Much has been written in recent years in the attempt to elucidate the nature and shape of the Enlightenment in Ireland. The 1798 United Irish Rebellion and subsequent Act of Union has been seen as the point where the Irish Enlightenment may have ruptured (Brown 2016: 264). However, alternative interpretations of the impact of the Rebellion have been offered, pointing to the continuity of Enlightenment, its modes, endeavours and processes (Orr 2020: 149). Allied to the continuity of Enlightenment, the discussion has tended to align with developments of Romanticism and literary production within Ireland, as an indicator of the survival of Enlightenment values into the nineteenth century. Recent work by Guy Beiner has sought to recover the movement from a series of communal forgettings to awaken a sense of how often the United Irish movement was buried in community memory (Beiner 2018: 8). Current activities include work by groups such as Reclaim the Enlightenment and the Enlightenment Legacies conference held in Belfast in March 2023. At a time of changing demographics and voting patterns in Northern Ireland, we are now also reaching a stage at which many questions about identity are being asked. One is what kind of post-Union state are we in? Given the current state of affairs in the British and Irish archipelago we might ask when does (or will) the historical dispensation “post-Union” shift from signifying conditions under the 1800 Acts of Union to encompass the constitutional uncertainties currently besetting the post-Brexit United Kingdom? At this juncture, when some are pointing to the possibilities of reclaiming the Enlightenment legacies of the 1790s and 1800s it might be worth examining the specifics of the Enlightenment that is being reconstructed. If the tendency is now to recover the discourse and work of groups and individuals who constructed Enlightenment Belfast and its hinterland, how do we approach the mission of those who sought to labour within this field after the Rebellion? And how do we approach loyalists and supporters of the Establishment whose projects may have closely resembled Enlightenment goals and ambitions, yet were seeking very different outcomes to their liberal and radical peers?
To address these questions, I will explore the nature of post-Rebellion and post-Union Belfast and its surrounding area as imagined through a range of literary materials and cultural models. I will argue that the town of Belfast, with some caveats, remained a locale determined to continue to articulate the Enlightenment values which had guided it in the latter part of the eighteenth century, but these values were in competition with a motivation to portray loyalty and a nascent Unionist ethos. For such a relatively small town, Belfast played host to a range of confessional, political and cultural outlooks (Bryan, Connolly and Nagle 2019). Even so, any effort to reclaim the Enlightenment values of the 1798 Rebellion, as seen in recent scholarship and community activism, must acknowledge the determination on the part of some to repudiate and reconfigure this tradition in the years after the Rebellion (Beiner 2018: 147). These revisionist goals were actively perpetrated by Establishment figures who for political expediency sought to downplay the threat and significance of what they had experienced. In line with this reversion to “traditional” values, country estates, albeit modest ones, took on a greater significance than their relatively humble environs might suggest. The approach of Bishop Thomas Percy of Dromore was particularly significant in this regard, as I will go on to detail. Percy was an upwardly-mobile Anglican cleric and also an antiquarian scholar who had entered the culture wars of Britain and Ireland a generation prior to his 1782 move to Ireland (Groom 1999: 2-8). His particular brand of antiquarianism and patronage would have an especial role in County Down in the 1790s and the 1800s. I will contrast Percy with a number of labouring class writers who sought a role for themselves post Union through approaches that served to disguise or ameliorate their radical positioning of the 1790s. Their work, read as a response to the new political and cultural landscape of the 1800s, can be seen as a means to subvert, criticise and commemorate the ideals of the previous decade. In this process the presence of these writers as professional authors is questioned, denuded and often excised, placing in their stead a cloaked and conditional authorial presence who appears often on the page as an enthusiast, amateur or an ingénue, propelled forward by the charitable intervention of others or by a community of subscribers and patrons.
Percy was a defender of English/Gothic values in his antiquarian work. His Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) had sought to demonstrate the social and cultural value of the Gothic-inspired traditional ballad at the time of the Ossian controversy (Ferguson and Glover 2018: 18-19). His literary, clerical and social endeavours enabled professional ascension and the attainment of a bishopric in Ireland in 1782 (Davis 1989: 265-6). While outwardly claiming that his literary and editorial pursuits were behind him, he maintained an interest in these areas, though often they were through agents and proxies, or through the networks he hosted at his salon in Dromore, Dublin and London (Davis 1989: 265-321). The clash of Enlightenment and Establishment values becomes apparent with a brief survey of his activities in Ireland. He was a supporter and one of the founding members of the Royal Irish Academy and of educational developments in Belfast such as the creation of the Belfast Academical Institution (Davis 1989: 278). He provided support for a range of poets, painters and educators within his diocese and beyond (Green 1970: 224-232). He was also heavily invested, figuratively and physically, in the British imperial Establishment in Ireland. As well as being a relatively conservative bishop within the established Anglican church, he had financially supported a troop of yeomen in the 1790s, fostered an information gathering network, and after the Rebellion had been assiduous in assisting Richard Musgrave to compile a report on the United Irishmen (Coyle and Duffy 2001: 118; Davis 1989: 312).
When his literary circle is examined, it is possible to discover a number of concerns that recur within this writing. Firstly, there is an obsession with the representation of domestic and estate spaces. Secondly, hierarchal values that operate within the See are replicated in tiers of poets. Thirdly, this group operates as an alternative network to other radical and labouring/middle class groups within counties Antrim and Down. John Hewitt claimed that Percy “became the centre of the most influential literary coterie Ulster has ever known” (Hewitt 2004: 26), though he believed Percy stifled creativity and innovation within it (Hewitt 1987: 68-69).
However, Percy’s patronage was not primarily given for creative purposes. An exploration of texts of his circle’s members reveals that he was keen to promote “English” cultural conventions within a northern Irish space. These were politically and aesthetically beneficial to Percy and his cohort during the period running up to the United Irish Rebellion and in the decade after the creation of the Union of Great Britain and Ireland. His circle operated as a cultural control mechanism that offered a redefinition of the Dromore region after the Rebellion. Also, the variety of voices within the circle reveals a much more expansive and extensive range of writers than Hewitt allowed for.
Overtly, Percy’s role as bishop restricted his literary career as he had to deal with diocesan business and the social round of Irish political life. He did not include his name on the title page of the Reliques as he felt it “indecorous to have […] the name of a grave man at the head of a work of levities” and simultaneously carry out his temporal and religious duties in the seclusion of the smallest Anglican See in Ireland (Wood 1985: 51). Ostensibly, he was in Ireland on God’s business, a fact that he made known in his first sermon in Dromore in October 1783.
Dromore did not initially appear physically or intellectually welcoming as a small town, especially when compared to the municipal and cultural developments of the larger town of Belfast, or the Sees of Derry or Armagh (Glasscock 1967: 82; Musgrave 1802: 12; Malcomson 2003: 36-51). But it did offer potential compensation that an opportunist such as Percy could exploit. His outward rejections of literary dealings need to be contextualised by his actual activities in Dromore. In reality, this was part of his strategy as a newly elevated lord to mask some of the means that helped him to reach his position. He may have wished to disguise any aspect of his former life as an editor of poetry that might come back to haunt him. In many ways he did not want to be seen as a literary antiquarian anymore. However, an examination of correspondence with individuals such as Edmund Malone reveals his continuing interest in literature and books (Smith and Brooks 1944: 6). Evidence from the catalogue of his library at Dromore attests to an enduring acquisition of texts after his move to Ireland, with a continuing interest in antiquarian titles produced by Thomas Chatterton and Joseph Ritson in 1802 (Percy 1808).
Ownership of a library and archive acted as a means to enhance his standing as a cultural player in the social game: “[s]cholarship was made exclusive to those who owned or had access or could decipher such exotic evidence. Private ownership of a manuscript meant monopoly scholarship and so there was a class dimension to this scholarship” (Groom, 1999 38). In Ireland, Percy’s exclusive access to the benefits of this scholarship was magnified, and camouflaged, by his role as Lord Bishop. The relative “isolation” of Ireland worked in his favour, as it lent him the aura of a poet in retirement from the world of Johnson’s Club and the literary haggling that had enabled him to rise in the Anglican social hierarchy in England. But it equally gave him a sense of distance from Belfast and the new cultural mix in which he operated. This conceit of retirement was employed for a number of reasons. It stated his renunciation of the base commerce of literary dealings, at a time when he was not quite as bankable as new writers coming to the fore. The major manifestation of this pose was the way in which Percy managed his estate in the guise of a learned recluse, rediscovering the beauty and instruction that Nature offered.
He had inherited the “mere shell” of a palace in a small See in a northern province (Davis 1989: 263-8). Arthur Young had famously derided Dromore town as a “miserable nest of dirty mud cabbins” in 1780 (Young 1892: 133). Initially, Percy had complained about the high costs involved in supervising his holdings, especially when tithes were so difficult to obtain in Ulster from Dissenters and Catholics who felt deep resentment at having to maintain what they saw as an alien or heretical church. In the Parish of Dromore, Protestants outnumbered Catholics two to one, but, as Bertram Davis has shown, “were in turn outnumbered three to one by the Dissenters” (Davis 1989: 267). The “cathedral”, although in good repair, was hardly of the same magnitude as the Deanship he had left in Carlisle. Percy also had a great acumen for pleading poverty when it suited him, and it is therefore difficult to ascertain how real much of his money worries were. Despite all his claims of financial difficulties, the early years of the 1780s saw him spending money to carry out improvements to his property with gusto. Dromore provided an empty canvas on which to portray an image of his good taste and sound judgment, and situated as it was in what has been termed Ulster’s “Linen Triangle”, proved a potentially very valuable spot at a time of industrialisation (Crawford 1998: 48).
Improving his local landscape was the epitome of his dual mission as lord and enlightened aesthete. Especially when it involved cultivating examples of “English” civilisation in the relatively barren wilds of County Down. He made it known that he wished to recreate a version of William Shenstone’s Leasowes estate in Ireland. Shenstone’s influence as estate developer, as much as literary editor, remained an important influence on Percy (Groom 1999: 29; Calhoun 1985: 102).
His estate at Dromore would show, like Shenstone’s Leasowes, the exceptional “native taste” of an “Englishman”, imbued with all the values the Anglican Church and an Oxford education could bestow. Previously, Percy had helped compile Shenstone’s collected works and contributed substantially to preparing the “Description of the Leasowes”, an estate boasting the “full effect” of nature with no visible “hand of art” (Dodsley and Shenstone 1764: 333).
Dromore was not without its dangers, however. Percy moved to Ireland at time of agrarian violence and the threat of rebellion. It might be overstating to claim that he was a hard-line reactionary planted to quell the radical Irish threat. But he was part of a hegemony in which the language of taste and politesse was used for national, confessional and racial domination. Furthermore, having the status of being an estate owner allowed him to enter into a position of economic and social, as well as religious, authority to set and enforce rules for those below.
He had been warned of what to expect in Ulster from William Jessop, a southern Irish correspondent, in 1784:
The Ultonian (Ulster People) are Scots; in which word much is included. We are genuine Irish; well natured, gay tempered, and if sometimes a little absurd, so much the more diverting. Here we look upon Ulster as one grand volcano, ready every moment to shake the earth around it and pour forth its burning lava. (Gaussen 1905: 230)
Despite the challenges he faced from disenfranchised and radicalizing elements in Ulster, his estate presented the opportunity for development and for the creation of a genteel oasis amid the “burning” lava of the North. The aesthetic of sculpting parkland and completion of an estate house was also the outward gilding of a declaration of spiritual, political, economic and military hegemony nestling amid the Ulster drumlins.
The improvements at Dromore, such as fitting out and decorating the house, as well as improving the return of the agricultural land soon drew the attention of onlookers. His varied interests in scientific, literary and antiquarian artefacts brought many weird and wonderful objects into his possession. Most famously, a pair of gigantic horns from an extinct Irish elk which decorated his hallway were praised by the local poet Thomas Dawson Lawrence:
Time’s hand mature unlock’d the stubborn clay
And call’d the wondrous Antlers into day. (Lawrence 1789: 51)
Percy had become what Pierre Bourdieu has described as a member of the “Aristocracy of culture” – giving him a vantage point from which he could enforce the legitimization of social and political difference (Bourdieu 1980: 24).
Leaving the esoterica of ballad manuscripts and fossils aside, the Dromore estate functioned as a main source of income. Good husbandry provided income as much as it attested to one’s moral and aesthetic sensibility. Percy may have followed fashion and planted trees, walks, ponds and statues, but he also introduced new machinery, crops and farming methods. Concurrent with his improvements to church buildings and advising his clergy to work harder, he put diocesan leases and tithes in order (Davis 1989: 275). He also set about organising the local textile market, which would soon be “flourishing” (Percy 1799: Add. MS. 32335 ff. 138-140). Surveyors, such as John Dubourdieu, noted in 1802 how his introduction of the “English Plough” and new breeds of animals had reaped great benefits (Dubourdieu 1802: 50). In addition, Percy saw to it that as his diocese improved tensions among his ambitious clergy and laity, at least in the 1780s, were contained as best they could. Offering employment by means of ecclesiastical appointments and in the various occupations that a modernising estate required provided a nucleus of loyal and contented supporters.
Percy also sought to connect with local grand families such as the Moiras, on their nearby Ballynahinch estate of Montalto (Prendergast 2015: 68). Alongside building links with gentry and upper class families, he was courted into Irish Enlightenment institutions such as the Royal Irish Academy. A body dedicated to the study of science and the humanities, the Academy comprised gentlemen and academics largely drawn from upper class Anglican circles, with a few notable exceptions. The society claimed an interest in Irish antiquities, but was determined to avoid controversies between colonialist and nativist interpretations of the Gaelic past. Percy was strongly against any texts which portrayed Celtic Ireland’s political independence from or cultural superiority to Britain, whether past or present. He would accept no reinterpretation of the past which might undermine the English conquest and domination of Ireland. Percy recorded a bitter argument with Colonel Charles Vallancey over the nature of the Celtic language at an early meeting of the society. Percy claimed to John Pinkerton that he “downright quarrelled with me, one evening, at the Society, for presuming to question some of his wild reveries” (Wood 1985: 67). Percy was praised by like-minded peers for his stance. Dr. Thomas Campbell, another member of the “Nordic” faction, saw Percy in a different light:
You have redeemed [the Academy] from a new degree of contempt, into which it must have sunk, if its corporation of literati were to be responsible for those crude effusions which some of its members write with much more facility than I can read them. (Nichols 1858: 771)
The 1790s saw the forces of reaction triumphing over liberal and radical movements in Ireland. Percy’s role in this has been largely ignored. Dromore was a microcosm of Ireland, where the competing factions of Irish society, Anglican, Dissenter and Catholic, lived uneasily together. Percy’s hope that the “North” would remain “completely tranquil” was short-lived (Percy n.d.: British Library. Add. MS. 32335 p. 9). The official history of Percy’s residence in Ulster is a glowing portrait of a fatherly benefactor. E.D. Atkinson wrote in 1925 that Percy:
constantly resided promoting the instruction and comfort of the poor with unremitting attention, and superintending the sacred and civil interests of his diocese with vigilance and assiduity; revered and beloved for his piety, liberality, benevolence and hospitality by persons of every rank and religious denomination. (Atkinson 1925: 74)
Percy received many such accolades like this during his lifetime, but, as ever, they only told part of his story. Contemporary evidence reveals that he regarded the local inhabitants of Dromore with a suspicion that bordered on paranoia and his letters of this time attest to his firm mistrust of “Northern Republicans”. Even as early as 1790, Percy’s fears of revolution were spreading. Dr. Halliday, an upstanding member of the Belfast Volunteers, wrote to his patron Lord Charlemont complaining that Percy had accused him of being at the centre of a conspiracy. Percy had believed Halliday to be the ringleader of a Presbyterian Inquisition, intent on “demolishing the whole Christian church” (Charlemont 1891: 131).
The Public Record Office of Northern Ireland holds documents that cast a very different light on Percy’s career in Ireland. They reveal that he was at the head of a spy ring in his diocese, which ferried information to Lord Downshire, General Nugent and the Dublin Castle administration concerning possible troublemakers in his area (Percy 1796: MSS PRONI Downshire 697/D/429). While it was not unusual for the clergy to be involved in such activities at this time, the volume of correspondence is remarkable. William Gibson has noted how useful loyal clergy were to their patrons in creating “a strong network of information” that was both political and ecclesiastical (1997: 92).
As head of a diocese with at least 20 parishes, Percy was offering Downshire quite a large information gathering network. His letters reveal that the reports of many people were passed on. Percy had many agents at his disposal. Sometimes he relied on church gossips, but the letters also mention rewards paid out to an unscrupulous character, the “Farmer”, who had infiltrated the United Irish movement (Percy 1796: MSS PRONI Downshire 697/D/429). In Alice C. Gaussen’s biography, the visit of an American admirer to Dromore House is mentioned during the United Irish Rebellion period (Gaussen 1905: 306). The correspondence at the Public Record Office reveals that, in fact, this individual was a “French spy”. Even Percy’s interest in antiquities could be used to his advantage. After the battle of Ballynahinch, the enemies’ pikes, “all Bloody”, along with French military seals, were taken to his palace by his butler, John Logie, “to be put along with your Lordship’s other Curiosity’s” (Percy n.d.: British Library. Add. MS. 32335 ff. 47-48). No doubt these objects were valuable as curios, but presumably they contained important military data that an expert such as Percy felt he could decipher and pass on to his superiors.
Those subject to Percy’s critical surveillance dismissed him as a relic of outmoded ideologies. William Drennan, one of the architects of the United Irish movement, mockingly upbraided his sister Martha McTier over her support of her brother’s polemical Letters of An Irish Helot:
I wonder how you can place your judgment in competition with my Lord Bishop of Dromore, who at the foot of his table resounded the praises of the paper you presume to decry, and even condescended to point out the less obvious beauties of the rest. He said that the idea of the Genius of the Constitution seemed in the habit of a slave like the Danite of old between the two pillars was an excellent subject for an historical piece etc, etc… (Agnew 1998: 184-85)
There has been a tendency to view Percy as a fustian antiquarian passing outdated judgements on a new generation of writers whose work he was not capable of interpreting. While his mindset may have seemed outmoded to many in Belfast’s liberal and radical literary set, this misses the mark of Percy’s utility to Britain’s control in Ireland. It was not really a case of what Percy wrote or thought on literary matters, but of what he represented in Ireland, how he felt threatened and whom he could call upon to rectify matters as he perceived them. As Lord Bishop he was placed within a network of leading political, ecclesiastical and cultural figures and institutions which permitted him to exercise a certain amount of control in ways that Drennan and others could not appreciate. In order to ascertain the reach and extent of Enlightenment’s sway in Belfast and County Down it might be necessary to re-examine Percy’s political activities in the 1790s and early 1800s.
To begin this examination, it is germane to explore one of the most overlooked aspects of Percy’s political intervention in Ireland: his collaboration with his friend, Sir Richard Musgrave, author of the definitive conservative and pro-government history of the 1798 Rebellion. Percy contributed depositions to this project, now held in the Rebellion Papers Collection in the National Archive in Dublin (Blackstock 1998: 200-201). Musgrave claimed the revolt was instigated by a mostly Catholic and southern Irish cabal, in whose ranks were lower class “levellers” and “popish banditti” (Musgrave 1802: xiii). The northern Presbyterian input to the process was seen as the unsuccessful efforts of a few disaffected members who were temporarily led astray by radical doctrines. Yet for all his condemnation, he still found room to praise them as having “more improved intellects, more courage, and knew better use of arms, than the inhabitants of Leinster and Munster” (Musgrave 1802: 93). Percy’s deposition dealt specifically with events in the north, especially relating to the Battle of Ballynahinch. His history of the Ulster Rebellion depicted Presbyterians and other northerners being led astray by propaganda and false claims. It received glowing tributes from Musgrave: “I cannot pass over in silence the laudable fortitude of Doctor Percy, who also remained in his palace at Dromore while the Rebellion existed in the counties of Down and Antrim” (Musgrave 1802: 180).
In reality, Percy had been cajoled by his Primate to come back to Ireland during this period, and had actually been resident in Dublin, “while the Rebellion existed in the counties of Down and Antrim” did not stop him from receiving Musgrave’s plaudits (Davis 1989: 306). In the meantime, his image of idealistic Dissenters “betrayed” by Catholics became ingrained in the northern Protestant psyche after the Union and is still retained in some Unionist circles today. Percy would not have liked to call his contribution to Musgrave’s great project an act of fiction, even allowing for the hearsay and paranoid suppositions it contained. Nevertheless, it is arguable this text had more political impact on the formation of the United Kingdom than any of Percy’s other works.
In addition, there are strong indications that Percy himself intended writing a History of the Rebellion. A book of letters held in the British Library suggests he had intended to publish an account of the Rebellion. The large manuscript deals with letters from Percy to his wife between 1798 and 1800 and was edited by Percy and later his daughter who inscribed: “[…] some of them are curious as they relate to the Irish Rebellion and the measures taken for the Union of the two Kingdoms” (Percy n.d.: British Library. Add. MS. 32335 p.1). Bearing the marks of preliminary preparation for publication, the dossier holds a remarkable amount of personal and political information, dealing with the lead up to the Rebellion in Dublin and County Down. Percy charts the “great commotions and disturbances” of the times, offering narratives of key events such as the capture of Lord Edward Fitzgerald (Percy n.d.: British Library. Add. MS. 32335 p.23). This is combined with letters from servants and friends regarding the state of the north, along with depositions and Dublin Castle bulletins. Amid the careful citation of the rights of the British Establishment and the dangers posed by the rebels is a detailed record of the economic difficulties faced by Percy. The very personal nature of some of the material and its unlikely ability to excite public attention reveal that Percy was probably right to suppress publishing it.
Percy was more successful in promoting a range of new writers as part of his circle. His efforts during his lifetime would see a range of authors directly and indirectly sponsored. This manifested as a three-tier system which included clergy within his diocese (Thomas Percy, Henry Boyd), friends and associates in the middle classes (William Hamilton Drummond, Thomas Stott, Thomas Romney Robinson) and a number of labouring class writers (Patrick Bronte, Andrew M’Kenzie, Hugh Porter) (Davis 1989: 307-334). Within the first two spheres it is possible to discern where pro-Union sentiment and support was most apparent. Thomas Stott, a Dromore-based businessman, who some have claimed to have had United Irish sympathies, became a vocal supporter of Percy in print (Lunney 2009). Dubbed “grovelling Stott” as Byron termed it in his poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers for his paeans to British statesmen, Stott’s work gives an indication of the post-Union world. In the poem “Sonnet to the Lord Bishop of Dromore, presented as a New Year’s Gift on the 1st of January 1805” we get a sense of his sycophantic tendencies: “For ah, thy virtues are possessed by few-Few exercise benevolence like thine” (Stott 1825: 156). Stott’s work portrays a post-Union rehabilitated Ulster, where poetry elegises the parklands of estates and the economic benefits of integration within the United Kingdom. A poem such as “The Brown Linen Buyers” sets a joyful tone, insistent on the success and wealth enjoyed by the linen producers of the county:
To the markets and fairs still we merrily ride,
In sunshine, through hail, rain and snow;
And we buy up the Linens as fast as untied,
And the sellers their webs to us show.
No credit we ask, but the rhino down lay ccccccccc[rhino: money]
For each piece, when to pay we begin;
And we chat, and we joke, with the weavers so gay,
In our snug little room at the Inn.
Then soon as the bustle of business is by,
And the throng, now dispersing, grows thinner,
We call for a glass of BOYD’s ale-if we’re dry
Or partake of a plain hearty dinner. (Stott 1825: 213)
However, it would be incorrect to see these assertions as being unquestioned. Labouring class writers challenged Percy and his circle’s assertion of an exclusive claim to Enlightenment values. Poets such as Samuel Thomson and James Orr operated within a vernacular tradition which, while situated within the same media of magazine verse and collections by local printers, offered more opportunities for a satirical critique of society. Their work provided more identification with a non-Establishment focus. They wrote about the local community, the poor and the oppressed. If there was a tendency for writers like Stott and his peers to espouse Percy’s parkland and demesne, they had more interest in nature and the natural world beyond such locales. There was competition to assert the ownership of simplicity and sensibility, but the weaver poets took satirical routes to do so. This was partly due to their distance from the security, income and status that the other writers enjoyed in society. But it was also that their work was heavily imbued with Scottish cultural inflections and inheritances and alternative transnational British imperatives. They used traditional Scots verse forms, as well as the classical and contemporary neo-Augustan forms of their County Down and Antrim peers.
Samuel Thomson, a schoolteacher from Carngranny, near Templepatrick in South Antrim, had produced a more provocative response to the post-Rebellion world in his 1799 collection than Percy’s acolytes and proxies. He draws on the Lowland Scots tradition of addressing an animal to hint at recent events. This has been seen as a poem cautioning United Irishmen to take care and guard themselves:
WHILE youthful poets, thro’ the grove,
Chaunt fast their canny lays o’ love,…………………….[sing; clever]
And a’ their skill exert to move
cThe darling object;
I chuse, as ye may shortly prove,
cA rougher subject.
What sairs to bother us in sonnet, cccccccccccccc[some think serves or fairs]
’Bout chin an’ cheek, an’ brow an’ bonnet?
Just chirlin like a widow’d linnet, cccccccccccccc.[singing or chirping]
cThro’ bushes lurchin;
Love’s stangs are ill to thole, I own it, ccccccccccc[stings; endure]
cBut to my hurchin.ccccccc.[hedgehog and also urchin]
Thou grimest far o’ gruesome tykes, cccccccccccc[a mongrel dog]
Grubbing thy food by thorny dykes, ccccccccccc..[banks]
Gudefaith thou dinna want for pikes, cccccccccc….[spikes]
cBaith sharp an’ rauckle; ccc[rough]
Thou looks (L—d save’s) array’d in spikes,
cA creepin heckle!cccccccccccccc[might be flax comb/ cccccccccccccccccccccccccccccccdog’s Hackle/ soldier’s cccccccccccccccccccccccccccc……emblem or cockade, or a cccccccccccccccccccccccccccc……word of complaint]
(Thomson 1799: 60-5; see also Beiner 2018: 181)
Like other poems in the collection, it can be read in a number of ways, and its ambiguity may well act as a means to preserve the safety of the poet. The prevalence of Scots language may provide a screen against government censorship, but the fairly unambiguous naming of “pike” is hardly a veiled reference. This is not to denigrate the poem’s subtlety or clever political manoeuvrings. It is a dense and thoughtful peregrination on the vulnerable and the outcast. Jennifer Orr has noted Thomson’s great ability to express what could not be expressed at this time through a language system that permitted differing meanings to be invoked and a restoration of Hedgehog’s family hinted at (Orr 2020: 155-61). The difficulty may be for Thomson, that his work was permitted to be published and no response was made. Though it may also be the case that the poem also stands as an exemplar of a form and community that evaporates before the eyes of its readership. If we take this poem as one that stands in the Lowland Scots tradition of addressing an animal as a means of Enlightenment philosophizing, it is possible to note the pressures that contemporary Irish life has put upon the subject and the form. The poem is aware of its roughness. The additional meaning of the Scots “rauchle” contains a sense of disgust that surfaces through the occasional, knowing unevenness of the poem. But disgust at what? The creature or perhaps more tellingly, the place where the hedgehog lives. The speaker strains to maintain a rationalist, natural history of the observation of the animal in what was a well-defined verse form for such exercises. But this process could ultimately be said to be defeated by a sense of fear, nausea and anxiety about the vulnerable creature, concluding that what is best for it is retreat and survival.
What emerges from the writing and the biography of many of the labouring class writers of the time is financial precarity. Not all of these poets existed outside of Percy’s network. Within the wider Percy circle, Hugh Porter followed a similar trajectory as he struggled with his role as a poet supported by Anglican patrons. Porter was a farmer/weaver from Moneyslane in the parish of Drumballyroney and Drumgooland in County Down. In 1799 he presented a poem to Rev. Thomas Tighe, one of the clergy of Bishop Thomas Percy’s circle in Dromore, and the person who would enable Patrick Bronte to gain a degree at Cambridge. In the 1800s Porter published in local papers under the pseudonyms of “A County Down Weaver” and “Tisander”. In 1813 Tighe edited a collection of his poetry and gains a broad range of subscribers for Poetical Attempts by Hugh Porter, a County of Down Weaver. Though by then Percy was dead, the poems give an indication of Porter’s struggle with what appears to be a very variable patronage from Tighe. As well as elegising Burns and Percy in poems, Porter draws attention to the difference between his home and the house of his sometime patron Thomas Tighe in “Written The Next Morning After Having Dined And Supped With The Rev. Messrs. T. And B.”:
Yestreen the privilege was mine
To drink the rich an’ rosy wine
Like ony favourite of the nine,
And what’s a serious matter,
This morn, the produce o’ the vine
Is turn’d, wi’ me, to water.
Yet, water, for to tell the truth,
Is famous ay for quenchin’ drouth;
If we dislike it, in the mouth
We needna let it dally;
Whon past the pallet, then forsooth,
It does a body braʼly-
But on the hale, I’ve learn’d to know
There’s naething certain here below;
E’en Bonaparte might be laid low,
Wha fain our necks wad tread on,
An’ whon he gets the hin’most blow,
Nae matter what he fed on (Porter 1813:124-6)
Amid the comedic improvising on a hangover, there is a strong assertion that the act of poetry-making as well as thought and rationality can reside as easily within the poet’s cot as the vicar’s house and by extension, the bishop’s House. Porter’s ambiguous stance on his patronage echoes some in his community who sought to question the new century and polity in which they lived. However, within Percy’s lifetime his position and interpretation of Enlightened overlordship held sway. His works were espoused by Scott and Wordsworth and remained in print (Sutherland 1983: 413-33). Many sought his support for religious, educational and cultural ventures. If there was criticism it often remained buried in print or within communal memory that later generations would come to disentangle.