Michael O'Sullivan reviews An Essay on Irish Bulls by Maria Edgeworth, Jane Desmarais and Marilyn Butlet (eds), UCD Press,Classics of Irish History series, ISBN 978-1-904558-75-0, €20/£13.95 pbk
IF THE English find the Irish unintelligible it is because the two peoples always have and always will use two different and totally incompatible forms of speech.
As Maria Edgeworth puts it in this welcome new edition of An Essay on Irish Bulls<./em> "the Irish, in daily conversation, employ a superfluity of wit and metaphor which would be astonishing and unintelligible to a majority of the respectable body of English yeomen".
Language, its duality and elusiveness and its often confusing and contradictory nature is the subject matter of this witty and polemical linguistic treatise on which she and her estate-owning father collaborated. Her stated object is to correct the popular and vulgar notions prevailing among the English of the Irish as boorish and backward, unable to express themselves without committing some monstrous verbal blunder or 'Bull'.
The English and the Irish being forever at cross purposes with one another, Edgeworth is determined to occupy the middle ground between them by identifying and explaining the source of their misunderstandings.
She is at pains to show that these attitudes arise from ignorance and not necessarily any natural antipathy between the two nations. Nevertheless, her essay develops into a defence of the Irish way of putting things as well as being a polemic on the nature of language itself. Hibernian English, eloquent, witty and skilfully manipulative, representing as it does pure unadulterated Elizabethan speech, is compared and contrasted with the gross and colourless absurdities of everyday English jargon, much to the detriment of the latter.
The Essay is fleshed out with a series of humorous encounters involving various characters lifted from the Irish peasantry, who always manage, through their wit and verbal dexterity, and a dash of sly drollery, to turn the tables on their upper class would-be detractors. Here Edgeworth stops short in her analysis. Language is a double edged weapon, and along with being amusing and seductive it can also, when required to, serve more sinister and conspiratorial purposes as oratory, rhetoric and political invective.
As heir to her father's Irish estates and a progressive but cautious social reformer, she is acutely conscious that these triumphs of native ingenuity just might one day develop into something more than mere verbal resourcefulness. O'Connell's shadow is looming, a species of Irish Bull not in Edgeworth's repertoire.
Connolly Association, c/o RMT, Unity House, 39 Chalton Street, London, NW1 1JD
Copyright © 2007 Michael O'Sullivan