“The Ineffaceable Curse of Cain”: Race, Miscegenation, and the Victorian Staging of Irishness

Posted in Articles, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United Kingdom, United States on 2012-10-09 21:38Z by Steven

“The Ineffaceable Curse of Cain”: Race, Miscegenation, and the Victorian Staging of Irishness

Victorian Literature and Culture
Volume 29, Number 2 (September 2001)
pages 383–396

Scott Boltwood, Associate Professor of English
Emory & Henry College, Emory, Virginia

THROUGHOUT THE NINETEENTH CENTURY both the English popular and scientific communities increasingly argued for a distinct racial difference between the Irish Celt and the English Saxon, which conceptually undermined the Victorian attempt to form a single kingdom from the two peoples. The ethnological discourse concerning Irish identity was dominated by English theorists who reflect their empire’s ideological necessity; thus, the Celt and Saxon were often described as racial siblings early in the nineteenth century when union seemed possible, while later descriptions of the Irish as members of a distant or degenerate race reflect the erosion of public sympathy caused by the era of violence following the failed revolt of 1848. Amid this deluge of scientific discourse, the Irish were treated as mute objects of analysis, lacking any opportunity for formal rejoinder; nonetheless, these essentially English discussions of racial identity and Irishness also entered into the Irish popular culture.

This paper will examine the dynamic resonance of English ethnography within Irish culture by using Victorian theories of Celtic racial character to inform a reading of a seminal dramatic portrayal of the Irish. The focus of my analysis will be the romantic melodrama The Colleen Bawn, written by the Irish dramatist Dion Boucicault in 1860. This work is the first of Boucicault’s several “Irish” melodramas: plays that celebrated Irish identity, enjoyed the fanatical devotion of Irish audiences well into the next century, and inspired a school of Boucicauldian nationalists at Belfast’s Queen’s Theatre at the turn of the century. Ultimately, though, the artistic impetus for The Colleen Bawn underscores Boucicault’s deep ambivalence over his homeland. Early in 1860, he began working on The Colleen Bawn following his completion of The Octoroon, a play in which he performed each night throughout the period of the Irish play’s composition and rehearsal. Both plays focus on a young landowner who is torn between his love for a poor, local beauty and his financial necessity to marry his wealthy neighbor. Moreover, in both plays the heroes inherit estates teetering on the brink of financial ruin, both intended brides are faithful and wealthy cousins, and both heroines are celebrated for their innocence and purity. Tellingly though, the first heroine is the mulatto freed-slave Zoe, while the second is the Irish peasant Eily O’Connor.

Although avowedly not intended to be an “Irish Octoroon,” The Colleen Bawn anticipates the racial conflation of Irish and African that the English ethnological imagination scientifically argued for beginning in the 1880s. Indeed, the creative genesis of this Irish romance in a melodrama of slavery and miscegenation aptly reveals the status of the Irish within the United Kingdom in spite of the promised equality supposedly conferred on the Irish by the Act of Union in 1800. Whereas the modern reader may argue that the play’s tension arises from the social, religious, and economic disparities between Hardress Cregan and Eily O’Connor, the widespread popularity of Victorian theories of racial identity would have predisposed the play’s audience to recognize the racial difference between Hardress and Eily as the fundamental impediment to their happiness…

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