Edmund Burke and Ireland: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Colonial Sublime.
Recent years have seen something of a flowering of interest in Edmund Burke's Irish background and its contribution to his political and cultural identity. Seamus Deane's 1996 Clarendon lectures, Strange Country, have influentially argued that Reflections on the Revolution in France helped shape conceptualizations of Irish national character throughout the nineteenth-century, while historical interest in the Irish input into (and implications of) Burke's career have been examined by Louis Cullen and Eamonn O'Flaherty. Meanwhile, Connor Cruise O'Brien's biography, The Great Melody (London: Sinclair Stevenson, 1992), has proposed Burke's Munster childhood, and his experience of early eighteenth-century Ireland, as the central formative influence on a political and literary career which saw relatively little direct engagement with Irish affairs after he left for study at the Middle Temple in London in 1750. While Cruise O'Brien's 'thematic biography' may seem to have little to share with Edmund Burke and Ireland, they both detect an intellect indelibly marked by Irish conditions. Similarities end there though: the former's presentation of Burke as prescient anti-utopian sage in the manner of Isaiah Berlin, sits uneasily alongside the tortured post-colonial conscience that Luke Gibbons presents, an illustration, if one needed it, that the Irish Burke is firmly up for grabs.
In Edmund Burke and Ireland, the 'cultural terror' of his Irish childhood manifests itself in Burke's theorization of a 'colonial sublime', an aesthetic category which acts as a 'fraught, highly mediated response to the turbulent political landscape of eighteenth-century Ireland'. The 1757 publication of the Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, is shaped by the execution of James Cotter, Jacobite sympathizer and Catholic, in 1720, while anticipating the execution of another socially prominent Catholic, Fr. Nicholas Sheehy, in 1766, both essential examples of state terror in Ireland. In this interpretation, Burke creates an aesthetic category reflecting 'the condition of everyday life in colonial Ireland', which in turn enables him to confront imperial realities in India and elsewhere. This opening section 'Politics and Pain', is followed by a discussion of the Scottish Enlightenment's theorizing of social and cultural relations in modern commercial society which, in all its modernizing and enlightened intent, denigrates the outmoded codes and customs of primitive Highland society. The essential argument here rests on a recognizable post-colonial characterization of Enlightenment thought which is seen as inherently hostile to indigenous culture, wherever it is encountered. In contrast with the reading of Scottish political economy developed by Gibbons, Burke is viewed as arguing for an Irish moral economy in the face of the utilitarian political economy ultimately responsible for the failure of relief during the Great Famine of the 1840s. Burke, the advocate of modernization and agricultural improvement in an English context, is acutely aware that in Ireland such notions of economic progress become 'the dark contours of the sublime when [applied] to the Irish countryside'. The arch conservative and enemy of 'innovation', is also simultaneously an advocate of 'renovation', which in Gibbons's text is a rejection of the abstractions of universal reason in favour of the defence of custom and tradition which enables him to argue so forcefully for non-western cultures such as eighteenth-century Bengal.
By now there is an impressive body of work on the seepage of cultural into political categories in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Ireland, scholarship which has paid particular attention to the weight of a traumatic past on contemporary shoulders, and to which Luke Gibbons has already contributed. Edmund Burke and Ireland outlines a bold post-colonial framework which places Ireland at the centre of a varied and complex career, and Gibbons is strongest where he alights on Burke's 'fragmented' sense of the Irish historical experience, which stands in all too obvious contrast with the achievements of Scottish stadialist historiography. The overarching argument that the familiar Burkean emphasis on tradition and custom is somehow also an attempt to ring fence Irish particularity against the homogenizing (and colonizing) ambitions of an Enlightenment project, is difficult to subscribe to. To suggest that this also provided succour to a United Irish 'republican Enlightenment project' which co-opted Gaelic indigenous culture in order to promote 'a resurgent alternative vision of Irish society', is unconvincing. Luke Gibbons has presented us with an occasionally suggestive, but fundamentally baffling, conception of Edmund Burke's colonial aesthetics and politics.
Trinity College, Oxford
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|Publication:||Yearbook of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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