Romantic Revolutionary: Shelley and Ireland

Poetry Ireland News March/April 2012

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was born into a world dominated by the struggle for the rights of man and political justice. This was a time when it was safe to assume that a poet of any dignity was inspired by the concepts of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Wordsworth enthused by the ideals of the French Revolution gloriously declaimed how:

  Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
  But to be young was very heaven.

However, Shelley came of age in a period of reaction, between the failure of the French Revolution and the Reform Bill of 1832. He was one of a generation of writers who grew up in the opening decades of the nineteenth-century, who experienced the revolution at second hand, through the books of Volney, Godwin, and Paine.

Two-hundred years ago in February 1812, inspired by the ideals of the Enlightenment, Shelley and his wife Harriet set sail for Dublin and threw themselves whole-heartedly into the struggle for Catholic emancipation and repeal of the Union. But, this chapter in his life is usually diminished or ignored by his biographer; even Richard Holmes in his wonderful book, Shelley the Pursuit, suggests that Shelley came to Ireland with little understanding of Irish affairs and left it after ‘a painful education in political reality’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Shelley was a devoted and courageous advocate of Irish freedom. His interest in Irish politics was fired by the Irish exile revolutionaries who frequented the coffee houses in London. In 1811, at the age of eighteen, Shelly wrote a ‘poetical essay’ in support of Peter Finnerty, an imprisoned Irish journalist, which in part led to his expulsion from Oxford University.

Shelley had put together a collection of poems, Songs of Liberty, and Ireland seemed the obvious place to have them published. He wanted his poems to be the ‘trumpet of a prophecy’ that gave utterance to inhumanity he saw around him. Shelley had prepared well; his pamphlet An Address to the Irish People was written to stir up the Irish people to take action on their own behalf. His second pamphlet, Proposals for an Association was even more direct, here he appealed to the remnants of the United Irishmen to come together to form a political association using peaceful means to influence Irish politics in a more radical direction. He also printed a Declaration of Rights in the tradition of the American Revolution to be pasted up on the walls of Dublin. With John Lawless, an associate of Daniel O’Connell, he planned to launch a new radical newspaper and also publish a new history of Ireland. The Compendium of Irish History was eventually published in 1814, but it’s unclear if Shelley made any editorial contribution. However, he must have made a favourable impression, as he was invited to speak at a meeting of the Catholic Association and shared a platform with Daniel O’Connell at the Music Hall Theatre in Fishamble Street. Shelley was a great admirer of Robert Emmet and the United Irishmen. His poem On Robert Emmet’s Tomb is both a statement of his support for the ideals of Emmet, and a bridge between his early didactic poetry and the great lyrical poet he became:

May the tempests of Winter that sweep o’er thy tomb
Disturb not a slumber so sacred as thine;
May the breezes of Summer that breathe of perfume
Waft their balmiest dews to so hallowed a shrine.

Shelley’s proposals came to nothing; his youth and inexperience counted against him. But Shelley did not give up on political activity; he moved to Wales to work amongst the farm labourers for better conditions. This agitation upset the local landowners, including Robert Leeson, the son of the Earl of Milltown, an Ascendancy landowner from County Wicklow. In early 1813 Leeson was behind an attempt on Shelley’s life causing him to flee Wales. Shelley sought refuge in Ireland. There in the seclusion of Ross Island in Killarney he completed his first major poem, Queen Mab. Here we see the final flowering of Shelley’s radical doctrine – his hatred of poverty and war – written in the most wonderful lyrical style:

War is the statesman’s game, the priests delight,
The lawyer’s jest, the hired assassin’s trade.

Shelley retained an interest in Irish politics right up to the time of his death in 1822 at the age of twenty-nine. Denis MacCarthy writing in 1842 in The Nation, the paper of the Young Ireland Movement, claimed Shelley as a friend and supporter of the Irish people. We should acknowledge Shelley’s contribution to Irish politics and how he inspired the likes of Yeats, Shaw O’Casey, Joyce, and Heaney, long before any of them had ever written a word.

Paul O’Brien is a writer and critic and is the author of Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland (Bookmarks, London).

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