- Reading the Cauldron:Landlords and Texts in George A. Birmingham's The Seething Pot
The Reverend Canon James Owen Hannay was no ordinary Church of Ireland clergyman. Born in Belfast in 1865 and ordained in his mid-twenties, in 1905 he adopted the pseudonym "George A. Birmingham" for his first novel, The Seething Pot, and thereafter continued writing both fiction and nonfiction at a prodigious rate until his death in 1950.1 Though popular and sometimes deeply controversial in his lifetime, his fictional output has rarely received serious scholarly recognition. Indeed, despite the often positive initial reception of The Seething Pot, most surveys of the Irish novel from the past fifteen years only briefly refer to Birmingham's contribution to Irish fiction, and all of them fail to mention The Seething Pot.2 [End Page 100]
In contrast, John Wilson Foster's Irish Novels 1890–1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction offers a sustained discussion of one of Birmingham's novels, along with many passing references to the writer and his work.3 To some degree this more extensive treatment by Foster of Birmingham's work is to be expected, as Foster's survey endeavors to recover "neglected novels that represent literary subgenres active during the years of the Revival but that have gone largely unacknowledged."4 This description is virtually a definition of Birmingham's early novels, and Foster makes the following thoughtful observation about the merits of such fiction in general: "a prolific lower-ranking novelist … can across a plethora of texts generate an impressive wattage of social and cultural illumination."5 Later Foster mentions an idea propounded by Claud Cockburn regarding British best-sellers and the pertinence of such fiction in any account of recent British history, and he then argues that Irish history would also benefit from an appreciation of Irish popular novels from the past. Foster's assertion here is highly apposite with regard to Birmingham's early fiction:
If indeed a given best-seller expresses the prevailing political and social climate of which it is the product—the public sector of life—then an extraordinary opportunity to understand the Irish weather of 1890–1940 has been lost. In fact, the loss has been the greater when the novel in question has not just been the product of the times but has tried to make sense of the times, sometimes even change those times, most obviously in the case of the so-called problem novel.6
The Seething Pot, as we shall see, is a novel that operates on all of these levels: the product of the culture and politics of late Victorian and early Edwardian Ireland, particularly the legislative changes that affected the landed class of the period, it was also a political text that sought to understand and influence the vortex of events in early twentieth-century Ireland.7 Birmingham's political literary debut is specifically preoccupied with the topic of Irish landlordism, and the novel's focus on the Irish landlord can be accounted for by reference to two [End Page 101] key legislative changes from the period, both of which resulted in the attenuation of Irish landlordism shortly before Birmingham began his career as a novelist.8
The Local Government Act of 1898 replaced the grand juries with elected county councils and thus "broke the landlord stranglehold on local affairs." As a result, the act "deprived the Irish landed class of much of their prestige and power" as it "placed the bulk of local institutions in popular, and therefore nationalist hands."9 Furthermore, just a few years later, George Wyndham's Land Act of 1903 marked a watershed in the history of Irish tenurial legislation as it "proved the decisive breakthrough in moves—until then uncertain and halting—towards making a tenant proprietory [sic] the core of Irish rural society."10 Thus began the gradual legislative eviction of the landlord from Irish society, later described by Birmingham in his nonfiction as a species of dethronement: "the English had quite as much to do with taking away their land from them as the Irish agitators. Act after Act was passed by Parliament, sometimes by one party, sometimes by...