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The Irish in Eighteenth-Century Bordeaux.

IN MARCH 1757, the Irish wine ship, The Two Sisters, captained by John Dennis, set sail from the port of Bordeaux bound for Dublin, carrying a cargo of 336 barrels of wine, along with brandy, vinegar, and a bundle of letters from members of the Irish community in the city. Shortly after entering the Bay of Biscay, the ship was pursued and seized by a British privateer, the Caesar of Bristol, commanded by Ezekiel Nash. While commercial contact with France by British subjects had been prohibited by King George's declaration of war in May 1756, Dennis held passes from the French and British governments to protect his cargo. Unconvinced by these passes, Nash seized the vessel and impressed the crew into service. Eventually, the High Court Admiralty in London returned the vessel and the cargo to Dennis, who completed his voyage in September 1757. The letters, however, were not handed over and never reached their destination. They were recently discovered at the National Archives (Kew) among the thousands of volumes that make up the prize court papers of the High Court of Admiralty.

The letters were published in 2013 with an extended introduction and annotations by the editors. The publication was marked by a conference at New York University, along with an exhibition on the letters. The proceedings of the conference have now also been published and together, the letters and the scholarly reflections on the correspondence, offer a unique window into the world of the Irish community in Bordeaux at the beginning of the Seven Years War. The accompanying volume of essays includes scholars of eighteenth-century Ireland, France, and the broader Atlantic world. The essays use the letters in innovative ways and demonstrate how historians with different specializations can respond to a single collection of sources in a range of ways. A lucid introduction by Thomas Truxes along with essays by Nicholas Canny, Louis Cullen, and David Dickson, provide context on the Irish community in Bordeaux, Irish and French trade, and economy and politics in the 1750s. Daniel Baugh and James Kelly demonstrate the perils and complexities of engaging in trade in a time of global war. Several others reflect on themes such as risk, intimacy, epistolary networks, and identity in the Atlantic world.

In the 1750s, Bordeaux was experiencing a period of rapid economic growth, mostly related to its trade with the French Caribbean. It was a particularly important market for Irish-salted beef bound for French West Indies; shipments of wine and brandy made the return route to Irish ports. The city maintained a strong Irish presence, mostly involved in the region's wine trade. The leading businessmen of the Irish wine and brandy houses in Bordeaux dedicated themselves to language acquisition and "seemed settled and reasonably integrated" in the city (Truxes, 36). While most Irish expatriate merchant communities were predominately Catholic, the community in Bordeaux included a significant number of Protestant merchant houses, living a sort of "unofficial existence" along with the French Huguenot merchants of the city (Truxes, 43).

As Nicholas Canny observes in his essay on the Irish community in Bordeaux, the letters are unique in providing sources from Irish men and women from a variety of different occupations and social positions. Unsurprisingly, a number of letters are concerned with business, particularly Irish involvement in the wine and brandy trade, written by businessmen and their agents to merchants in Ireland. Many are concerned with the problem of maintaining trade in a time of war. Yet even these letters reflect on personal and domestic matters, such as the rearing and education of faraway children. Several letters are from young men engaged in professional training in Bordeaux, as well as others training for the priesthood in France. A number are written by prisoners of war held in Bayonne Castle, hoping to negotiate their release. William Nassau Fleming wrote from the castle to Elizabeth Vashon in Dublin, to reassure her about his plight: "My case hear is not So bad as you Immajane.... We have Beds & Rooms that we hiar (a part from the Common prisoners), has fiars & Candle light. Eight commanders in a Roome lives merry, as prisoners generally doe, has two larg Squair's to Walk in, & a Billiard table to play at" (Cullen, 243). Three letters in the collection are from Irish female servants in Bordeaux-Mary Barry, Ann Nulty, and Mary Flynn- and Marie-Louise Coolahan's essay on these letters is perhaps the most innovative in a very strong collection.

Apart from the incredible variety of letters collected from America by Kerby Miller and others in the volume Irish Immigrants in the Land of Canaan (Oxford, 2003), few surviving sources illuminate the lives of Irish lower-class women in the eighteenth century and these letters, along with Coolahan's literary analysis of them, add a great deal to our understanding of female literacy and domestic service. Mary Flynn's letters are the most immediate and engaging. Flynn worked in the home of James Babe, an Irish wine merchant, and wrote to his sister Catherine, who lived in Dublin.

Flynn displays a functional literacy, using mostly phonetic spelling and little punctuation. Yet, as Coolahan shows, through practice and exposure to letters, she had acquired a confident "epistolary literacy" and a "high degree of narrative skill" (Truxes, 193). Coolahan compares her letters with writing of servants in epistolary novels, such as Samuel Richardson's Pamela (1740), to suggest that such narratives were eminently plausible. Flynn's writing displays an Irish vernacular and the sounds of the spoken word--"any budy," "[he] never seen me," "sur as anny wan." Like the unruly servants of the epistolary novel, Flynn dished gossip on her employer and narrated her own experience with skill, humor, and a clear assertion of her own subjectivity. While declaring "I am as hapy as anny gireal that ever leaft irland" at other times she was overcome by homesickness. After mistaking some men on the street for her brother Dick and two other acquaintances from home, she wrote "i sat doune thear and cryed my fell I bleave it was thy 3 gousts I seen" (Cullen, 200).

The letters are edited to a high standard and are supplemented with excellent maps, prints, and appendices, including much supplementary material from the court case. The collection of essays complement the letters well, while not exhausting the historical uses these sources might be put to. The archive of prize court papers of the High Court of Admiralty holds records of dozens of Irish ships captured during periods of war in the eighteenth century. It is hoped this discovery might encourage further sleuthing in this vast archive, where perhaps similar letters have "drifted silently" (as Christian Ayne Crouch describes it) for over two hundred years, unsealed and unread.

--Mercer Community College

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Title Annotation:The Bordeaux-Dublin Letters, 1757: Correspondence of an Irish Community Abroad
Author:Higgins, Padraig
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 21, 2018
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