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Ireland and the English Lake Poets

Text by Dr Brandon Yen

Lower lake, Killarney, engraved by C. Hunt after A. Nicholl. V.g.29

A new exhibition featuring the English Lake Poets – William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), and Robert Southey (1774–1843) – and their connections with Ireland has opened in the Long Room of the Old Library at Trinity College Dublin and is on view throughout April and May 2019.

In 1823, Edward Quillinan, a Roman Catholic born to Irish parents in Portugal, published a book of entertaining verse epistles, Shamrock Leaves, or, The Wicklow Excursion. There, in a note, he mentioned Wordsworth (his future father-in-law), whose ‘Muse’

never seems to have reminded him that there was in the West beauty made for song, and yet unsung; that only a narrow channel separated his own romantic coast from scenery as fine as that of Rydal, or Borrowdale, or Ulswater [places in the English Lake District] …

In the same year as the publication of Shamrock Leaves, Quillinan returned to Ireland and toured Co. Kerry. In his journal, he remarked upon ‘Pretty Kerry women & cows’, and there was one ‘lovely girl black-haired & pure skinned as fit for poetry as W’s Highland Girl’ – an allusion to Wordsworth’s Scottish poem, ‘The Solitary Reaper’, whose music he bore in his heart, ‘Long after it was heard no more’.

In late August 1829, Wordsworth, aged 59, finally crossed the ‘narrow channel’. He spent five weeks in Ireland, visiting glens, rivers, loughs, churches, abbeys, castles, and demesnes, as well as Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Derry/Londonderry, and Belfast. With John Marshall and Marshall’s son James (wealthy flax-spinners from Leeds), Wordsworth toured Ireland in a ‘carriage and four’. Along the way, he kept up with friends (such as William Rowan Hamilton, the young Professor of Astronomy and Royal Astronomer of Ireland) and made new acquaintances (including the Edgeworth family in Co. Longford). Remarkably, he also conquered Carrauntoohil with James Marshall.

Wordsworth’s journey coincided with the early nineteenth-century boom of tourism in Ireland. During the long years of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, domestic tourism had flourished, with road books and travelogues being published in large quantities. The Act of Union (which came into effect on 1 January 1801) had incorporated Ireland into the United Kingdom; many British tourists were curious about the ‘sister isle’, which was so geographically close to Britain and yet so different in its religious and economic makeup.

Fashionable aesthetic concepts and idioms such as the Sublime, the Beautiful, and the Picturesque contributed to tourism, and so did vigorous investigations into local antiquities and natural histories. Tourists availed themselves of new and improved roads, bridges, and canals, along with the development of steamboats, coaches, post-chaises, and, later, rail transport. It was also the age of the Ordnance Survey.

Funeral of the Constitution, by Isaac Cruikshank[?], 1829. OLS CARI ROB 0394
Wordsworth visited Ireland barely half a year after Catholic Emancipation had received the assent of George IV. Catholic Emancipation was essentially an Irish question. Wordsworth had been concerned with the danger that emancipation might have posed to Britain’s Protestant religious and political establishments, as well as with the populist politics manipulated by Daniel O’Connell an his Catholic Association. All of these fed into Wordsworth’s observations in Ireland.

In the event, only one image made it into Wordsworth’s poetry: a pair of eagles in Co. Antrim. However, as this exhibition shows, there were much deeper creative connections which tell us about crucial socio-political issues and about the cultural exchanges between Ireland and Britain in the early nineteenth century.

Ireland and the English Lake Poets explores these connections between and across Romantic Ireland and England through literary treasures from the Library of Trinity College Dublin, including hand-coloured political cartoons, unique manuscripts by Wordsworth’s contemporaries and Irish friends, first and early editions of poetry and prose, and illustrations from rare nineteenth-century travel books.

Hamilton’s letter to his sister Eliza, describing his first encounter with Wordsworth. TCD MS 7773-6/132

Amongst the manuscripts on display is a precious letter by William Rowan Hamilton, addressed to his sister Eliza and dated 16 September 1827. It records Hamilton’s first encounter with Wordsworth in the Lake District. Hamilton and Wordsworth so much enjoyed each other’s company that they were unwilling to part. They strolled back and forth between Rydal (where Wordsworth lived) and Ambleside (where Hamilton was staying), a distance of some two miles until late at night. Hamilton told his sister: ‘he and I were taking a midnight walk together for a long long time, without any companion, except the silent stars, and our own burning thoughts & words.’ In 1838, Hamilton wrote a poem entitled ‘Recollections’, commemorating

                that earliest evening, when from top,
Mist-clad, of old Helvellyn, image-fraught,
Descending, first I met that honour’d Bard;
And gazing scarcely satisfied at length
A reverential longing; nor, till night
Had wrapped us long, and morning brought her star,
Ceased I to listen, or to pour my soul
Forth in enthusiast talk …

The idea for this exhibition arose from Dr Brandon C. Yen’s project on Wordsworth’s Ireland, funded by the Irish Research Council. It was curated by Dr Yen (School of English, University College Cork) and Dr Amy Prendergast (School of English, Trinity College Dublin) in collaboration with Stephanie Breen (Early Printed Books & Special Collections, the Library of Trinity College Dublin) and Estelle Gittins (Manuscripts & Archives, the Library of Trinity College Dublin).

The online version of the exhibition can be accessed here.

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