Enlightened daughters of a revolutionary age

Pegeen O’ Sullivan reviews Rebel Daughters: Ireland in Conflict 1978 by Janet Todd, Viking, £20 hbk

THIS FASCINATING book is both biography and history.

The historical material is excellent. Todd paints a masterly picture of the Anglo–Irish aristocracy in the period leading up to 1798, full of detail.

Writing of the events of 1798 with particular relevance to the landowning Irish aristocracy gives her account a new angle and therefore fresh interest. She does not spare the landlords as a class; their cupidity and triviality are examined in detail against the background of the destitute peasants who paid for their criminal waste of wealth.

Todd also carries the history which led to the 1798 United Irishmen rising through to the abolition of the Dublin parliament, as she sees all the developments during this time as explicable as part of a greater whole: England’s decision to abolish the Irish parliament was part of her plan to reduce Ireland, Scotland and Wales to the status of regions of Britain.

Also good is the account of the politics and fighting which culminated in 1798. I found it an effort to make myself read this account, so cruel was the time and so honest is the telling. It must have been infinetely more painful to research and write this history than to merely read it, so credit must go to Todd for enduring her task.

The biographical element dealt with two large, intermittently inter–married families, in which the same names often recurred, which kept me scuttling from the text to the family tree and back again.

The main character is Margaret King, who in later life joined the United Irishmen and also became an author.

If her books verged on the romantic, her political views were quite radical, in the best traditions of the United Irishmen.

Margaret’s father, the second Earl of Kingston, invited Arthur Young to come and study agriculture on his estate and employed the great Mary Wollstencraft to be governess to two of his daughters, Margaret and Mary. No one ever doubted that it was Mary Wollstencraft who made it possible for Margaret King to become all she eventually did.

Clearly the second earl and his daughter Margaret are subjects worthy of biographical study.

This is one area where the book falls down; the biographical elements contained much that was interesting, but lacked the compulsive vigout of the historical sections. But even at that, this is still a compelling read.

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