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Éire-Ireland 41.3&4 (2007) 215-244

"Broad Farce and Thrilling Tragedy":
Mangan's Fiction and Irish Gothic
Richard Haslam

Deane's Mangan and Irish-Catholic-Nationalist Gothic

Respected in his lifetime as a gifted poet and translator, James Clarence Mangan (1803–49) nonetheless died in obscure poverty, the victim of cholera and alcoholism.1 Early biographers like John Mitchel soon began to mythologize him, speculating that the poet's "history and fate were indeed a type and shadow of the land he loved so well" (cited in O'Donoghue xxxvi). When Mangan's unfinished Autobiography was published in 1882, thirty-three years after his death, it contained no evidence that he viewed himself as an avatar of suffering Ireland, but its speaker did reveal didactic intentions: "My desire is to leave after me a work that may not merely inform but instruct . . . [unveiling] for the thinking the more hidden springs of human frailty . . . [and functioning] as a warning to the uneducated votary of Vice" (Prose 2 227).2 However, the temptation to make Mangan's life and work didactic in a different way proved [End Page 215] hard to resist, as could be seen in James Joyce's representation of him as "the type of his race," in whom "a narrow and hysterical nationality receives a last justification" (81–82). James Kilroy, introducing the 1968 edition of Autobiography, also followed the Mangan Ni Houlihan route, claiming that "more than any other poet of the nineteenth century, and probably more than any poet since then as well, Mangan represents Ireland, and the suffering of his life can be seen as symbolizing the miseries of his country in the middle of the last century" (9). In a later and more sophisticated version of such emblematizing, Seamus Deane argued that Mangan possessed the "ability to internalize . . . [cultural] crises, to see history as an expression of his own life, to recognize within himself the psychic stress of the country's political and social condition" (Short History 80–81).

The longstanding critical tendency to treat Mangan as a holographic shard of Irish historical experience provides a possible context for Deane's subsequent, radical claim that Mangan's Autobiography "introduces us to a new genre—what we may call Catholic or Catholic-nationalist Gothic" (Strange Country 126). In order to understand why the claim is radical, we need to consider briefly the history of the term "Irish Gothic." During the past two and a half decades, it has become a widely used category in both Irish and Gothic studies. Although some critics have used it to classify a group of novels and short stories by Charles Maturin (1780–1824), Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–73), and Bram Stoker (1847–1912), others have extended the label to encompass work by Sydney Owenson (1776?–1859), Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), W.B. Yeats (1865–1939), and Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973).3 By the early [End Page 216] 1990s, opinions may have diverged about whether Irish Gothic was a tradition or a sub-genre, but agreement about its denominational traits appeared nonetheless to be imminent. As W.J. McCormack remarked, "At the risk of paradox, it has to be said that while Irish gothic writing does not amount to a tradition, it is a distinctly Protestant tradition" ("Irish Gothic and After" 837).

However, any consensus on this confessional aspect was challenged by Deane's aforementioned representation of Autobiography as the initiator of "Catholic or Catholic-nationalist Gothic" (Strange Country 126). Deane substantiated his assertion by first listing what he saw as the work's "standard elements" of Gothic content:

an overpowering sense of doom, related to criminality; reference to German romances; dream-sequences and ruins; a terrifying father-figure whose shadow falls over and dominates the narrator's life; isolating illness; spiritual hauntings and world-weariness; Promethean ambitions and humiliating rebukes; appeals to a select audience for sympathy and contempt for the mass of mankind; religious longings and the refusal of conventional religious consolations.


Deane also identified in Autobiography formal devices and...


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