From Church & State: Winter 2005

Patrick O'Brian And The Importance Of Being Irish

Part Two

In The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers the teenage heroine Mick Kelly at one point is trying hard to develop a taste for beer and cigarettes. She doesn't much like either, but she manages to use the cigarettes to cancel out the taste of the beer and vice versa, and so achieves a sort of equilibrium. In the same way Ulster Scots culture seems to have an uneasy relationship with the disparate Irish and Scottish elements which make it up, each being used as an antidote to the other. We end up defining ourselves by what we're not, excluding ourselves equally from the Irish nation and from the Scots diaspora, with a not so sneaking suspicion that we're a cut above them both. We walk in a via negativa of our own devising.

The complexity of our situation is, or was, most tellingly set forth in our language. The culture wars over the Ulster Scots 'language' have deflected attention from the richness of our 'Elizabethan' English (as explored by Professor Braidwood), and our Irish and Hiberno-English heritage. I spent my early years in a community which was about as exclusively Ulster Scots as it was possible to be, yet these other influences came through very strongly, and of course without the curse of consciousness. To single out one of many, the delightful use of the word "Tory" in affectionate reference to a mischievous child persists in some quarters yet, as in "Sure you're nothing but a wee Tory rogue". The sheer recidivism of this particular expression is astonishing, dating back to when the displaced Irish were desperadoes in the hills and woods, slowly fading in folk memory but never quite fading away. The same wee tory might as easily have been referred to as a spalpeen (pronounced 'spulpin'), meaning rascal, straight from the Irish.

These and many other Irish words help to colour the speech of the Ulster Scots, but the usages of Hiberno-English have maybe coloured it even more. A classic construction would be "Sure that's what I'm just after telling you". The poems of W.F. Marshall are full of this kind of Northern idiom, but without so much of the Scots influence as they're set somewhere in west Tyrone.

Imaginatively speaking, O'Brian was an eighteenth century and Regency man, steeped in Jane Austen. Here is the opening paragraph of an early novel, The Unknown Shore:

"Mr. Edward Chaworth of Medenham was a well-disposed, good-natured man with an adequate fortune, an amiable wife, and a numerous family: he thought the world an excellent place, and he could suggest no way in which it could be improved, except for the poachers and the Whigs—they would be abolished in an ideal world, and the trout in his stream be a trifle larger."

But in his visits to Ireland his attentive ear had picked up more exotic rhythms, which he was able to incorporate in his novels, exuberantly filling out his otherwise more formal prose style, and producing a distinctive synthesis which was the real making of the novelist. In this respect O'Brian is part of an English literary tradition where timely exposure to Irish influences has done nothing but good. This is where Trollope and Thackeray have the advantage over Dickens.

Another early novel, The Golden Ocean, might be condemned by some dull souls for a propensity to stage-Irishness. I would recommend it as a surefire cure for depression. It sparkles from beginning to end. It stands in relation to the later canon as Under The Greenwood Tree does to the later novels of Hardy, although Hardy (unlike O'Brian) never wrote anything as good again. O'Brian is able to let himself go in a display of linguistic pyrotechnics. Sean O'Casey, with disparaging intent, called P.G. Wodehouse the performing flea of English literature, an accolade relished by Wodehouse, but it's really the admixture of Hiberno-English in homeopathic doses that has come to the rescue of the English language in the last couple of centuries and has made it dance and sing.

The hero, Peter Palafox (is there an echo here of Polloxfen, Yeats's mother's maiden name?), son of the rector of Ballynasaggart in the back end of Connaught, enlists on Anson's circumnavigatory voyage in the 1750s, accompanied by his servant Sean and, initially, by Mr. Peregrin FitzGerald, another young gentleman devoid of means. This exchange, on the merits of Peter's horse Placidus, is worthy of the Performing Flea himself:

""Ten years ago! Good heavens, how old is he at all?"

"Oh, he was long past mark of mouth when I was a little boy", said Peter. "I suppose he must be rising twenty-five or so."

"Oh", said FitzGerald, and muttered something in which the words ‘knacker's yard’ and ‘museum’ could just be distinguished.

"He is a remarkably fine horse for his age", said Peter eagerly, "and if you know how to ride him, and he likes you, he can trot very well. You only have to take care not to bear on his withers, and to talk to him all the time, encouragingly, you know, and he will go on amazingly."

"You have to talk to him all the time?"

"Yes, in Latin, of course. My father has always recited Virgil aloud as he rides about the parish, and Placidus is used to it. Then when my father goes to sleep, which he does sometimes, Placidus stops so that he will not fall off. So you have to keep talking, or he thinks it his duty to stop. Oh, and I had almost forgot: when it is turn to ride you must never menace him, or he bites you and then lies down. But apart from that and his bowl of bread and milk in the morning—"

"Bread and milk?"
"Yes", said Peter earnestly. "Just sufficiently warm; not hot, you understand, but just loo-warm. He cannot digest oats or hay in the morning. Nor beans."

"I see", said FitzGerald, "No beans in the morning."

"Just so", said Peter with an approving nod.

"You're not codding?"

"No", said Peter, "whatever makes you think that?"

"Do you seriously propose that we ride and tie—for if he cannot carry two there's no help for it—that we ride and tie through the length of Ireland, alternately walking and then riding on this remarkable animal, perched up on its rump and haranguing the countryside in Latin?"

"You do not have to harangue, just quietly reciting will do."

"Do you know how long my Latin would last?"

"Oh, as for that, I have found the declensions will serve to fill in the gaps. I believe he does not really distinguish the odds." "

The distinguishing mark of this kind of writing is joy. Peter later assists with the interrogation of an Irish prisoner "from the County Kerry" following the capture of a Spanish ship. The man first has to be convinced of the right of King George to the Irish crown, and the session then proceeds:

"He knows the town very well {says Peter}. He says they are all the great thieves of the world, and they living in glory and as heavy with gold as Nebuchadnezzar."

Peter goes on to ask where the treasure is:

" "Why, where would it be at all but in the Customs House here on the quay?" asked the pedlar. "The whole world knows that. It is the merchants' treasure I am speaking about, of course, for the King's treasure is in the fort, where Don Diego does be sitting it in the heat of the day and filing the edges off the gold pieces for his private advantage, the thief, and he the governor of the town." "

And there is plenty more to this effect.

O'Brian's marriage of English and Irish elements finds most memorable expression in the relationship between Jack Aubrey, a quintessential English Tory gentleman and sea captain, to all outward appearance bluff and hearty, and the more, secretive Stephen Maturin, physician, natural philosopher and spy, illegitimate offspring of a Catalan mother and cousin on his father's side to Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The only obvious thing they have in common is their violin and cello duets, but the two have an instinctive sympathy with each other, however strained at times. Maturin is an idealized self-portrait by the author. He has an especial fondness for children, which was not marked in the life of his creator. The paradox here is that the lilt in the tongue comes from the depressive Irishman. It is accordingly more subdued at times, but still makes the writing come alive. In Desolation Island Jack has had some bad experiences at the card table and Stephen tried to tell him what is going on:

" "Sophie's fish!" cried Jack. "God's my life, they had gone completely out of my mind. Thank you, Stephen, you are a friend in a thousand."

"As such I should tell you some of the disagreeable things that are said to fall to friends; yet since I have so lately borrowed a large sum of money from you, I can scarcely cry up thrift, nor even common prudence, with much decency or conviction. I am struck dumb; and must content myself with observing that Lord Anson, whose wealth had the same source as yours, was said to have gone round the world but never into the world."

"I take your meaning", said Jack. "You think they are sharps and I am a flat?"

"I assert nothing: only that in your place I should not play with those men again."

"Oh, come, Stephen, a judge, for all love? And a man so high up in government service?"

"I make no accusation. Though if I had a certainty where in fact I have only a suspicion, a man's being a judge would not weigh heavily. Sure, it is weak and illiberal to speak slightingly of any considerable body of men; yet it so happens that the only judges I have known have been froward companions, and it occurs to me that not only are they subjected to the evil influence of authority but also to that of righteous indignation, which is even more deleterious. Those who judge and sentence criminals address them with an unbridled vindictive righteousness that would be excessive in an archangel and that is indecent to the highest degree in one sinner speaking to another, and he defenceless." "

It must be doubtful whether there could have been any historical prototype for Maturin. He has been involved on the fringes of the 1798 Rebellion and holds the institutions of the British state in contempt, yet he has a furious hatred for Buonaparte and he has no love for the Americans at all. He assumes that victory for Napoleon will mean disaster for Ireland, but for someone so analytical his political analysis is sketchy: Repeal the Union (the date is around 1813), enact Catholic Emancipation, and hope for the best. For the detail see The Commodore, page 170. He starts off as a deistical kind of Catholic, becoming ever more devout as the novels progress. Maturin as a character develops his Irish identity in parallel with O'Brian.

I have commented that O'Brian's adoption of an Irish identity was a sort of psychological necessity for him. The possibilities of language were an important aspect, but far from the whole story. He had felt keenly the various setbacks of his early life, and he smarted from real and imagined slights. His youthful marriage had been imprudent; and his subsequent desertion of his wife and children in pursuit of the love of his life, Marty Tolstoy (née Wicksteed, the inspiration for Diana Villiers), would tend to increase all the more his alienation from English bourgeois society. He hadn't achieved the literary success which might have enabled him to snap his fingers at that society in which he was unremarked. His abnormal sensitivity made this whole situation extremely painful for him. These sensitivities become part of the emotional make-up of Maturin who takes offence at the slightest provocation.

In this context, Ireland must have seemed like an Arcadia of the imagination. And he didn't have to spend too much time in it either, lest his ideal impressions be tarnished. He seemed to content himself with such volumes as Lord Killanin's Shell Guide to Ireland, very strong on dolmens and ruined abbeys, less so on hotels, beaches, and golf courses. Ireland for O'Brian was a place where blood was more important than money. Despite Stephen Maturin's obscure and disadvantageous birth, he is still an Irish gentleman. Kinship was, and possibly still is, a more significant index of identity than in England. Paul Johnson has pointed that, in Ireland and parts of Scotland, people are much more likely to know about the great grandparents, whereas in England people don't appear to know much even about their grandparents. On the one hand we see present-day Ireland, both North and South, as one huge gold rush town, a land given over to developers whose slash and burn activities are completing the ruin of our rural landscape. The ancient landmarks get short shrift. And, when it comes to the agricultural economy, it's very much a case of 'big is beautiful': big fields, big machinery, big doses of pesticides, and the eternal seep of silage effluent. The character of the English countryside has (until now) been much better preserved. Yet the social fabric is still stronger with us. The English need the world of Ambridge because it doesn't really exist. One has the uneasy feeling that many of the English villages are just Potemkin facades, with no real communal life behind them. My own view on this is that English social culture can't be expected to survive the death of Christian England, but it it's indisputable that, for whatever reason, Irish culture has had until now a retentiveness centred on family relations and connections. For the distinction between a relation and a "connection", I would refer the reader to Alice Taylor, To School Through The Fields.

In The Mauritius Command we come across a different sort of Irishman, Lord Clonfert, Captain of a sloop called The Otter. Stephen Maturin is somewhat scathing of Clonfert's claim to an Irish title or to any kind of Irishness:

" "Sure, it is an Irish title", said Stephen, "but Clonfert is as much an Englishman as you are yourself. The family name is Scroggs. They have some acres of bog and what they call a castle in Jenkinsville in the bleak north—I know it well; anthea foetidissima grows there—and a demesne south of the Curragh of Kildare, forfeited Desmond land; but I doubt if he has ever set foot on it. A Scotch agent looks after what rents he can rack out of the tenants."

"But he is a peer, is he not? A man of some real consequence?"

"Bless your innocence, Jack: an Irish peer is not necessarily a man of any consequence at all. I do not wish to make any uncivil reflection on your country… but you must know that this last hundred years and more it has been the practice of the English ministry to reward their less presentable followers with Irish titles; and your second-rate jobbing backstairs politician, given a coronet of sorts and transplanted into a country where he is a stranger, is a pitiful spectacle, so he is… I do not speak of your Fitzgeralds or Butlers, you understand, still less of the few native families that have survived, but of what is commonly called an Irish peer. Clonfert's father now was a mere——" "

——and the dialogue then breaks off. As for O'Brian's grandfather: he was a mere furrier from Leipzig.

Clonfert turns out to be a flashy, highly-strung sort of person, pathetically eager to cut a dash. Compared with the many-layered Maturin, he has really nothing to him at all. Yet he validates himself by his courageous, even foolhardy, conduct in action and, at his death, has achieved an apotheosis as an Irishman indeed, despite the indignity of being attended by an alcoholic Belfast physician called McAdam. Maturin starts to wonder whether Clonfert didn't have some Irish breeding after all. Nikolai Tolstoy reports that, with the passage of time, his stepfather began half to believe in his own Irish roots.

For all his celebrated status as a writer of seafaring tales, I would say O'Brian, unlike Jack Aubrey, is at his best when the action shifts landward to England—more dangerous than Jane Austen's, not so wholesome, but easily recognizable as the same place. His descriptive writing has a sepia-tinted, evocative quality, as in this from HMS Surprise:

"In Whitehall a grey drizzle wept down upon the Admiralty but in Sussex the air was dry—dry and perfectly still. The smoke rose from the chimney of the small drawing-room at Mapes Court in a tall, unwavering plume, a hundred feet before its head drifted away in a blue mist to lie in a hollow of the downs that lay behind the house. The leaves were hanging yet, but only just, and from to time the bright yellow rounds on the tree outside the window dropped of themselves, twirling in their slow fall to join the golden carpet at its foot, and in the silence the whispering impact of each leaf could be heard—a silence as peaceful as an easy death."

But this idyllic world is populated by grasping women, like Jack Aubrey's mother-in-law; by sottish soldiers, self-satisfied clergymen, pompous civil servants, and conmen of various descriptions. True, it is redeemed by kindly landladies, honest tars, and occasional good eggs in the ruling class, but the abiding impression is that there is something rotten in the state, dominated by the money men and the weight of inherited power. Ireland offers a release from all this. It is a place, for both O'Brian and his characters, where good blood can fall on hard times, where old manners and courtesy persist, and life can be lived at haphazard with no questions asked.

So, in December 1999, O'Brian died in Ireland, alone, in the Westbury Hotel. He had removed himself from his lodgings in Trinity College out of some characteristically paranoid fear that he had said something at high table to offend one of the Fellows. He was buried at sea. He had spent precious little time in Ireland, or afloat, but the conclusion was somehow fitting.

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