McIlvanney has demonstrated Burns’s influence on radical poetry in Ulster in the 1790s, mediated primarily through the Northern Star, the newspaper of the United Irishmen.7 Belfast continued to be an important city in the publication of Irish editions of Burns in the early nineteenth century, although Dublin and Cork also saw reprints of collections. Whereas Burns would present subsequent Irish intellectuals with a model of what a national bard might look like, his reception in Ulster allowed for a more focused celebration and development of a regional, dialectal, and class-based poetry. For later cultural nationalists, Burns was abstracted into an ideal of authentic national enunciation, but for his contemporaries in Ulster he was very much a fellow traveler—as John...

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