Friday, 21 October 2011

An 18th Century Gentleman

Join me, if you will, on a little harmless flight of fantasy. Imagine you had the choice of whenever and wherever in history and geography you could live, and that you were free, moreover, to choose your status in life there and then too. Where and when and who would you like to be?

Westport House in Mayo, Ireland
On reflection, I think I would like to have been an Irish gentleman of comfortable means in the second half of the eighteenth century. As such, I would have been a member of a small, privileged elite, the group known as the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, which, following the defeat of the old Irish great lords like the O’Neills and O’Donnells at the end of the sixteenth century and the Cromwellian defeat and dispossession of the great majority of the remaining native or Norman Catholic gentry in the middle of the seventeenth, had attained secure control over both land and power in Ireland. Many were descendants of Cromwellian officers or settlers, installed by the English in that period, along with some few older settlers or even native Irish gentry who had accepted English rule and the English protestant religion.

They grew to form a peculiar class. The hardening of religious positions in the seventeenth century led to a situation where, for the vast majority of the native Irish, Catholicism became more than a religion, advancing to part of a cultural identity which made the religious difference just one part of a definition of Irishness, coalescing in self-understood difference from (and generally sullen opposition to) what was increasingly seen as an unwanted foreign occupation. This development was, of course, mirrored – and often exacerbated – by the growth of the Anglo-Irish self-image and the policies of the controlling English crown, which equated popery with treason and imposed all sorts of legal sanctions against Catholics (known in Ireland ever since as the Penal Laws), including disenfranchisement, inheritance disadvantages, judicial preference of Protestants, prohibition of worship, etc.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Ascendancy was firmly in control, sure of their supremacy – both in the superiority of their nature above that of the native Irish and its guarantee by England. That society was ordered was a divinely ordained fact of life and their position at the top of the heap was clearly a reflection of the divine will.

Yet this was also the era of the enlightenment, an age of reason and even – within certain boundaries – tolerance. Certainly the atmosphere of the time was one which respected rationality and moderation and abhorred what was often described as “enthusiasm.” It is perhaps ironic that it was the general stability of society, coupled with limited tolerance for ‘free thinkers’ and a distaste for the religious enthusiasm which had nearly torn Europe apart in the 17th Century, which created the environment in which those ideas would develop which would lead to the destruction of many of the foundations of that society; ideas propagated by thinkers such as Hume and Voltaire, Paine and Rousseau.

This then, is the background to the Irish gentleman whose life I would like to live. I imagine my wealth and income as fundamentally based on land, good land; an estate preferably in County Meath, or Kildare, somewhere, at any rate, not too far from Dublin, where I would also maintain a town house.

Dublin in the second half of the eighteenth century is one of the most pleasant European cities in which to have a residence. Large enough to be a centre of culture, it is still small enough to be familiar, developing that special identity it retains to this day as a huge village where everyone, through two or three connections, knows everyone else worth knowing and where gregariousness is a fundamental fact of life. It is a city undergoing splendid renewal in what came to be called the Georgian style, with the building of fine houses, magnificent civic buildings and beautiful parks, including the largest public park in Europe, the Phoenix Park.

Georgian Doors in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin
My Dublin residence I imagine in one of these fine new Georgian streets, at best fronting one of the tasteful squares built around a green park, such as Mountjoy or Merrion Square, perhaps even on the central St. Stephens Green. From there I would be able to easily participate in the busy cultural life of the city; going to musical performances in Mr. Neal’s Music Hall in Fishamble Street (where Handel’s Messiah was premiered), attending (if my wealth were great and my contacts influential enough) civic occasions and balls at Dublin Castle – the seat of government of the English Lord Lieutenant, the top aristocrat who represented the crown – perhaps frequenting Sunday services at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to hear its great dean, the glorious man of letters, satirist and addict of controversy, Jonathan Swift, preach.

For my religion, naturally, would be that of the established church, the Church of Ireland, the Hibernian version of Anglicanism; an obviously supremely reasonable kind of Protestantism, retaining much of the better older traditions which had been initially part of the universal church until Roman popish superstition had perverted them. Though, if I am to be truthful, my personal religious convictions are not particularly deep – in fact, if pressed, I would probably describe myself as a deist, though this is not a position I would loudly profess publicly. Among educated friends of my own class, my position is widely shared but we still see the value of religion as a necessary part of societal order and guardian of public (and, to an extent, private) morality. Moreover, the church provides a means of living for many younger sons of gentle birth and has, in Ireland, thrown up such prodigies as the aforementioned Mr. Swift, or the great philosopher, Bishop Berkeley.

It is conceivable that I might have a seat in parliament. Indeed, at the end of the eighteenth century, for 18 glorious years, the Irish parliament in Dublin succeeded in throwing off practically all the controls the British parliament in Westminster had accrued over the previous centuries and exercised wide-ranging autonomy in the administration of the country until fear of French invasion and native Irish rebellion – the Irish rising of 1798, while unsuccessful, was alarmingly inspired by French revolutionary ideas – led to the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800 and the abolition of the Irish legislature.

I regard myself as a man of progress, a man of reason. As a young man, following a few years at Trinity College, I have made the Grand Tour of Europe, experiencing something of life and culture in continental Europe; an experience which has reinforced my conviction of the superiority of the British way of doing things. Nevertheless, combined with a certain studious inclination, the experience has helped me to improve my knowledge of French, which has basically replaced Latin as the lingua franca of civilised men and the mastery of which enables me to maintain a correspondence with other men of ideas throughout Europe.

As a gentleman I would be married, though – given the perils associated with childbirth in a society in which medical knowledge and, in particular, the knowledge of hygiene were still fairly rudimentary – I may well be a widower. The path for my sons is clear; the eldest will be my heir, the second would go into the army (in which case, I will have had to purchase a commission for him), the third would possibly try to make a career in the church or train in one of the professions, like law. For my daughters I would have to provide a dowry before finding suitable husbands for them.

The basis of my prosperity is my land. Most of this is farmed by tenants, and their rents make up a considerable portion of my disposable wealth. It is a good time to be renting land. The spread of the potato has meant that tenant families are able to feed themselves on relatively small farms, so their numbers are growing and the possible subdivision of the lands they rent increases my income.

Not that I regard myself as an exploiter. I see myself as a fair, concerned landlord and squire, interested in modern ideas of farming, trying to improve the lots of my tenants (insofar as they are prepared to listen to me), reading and applying the ideas of modern agricultural thinkers such as Jethro Tull to the model farm areas of my estate which I administer myself. I see myself as being fair to my tenants, being approachable and even prepared to postpone rents or find other solutions, for those going through difficulties. While I deplore their papist superstition, I am tolerant enough to allow them to follow their superstitious ways of worship and even have an amiable relationship with their (technically illegal) priest – quite an educated fellow as a result of a number of years spent studying abroad in Salamanca and Rome.

Life on my estate is, in many ways, fairly self-contained. The army of servants necessary to keep my manor (known to the native Irish as “the Big House”) comes from the estate and we form a little community of our own. My children all had Irish wet-nurses – as, indeed, I did too – and, before they were old enough to be educated and learn the necessary awareness of their status, their playmates were ordinary peasant children. A large amount of what we consume is produced on the estate, though such necessities as sherry, claret and port have, of course, to be imported.

But, in contrast to the rich cultural life in Dublin, the intellectual stimulus on the estate is rather poor. Many of the neighbouring squires are rather ignorant, more interested in hunting, gambling and duelling than in serious use of the mind. Though my position demands that I hunt occasionally, I have no interest in gambling, and have seen far too many men ruined by ill-considered bets, generally fuelled by drink. The number of educated men around in the vicinity of my estate are not many; the schoolteacher, the vicar (unfortunately a pompous bore, who drones on interminably about the dangers of the teachings of Mr. Charles Wesley) and the doctor and lawyer from the nearby town. They join me regularly for dinner where we discuss everything from politics to the works of Mr. David Hume and the Prussian thinker, Emmanuel Kant.

Oliver Goldsmith by Sir Joshua Reynolds
Having passed fifty, I am starting to feel my age, having begun to suffer from that curse of men of my class, gout. My friend, the local doctor, speculates that a diet high in red meat, port and claret may exacerbate the condition, though I find it hard to accept that my after-dinner port can be a contributory factor to the pain in my big toe. He might as well claim that it is a result of my wig being too tight!

I recently had a visit from one of my university compatriots at Trinity, Mr. Oliver Goldsmith. A most agreeable fellow, and one of some literary pretensions. He read to me from his latest work, The Deserted Village. It is a fancy of mine that his observations concerning the heedless doings of the richest of men, uncaring of the general common weal, may retain a significance beyond my own time, still retaining relevance, perhaps, in centuries still to come:

“Ye friends to truth, ye statesmen who survey
The rich man's joys increase, the poor's decay,
'Tis yours to judge how wide the limits stand
Between a splendid and an happy land.
Proud swells the tide with loads of freighted ore,
And shouting Folly hails them from her shore;
Hoards, even beyond the miser's wish, abound,
And rich men flock from all the world around.
Yet count our gains.  This wealth is but a name
That leaves with useful products still the same.
Not so the loss.  The man of wealth and pride
Takes up a space that many poor supplied;
Space for his lake, his park's extended bounds,
Space for his horses, equipage, and hounds;
The robe that wraps his limbs in silken sloth
Has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth;
His seat, where solitary sports are seen,
Indignant spurns the cottage from the green;
Around the world each needful product flies,
For all the luxuries the world supplies:
While thus the land, adorned for pleasure all,
In barren splendour feebly waits the fall.”

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. Ah a good patrician, Francis! I am sure I would still have been one of the peasants touching my forelock to you as you passed in your carriage, sor!

  2. It may have okay being a woman in that time and place, providing one was intimately acquainted with Joshua Reynolds and his gentlemen friends. ;-)

  3. What a wonderful link, Gina! Thank you.

    Claude commented on Facebook about the fact that women played so little a role in the 18th Century. Sadly, true - with the exception of the occasional woman such as Catherine the Great, it was very much a man's world.

  4. 'Your description is wonderfully vivid, and carries weight, Sir, as though you had been a native of that island in mine own time,' says Dr Samuel Johnson, speaking to my inner ear across the centuries.

    But here is something he did actually say, pertinent to your essay:

    BOSWELL: 'Pray Mr. Dilly, how does Dr. Leland's History of Ireland sell?' JOHNSON (bursting forth with a generous indignation,) 'The Irish are in a most unnatural state; for we see there the minority prevailing over the majority. There is no instance, even in the ten persecutions, of such severity as that which the Protestants of Ireland have exercised against the Catholicks. Did we tell them we have conquered them, it would be above board: to punish them by confiscation and other penalties, as rebels, was monstrous injustice. King William was not their lawful sovereign: he had not been acknowledged by the Parliament of Ireland, when they appeared in arms against him.'

    (From a conversation of Friday, 7 May, 1773.)

  5. I suspect, when you called for a glass of port, you might well have quietly noticed the mask and pistols on my sideboard!


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