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Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious.

Ireland: Social, Political, and Religious. By Gustave de Beaumont. Edited and translated by W. C. Taylor. Introduction by Tom Garvin and Andreas Hess. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. 448 pages.

Gustave de Beaumont was a lifelong colleague of Alexis de Tocqueville. They met at Versailles in the late 1820s, and traveled together to America after France's July Revolution of 1830. Their mission was to analyze the American penal system. Both quickly realized that any such study must necessarily account for their host society's treatment of its citizens as a whole. The resulting book, The Penitentiary System of the United States and Its Application to France (1833), went into three editions throughout Europe. De Tocqueville's classic two-volume De la democracie en Amarique, or Democracy in America, was published in 1835, the same year de Beaumont issued the novel for which he is known best, Marie, or Slavery in the United States. De Beaumont's talent for fiction extends to his study of Ireland, now reissued with an introduction by Tom Garvin and Andreas Hess.

The book's material was gathered during de Beaumont's 1837 visit. The fantastical misery of the island's nineteenth-century population is summoned by a writer whose gifts extend to the economic and political, de Beaumont's ethical disgust for the treatment of the poor being a mirror of his earlier concern for the enslaved in the Americas. Having gained the reader's sympathy, de Beaumont makes the most radical reforms appear most sensible. This rhetorical talent was practiced later in the French parliament to which he and de Tocqueville were elected. Their political careers ended abruptly, both men imprisoned briefly due to their opposition to Louis Napoleon's coup of 1848. After de Tocqueville's death in 1859, de Beaumont edited his friend's collected prose, issued in six volumes from 1861 to 1866.

De Beaumont continued to advocate for Ireland, distressed at the British response to the catastrophe of 1847's great famine, which resulted in millions dead or emigrated. He presented his Notice sur l'etat present de L'Irlande to the Academy of Moral and Political Science in 1863. This tract became the preface to the 1863 edition of Ireland and is reprinted with a chronology and index at the end of the present volume. De Beaumont died in Paris on February 22, 1866. Ireland remained in print in France until 1914. Its sole English edition was published in 1839 and is this text's volume.

As Garvin and Hess note, no major study in English of de Beaumont's work on Ireland has yet been attempted. Their wide-ranging introduction, set in an Atlantic context between Europe and America, brings this forgotten classic to life. De Beaumont's vision of Ireland is intriguing to a modern reader all too aware of the disaster soon to follow. De Beaumont's critique is sharper for its initial sympathy with the British political system, his disappointment similar to that which he experienced in the United States. In America, wealth and opportunity were stained by the possession of slaves; in Britain, constitutional democracy's other was Ireland. De Beaumont's remedies for this Irish problem bear some relation to what later transpired. Centralized power, the disabling of minority religious authority, and the removal of the power to exercise legal judgment from the aristocracy all found their form, to some degree, in the post-Independence state. This suggests de Beaumont's clarity of perception as much as his prescience, the practice of the state being a key element of French republican thinking that was all but neglected in Irish nationalism. Here de Beaumont is well met in Garvin, one of the first Irish historians to have questioned systematically the constitutional forms of the changing Irish State after 1922. This is a welcome coincidence, especially if it prompts, as the authors rightly hope, more interest in de Beaumont's fascinating text.

Ireland is organized into a historical introduction and four parts. His first sentence explains his following position with intent: "The dominion of the English in Ireland, from their invasion of the country in 1169, to the close of the last century, has been nothing but a tyranny" (5). The Enlightenment shines through de Beaumont's prose, sometimes to contrary effect. He sees the root causes of oppression clearly; his rebuttal of the colonial projection of the Irish as lazily ignorant is a model of lucid polemic. But de Beaumont's final solution for the Irish problem is more problematic: concentrating power in the hands of English administrators unconnected to the Anglo-Irish aristocracy until such time as a Catholic middle class could emerge. All previous remedies had failed. The Act of Union in 1800 was the high point of hostility between the two countries, the bond de Beaumont compares to that between slave and master.

Repeatedly de Beaumont returns to this question of bondage, comparing the attitude of the Protestant aristocracy toward the Catholic majority to the attitude of Europeans in the colonies toward persons of mixed race who retain traces of their African descent. In abolitionist tradition de Beaumont traces injustice to its roots, bringing images of Ireland's poverty to a readership more comfortable with pastoral images of the Emerald Isle's bounty, a bounty stolen from its inhabitants: "In this country of misery, the rich man has made for himself a magnificent destiny: he possesses splendid castles, boundless domains, mountains, parks, forests, lakes, and he sometimes possesses them two or three times over" (127-28). To de Beaumont, the elite cause all Ireland's trouble. De Beaumont's feeling for the poor has a power that brings to mind Fanon's writings on the wretched of the earth a century later. These people are "rent in sunder by eternal convulsions, and decimated by annual famines--it is this people of paupers, this people of rags, this people of slaves, that now becomes to its tyrants a source of embarrassment and peril!" (375).

To de Beaumont, justice prevails: "The crimes of nations, like those of individuals, are voluntary, not necessary acts. There is nothing necessary but the consequence of crimes; nothing predestined but their expiation" (377). It is heartbreaking to think after this of 1847, the sick and dead on the road, the coffin ships full on the cold Atlantic, an Ireland, like de Beaumont's welcome book, only now coming back to life.

Nicholas Allen

University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill, North Carolina
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Author:Allen, Nicholas
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Date:Sep 22, 2007
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