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DISPLAYING IRELAND: SYDNEY OWENSON AND THE POLITICS OF SPECTACULAR ANTIQUARIANISM1 NATASHA TESSONE INTRODUCTION The rise of cultural nationalism in early-nineteenth-century Ireland coincided with a growing interest in Gaelic antiquity and history. Fed by a passion for things Gaelic, the antiquarian movement forged a tight link between Ireland’s material culture and national feeling, a link of immense political consequence for both nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism . I want to stress, however, that neither the Irish nor the Anglo-Irish antiquarian appetite for Gaelic Ireland existed as a cultural phenomenon with a genesis confined to Ireland. Rather, this emerging antiquarian discipline was closely related to those discourses produced by nineteenth-century British imperialism, the same discourses imagining Ireland as yet another of England’s many symbolic Others. Edward Said notes that antiquarianism belongs to the group of disciplines—travel literature, geography , ethnography, archeology, science—whose institutionalization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contributed to the evolution of the “specifically modern structures of Orientalism.”2 Interestingly, the museum and museum-like exhibitionary practices, another field specializing in the lost past of the antiquarian, is absent from Said’s study of Orientalism, although conceptually and ideologically informed by its logic. Exhibitions catered to the expanding interest in travel and geographical exploration ; as Richard Altick notes, “the broadened sense of history, one of the most influential developments in nineteenth-century culture . . . promptSYDNEY OWENSON AND THE POLITICS OF ANTIQUARIANISM 169 1 An earlier version of this essay was presented at the 13th Graduate Irish Studies Conference , “Locating Ireland,” held at Boston College in October 2001. Thanks to Claudia L. Johnson, Marjorie Howes, Jonathan Lamb, and, most of all, Abby Bender for their insightful comments on different versions of the essay. 2 Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994), 116. ed exhibitors to reach into areas of the past not represented in the old conventional collections of ‘antiquities.’”3 Nineteenth-century England was, indeed, “the Staring Nation” par excellence,4 one whose sense of national identity was inextricably tied to the gaze at the Other staged by museums and related public shows. What happens when one such “Other” attempts an appropriation of, as Joseph Roach calls them, “ocularcentric practices”5 for the purpose of promoting a certain type of national ideal? My discussion of this question centers on Sydney Owenson, a pivotal figure in an earlynineteenth -century cultural movement seeking to rekindle Irish national feeling through the museological deployment of antiquarian practices.6 Today, Owenson is acclaimed as the pioneer of the Irish national novel7; however, for her contemporaries she was first and foremost a patriot, the passionate partisan of Irish causes, or, as the Freeman’s Journal called her, “one of the greatest ornaments our country could ever boast of.”8 No matter how trite, such praise was apt, for Owenson passionately sought to restore dignity to Ireland by recovering its most treasured ornaments—its language, history, music, and antiquities. One can regard Owenson, then, as a literary antiquarian/ethnographer/archeologist —or as an orientalist9 whose first “national tale,” The Wild Irish Girl SYDNEY OWENSON AND THE POLITICS OF ANTIQUARIANISM 170 3 Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978), 288. 4 Ibid., 1. 5 Joseph Roach, “The Artificial Eye,” in The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourses and Politics, ed. Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 133. 6 As it will become clear from the rest of my discussion, Owenson cannot be totally reduced to England’s “true” colonial Other, the subaltern that, according to Spivak’s decree, cannot speak—hence the quotation marks in the text above around the second appearance of the word “Other.” 7 See Katie Trumpener, Bardic Nationalism: The Romantic Novel and the British Empire (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1997). 8 Quoted in Mary Campbell, Lady Morgan: The Life and Times of Sydney Owenson (London: Pandora Press, 1988), 82. 9 Among critics who have discussed Owenson’s role in “orientalizing” Ireland, see Joep Leerssen, Remembrance and Imagination: Patterns in the Historical and Literary Representation of Ireland in the Nineteenth Century (Cork: Cork University Press, 1996) and “How The Wild Irish Girl...


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