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  • The Public Sphere and Eighteenth-century Ireland
  • Wes Hamrick

Many professional scholars, and others who have followed the lively debates regarding Irish history in recent years, would be surprised to realize that several decades of historical revisionism have yet to free Irish Studies from a number of the orthodoxies established by Daniel Corkery’s The Hidden Ireland in 1924.1 Corkery’s pioneering study of Irish-language poetry depicted eighteenth-century Gaelic Ireland as almost uniformly rural, Catholic, and poor, with an outlook that was thoroughly premodern. Largely cut off from the culture of the Ascendency, Corkery’s Gaelic Ireland was defined, above all, by its tenacious adherence to the Irish language.

Though scholars now look askance at this crudely drawn picture, it nonetheless formed the cultural bedrock of official versions of national history in the newly established Free State.2 Remarkably, this same paradigm has taken on renewed prominence in the recent debate sparked by Joep Leerssen’s controversial 2002 pamphlet, Hidden Ireland, Public Sphere. Referring to the “pre-modern attitudes” of the Gaelic literary tradition, Leerssen argues that the “hidden Ireland” had no public sphere, only “countless pockets of private spheres” where news circulated “by way of rumour and gossip, or the odd broadsheet at best.”3 Such a view sits uneasily with the work of such scholars as Breandán Ó Buachalla, Éamonn Ó Ciardha, and Vincent Morley, which has shown that Gaelic Ireland was in fact highly politicized during the eighteenth century.4 [End Page 87]

Indeed, Leerssen’s pamphlet sits at the center of a vigorous debate that has emerged in recent years over the status of the Irish language during the eighteenth century. For example, James Kelly and Ciarán Mac Murchaidh, the editors of Irish and English: Essays on the Irish Linguistic and Cultural Frontier, 1600–1900 (2012), as well as Lesa Ní Mhunghaile, one of the contributors to that volume, have called Leerssen’s view “untenable” in light of widespread bilingualism and significant interaction between the two languages.5 In turn, Leerssen’s review of Irish and English in a recent issue of Béaloideas contends that some of the essays in Irish and English “travesty” his main arguments and that the volume as a whole “tilts at windmills of its own fabrication.”6

Underlying this sharp exchange of words, though, is an important debate that potentially leads to a major reconfiguration of our understanding of Gaelic Ireland, particularly its relationship to English-language print culture, to the Ascendency, and to modernity. Within this debate, scholars have genuine points of disagreement in a number of areas—for instance, whether Jürgen Habermas’s theory of the bourgeois public sphere is applicable to Gaelic Ireland’s largely oral and manuscript culture. Scholars also disagree on the extent to which bilingualism and the interaction between Irish and English allowed Gaelic Ireland to form something like public opinion in the modern sense.

However, there are also areas where scholars have simply misunderstood each other because of confusion over terminology. Such concepts as “access to print” as well as the concept of the “public sphere” have been defined in various ways, often leading to starkly different conclusions. In addition, the debate has highlighted how little scholars understand about particular phenomena, such as the precise way that print interacted with manuscript literature in Irish, the degree to which Irish-language political poetry reflected the political consciousness of ordinary people, or the extent to which the Volunteer movement of the 1770s and 1780s—a formative period in Anglo-Irish politics—impacted political life in Gaelic Ireland. Further investigation in these areas should lead to new insights on the question of the Irish language and the public sphere, while also changing our understanding of other topics in Irish Studies, including the language shift and the development of Irish nationalism.

The concept of the public sphere was first developed by Habermas to describe [End Page 88] the newly democratic forms of public debate that, in his view, emerged from the salons of late-seventeenth century Paris and the newspaper and coffee house culture of eighteenth-century London. The public sphere is the realm of discourse in which members civil society come together...


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