The Art of Seeing Things Invisible

Front cover of The Irish Enlightenment
Front cover of The Irish Enlightenment
The Irish Enlightenment 
by Michael Brown
Harvard University Press 640pp £25

An illuminating and scholarly study seeks to re-evaluate the intellectual and cultural history of an enlightened Ireland.

Were the inhabitants of 18th-century Ireland trapped by history in a peculiarly sectarian polity, economically and politically debilitated and culturally impoverished? Was Ireland ‘the Enlightenment’s antinomy’? 

Michael Brown’s rich, scholarly yet accessible study draws upon a prodigious array of contemporary materials – from ballads to philosophical treatises, histories to mercantilist proposals, to plays, novels or political propaganda – and brings together the results of recent decades of sustained and specialised scholarship, which has revealed a more complicated, more vibrant and more diverse 18th-century Ireland than has hitherto been known. 

With The Irish Enlightenment, Brown has produced a distinctive, illuminating and often challenging synthesis, with which historians both of Ireland and of the wider Enlightenment need to engage.

Brown intends his work to demonstrate Ireland’s participation in ‘the Enlightenment project’ more generally. This he achieves not by means of constant comparison, but by allowing the evidence of Irish debate to speak for itself across the entire span of Enlightenment questions and dilemmas. Throughout, he is alert to the crucial characteristics of Ireland in the period: the distinctiveness of its ‘religious demography’, as a Protestant confessional state with an overwhelming Catholic majority (and a dissenting Protestant population, also excluded from full civil status, roughly equal in size to its conforming counterpart); its recurrent economic blows; and the shadow cast back across the century by its end, in a brutal and bloody civil conflict and the collapse of the political institutions refurbished on an upswing of patriotic hope little less than two decades before. Rather than spending too much time worrying over the meaning of ‘enlightenment’ (much less ‘The Enlightenment’), Brown demonstrates, rather than defines, his understanding in capacious terms.
He is thus able to meet his aspiration of drawing his study of Enlightenment into a ‘wider cultural history of the country’. This ensures that his study will prove valuable to readers with more decidedly political, religious, social or literary interests. Thus the middle chapters, addressing the half-century to 1780, look to the settings and forms of what is seen as a new ‘experiment in living in civil society, tolerant of confessional difference’. 

Brown presents an Ireland undergoing a reorientation of its social life, one embracing clubs and societies designed for anything from agricultural improvement to shared debauchery and lived out in a profusion of theatrical performances and concerts, of salons and coffeehouses and bookshops. This was made manifest above all in the cluster of Dublin streets that housed a ‘hive of argument and debate’ at the ‘heart of the Irish Enlightenment’. It was a mode of living increasingly present across urban Ireland, although, given the prevailing social profile and political realities, it is perhaps unsurprising that comparatively few Catholics or dissenters crop up in some of these circles. Even the enlightened (later Royal) Dublin Society, which from 1731 would fulfill its aspiration to promote ‘Husbandry, Manufactures and other useful Arts and Sciences’
in ever-expanding and imaginative directions, did not accord full membership to Catholics; that they could win the premiums it sponsored seems scant compensation. 

This is a carefully plotted book. Brown maps the Irish experience onto three chronologically sequenced stages, or phases, of the Enlightenment – Religious, Social and Political – each the subject of a sequence of chapters. Wending its way across the book as an organising thought is an understanding of the great plurality of ideas and episodes that tracked back to their philosophical roots. These are to be found not in sets of doctrines or even assumptions, but in a ‘spectrum of philosophical methods’ – rationalist, empiricist, speculative/freethinking and ‘scholastic’ – which serve to enable Enlightenment (or, in the last case, to challenge it). 

Brown’s is a bold design. But does it not over-schematise? Take ‘scholastic’: is it helpful as an umbrella for all forms of tradition- or authority-based forms of argument? Does it add to an understanding of, say, Irish-language scribal activity, to identify it, at least in part, as the undertaking of an ‘essentially Scholastic task of preserving ancient lore’? Similarly, is Jonathan Swift really best thought of as ‘in his positive belief system a Scholastic thinker’? The problem is not so much terminological as classificatory. 

The closing chapters, which take a welcome plunge into the political contests of the late 18th century, connect the fatal fractures of the Irish polity to a deep ‘fissure in the bedrock of ontological attitudes, created by two different methodological approaches to political questions’. Those favouring radical political solutions, either to Ireland’s internal political order (notably the position of Catholics within the polity) or in its relations with Great Britain, are seen to draw on rationalist modes of political thinking, while empiricism is seen as blurring into pragmatism, conservatism and, ultimately, a loyalism resistant to the revolutionary schemes of the United Irishmen. 

All this is bracing, but is it in the end convincing? At the least, it will – or ought to – require more hard thinking about how to connect political decisions with enabling, or constricting, frameworks of ideas.

Michael Brown has produced the kind of big history that can only benefit Irish historical study. His book ought to mean that Ireland does not disappear off the radar of those scholars pondering other aspects of ‘the Enlightenment project’, such as how it might have served to translate ideas about humanity and its wellbeing into concrete historical situations. Brown’s insightful analyses and juxtapositioning of individuals and their ideas captures the diversity, even creativity, of Irish-based encounters with intractable realities within an uneven and at times distempered society and in the minds and emotions of its fallible inhabitants. In that, above all, The Irish Enlightenment leaves its readers enlightened.

Robert Armstrong

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