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Victorian Studies 48.3 (2006) 461-485

Black Ireland's Race:
Thomas Carlyle and the Young Ireland Movement
Julie M. Dugger
Benedictine University

In April 1845, Thomas and Jane Carlyle entertained three guests whose opinions dramatically clashed with their own—so much so that, as Jane Carlyle noted in her diary, "a little blood was shed involuntarily" (qtd. in Duffy 3). The guests were Charles Gavan Duffy, John O'Hagan, and John Pigot, all members of the political movement known as Young Ireland. Their immediate disagreement with their host was understandable, given Carlyle's depiction of the Irish in Chartism, where, his visitors complained, he had characterized them all as "all liars and thieves." 1 But Carlyle and his guests also disagreed on the fundamental political issue: the goal of Young Ireland was the repeal of the 1800 Act of Union between Britain and Ireland, a goal Carlyle opposed. In an essay published in the Examiner in 1848, Carlyle argued against repeal, comparing the efforts of Ireland against British colonialism with those of "a violent-tempered starved rat, extenuated into frenzy, [to] bar the way of a rhinoceros" ("Repeal" 43). Such inflamatory language helps to explain how the political discussion at the Carlyles' escalated to the point of bloodshed: O'Hagan's nose burst while the visitors "were all three at the loudest in their defence of Ireland against the foul aspersions Carlyle had cast on it" (qtd. in Duffy 3).

Less easily explained, however, is the enduring relationship that developed out of this contentious first meeting. Carlyle exchanged letters with the Young Irelanders and visited and traveled with them during his two trips to Ireland. He not only received and read their weekly newspaper, the Nation (founded in 1842), but published an article in it. The friendship cultivated by Carlyle and the Irish nationalists is all the more remarkable because they had reason for disagreement not only in Young Ireland's cause, but also in the means by which it was pursued. Writers in the Nation repeatedly encouraged their readers to overlook religious, political, and ethnic differences in order to create a united Ireland: a neutralized national identity was to override [End Page 461] all other allegiances. Carlyle's writing on Ireland, however, emphasized the country's religious and—especially—its Celtic racial character as key both to its troubles and to its destiny.

Carlyle's infamous positions on race are frequently cited in contemporary discussions of Victorian racial ideology, in part because they are some of the most influential and offensively expressed positions on the issue available. 2 Without excusing his racism, however, it should be noted that Carlyle emphasized race in his writing on famine Ireland partly to resist progressive narratives depicting that country's plight as a developmental stage to be suffered through rather than repaired. Carlyle's resistance to such a teleology is clear in one of his most overtly racist essays, "Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question" (1849), published just months after he toured Ireland with Duffy.

Examining Young Ireland's involvement with Carlyle makes it clear that the movement, despite its emphasis on neutralized national identity, shared Carlyle's skepticism about theories of progress that positioned Ireland backward in time relative to a norm of national development defined by Britain. For Young Ireland, Irish nationalists must not be so accommodating as to replicate British national identity. And in the movement's writing, as in Carlyle's, this resistance to neutralized nationalism is often organized around the issue of race. If it may seem odd that Carlyle's tour of Ireland produced an essay declaring his support for black slavery in the West Indies, it may seem more peculiar still that Young Ireland writers were preoccupied with black oppression, given that repeal was usually figured as a conflict between two white racial groups—a battle between Saxons and Celts. This preoccupation is no less pivotal because it is never directly addressed—the Nation's editors deliberately avoided discussing the racism of whites against blacks in their...


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