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Eighteenth-Century Studies 38.2 (2005) 385-391
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The Enlightenment in Ireland
David J. Denby
"The title of this book may raise some eyebrows: the concept of an Irish Enlightenment, let alone a French Enlightenment in Ireland, being somewhat novel." So wrote Graham Gargett and Geraldine Sheridan in 1999 in the Introduction to Ireland and the French Enlightenment, 1700-1800. It was still possible for Gargett and Sheridan to take as their starting point an established perception that an Irish Enlightenment was a contradiction in terms. Particularly if Enlightenment is defined through a French lens as cosmopolitan, anti-clerical and modernizing, it might seem easy to see colonial Ireland—backward, underdeveloped, priest-ridden—as the very opposite of Enlightenment ideals. Indeed, as Éamon Ó Ciosáin's contribution to the collection shows, this contemporary historiographical perception has its roots in the age of Enlightenment itself: for much of the century, English views of Ireland held such sway in France that the country was viewed as a backward and benighted province reluctantly being dragged into the modern age by a benevolent and enlightened England. Such a vision of Ireland, based on the uncritical acceptance of British opinion as well as deeply held anti-Catholic prejudice, predominated in enlightened circles in France, at least until the Revolution made it possible to view the Irish as victims of British oppression, ripe for the kind of liberation which was attempted in the 1798 expedition of General Humbert.
All three books considered here are part of the broad movement which has been under way for a number of years, in which a unitary Enlightenment, often defined by reference to a metropolitan center situated not too far from [End Page 385] Paris, has been gradually replaced by a more differentiated vision focusing on the specificities of different national situations. Such a view does not deny the cosmopolitan thrust of a movement of ideas which did operate at a European level, but seeks to understand how ideas were mediated between cultures and, in the process, transformed and made relevant to the contexts of those cultures.
Máire Kennedy's book is a mine of information about the place of French language, culture and books in eighteenth-century Ireland. It is based on massive archival research, reflected in the abundant and useful appendices. Kennedy's approach is a detailed and discriminating one: although she acknowledges the influence which French ideas had, directly or indirectly, on the United Irishmen and their challenge to British rule in Ireland at the end of the century, the reader will find no simplistic equation between French thought and Enlightenment values. Rather, Kennedy wants to show the different social groups who read or spoke French and bought or sold French books in Ireland during the period and consequently the different motivations behind that interest in French culture. Her book is thus a valuable contribution to social and cultural history.
The first half of the book focuses more on the contexts in which French was learned and spoken. The constituency speaking French broadened in the course of the century. Different elite groups used the language for various reasons: the social set around the Duke of Leinster, the Church of Ireland clergy, the scientific elite for whom it was a professional tool. Catholic emigration to France, for military service and for purposes of study at the various Irish colleges, also fed the tradition. The language was taught predominantly in Huguenot centers in the early part of the century, but the expansion of trade, particularly amongst the Catholic middle class, led to the expansion of teaching, the growth of private academies (of which Kennedy has identified more than 300) and a demand for grammars and textbooks. The...