Percy Bysshe Shelley and revolutionary Ireland

By Sinéad Fitzgibbon.
Ireland at the turn of the 19th century was a country in a state of flux.  Tensions between the oppressed Catholic majority and the wealthy Anglo-Irish ruling class, known as the Protestant Ascendancy, had reached an all-time high.  This was due in large part to the continuing existence of some onerous and prejudicial Penal Laws, which were a failed attempt by British authorities to extirpate the Roman religion from Irish shores. Consequently, republican sentiment, mainly among Catholics but also among a few liberal-minded Protestants, was on the rise as the disaffected population, inspired by the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, increasingly strained against the yoke of British rule.  The year 1791 had seen the beginning of Society of United Irishmen, an organisation founded with the express aim of bringing liberty, fraternity, and equality to Irishmen of all creeds.  The United Irishmen were not, however, to replicate the achievements of their French counterparts; a planned rebellion for May 1798 was foiled by the British authorities, and its leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone, was arrested and condemned to death.

Politically, the reaction of the British Government to the growing republican threat was swift; the small degree of legislative independence enjoyed by Ireland was revoked, and the Irish Parliament in Dublin was disbanded by the Act of Union of 1801.  Henceforth, Ireland was to be ruled directly from Westminster.  In reaction to this, a militant nationalist by the name of Robert Emmet attempted to re-group and re-arm the United Irishmen and mount an attack on Dublin Castle, the organisational hub of British rule in Ireland.  But this addendum to their story was to be short-lived.  Emmet’s rebellion of 1803 was yet another failure and he too was to lose his life for treason.  It was into this Ireland, riven with deep religious divides and trembling with frustrated republicanism, that the idealistic, nineteen-year-old Percy Bysshe Shelley sailed in 1812, determined to champion the cause of the subjugated Irish nation.

It is difficult to say exactly when Shelley’s interest in Irish affairs was first awakened, although it was certainly in evidence before his expulsion from Oxford. There can, however, be no doubt as to why the plight of the Irish people so engaged him.  Shelley was a radical thinker, an egalitarian dedicated to the cause of fairness, a second-generation Romantic hugely influenced by the liberal writings of the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, and an avid disciple of William Godwin.  In Ireland, he had a found a cause which appealed to his enlightenment sensibilities, representing as it did the quintessential struggle for justice and freedom.

On the evening of 12 February 1812, Shelley arrived in Ireland after a long and difficult crossing, accompanied by his young wife, Harriet, and her sister, Eliza.  Taking first-floor lodgings at 7 Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in the centre of Dublin, Shelley turned his considerable energies to the task of finding a printer prepared to facilitate the publication of his recently-completed pamphlet, An Address to the Irish People.  This was no small task considering the tract contained sentiments which could very well be viewed as seditious by the British authorities. Nonetheless, find a printer he did and by the end of his first week, Shelley had in his possession 1,500 copies of his address.

According to Harriet, Shelley took “great pains to circulate” his pamphlet. Unperturbed by the poor paper quality, the almost-illegible print, and the profusion of typos, copies were mailed to the homes of many of the country’s leading radicals and liberals. Others made their way to Shelley’s supporters and friends in England, including Godwin.  About sixty were sent to pubs throughout Dublin, while the remainder were distributed by hand on the city’s crowded streets. With typical exuberance, Shelley even took to flinging some out of the window in Sackville Street onto the heads of passers-by below.

The young would-be revolutionary had high hopes that this treatise would make an impact on the people of Dublin, particularly on its target audience, the working class.  In an advertisement taken out in the Dublin Evening Post, Shelley left the reader in no doubt as to the aims of his pamphlet; he declared that “…it is the intention of the Author to awaken in the minds of the Irish poor a knowledge of their real state, summarily pointing out the evils of that state, and suggesting rational means of remedy.”  He counselled the country’s working classes to show restraint and toleration in their dealings with their Protestant masters, while also advocating a patient, measured and peaceful approach to their demands for emancipation.  “Temperance, sobriety, charity and independence will give you virtue,” he insisted, “and reading, talking, thinking and searching will give you wisdom; when you have those things you may defy the tyrant.”

Shelley was, no doubt, entirely genuine in his desire to educate the ‘lower orders’ of Irish society on the realities of their oppressed situation, but in writing this pamphlet, he made two fundamentally erroneous assumptions.  In the first instance, he took it for granted that the Irish poor needed to be told about the true nature of their oppression, and secondly, he failed to realise that they would hardly be prepared to accept instruction from a fresh-faced aristocratic Englishmen.

These were not the only problems with Shelley’s treatise.  The condescending and sanctimonious tone was a miscalculation, as was its length – at twenty-two pages, the Address was far too long and verbose to hold the attentions of those he most wished to reach, despite his efforts to adopt a style that “the lowest comprehension could read.”  It had also escaped Shelley’s notice that he was, in fact, preaching to the converted.  The disastrous United Irishmen campaigns had convinced many in Ireland that militancy would not further the nationalist cause, and the tide of public opinion was already turning, with the help of the rabble-rousing Daniel O’Connell, to the idea of campaigning for parliamentary reform by means of purely peaceful political agitation.

Neither were Shelley’s politics without inherent contradiction; his stated admiration of the militant Robert Emmet (as espoused in the elegiac poem, On Robert Emmet’s Grave, most likely written during his visit to Dublin, and highlighted by his public visit to Emmet’s tomb in March) undermined the non-violent approach he advocated in his pamphlet.  All in all, despite it being well-intentioned, An Address to the Irish People was seriously flawed, and although its author initially declared that it had “caused a sensation of wonder in Dublin,” its impact was negligible. Ultimately, it served only to highlight the naivety and confused principles of its author.

There was one upside, however; Shelley’s Address brought him to the attention of Daniel O’Connell’s Catholic Committee, a group dedicated to the peaceful campaign for the abolishment of penal laws.  He was invited to speak at a public meeting of the Committee on 28 February at the Fishamble Street Theatre, alongside O’Connell himself.  Taking to the stage, Shelley spoke for over an hour, with much of his speech being a reiteration of the ideas expressed in his pamphlet.  The reaction of the audience was equivocal, with Shelley himself admitting “my speech was misinterpreted… the hisses with which they greeted me when I spoke of religion were mixed with applause when I avowed my mission.” Nonetheless, he pressed ahead with the publication of two more pamphlets, Proposals for an Association (which called for the establishment of non-violent organisations for the advancement of political ideas) and a Declaration of Rights (copies of which were pasted all over the streets of Dublin). Neither publication was any more successful than his first effort.

The young poet must surely have been disappointed with Dublin’s lacklustre response to his revolutionary efforts.  In the end though, it was William Godwin who proved to be Shelley harshest critic. While Godwin had disagreed with much of the content of An Address to the Irish People, he was horrified by Proposals for an Association, and strongly rebuked his protégé in a letter dated 18 March.  “Shelley,” he wrote, “you are preparing a scene of blood! If your associations take effect […] tremendous consequences will follow, and hundreds, by their calamities and premature fate, will expiate your error.” This letter heightened Shelley’s growing sense of despondency, and finally convinced him of the futility of his Irish endeavours.  He replied to Godwin, “I have withdrawn from circulation the publications wherein I erred & am preparing to leave Dublin.” And that, as they say, was that.

Percy, Harriet and Eliza left Dublin on 4 April 1812.  While it might be tempting to say that Shelley’s first foray into real-life revolutionary politics was a failure, it would in reality be far too simplistic to do so.  In the words of Shelley’s biographer, Richard Holmes, the young poet had arrived in Ireland as an ‘untested revolutionary’; over the course of his seven weeks in the country, he gained a harsh but valuable lesson in political reality. He left somewhat chastened, but very much the wiser.  Indeed, it is a testament to his strength of character and his unshakeable belief in his principals that the Irish adventure did nothing to diminish Percy Bysshe Shelley’s enthusiasm for, and dedication to, the cause of justice, fairness and freedom.
Sinead Fitzgibbon

Sinéad Fitzgibbon is the author of five titles for the popular History In An Hour series, including Shakespeare, Titantic, and JFK.  She has also embarked on a series of city histories – A Short History of London is out now, while A Short History of Dublin is due in April.

Picture: Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran.
Reproduced courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery