Great Irish Journeys, RTE1, Sunday 7 July, 2013, 7:30 – Carlyle’s Irish Journey of 1849

by Mark Wallace

The first in the new series of the Great Irish Journeys program saw Thomas Carlyle take centre stage as host Grainne Seoige recreated the Chelsea Sage’s trip around Ireland in the company of Irish nationalist activist and newspaper editor Charles Gavan Duffy in 1849, the aftermath of the Great Famine in Ireland. It is not every day that Carlyle gets onto primetime TV; however, if he’s up there with the Eternal Powers looking down on us, he may not have been wholly pleased with the treatment given to him.

Clearly, Seoige and the program’s scriptwriter had a particular narrative and Carlyle was the villain – but a specific villian: the type of the English aristocrat who stood uncaringly by as the Irish peasantry starved, in between bouts of stuffing his face with Irish food produce. So when the VO reads an excerpt from Carlyle’s posthumously published Reminiscences of my Irish Journey in 1849 and Seoige comments: “His lack of humanity is almost unbelievable”, it’s more than just a comment on Carlyle. He’s a representative figure: “He doesn’t live in a bubble. Whole swathes of his society thought, felt and acted the same way.” To an extent, the actual facts about Carlyle are sacrificed to the narrative of the Heartless Aristocrat. Nothing is said about his own peasant background. He’s described as an “English gentleman” – in fact, he was born, bred and lived for his first 30-something years in Scotland, and was of very far from genteel birth.

In a similar vein, Carlyle’s friendship with Duffy is ignored. It’s speculated by historian Ronan Sheehan that Duffy “needed a name” to gain publicity for his causes, and left at that. Seoige later wonders what Duffy thought of all Carlyle’s vocal anti-Irish sentiment, and Sheehan says of the pair’s relationship: “It’s a mystery”. The program makers seem to have totally missed out Duffy’s book Conversations with Carlyle (1892), in which his enduring respect and affection for the Sage is made abundantly clear. In this book, Duffy objects to Irish Journey, saying:

There is nothing which a man might not have written to his wife or friend without offence, but there is much quite unfit to be launched into publicity.

Duffy considers that Carlyle would never have allowed the book to be published in such a form, and blames his posthumous editor, J.A. Froude, rather than Carlyle himself. He also stresses Carlyle’s amiable behaviour during the journey (responding to the unfavourable impression of Carlyle many had drawn from his posthumous writings and from Froude’s biography):

If I be a man who has entitled himself to be believed, I ask those who have come to regard Carlyle as exacting and domineering among associates, to accept as the simple truth my testimony that during those weeks of close intercourse, there was not one word or act of his to the young man who was his travelling companion unworthy of an indulgent father. Of arrogance or impatience not a shade […]. He was a man of genuine good nature, with deep sympathy and tenderness for human suffering, and of manly patience under troubles.

To introduce such a reading of Carlyle’s character would certainly have complicated the narrative of Great Irish Journeys.  It complicates reading of Irish Journey as well, for it must be said that there is little evidence of “deep sympathy and tendernes for human suffering” in that document, and much of the reverse. So the demonization of Carlyle in the program is understandable, but the truth of his relationship to the Irish, and the Irish reception of him and his works, is much more complicated.

*This episode of Great Irish Journeys is available to view within the Republic of Ireland on the RTE Player for 3 weeks from date of broadcast. The program is structured around a replication of Carlyle’s journey, but much of the content is about Famine conditions, not Carlyle per se.