A full house greeted Irish Times journalist, Frank McNally, and Trollope critic, John McCourt, in Clonmel on 11 July. Both were guests of the highly successful Clonmel Junction festival, an annual event, directed by David Teevan, bringing together writers, musicians and artists, over the first two weeks of July. They took part in a lively Q&A which, after some initial questions about McCourt’s work on James Joyce, focussed on an analysis of Trollope’s time in the beautiful Tipperary town.
And what better place to talk about Trollope? Clonmel was of course home to the Trollope family for three years from 1844-1847 and the town where his two sons, Henry and Frederick were born. They were baptised in the beautiful St Mary’s Church which dates back to the twelfth century and would not be out of place in Barsetshire. It was also while Trollope was living in Clonmel that he published his first two novels, The Macdermots of Ballycloran and The Kellys and the O’Kellys. Trollope clearly enjoyed his time in Clonmel, a substantial trading town which had far more to offer than his initial home in Ireland, Banagher.
After a detailed discussion of the presence of Clonmel and Tipperary in Trollope’s works – he appears to have taken the Palliser, De Burgo, Desmond, and Fitzgerald names from there – McNally and McCourt discussed his friendship with the then mayor of Clonmel, the Italian entrepreneur, Charles Bianconi who had set up Ireland’s first transport system. In Trollope’s words, “no living man has worked more than he has for the benefit of the sister kingdom”. Sharing a common belief in the values of hard work and industry, they both achieved success in exile and a little belatedly. They also shared almost unique knowledge of the geographical features of Ireland which Bianconi acquired through his drawing up of transport routes, and Trollope gained through his mapping of the country’s postal infrastructure. These two Irish outsiders made a substantial contribution to modernising the Ireland of their time.
McCourt and McNally went on to examine Trollope’s treatment of the Irish Famine in his 1859 novel Castle Richmond. This work emerged as a somewhat contradictory piece of writing in which the great sensitivity shown towards Famine victims in a series of vignettes depicting hunger, desolation, and death, clashes with the rather harsh economic solutions offered by the narrative which rails against the recourse to charity and philanthropy and stages a staunch and by then anomalous defence of British policy in the country.
McNally charged that Trollope failed, in Patrick Kavanagh’s terms, to see Ireland as a Parish, that is, as a world onto itself, preferring to view it as a province, an appendix to England. McCourt countered that Trollope, at least in his early Irish novels, did indeed see his Irish world as a separate entity and that he wrote with great courage and insight about entire Irish communities stretching from cabin to castle, from peasant to landlord. McNally opined that Trollope was too concerned to address and English audience (rather than an Irish one) in his Irish novels but McCourt argued that the entire canon of the nineteenth century novel could be accused of doing this. The reality was that the Irish middle-class reading public was very small and writers had little choice but to look to the greater market in London. But McCourt also stated that Trollope was a convinced unionist who could not conceive of Ireland as a separate, independent country. This belief made it well-nigh impossible for him to take the Irish desire for Home Rule seriously in his works and it marks a serious limitation.
The evening concluding with questions from the audience about Trollope’s work methods, the negative impact of his Autobiography on his reputation, the failure of Trollope criticism generally to give sufficient attention to his Irish novels and to the Irish strand within his huge body of writing. A book signing followed.
(Article reproduced by permission of John McCourt. Photo by Donal Thurlow)