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Conquering England: Roy Foster introduces a new exhibition on the Irish in London in the 19th and early 20th centuries, opening at the National Portrait Gallery on March 9th.

NOT ALL IRISH EMIGRANTS TO VICTORIAN BRITAIN were working class. Less glamorous than Fenian revolutionaries or decayed Ascendancy, the Irish middle class deserve a place in the remarkable story of how Ireland stamped its mark on British consciousness. Until quite recently, one used to hear that nineteenth-century Ireland didn't 'have a middle class'; but now historians are placing class, and class cultures much nearer the centre of Irish social history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Part of this story should include the way that Irish people colonised London metropolitan life--notably in journalism, the law, medicine, the arts and politics.

In many cases they were involved in publicising views or interpretations of Ireland. This reached a climax at the beginning of the twentieth century, but earlier Irish cultural entrepreneurs showed remarkable enterprise in the Victorian capital. Ireland was at the centre of Victorian Britain--and not just in the sense of building roads, working in factories and digging canals: London was the magnet for generations of middle-class Irish arrivistes determined to make their mark. As George Bernard Shaw put it, 'Every Irishman who felt that his business in life was on the higher planes of the cultural professions felt that he must have a metropolitan domicile and an international culture; that is, he felt his first business was to get out of Ireland.' And he knew what he was talking about.

This exhibition depicts the integration of a prominent Irish presence in the worlds of art, literature, intellectual life and politics as well as showing the kind of images of Ireland produced in London and displayed for a metropolitan audience, from the early years of Victoria's reign up to the very early twentieth century.

Not all influential Irish writers in early Victorian London were nationalists; the circle around Fraser's Magazine brought in a wide range of opinions, and provided--for instance--Thackeray with much of the material he used for his portrait of the Irish journalistic subculture in his novel Pendennis. William Maginn, the editor of Fraser's, was a Corkman; Daniel Maclise's drawing of 'The Fraserians', published in 1835, includes Francis Mahony and Thomas Crofton Croker with Carlyle and Thackeray. Maclise himself was an influential creator of the iconography of British Victorian identity, through his history murals for the Houses of Parliament, while his fellow-Irishman John Henry Foley sculpted a large part of the Albert Memorial.

The interlocking worlds of professional Irish writers and artists in London must be seen against the background of recurrent political crises in Ireland, and the uneven attempts of the British government to deal with them. Through the 1830s and early 1840s a series of ineffective attempts were made to grapple with Irish poverty, Irish religious affairs, Irish education, though none could obscure the clear fact that the Union was operating as 'a partnership of loss'. All this was thrown into stark relief by the Great Famine. The images of Irish famine in the Illustrated London News and the Graphic may represent a prettified representation of horror but the amount of space devoted to them is nonetheless striking.

Ireland continued a dominant presence in illustrated magazines. Less noticed is the rich trawl of images of Irish politicians from the early 1870s. The caricaturists in Punch and Vanity Fair made much of the Irish MPs; but by the 1880s Irish issues were threateningly near the centre of the London political world. In 1887-91 the young W.B. Yeats used to go to the House of Commons to hear Parnell and Healy debate, and his memoir of the 1880s and 1890s stands as a portrait of an era when to be Irish in London was to be at the centre of things, in terms of political excitement and literary endeavour.

From the late 1880s a new energy was infused into London's Irish literary and journalistic circles, and Yeats's precocious talent was a key element. But Yeats and his circle were following in the footsteps of earlier poets and novelists, notably Thomas Moore, who had been joined by Samuel Lover and Sydney Owenson. One inspiration for Yeats was William Allingham, who specialised in emigrant verse; he had come to England in the 1850s and was closely involved in the literary and artistic networks around Tennyson and the pre-Raphaelites. The exhibition also highlights a range of Irish artists' models, who provided Whistler, Tissot, Ford Madox Brown and Julia Margaret Cameron with images of striking beauty-rather than the standard Punch-cartoon 'Paddy'.

The Irish presence on the London stage had been dominant since the eighteenth century. This continued through the early Victorian period, when actors like Tyrone Power were much celebrated, and a little later, the actor-manager-playwright Dion Boucicault. In the 1890s Shaw and Wilde burst on the scene. Neither used Irish themes (though Shaw would later do so) and both were determined to make English reputations. Wilde, however, has recently been re-evaluated as an Irish tale-teller, almost a folklorist. As early as 1891, Yeats claimed Wilde's stories and epigrams proved him the perfect type of 'irresponsible Irishman'--and connected him in this to Shaw, as two Irishmen who 'keep literary London continually agog to know what they will say next'. Much in the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition illustrates the effectiveness of Yeats's own publicity network in the metropolis.

Shaw may have been more interested in Fabian socialism than in the Celtic Twilight, but frequented the same circles as Yeats, His first success, Arms and the Man, would be played with Yeats' first performed drama, The Land of Heart's Desire, in 1894. The same year saw a great run of Wilde's plays get under way, culminating with The Importance of Being Earnest in early 1895. This coincided with his trial, disgrace and imprisonment; towards the end of the run, the author's name disappeared from the theatre programme. Yeats and Shaw, by contrast, were at the outset of their dazzling careers. Yeats was famous; his father was painting portraits; the sisters were learning the arts which would enable them to set up the Cuala Press back in Dublin; Jack Yeats was making precocious illustrations for the London comic papers. Their elder brother would henceforth publish the first, limited edition of his works with his sisters' press. But equally consistently, he would maintain his major publishers in London.

Around 1900, according to novelist George Moore, the sceptre of intelligence returned from London to Dublin. (Moore was another who made a great splash in London.) We stand on the edge of a new era here: the point where, according to Yeats' later memory, everyone came down off their 1890s stilts. Victoria was on her deathbed, and the Irish were carrying the torch back to Dublin. Two symbolic events might be the art exhibition masterminded by Hugh Lane in the Guildhall in 1904, bringing Irish painters to London, and the wildly successful visit to the capital of the Irish National Theatre Society (just about to be reconstituted as the Abbey Theatre), presenting radically economical new plays by Yeats and Synge. 'With perfect simplicity, perfect dignity and composure', wrote Max Beerbohm, 'they were just themselves.'

The Irish presence was now not only avant-garde, but 'exotic'. It was clear that Dublin had become the focus for Irish cultural energy. Yeats, though, did not return to Ireland until 1922. And when he was looking for a new play to open the Abbey in 1904, he turned to Shaw. Shaw mischievously produced John Bull's Other Island, far too sarcastic, sceptical and politically abrasive to broadcast the right message. Significantly, the Irish protagonist, Larry Doyle, is an engineer who has made a good life in London and has 'an instinct against going back to Ireland ... I'd rather go to the South Pole than Rosscullen.' The play had a surprising success in that same annus mirabilis of 1904. The prime minister, Arthur Balfour (who had been a notoriously efficient Chief Secretary for Ireland and knew the country well) came five times. At a Royal Command performance for King Edward the following year, the monarch laughed so hard he broke a chair. The shafts aimed at England's obtuse treatment of Ireland seem to have passed them by. London was allowing the playwright the traditional licence extended to Irish entertainers and commentators at work in the Victorian metropolis, and he was making the most of it.

'Conquering England: Ireland in Victorian England' runs at National Portrait Gallery March 9th-June 19th, 2005.
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Title Annotation:Frontline
Author:Foster, Roy
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUIR
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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