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In Doctor William Maginn’s “Irish Songs,” which was published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1822, the ensign Morgan Odoherty lists all of the good food which can be enjoyed by a visitor to Maginn’s native Cork: turbot, salmon, hake, oysters, mutton, “beef and butter”, pork, and turkey. “Does he long for delicacies more fine and fair?” Odoherty demands, before adding turtle, port, claret, and whisky-punch to the regional banquet. Maginn’s homeland duly emerges from “Irish Songs” as a pastoral realm of plenty.

Maginn’s twentieth century biographer Miriam Thrall identified the doctor as a crusading Tory paternalist, who attacked the use of child labour in nineteenth century factories, the replacement of human labour with machinery, and the ruin which free trade inflicted upon wages and employment. Although Maginn’s elitism served to disparage causes such as Catholic Emancipation and the 1832 Reform Act, Thrall somewhat romanticises his sympathy with the poor, portraying him as a Robin Hood figure and claiming that on “reaching a town he had the custom of searching out the foulest slums and maintaining equality with their vagrants.”

As a Tory paternalist, Maginn identified the region as a sanctuary from modernity, but, paradoxically, such Arcadian scenes were typically popular with a modern commercial and national magazine readership. They appealed to those who consumed the Irish Melodies of the Dublin songwriter and poet Thomas Moore, which Maginn had previously rubbished under the pseudonym M.M Mulligan in an 1821 Blackwood’s article. “I shall only ask…” Mulligan had railed:

whether, in these pseudo-Irish Melodies, there is one song about our saints, fairs, wakes, rows, patrons, or any other diversion among us? Is there one drinking song which decent individuals would willingly roar forth after dinner in soul-subduing soloes, or give to the winds in the full swell of a thirty-man chorus? Not one – no not one.

In evoking an Arcadian Ireland, Maginn aimed to avoid Moore’s popular sentimentality, whilst simultaneously playing down the political and religious controversies which cast a shadow over his regional Arcadia. In the tenth of the “Noctes Ambrosianae” (1823), Odoherty despairs at the particularly “washy, watery comparison for my hard-drinking country” ventured within Moore’s “Erin the Tears and the Smile in Thine Eye” (that of a rainbow), and he wagers “that a jug of punch would be a more accurate and truly philosophical emblem.” He elaborates that:

There’s the Protestant part of the population inferior in quantity, superior in strength, apt to get at the head, evidently the whisky of the compound. The Roman Catholics, greater in physical proportions, but infinitely weaker, and usually very hot, are shadowed forth by the water. The Orangemen, as their name implies, are the fruit, which some palates think too sour, and therefore reject, while others think that it alone gives grateful flavour to the whole… [the sugar represents] the conciliators dropped in amongst us to sweeten our acidity – and you know some think that they have supplied with too liberal a hand, – very much at the risk of turning the stomachs of the company.

The choice of punch as a metaphor for Odoherty’s homeland represents Ireland as a happy whole, and one which would be incomplete without any of its ingredients. The Protestant Ascendancy is privileged as the strongest and most important ingredient, whisky; whilst the Catholics are represented as water, an ingredient crucial to the success of the punch but one comparatively inconsequential when apart from it. Yet, significantly, the relative strengths of these ingredients are variable. Maginn implies that Catholic Emancipation – which he assumed would be fatal to Ireland’s Protestant ascendancy – would, so to speak, leave the drinker not with punch but with a bowl of water. Maginn was doubtlessly aware that his punch analogy was confounded by examples of Catholic political movements which had a bit more of a kick to them than water (although nineteenth-century drinking water may have itself been fairly potent).

Although John Gibson Lockhart famously eulogised of Maginn that “barring drink and the girls, I ne’er heard of a sin,” the best joke made over Maginn’s bones was by Michael Sadleir, the twentieth century biographer of Edward Bulwer Lytton, who borrowed from Keats’ tombstone to quip that Maginn’s “name in very truth was writ in spirits and water.” Although many find ways of reconciling insobriety and religious faith, Maginn rarely wrote about religion, and his fierce church-and-state Toryism can be explained in exclusively political terms (in as much as religion and politics could be meaningfully separated in the nineteenth century). As one whose childhood had been haunted by the 1798 rebellion and its violent sequel, Maginn anticipated that Catholic Emancipation would lead to the sort of social anarchy which had followed the French Revolution. When studying Maginn’s writing, it is difficult to isolate an ideological defence of established government from a more general bigotry towards Catholics. His nineteenth-century editor Robert Shelton Mackenzie provides little help with such questions:

If it be wondered at that a man with such a grasp of mind as he possessed should have been one of the most intolerant of human beings, the mystery cannot be cleared up. No man enjoyed the society of Catholics so much – no man was more steady all his life, in enforcing his convictions… that they were unworthy of being trusted with – I will not say political power, but even with political freedom.

The challenge for this “most intolerant of human beings” was to represent Ireland whilst simultaneously including the Catholic majority whose members would have to remain prohibited from public office if the Anglo-Irish Union was to survive. Although in the aftermath of the 1798 rebellion the British establishment had preferred to blame “Popery” for the rising rather than either the republicanism or French allegiances of the United Irishmen who had led it, Maginn himself only achieves a vision of a unified, if not quite a “United,” Ireland, by rather making light of the whole subject of Catholicism.

In an 1829 edition of the “Noctes Ambrosianae,” Odoherty refers to Robert Peel – who was behind the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act – as a priest “begreased” Judas, and he hopes that “the hangman’s string/ Is spun for him.” This sort of unpleasantness is, however, a rare note in Maginn’s writing, and his anti-Catholicism is usually a very jolly affair. Presenting them as the water used to top up strong Protestant whisky is an example of the joshing to which Maginn subjected Ireland’s Catholics. This mischief came easily to Maginn because, as he explained to his editor William Blackwood from Cork in 1821, Protestants and Catholics “live here together in the greatest jollity – some of my most intimate acquaintances being of the latter religion.” Catholic children were admitted to Maginn’s school. “I do not like to write anti-Catholic articles for you,” Maginn told Blackwood, but when he did resort to such writing, its ultimate purpose was to suggest that Catholicism had not, or should not have, the power to detract from established government. One can almost imagine Maginn agreeing with the modern historian Peter Berresford Ellis’ argument that Daniel O’Connell’s “Catholic Association” benefited only the Catholic middle classes and provided a distraction from the distresses of the agrarian poor.

Before the pseudonym was appropriated by Maginn and several other writers, Morgan Odoherty was the invention of the Glaswegian writer Thomas Hamilton, who penned most of the “Memoir” of Odoherty serialised in Blackwood’s between 1818 and 1819. Odoherty’s name is an Anglicised form of the Gaelic “O’ Dochartaigh” – a Donegal name which was well known in Hamilton’s Glasgow – and Maginn privately referred to the character as “O’Dogherty.” In his “Memoir,” Hamilton portrays Odoherty as an Irishman of unspecified faith, and the rejection of his marriage proposal to Miss Augusta M’Craw and his low rank in the militia may be due to a Catholic background (or alternatively, just his poverty). George Thew Burke, the head of the 99th militia in which Odoherty serves, had renounced his Catholicism in order to further his career, and had only reaffirmed his old faith at the end of his life. Gerard Callaghan – a populist politician who first stood for parliament in Cork in 1820 – had equally renounced his Catholicism for Protestantism, and he would develop an increasingly sectarian appeal during the 1820s. Odoherty, in common with many ascendant Irishmen, may have similarly allowed his Catholicism to lapse in order to further his professional career. Just as Maginn presented Ireland as a pastoral land of good food, flowing drink, and high merriment, his ambassador for this Arcadia is a hard-drinking and loose-living “Irishman”, who is as bereft of Christian sentiment – whether Protestant or Catholic – as a poet from the age of Plato.

A similar forgetting of Catholicism can be observed in Maginn’s tale “A Vision of Purgatory”, which was published in the London Mirror in 1828, the year before the passing of Catholic Emancipation. The protagonist of the story, Larry Sweeny – a sort of stock Paddy figure – promises to protect the tomb of his Catholic master, Theodore DeLacy, from grave robbers , and the subsequent vigil enacts a parody of the typical Blackwood’s sensation tale (perhaps reflecting Maginn’s growing estrangement from the magazine). When Larry grumbles at finding himself in “a place like this forsaken ould berrin’ ground, which is noted for villainy”, a statue of Saint Colman, “to whom the church was dedicated”, comes to life and demands, “For what, Larry… do you say the churchyard is noted?” “For nothing at all, please your honour… except the height of gentility” Larry replies quickly.

Saint Colman leads Larry to a hall in the depths of the church where a “subterranean catch-club” of similar “living statues of stone” are drinking away the night. Saint Colman’s address to the club’s porter is distinctly un-saintly: “Be so good… my very good fellow, as to open the door without further questions, or I’ll break your head.” Inside, we meet Saint Patrick, who is even more of a thug. Just as Maginn wished to rescue Irish melodies from Thomas Moore, he equally desired to save Saint Patrick from Victorian respectability. Throughout “The Arrival of Saint Patrick,” the first of Odoherty’s own “Irish Melodies,” the Saint advocates intemperance, demands drink from everybody whom he meets, and magically tops up his friends’ drinks. If Maginn appoints Odoherty as a pleasure-seeking ambassador for Arcadian Ireland, it seems that Saint Patrick, who provides the region’s spiritual leadership, is a hard-drinking folk devil. When Larry promises to “appale to St. Patrick himself” if ever he saw DeLacy on the road to Purgatory, a painting of St Patrick on the wall fixes its eyes on Larry and, in true Gothic fashion, “winked with the most knowing air.” Patrick has been effectively demoted from a Saint to a spook, and one which perpetrates rather corny stunts.

When Larry appears reluctant to visit purgatory and rescue his master, the Saints threaten to “knock out his brains!” Yet these Saints are not merely yobs and hooligans, but they are also Freemasons: they make merry under the line, the square, the hammer, and the trowel. That the Saints are both Masons and made of stone perhaps reflects the disparity between their sainthood and their all-too-human passions for drink and violence.

Although the evocation of Freemasonry vaguely accords with popular suspicions that the Catholic clergy were malevolent and conspiratorial, a Papal denunciation had ensured that Irish Freemasonry was largely a middle-class Protestant concern by the 1820s, and one which provided a more respectable equivalent of the Orange Order. Maginn was an Orangeman and probably a Mason to boot, and if his Saints are Catholics and Masons, their “catch-club” is equally not unlike the meetings of Orangemen. The Saints’ “catch-club” thus presents a muddling of Ireland’s social, political and religious “clubs” and suggests that “jocular harmony and the tinkling of glasses” is common throughout the region.

Drink thus becomes a unifying principle which can be appreciated by Protestants, Catholics, and Orangemen alike (although in Maginn’s fiction alcohol typically emerges from ancient, aristocratic cellars). There is an element of reconciliation to the end of the tale when Larry awakens to find that his visit to Purgatory has only been a dream, and the hitherto disrespectful portrayal of the Catholic Saints can therefore be attributed to a misunderstanding on the part of this drunken protagonist. Within the reality of the tale, the Saints were not, so to speak, real.

“A Vision of Purgatory” substitutes Ireland’s prevailing Catholicism – and the threat which it posed to the region’s Protestant Ascendancy – for a religion which is ostensibly Catholic but actually a harmless, superstitious entertainment. Indeed, Maginn’s Saints rather resemble the witches from Robert Burns’ yarn “Tam O’Shanter.” If “A Vision” attempts to defuse the potentially incendiary issue of religion, Maginn’s tale “The Two Butlers of Kilkenny” – which was published in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1836 – promises an airing of political views, but turns out to be rather an innocent affair.

The tale recounts the adventures of Tom, an eighteenth century butler who, whilst holidaying in Kilkenny, wishes to be shown around the Earl of Ormond’s castle. Tom befriends a character whom he assumes to be the castle’s own butler in order to secure a free tour, but it transpires that this “butler” is none other than the Earl of Ormond himself (whose surname was Butler). The Jacobite Earl has been ostracised by the town of Kilkenny, and he presumably pretends to be his own butler not only out of mischief, but because he is rather lonely and wishes to enjoy Tom’s jolly companionship. As they tour the castle, Tom says some suitably disrespectful things about the Earl whom he presumes to be off-stage, and he calls portraits of the Earl’s ancestors, “Rum-looking old ruffians!” Oblivious to the true identity of his companion, Tom digs deeper:

“…this is his house, and you and I are drinking his drink, so why should we wish him bad luck? If he was hanged, of course, I’d go to see him, to be sure, would not you?”

“I should certainly be there.”

Before he is enlightened, Tom finds the Jacobite Earl to be “a pleasant acquaintance”, if a “queer fellow.” The Earl demonstrates some old aristocratic paternalism in “steadying” Tom back to his inn. He assures Tom that all the wealthy men who bow to him as they pass are “tradesmen of the castle.” When the inn owner finally tells Tom who had escorted him home, Tom tears off into the night, terrified of being persecuted for associating with Jacobites. Yet in the Earl’s castle, for a few hours, politics had been briefly put aside and a good-humoured natural order had returned, in which a paternal aristocrat opened his cellars for a humble Irishman.