There are times when it feels like Anthony Trollope’s Irish novels might just as well have fallen overboard on the journey across the Irish Sea. Their disappearance would, for the better part of a century, have largely gone unnoticed and unlamented by readers and critics alike. Although interest has grown in recent times, the reality is that his Irish novels have never achieved more than qualified success, and occupy only a marginal place in his overall oeuvre. Yet Ireland was central to Trollope, both as a writer and a civil servant, and he had no hesitation in acknowledging his genuine affection for the country and its people. As he wrote in North America:
It has been my fate to have so close an intimacy with Ireland, that when I meet an Irishman abroad I always recognize in him more of a kinsman than I do in your Englishman. I never ask an Englishman from what county he comes, or what was his town. To Irishmen I usually put such a question, and I am generally familiar with the old haunts which they name.
While nobody disputes the importance of Ireland for Trollope, the man, many still do not see its importance for Trollope, the writer. He lived for almost twenty years in Ireland, having gone there to take up a position in the Irish Post Office in the remote rural town of Banagher, County Offaly in the early eighteen-forties. He travelled the length and breadth of the famine-stricken island, mostly on the back of a horse, mapping out postal routes and probably knew its physical layout – its villages and towns, its houses, great and small, its roads and lanes, Churches, inns and hostelries – better than the vast majority of the Irish themselves. His move to Ireland belatedly kick started what had been, until then, an unpromising Post Office employment and a non-existent literary career. His first two novels (the tragic MacDermots of Ballycloran and the comic The Kellys and the O’Kellys) were written and set in Ireland. Despite his publishers’ opposition, Trollope would persist with Irish themes, settings, and characters throughout his career and there is a considerable Irish strain even in his evidently English novels.
In 1859 he published a deeply problematic but revealing Famine novel, Castle Richmond, which combines deeply empathetic description of hunger and death with a jarring Providentialist political interpretation of the tragic events. His final novel was the unfinished The Landleaguers which he wrote as an ailing elderly man, and which gives voice to his alarm for an Ireland in the grip of the Land War. Whereas his early Irish works depict various social strata of society from peasants to landlords, both Catholic and Protestant, Unionist and Nationalist, his final, far more conservative work is firmly on the side of the entrenched Ascendancy class.
The ‘Irish’ works that get the most persistent attention are Phineas Finn and Phineas Redux, two of the great central novels of the ‘Palliser’ series. But in the Pallisers, Finn’s Irishness, although initially important, is increasingly diluted, partly because Trollope himself wrote that it had been a “blunder” to make Phineas Irish. If Trollope later saw it as a blunder, at the time it was wholly intentional and signalled the central importance of Ireland to Trollope as a young man emerging from John Bull’s other island, into a central position within the Post Office, and onto the English literary scene.
Phineas Finn, an opportunistic young Irishman who manages to insert himself into the English political system, stands as a symbol for his creator of how the Union between the two countries can work to the benefit of the Irish. In a sense, Phineas is a version of Trollope himself who used his writings to act as a cultural go-between between the two countries in a period distinguished by prolonged mutual misunderstanding. Among his writer peers, he was uniquely equipped to carry out this role, coming to know Ireland almost as an insider, albeit one with strong personal and political opinions, many of which were often paternalistic. His Irish novels never fail to be critical of the absentee English landlords who bore so much of the responsibility for Ireland’s impoverished condition. Later Trollope would react with mounting despair to Ireland’s exorable slow march towards Home Rule.
Trollope engages in far less anti-Irish prejudice than his peers, although he regularly apologises to his readers for inflicting Irish subjects upon them. He was unusually supportive of the Irish Catholic Church, and saw Irish priests as having a crucial role to play in containing the political aspirations of an increasingly nationalist population. Much like Aubrey de Vere, he felt they were “the chief barrier . . . between us and anarchy.”
Although the standard view is that Trollope novels are, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, “as English as beef-steak”, serious consideration of Trollope’s Irish novels show that he was a genuine border-crosser who sought to understand Irish politics, religion, language, and culture, and to present that to an English audience. In so doing, he made a valuable contribution to the canon of the Irish novel and is deserving of attention as a key figure connecting English and Irish literary traditions in the nineteenth century.
Featured image credit: Glendalough Lower Lake by Shever. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.