Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gentleman John's son, the wearer of Miss Daly's dress, a continental painter and the great melodist

You know you're on a journey when you read that the subject was "eldest of the four illegitimate children of Lt-gen. 'Gentleman' John Burgoyne". Gentleman John isn't in the DIB (he's in the Oxford DNB), although his military career took him briefly to Ireland; as a soldier, he is chiefly famous for having commanded the British force that surrendered at Saratoga during the American revolutionary war. He was gentlemanly enough to father his illegitimate children by the same woman, the singer Sarah Caulfield, and to wait until his wife was dead to do so. He was in his 60s, and had switched from the military to a career as a playwright. After his death, his brother-in-law, the Earl of Derby, provided for the upbringing of the four children, including our DIB entry, Sir John Fox Burgoyne, who had a career as a military engineer, based in part in Ireland. (This Derby is the Derby who gave his name to the Derby of horseracing.) Burgoyne was in charge of administering the soup kitchen scheme introduced during the great Irish famine, which briefly provided some form of - barely adequate at best - nutrition for up to three million people but which was swiftly phased out.

Less gentlemanly but perhaps more interesting is John Daly Burk, who crammed a lot into his 36 or so years. He was expelled from Trinity College Dublin for blasphemy (he was a deist) and wrote a defense, The Trial of John Burk (available online for those, not alas including me, who belong to a subscribing library), in which, according to the DIB, he "compared his persecution to that of Priestley, Galileo and Socrates." He moved in radical circles in Dublin, and escaped arrest by decamping from a bookshop surrounded by soldiers in the clothes of a Miss Daly, whence his middle name, adopted in gratitude. (The more I think about that story, the less I believe it). On his way to America, he wrote a play, Bunker Hill, or the Death of General Warren, which according to the DIB was regularly staged on July 4 for over 50 years and made Burk much money, despite bad reviews (one critic appoved only of the fact that it was short). He also wrote an epic on the revolution titles The Columbiad (not to be confused with the Joel Barlow poem of the same title), which remained unpublished ("bombastic and poorly-written", says the DIB), although Burk thought highly enough of it to send extracts to Thomas Jefferson, to whom he later dedicated his History of Virginia. In America, he seems to have been on the better side of most issues: against the alien and sedition acts, anti-slavery, for humane treatment of the Indians, and so on. However, he couldn't prevent himself from living to extremes: he was kicked out of his job as a college principal for adultery, was ordered to leave the United States after being accused of sedition (he didn't, but hid out in Virginia) and finally died in a duel following a row in a tavern: he insulted France, and a Frenchman called him out and shot him.

Augustus Nicholas Burke was a painter from Galway. He was only around 25 when he first exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. When he was about 30, he moved to Dublin with his artist sister Dorothy (the subject of this portrait) where he became a successful landscape artist and portraitist. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Irish painters were drawn to the north Atlantic coastline of mainland Europe: Brittany, northern France, Belgium and Holland. Burke was one of the first, and in his later role as professor of painting at the Royal Hibernian Academy, may have encouraged others to do the same. His brother, Thomas Henry Burke, was the leading civil servant in Ireland and was assassinated by a nationalist group, The Invincibles, in Dublin in 1882. Augustus was devastated by his death and left Ireland shortly afterwards, living in London and Italy. He is buried in the English cemetery in Florence. He was a rather fine, if academic and occasionally sentimental painter. A wide selection of his work can be found here.

Edmund Burke is of course one of the truly phenomenal Irish figures of the 18th century, as philosopher, pamphleteer and politician, and accordingly rates a huge entry in the DIB of more than 6 pages, by Eamonn O'Flaherty. I've noticed before that academic historians tend to be rather sniffy about Conor Cruise O'Brien's wonderful portrait of Burke, The Great Melody: it's not mentioned in O'Flaherty's bibliography. O'Brien never wrote anything without an axe to grind, so of course his account is partial, speculative and tendentious. It's also fabulous, including close readings of Burke's writings that are constantly informed by the shrewd intuitions of both the critic and the politician that O'Brien was. (I may say more about O' Brien at some other time - his death was too late to qualify him for the DIB. At this stage, I'll simply say that I'm an admirer, but by no means an unqualified one. I'm fiercely critical of some of his actions in government, as well as some of the political positions he took, particularly in his later life. But I hugely like his book on Burke, warts and all.) W.B. Yeats, in his poem The Seven Sages, had written of the "great melody" of Burke's lengthy and laborious campaigns over America, Ireland, France and India, and O'Brien picked up on the lines to support his conviction of a "profound inner harmony" embracing Burke's approach to these subjects.

O'Brien sees Burke fundamentally as a product of Catholic Ireland, of the Norman gentry that was progressively gaelicized and which by the 18th century, when laws acted as barriers to catholic advancement, was faced with the challenge of how to maintain its declining positions and to compete with the protestant gentry. O'Brien argues that Burke's father, Richard, "conformed" to the established protestant church in order to maintain his practice as a lawyer. (O'Flaherty notes this as merely a possibility, although O'Brien's archival researches on the question seem to have been quite thorough.) His mother, Mary Nagle, remained a catholic, and Burke's early upbringing at home until the age of 11 was, O'Brien believes, in a catholic environment; this ended when he was sent to a quaker school in order, it is argued, to prepare him for entry to the protestant world and the advancement that would be possible for him there. (He also married a catholic.)

One consequence of this experience, according to O'Brien, led Burke  to detest the arbitrary exercise of power. This visceral, personal impulse is the strand that ties together his attack on anti-catholic laws in Ireland, his defense of the rights of the American colonists, his onslaught against the excesses and corruption of the East India Company, and his recoil from the violence of the French revolution.

I first encountered Burke at school, where perhaps naturally I was less impressed by his Reflections on the revolution in France, than I was by its riposte, Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man. Temperamentally, as well as politically, I think I still side with Demos against Basileus, but there's no question - and subsequent events everywhere confirm this - that revolt in the name of abstract ideas tends, perhaps inevitably, towards the victimization of thoughtcrime and the institutionalization of new tyranny. Later, as a student, I was very taken with his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, which I was advised to read as an entry-point to the understanding of the gothic in literature and art; shorn of its ultimate grounding in God's providence, its psycho-cultural analysis of the vying influences causing pleasure and fearfulness is an antecedent to Freud's opposition of eros and todestrieb/thanatos.  Once one follows O'Brien's fundamentally psychological view of Burke, it is hard not to read into this opposition another key conservative anxiety, at the fissure between culture and anarchy, or between order and oppression.

Thus, Burke saw the enactment of progressive catholic relief laws both as justifiable in itself and as a means of staving off revolutionary elements in Ireland - elements, that of course revolted in 1798. He denounced coercion of American colonists both because it was wrong in itself and would have undesirable political outcomes. He attacked the East India Company (in its day, an even more powerful Halliburton or Blackwater) both because its treatment of India was intrinsically wrong and because its actions injured the British imperial interest in the subcontinent. And his strictures on the French revolution, while foreseeing its descent into tyranny and terror, were also aimed at the geopolitical consequences of so significant an upheaval in a great power.

I think that, ultimately, the reason I can't join the Burke cheering section, at least not wholeheartedly, is because, despite the fact that he about as principled politician as you can get, he was, au fond, a politician. He wanted to preserve the empire and could not comprehend that the very idea was fundamentally despotic. I think that Irish writers such as O'Brien, who quite rightly turned away in horror from the terrible violence of the troubles, wanted to posit an alternative history, whereby Ireland would have evolved painlessly into a modern nation-state, part of the empire/commonwealth, in the same manner as such other white "kith and kin" republics as Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Such a view allows for the rejection of the entire "physical force" tradition, dating back at least to 1798, and maybe further. It attacks the undoubtedly self-serving mythologizing that at times evolved into "undisputed historical facts" in recounting elements of the movement for independence. Burke's foresight, intelligence, restraint and conservatism seems superficially to stand against the "bad" Ireland for the "good" (if imagined) one. I'm not so sure. As O'Flaherty points out, in the tense times of the 1790s, when fear of French revolutionary contagion pushed the British government towards repression, Burke supported firm action against domestic radicals and opposed increased toleration of unitarians - laws discriminated against groups that denied the holy trinity in ways similar to discrimination against catholics - suggesting pragmatic limits on his embrace of liberty. He was also strident in his calls for war with France a strategy that arguably led to the domination of Europe by Bonaparte, domination that was only finally undone, after more than 20 years of conflict, by imperial overreaching and then, only thanks to what Burke's fellow Irishman the Duke of Wellington called "the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life", as he described the battle of Waterloo. If you want to get counterfactual, you can enlist Burke for a bad version of history as well as an ideal one.

O'Flaherty concludes of Burke: "Central to all of his concerns was a political theory founded on a combination of pragmatic justice - utilitarian in the tradition of natural law - and a belief in the historical evolution of human society." The first strikes me as inherently suspect: one person's pragmatism is another's self-serving justification. The second is really a fantasy: that the permanent lurches and upheavals of life can be smoothed over by benign forces. The problem with this is that one usually doesn't get to control these forces, and whoever does tends to have motives that are less than benign. So, either as an exemplar of an imagined Ireland, or a founder of certain conservative traditions, these proposed Edmund Burkes don't really persuade me. But he's fascinating and always worth revisiting: one for the ages, if not the pantheon.

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