John M Kirk

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United Islands?

United Islands? Multi-Lingual, Pan-British Radical Poetry and Song in Britain and Ireland, 1770–1820

United Islands? is a project which is being run in partnership between Michael Brown, Andrew Noble and myself.

Introduction (by Andrew Noble)

Wholly unlike the preceding Glorious Revolution on which the constitutional and integrative integrity of the United Kingdom is allegedly based, the reformist/republican events of the late eighteenth century were subject to immediate suppression quickly followed by rapid deletion from the national memory. MacAulay's dictum that it had been an aberrant interlude, sinisterly provoked by alien elements, was universally and happily received.

In consequence, the study of canonical Romantic poetry insofar as it sought to perceive the political affiliations of these major writers was profoundly belated. Due to new printing technology and commercialization, the enormous volume of radical poetry provoked by the political aspirations and consequent turbulence of the age was simply abandoned.

In the last three decades, however, major historical and research energies have been directed towards this area. This network seeks to provide an unprecedented opportunity whereby key historical and literary representatives from the four national groups might, in the terms of Pocock's New British History, become involved in a dialogue "in which the speakers act upon each other, in determining who they are themselves". This is not necessarily a divisive activity. As Hugh Kearney has suggested: "The concept of 'nation' stresses the differences between a particular society and its neighbours." A Britannic approach in contrast would emphasize how much these cultures have experienced in common.The initial tendencies of the reform movement, deriving from an mixture of pragmatic need for allies and a genuine mutual sympathy, produced a collaborative effort, albeit English led, to form a patriotic pan-British reform movement. Such extreme, even millennial, optimistic anticipations were brutally terminated by the outbreak of war with France.

This termination also led the more extreme elements in the other three national groups to deny English constitutional primacy and to evolve notions that their particular ancestral, mytho-historical histories and subsequent republican-inclined political theories were the roads to enlightened universal progress. This inherently unstable yoking of nationalism to universalism could only lead to confrontation with an increasingly repressive British state. This led to catastrophe in Ireland and profound, long-term damage to reform in Scotland and Wales. In England, reforming energy was diverted into the nascent labour movement. Irish historians now believe that 1798 was a seminal cause of Ireland's rejection of Britishness. It would seem that some current Welsh and Scottish scholarship is increasingly tending to perceive this period as having a similar seminal importance. English historians in contrast have focussed on the construction of a British imperial identity, which is complicated by this project.

Prospectus (by Andrew Noble)

The purpose of the proposed network is to bring together a group of historical and literary/linguistic scholars augmented by folksong collectors/performers from England, Northern and Southern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, combined with a key group of North American experts. They will discuss the fate of non-canonical poetry/folksong in the period 1770-1820. The reformative, revolutionary and, indeed, reactionary political verse is to be best understood as an intra-national, Pan-British phenomenon. This underlying principle is expressed in Pocock's thesis, hitherto mainly applied to the seventeenth century, that British history should be practised as Òan expanding zone of cultural conflict and creationÓ. Manifest in the immediate enthusiastic response of not only literary but historical scholars we have invited to participate in this project is the remarkable growth in the last three decades of an intra-national, hence comparative, growing awareness of the fundamental implications for the writing of an innovative Pan-British history provided by the nationally, linguistically diverse creative writing of this period. Consequently, it is intended that this network should provide both locus and focus for the concentration and acceleration of trends already powerfully present.

The possibility and potential for such intra-national study is, however, of extremely recent origin. It is only in this century that AHRC-funded work in Wales on Morganwg, editorial and critical work on Burns in Scotland, and emerging Irish work on Moore, has provided a body of critical work of a quality which permits viable comparisons to be now made with English canonical poets such as Blake and Shelley. While the complex problems of the relation between canonical and non-canonical poetry will insistently recur in network discussion, the immediate practical problem is the sparse, erratic availability at present of what was a massive and linguistically diverse Pan-British corpus. In the 1790s, increasingly stringent government censorship drove poets and crucial publishers to silence, prison and exile. Indeed, the formal and linguistic strategies of dissident poetry are definable as subversions of state censorship. Increasingly radical poetry had to modify traditional modes derived from mainly Roman, Aesopian and post-Swiftian influences in order to avoid censorship. Formal awareness of how poetry reflects or, indeed, refracts historical reality will be a recurring problem in our discussions. Thus the subsidised pro-governmental poetry that sought to destroy it is both important in itself and as an often parodic negative image of radical verse. Subsequent Victorian editors, while assimilating loyalist verse into burgeoning imperialism, had absolutely no interest in assessing or retrieving its radical opponent so that much of it still lies fallow and geographically dispersed.

Consequently, the fundamental task of the network would be a review of published anti-establishment poetry combined with the status of ongoing work on archival retrieval. With regard to the first category, we are indebted to recent American scholarship for two significant anthologies of the non-canonical poetry of the period. The first (Scrivener) deals with reform poetry emanating from the intellectual, technological, entrepreneurial dynamism of England's mainly provincial urban centres. The second (Bennett) deals with intense ideological conflict produced by the Napoleonic Wars in which Scottish ultra-loyalism is a revealing as the absence of Irish poetry. Morley has supplied a seminal assessment of Jacobite inspired pro-American, hence anti-Hanoverian, Irish Gaelic poetry. Morley is currently extending this work into the impact of the French Revolution on this formally and linguistically sophisticated verse. Similar work is underway on Scottish Gaelic poetry. Current work on Burns, Moore and Morganwg has had a knock on effect of uncovering tranches of poets politically sympathetic to these canonical representatives of their three national cultures. With regard to the extremely large canon of pan-British political folk music, an especially virile hybrid with its mixture of traditional music and contemporary vernacular lyrics, we are increasingly aware of its power. This is a vital oral popular form of political communication which is at least as important as the growth of literacy among the urban artisan class. This all has inherent within it the potential to recontextualise substantially the achievements of their English contemporaries.

Mediated through network lectures and discussions, this diverse body of poetry has the potential to create a narrative model of the dynamic fluctuations in the relations of the four nations over this period. These relations, especially those of England with the other three nations, can be defined as alternately centripetal and centrifugal. The initial drive is centripetal. The urban, pan-British reformist programme of the 1770s focused on the slave trade, civil rights for non-Anglicans, parliamentary reform, peace and, particularly for the Irish, the feral economic nature of British Imperialism.

While initially reformist elements in the three other nations adhered to, albeit varyingly, English myth-history and its subsequent constitutional theorisation, all three began to seek their own bardically engendered ancestral roots. Thus the poet is a key figure in the genesis of late eighteenth-century nationalism. It was believed, especially in Wales, that, since late-Enlightenment universalism was the product of ancestral roots, all four nations could competitively but amiably follow complementary paths to the same goal. Even without the gravitational pull of America and France, this synthesis of late-Enlightenment universalism and national particularism was inherently transient and unstable. Thus the outbreak of war with France was both the British government's greatest external threat and greatest opportunity for internal repression. Thus, in the three Edinburgh Conventions, we see among the British delegates a losing struggle to hold together their vision of a patriotic, unitary reform movement. The fracture led to catastrophe in Ireland and the creation of a radical hyper-loyal Scotland, purged of radicals. Welsh rational dissent relinquished political ambition while English sympathisers split along class lines. The complex pan-British evolution of quite contrary elements, The Reform Bill and British Imperialism, ultimately obscured these fissures.

The organisers further propose that this picture of a failed revolutionary impulse undermines apparently secure presumptions within the academic literature concerning the Enlightenment, Romanticism and radical culture itself. It opens the first term up to complex political appropriations, suggesting that the Enlightenment did not necessarily imply a variant of Anglo-unionist loyalism. Equally, it re-problematises the relationship to Bardic nostalgia considered inherent in the Romantic movement, rethinking the mode as less backward looking and more subversive. So too it reinvigorates the notion of radicalism itself by highlighting the creative productivity of the movement and the subtle gradations that existed in the political spectrum signified, from cautious Whig sympathisers to determined Jacobins.

Aims and Objectives

  • Creation of a four-nation interactive historical narrative, 1770-1820, to supplement and amend current Anglo-centrically integrative narratives.
  • The interrogation of cultural nationalism, notably Anthony D. Smith's ethno-symbolic interpretation, revising the relationship between state-sponsored nationalisms and the subversive origins of the concept in the fracturing of enlightened universalist republicanism.
  • Examine the central role of radical poetry, emphasising bardism, in order to produce a comparative study of the genesis and evolution of Irish, Scottish, Welsh modernising nationalism as antitodes to the reactionary Hanoverian state.
  • A review of currently available radical poetry combined with a logistical evaluation, as far as presently possible, of what might be archivally retrievable.
  • An analysis of the nature and quality of that poetry as it increasingly became a form of persecuted writing leading to covert literary strategies derived from Roman, Aesopian and post-Swiftian ironic modes.
  • The vital question of the geographical publication histories of that poetry so that its transmission across national boundaries can be tracked. This would also help illuminate a sociological analysis of radical audiences.
  • An account of the effects of governmental legislation and censorship on the publication and distribution of radical poetry. Directly related to this is governmental promotion of anti-radical, often parodical, loyalist poetry.
  • The value of radical poetry as bearing witness to the comparative impact and influence of Republican America and France and the four national groups.
  • An account of how the poetic war resulting from the French Wars led in two contrary directions. British Imperialism and Chartism both synthesise the political and poetical energies of the four national groups.
  • A consideration of the capacity of poetry, arguably not only an autonomous but inherently conservative medium, to supply documentation for historians.
  • To examine the complex relations between canonical and non-canonical poetry.


Thursday 13 November 2008: The Great Hall

10.00 - 10.45Registration and Refreshments
11.00 - 11.30Welcome and Introduction by John Kirk and Cairns Craig
11.30 - 1.00United Islands? Chair: John Kirk
Michael Brown: 'Enlightenment and Revolution: A British Problematic'
Andrew Noble: 'Universalist Aspirations: Nationalist Particularities'
1.00 - 2.00Lunch
2.00 - 4.00Irish Ireland and Gaelic Scotland Chair: William Gillies
Vincent Morley: 'Of birds and bats: homology and analogy in the 1790s'
Brendan Mac Suibhne: ''And Lord and Duke Await the Peasant's Call': Public Prints and the Public House, 1772–1835'
Peter Mackay: 'Lost manuscripts and reactionary rustling: is there a radical Scottish Gaelic Poetry 1770–1820?'
4.00 - 4.30Refreshments
4.30 - 6.00Loyalist Poetry Chair: Andrew Noble
Leith Davis: 'The Politics of Irish Song in Charlotte Brooke's Reliques of Irish Poetry'
Frank Ferguson: 'Harping on the Union: Conservative Poetics and the Percy Circle in North-East Ulster 1795–1811'
The Linen Hall Library, 17 Donegall Square North, Belfast, BT1 5GB
6.30 Reception and Evening Buffet
7.30Special Session
Simon Davies: 'Queen's University Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies'
John Gray: 'The Linen Hall Library'
Siobhan Fitzpatrick: 'The Thomas Moore 2008 Festival Travelling Exhibition: 'My Gentle Harp: Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, 1808–2008

Friday 14 November 2008: The Great Hall

9.30 - 10.00Refreshments
10.00 - 10.45British Radicalism Chair: Alex Murdoch
Bob Harris: 'British Radicalism in the 1790s: A Scottish Perspective'
10.45 - 11.30Burns: A Pan-British Canonical Poet?Chair: Andrew Noble
Nigel Leask: 'Sung Versions of the Pastoral: Burns and the Pastoral'
11.30 - 12.00Refreshments
12.00 - 1.00Moore: A Pan-British Canonical Poet? Chair: Terence Brown
Luke Gibbons: 'History in the Optative Mood: Moore and Radical Nostalgia'
1.00 - 2.00Lunch
2.00 - 3.30Moore: A Pan-British Canonical Poet? Chair: Terence Brown
Ed Larrissy: 'Thomas Moore and the Idea of Nation'
Brian Caraher: 'Bermudans, Canadians, Catholics, Shiites: Multi-Cultural Politics of Moore's Melodies and Epistolary Verse'
3.30 - 4.00Refreshments
4.00 - 6.00Radical Song Chair: John Kirk
Andrew Carpenter: 'Virile vernaculars: radical sexuality as social subversion in Irish chapbook verse 1780–1820'
John Moulden: 'The printed popular song in Ulster between 1770 and 1820: radical or politically indifferent?'
Terry Moylan: 'Language registers in radical song'
7.00Hot Evening Buffet Speaker: John Thompson
The Harty Room, School of Music
8.30Concert of Radical Song
Ciaran Carson
Maggie MacInnes
Brian MacAlpine
Dafydd Idris Edwards
Terry Moylan

Saturday 15th November 2008: The Great Hall

9.30 - 11.00Poetry and History Chair: Edna Longley and Julia Wright
'Thy Branching Words': Radical History and Education in William Drennan's Verse'
Mary-Ann Constantine: 'Bards of Liberty': Iolo Morganwg, Wales and Radical Song'
11.00 - 11.30Refreshments
11.30 - 1.00Radical Contexts Chair: Tom Bartlett
Kevin Whelan: 'The Green Atlantic'
Catriona Kennedy: 'A 'pleasure culture of war'? Britain and Ireland 1793–1815'
1.00 - 2.00Lunch
2.00 - 3.30Radical Historiography Chair: Michael Brown
Tom Bartlett
Terry Brotherstone
Bob Harris
Alex Murdoch
3.30 - 4.00Refreshments
4.00 - 5.30United Islands? Chair: John Kirk
Rapporteurs: John Barrell
Claire Connolly
Jon Mee
Katie Trumpener
5.30 - 6.00Business Meeting: United Islands? The Way Forward Chair: John Kirk
6.30 onwardsInformal hot evening buffet


Thursday 27 August 2009: The Harty Room, School of Music

8.30 Registration
9.00 sharp - 9.15Welcome and Introduction by John Kirk, Andrew Noble, Michael Brown
9.15 - 10.45Session 1a: Non-canonical Issues (5 papers + discussion) Chair: John Kirk
Nigel Leask: 'Radicalism, Romanticism and Popular Culture'
Mark Samuel Sweetnam: 'Canonicity and Radical Evangelicalism'
Donald William Stewart: 'Radical and Non-radical Gaelic Poetry and Song, 1770–1820'
10.45 - 11.15Coffee
11.15 - 12.45Session 1b: Non-canonical Issues cont. E. Wyn James: 'William Williams of Pantycelyn: Forerunner of the Missionary and Abolition Movements'
Maura Cronin: 'Broadside Literature and Popular Political Opinion in Munster, 1800–1820'
12.45 - 1.30Lunch
13.30 - 15.30Session 2: England Chair: Michael Brown
Katrina Navickas: 'Theaw kon ekspekt no moar eawt ov a pig than a grunt': Searching for the Radical Voice in Northern England, 1789–1819'
Andrew McKillop: 'An Antidote to Radicalism? London and Imperial Patronage'
Craig Bailey: 'Polycentric London'
3.30 - 4.00Tea
4.00 - 6.30Session 3a: Ireland and Scotland Chair: John Kirk Jim Flannery: 'Singing on a Tightrope: Radical Sentiments in the Work of Robert Burns and Thomas Moore'
Michael Griffin: 'Between Clare and Ayr: Tomas Ó Míocháin, Robbie Burns, and the Compromised Radicalism of Thomas Dermody'
Stephen Dornan: 'Radical Politics and Vernacular Poetry in the British Archipelago'
Petri Mirala: 'Freemasonry and the 'Rhyming Weavers' of Ulster'
7.00Reception at Linen Hall Library, Donegal Square North.
7.30Talk by John Killen: 'Hidden Gems of Radical Poetry in the Linen Hall Library Poetry Collection'

Friday 28 August 2009: The Harty Room, School of Music

9.00 sharp - 11.00Session 4: Scottish Popular Enlightenment (3 papers + discussion) Chair: Andrew Noble
Chris Whatley: 'It is said that Burns is a Radical': Contest, Concession and the Political Legacy of Robert Burns, c. 1796–1859'
Bob Harris: 'Scottish Towns and the Enlightenment, c. 1745–1820'
Nathalie Rosset: 'The Literary Life of James Tytler'
11.00 - 11.30Coffee
Session 5: Gender, Nation, Genre (4 papers + discussion) Chair: Clare Connolly
11.30 - 13.00Session 5a: Masculinity
Julia Wright: 'Stateless Citizens: The Problem of Masculinity in Moore and Morgana
Christina Morin: 'Gendering Genres: Poetry and Prose in the Fiction of Charles Robert Maturin'
Maureen McLane, 'Whose World Anyway? Border Trouble in Scottish Ballad and Song'
13.00 - 13.45Lunch
13.45 - 14.45Session 5b: Women's Writing
Jane Rendall: 'British Women Writing War and Empire: From Eighteen Hundred and Eleven to Eighteen Hundred and Thirteen'
14.45 - 16.00Session 6: England and Song (2 papers + discussion) Chair: John Kirk Michael Scrivener: 'Reading the Political Songs of the 1790s'
Joan Beal: "Why should the landlords have the best tunes?" Thomas Spence and the Subversion of Popular Song'
16.00 - 16.30Tea
16.30 - 18.30Session 7: Performance (3 papers + discussion) Chair: John Kirk
Catherine Jones: ';Music and Performance'
John Moulden: 'Popish Plots, Protestant Heroes, Disputed Marches and Ridicule of Priest and People: Protestant, Loyal and Orange Song, 1558–1849'
Brian Caraher: 'Moore's 'Canadian Boat Song'
18.30 - 20.00Dinner in the Canada Room
20.00 - 21.30Session 8: Concert (4 performers) Chair: John Kirk
Dayffd Edwards
Adam McNaughtan
Jim Flannery

Saturday 29 August 2009: The Harty Room, School of Music

9.30 - 11.00Session 9a: Serial Publication (5 papers + discussion) Chair: Michael Brown
Martyn Powell: 'Jacobitism versus Scotophobia: Political Radicalism and the Press in Late Eighteenth-Century Ireland'
Hamish Mathison: ''A just cause of complaint': Scotland, Serials and Popular Print Culture, 1508–1794'
Dan Wall: 'Radical Poetry and the Literary Magazine, 1800–1820'
11.00 - 11.30Coffee
11.30 - 13.00Session 9b: Serial Publication cont. Marion Loeffler: 'Radical Welsh periodicals and the Beginnings of a Public Sphere in Wales'
Niall Ó Ciosáin: 'Publishing in Irish and in Gaelic, 1750–1840'
13.00 - 14.00Lunch
14.00 - 15.00Session 10: 3 Rapporteurs + Discussion. Chair: John Kirk
Michael Scrivener
Fred Lock
Mark Philp
Session 11: United Islands Radical Poetry Research Project
John Kirk
Andrew Noble
Michael Brown
Catriona Kennedy


Research Institute of Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Aberdeen
Hosted by Michael Brown (University of Aberdeen) (


Friday 17 April

14.00 - 15.00tea/coffee
15.00 - 16.00Welcome and Introductory Remarks
16.00- 17.30Session two
Conrad Brunström (NUI Maynooth), Beer or Uisce Beatha: The London Irish and Convivial Debating Clubs
Cathryn Charnell-White (Aberystwyth), London’s Welsh Bards: Performing Liberty and Fraternity in the Early 1790s
18.00Wine reception at RIISS
19.00Meal at Howie’s Restaurant (transport provided)

Saturday 18 April

9.00 - 10.30Session three
Michael Brown (Aberdeen), Radical Britons and the London Problem
John Bugg (Fordham), British Poetry and the First Peace of Paris
10.30 - 11.00Tea/Coffee
11.00 - 12.30Session four
Martyn Powell (Aberystwyth), Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the London Press and Anglo-Irish Politics

Emma Macleod (Stirling), ‘Visions of Columbus’ in London: The Reception of American Radical Poetry in the London Periodical Press, 1775-1820

12.30 - 14.00Lunch
14.00 - 15.30Session five
Andrew Noble, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sir James Mackintosh: Fellow Citizens and Apostates
Andrew McKillop (Aberdeen), Metropolitan Scots or New Britons: London-Scots Merchants in the Age of Union
15.30 - 16.00Tea/Coffee
16.00 - 17.30Session six
John Mee (York), ‘Vigour’ versus ‘Calm prudential principles’?: Robert Thomson, Political Song, and the London Corresponding Society
Elizabeth Edwards (Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth), London’s Gravity: Politics, Song, and the Expatriate Welsh
18.00Meal at Ardoe House (Transport provided)

Sunday 19 April


9.30 - 11.00Session seven
Judith Thompson (Dalhousie), From Sedition to Seduction: The Radical Songs of John Thelwall
James Grande (KCL), "I heard in Lambeths shades": Sound and Vision in Blake's London
11.00 - 11.30Tea/Coffee
11.30 - 13.00Session eight
13.00 - 14.00Lunch


A selection of the papers from the two symposia were published in two volumes, the first primarily literary in orientation, the second primarily historical, but each encompassing a four-nations perspective.

(co-edited with Andrew Noble and Michael Brown) United Islands? The Languages of Resistance. London: Pickering & Chatto. [Political Poetry and Song in the Age of Revolution series vol. 1] ISBN 978 1 84893 340 8
(co-edited with Michael Brown and Andrew Noble) Cultures of Radicalism in Britain and Ireland. London: Pickering & Chatto. [Political Poetry and Song in the Age of Revolution series vol. 3] ISBN 978 1 84893 344 6

The editing of the these two volumes has led to the establishment of a new monograph series with Pickering & Chatto entitled Poetry and Song in the Age of Revolution, of which the symposia volumes are vols. 1 and 3. The General Editors are Michael Brown, John Kirk and Andrew Noble.

Volume 2 is Literacy and Orality in Eighteenth-Century Irish Song by Julie Henigan.

This study takes issue with the disputed but persistent notion of a dichotomy between the cultures (and even mentalities) of literate and oral societies. Focusing on several distinct genres of eighteenth-century Irish song, Henigan demonstrates in each case that the interaction between the elite and vernacular, the written and oral, is pervasive and characteristic of the Irish song tradition to the present day. Ultimately, she argues, it is neither literacy nor orality, but performance within community that most truly defines the tradition.

Other volumes for the series are being commissioned. The General Editors welcome suggestions for possible monographs.