Harriet Martineau, the Irish Question, and Post-famine Ireland

Deborah Logan
Western Kentucky University

My paper investigates Harriet Martineau as a prominent literary and
intellectual voice in the periodical press and a frequent commentator
on the Irish Question. Under consideration is post-famine
reconstruction and its links with rising Irish nationalism, mass
emigration to North America, and immigrants’ implication in the
American Civil War. This paper draws on my editions of Martineau’s
writing about Ireland, all of which was published in periodicals
(Letters from Ireland and Endowed Schools of Ireland in Harriet
Martineau’s Writing on the British Empire, 2004; Harriet Martineau:
History of England and Military Reform, 2005; Harriet Martineau and
the Irish Question: Condition of Post-famine Ireland, 2012).
Inspired by her 1831 visit to Dublin, Martineau’s tale
“Ireland” (Illustrations of Political Economy, 1832) outlined
issues more fully developed in subsequent writing: religious conflict,
social manipulation, and political exploitation; land tenure,
unscrupulous overseers, and absentee landlords; farming subdivisions
and inefficient agricultural practices; the hope promised by
education, and the hopelessness engendered by chronic poverty and
systemic economic disempowerment. Because of her proven “capacity to
understand and represent the political and social condition” of
Ireland, Daniel O’Connell urged her to revisit these issues as an
established journalist and present them “in a way which the English
… [would be] willing to listen to” (AB 2:312).

Over the course of about eighty articles on Ireland, Martineau did
write sympathetically —not with the radical flamboyance of
O’Connell, or the Young Irelanders who succeeded him, or the Fenians
who succeeded them, but from her alternative focus on social,
economic, and education reforms. Poised between Irish nationalists and
British imperialists, Martineau expended considerable literary energy
advocating the Irish Cause while denouncing Union Repeal; in her
words, “I have no distinctive national feelings at all …. [I]t has
never occurred to me to consider the Irish separate or different from
the English.” Thus, her History of the Peace (1849-51) treats
Ireland primarily in relation to the Empire, addressing religion and
its social impact; economics and agriculture, flax and linen
production, cottage industries and industrialization; Parliamentary
representation; the Encumbered Estates Act; famine, fever, and
emigration; and pauperism and poor laws.
By 1852, her “fair qualification” for addressing socio-political
issues led to “the greatest literary engagement of my life” as
journalist for London’s Daily News (1852-66). Beginning with
“Letters from Ireland” (published serially), based on her
eye-witness accounts of post-famine Ireland and interviews with
survivors during a tour ranging from Belfast to Dublin and throughout
the southern and western regions, this was followed by “Endowed
Schools of Ireland” (serial, 1858) on education reform (higher
education and industrial training) for the rising middle-class, plus
an additional thirty-eight Irish articles in Daily News. Other
publications include Household Words, Atlantic Monthly, Once a Week,
Westminster Review, Edinburgh Review, and New York Evening Post.

By emphasizing shifts in narrative depth distinguishing daily from
weekly, monthly, and quarterly editorial approaches, my analysis of
this material reveals variability in Martineau’s views about
“Irishism.” While she claimed that Ireland’s recuperation
depended upon strengthening, not dissolving, the Union, she also wrote
that Victoria and Albert were clearly remiss in their mismanagement
and neglect of “our sister isle.” In her “assessments of
regional and national identity,” she both concedes that Irish
“disaffection” is more than justified and deplores the tactics of
agitators who manipulate the ignorant, poor, and starving into violent
uprisings. She advocates strengthening the culture from within,
through education, economic opportunities, and circumstances enabling
the Irish to put their talents to work at home, for the reconstruction
and recuperation of Ireland, rather than to emigrate.

Newspapers and Periodicals in Britain and Ireland from 1800 to 1900