By Judy Cox
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 265

‘Friend of the Unfriended Poor’

This article is over 19 years, 6 months old
Review of 'Shelley and Revolutionary Ireland', Paul O'Brien, Redwords £11
Issue 265

When Percy Bysshe Shelley set sail for Ireland in 1812 he was only 19 years old. He was full of radical enthusiasm and energy, having recently been expelled from Oxford for making his atheism public. He went to Ireland precisely to put his political ideas into practice: ‘I beheld in short that I had duties to perform.’

The misery and oppression he saw in Ireland roused him to fury. He wrote:

‘Blood may fertilise the tree
Of new bursting Liberty.
Let the guiltiness then be
On the slaves that ruin wreak,
On the unnatural tyrant-brood
Slow to Peace and swift to blood.’

This was amazing stuff for a teenager from a privileged background. But Shelley was born in the shadow of the French Revolution and the desperate struggles of the Irish to be free, like the rebellion of the United Irishmen.

Shelley was increasingly impatient with Whiggish parliamentary reform and compromise. He wanted to agitate for revolutionary change, to stir up the masses to fight for their rights and for justice. The pamphlets he wrote for an Irish audience, his ‘Address to the Irish People’ and the more urgent ‘Proposals for an Association’ were not whimsical fancies. They were direct attempts to shape a political movement that could win Catholic emancipation while opposing the grip of the Catholic church. And Shelley did have a real impact, recorded in Irish newspapers at the time, just as his engagement with the masses of Dublin had an impact on him.

Paul O’Brien’s original and engaging new book tells the previously untold story of Shelley’s relationship with Ireland. And it makes for a great read. Two things strike you instantly about this book. The first is how deeply the struggle of England’s first colony affected every aspect of the lives of both the oppressors and the oppressed for centuries. The book shows that it wasn’t just the future of British tyranny over the Irish that was at stake. When the Irish rose up, there was the ever present possibility that the English masses would make common cause with them. This possibility provoked the tyrants to repression and the radicals to action.

The second thing Paul’s book reveals is just how thoroughly and whole heartedly the young poet Shelley threw himself into the cause of Irish freedom and justice. Irish freedom was not a passing fad for the young poet–it became a central part of his outlook on life.

Later generations of Irish writers appreciated Shelley’s influence. For example, the poet WB Yeats said, ‘Shelley shaped my life’, and playwright Sean O’Casey described himself as a ‘Shelleyan Communist’. Reading Paul O’Brien’s fascinating exploration of Shelley’s relationship with Ireland is an antidote to the Shelley industry which was in full swing just decades after his death.

Shelley was one of the first poets to be interred in a mausoleum of his own poetic genius. He was portrayed as a brilliant lyrical poet, but an ineffectual dreamer whose poetry improved when he outgrew his youthful radicalism. Generations of poetry lovers were brought up without any knowledge that Shelley’s radical opposition to all tyranny and oppression was central to his art and his life. And the cause of Ireland was central to Shelley’s radicalism.

Paul O’Brien describes Shelley’s world with great skill and a real depth of understanding. The book is full of great quotes and insights. The political ideas and artistic movements generated by the great revolutionary struggles of Britain and Ireland in the early 19th century are fascinating and inspiring. And so is this chapter in the life of ‘Red Shelley’, who was proud to call himself ‘the friend of the unfriended poor’.


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