A friend of Ireland

Pegeen O’Sullivan reviews Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland by Paul O’Brien, Redwords £11 pbk

WHEN IRELAND at last is her own from the sod to the sky there should be a pantheon of all who have striven to achieve this restoration.

In it there should be a special place for the small group of English men and women who have shared our struggle, among whom Shelley has earned a special place of honour.

Paul O’Brien has put us all immensely in his debt with this excellent and necessary book in which he first puts Shelley into his English context and then describes Ireland’s imprint on him and his imprint on his Irish colleagues.

For me the most interesting aspect is O’Brien’s description of the survivors of the United Irish movement in a Dublin sinking into ever-greater despair and poverty as the Act of Union blights the economy of Ireland.

Though political and intellectual life were rigorously suppressed at this time some brave people did keep the national and republican fire alive.

Such a one was Catherine Nugget a single woman who earned her bread by sewing fur. After the defeat of the United Irishmen she visited the prisoners, although she found it “a most dreadful task” and it made her dangerously visible to the authorities.

She was a very helpful contact for the Shelleys and corresponded with Harriet until the latter’s tragic death. It is a great merit of this book that it rescues some of our hidden heroes.

This comprehensive book also gives us Shelley’s Irish political writings: An Address to the Irish People, written for his Irish visit, and his Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists, which he wrote when he better knew the public he was addressing.

More accessible, and therefore more interesting to the modern reader, is the selection of letters and extracts of letters about Ireland written mainly by Shelley and his first wife Harriet. It is instructive to compare Harriet Shelley’s wholehearted support for the oppressed Irish with the vicious anti-Irish sentiments expressed in the three extracts from Mary Shelley, Shelley’s second wife.

This is particularly so when we reflect how often Harriet is dismissed as being too young and inexperienced to share Shelley’s life while Mary, the daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecroft -- who incidentally had Irish connections -- is considered his intellectual equal.

Other chapters are devoted to tracing the influence of Shelley’s poetry on various Irish writers and radical political figures, such as James Larkin and the Chartists, Shelley’s earliest poems devoted to Ireland, and an analysis of how his experience of Ireland influenced his later political poems such as The Mask of Anarchy.

The book’s usefulness is further enhanced by an excellent bibliography and index.

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