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  • Lady Morgan's Beavoin O'Flaherty:Ancient Irish Goddess and Enlightenment Cosmopolitan
  • Mary Helen Thuente

Lady Morgan's The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys: A National Tale (1827), which extols Enlightenment ideas about reason, progress, and toleration in a plot filled with mystery, ancient superstitions, and sectarianism, embodies the complexities of the "Irish Enlightenment." The central character Beavoin O'Flaherty evokes ancient Irish sovereignty goddesses, but nonetheless epitomizes Enlightenment ideas about religious and political sovereignty. The novel challenges the stereotype of Lady Morgan as a romantic nationalist—a stereotype based largely on The Wild Irish Girl (1806) and her performance of its iconic character Glorvina—and the perception that there was no Irish Enlightenment. The novel brilliantly recreates late eighteenth-century urban and rural Ireland and transcends the romantic nationalism and binary postcolonial dimensions of her more famous Wild Irish Girl, in which the marriage of Glorvina, the "Princess of Inishmore," to the English Mortimer symbolized a union between native and colonist that preserved Ireland's ancient traditions. By contrast, the marriage of Murrough O'Brien and Beavoin O'Flaherty, whose intertwined family histories make up The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys, takes place in Europe where—as liberal cosmopolitans who reject continuing the battles over land and religion that their mutual family history epitomized in Ireland—they embody Enlightenment values and work for a new world order based on reason and toleration. Beavoin O'Flaherty's dual identity as ancient Irish sovereignty goddess and an Enlightenment cosmopolitan embodies the rich materials and international context that Lady Morgan inherited and made her own.

The novel's encyclopedic richness and intellectual range is apparent when compared to other fictional portraits of Anglo-Irish society, such as Belmont Castle or Suffering Sensibility (1790) by the iconic Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone. Both novels satirize the inanity and venality in love and politics of Dublin's ruling class, and both have central characters based on the O'Brien Earls of Inchiquin. Tone's readers easily identified Tone's Earl of Belmont and his son Mortimer as William and Murrough O'Brien, the 4th and 5th earls of Inchiquin, and their Belmont Castle was obviously modeled on Lord Charlemont's house [End Page 33] and estate at Marino, Dublin.1 Although the editor of the modern edition of Belmont Castle notes that its French flavor survived in Lady Morgan's portraits of Irish society, any comparison underscores Lady Morgan's achievement in creating a panoramic portrait of Irish society that encompassed centuries of Irish history, contemporary Ireland and Europe, rural and urban Ireland, and decades of Enlightenment learning. Lady Morgan satirizes both rural and urban modern Irish society, but The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys does not celebrate the antiquity and value of an indigenous Irish culture as The Wild Irish Girl did. Instead, it promotes more liberal, limited nationalism and devalues and even mocks the idealization of the Irish past.2 In the later novel, Catholicism and antiquarianism are represented by Murrough O'Brien's father Terrence, a secret Jesuit whose obsession with Irish antiquities and history drives him mad, and by the decadence and venality of several past and present O'Flaherty and O'Brien clerical figures. When the mystery of Beavoin O'Flaherty's various disguises and appearances is finally given a rational explanation, she is revealed to have been a sham abbess actually intent on reforming the corruption and bigotry of religious orders through modern principles of toleration and social justice.

Lady Morgan used her extensive knowledge of Irish antiquarian materials, Connacht's legendary lore, and European and classical culture to create a mythological and legendary subtext and framework for The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys that is at once Irish and transnational. She worked in an Enlightenment intellectual context in which antiquarianism was a scholarly and literary—and not just a nationalist—endeavor. The two central female characters, Beavoin O'Flaherty and Mor-ny-Brien, resemble the sovereignty goddesses from Irish mythology and the fairy women in Irish legends, such as the banshee who protected and prophesied about old Irish families, and cailleacha like the Hag of Beare whose youthful beauty, sexuality, and longevity indicate their...


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