Charlotte Brooke–the woman who saved Irish poetry

Irish pattern in Connemara 1842
Irish pattern in Connemara 1842
title page of Brooke book

When St. Patrick’s Day comes around, Americans burst out with a flood of t-shirts, shamrocks, and parades. This year we even have a story about snakes in Ireland as the NY Times writes about how prosperity made snakes a favorite pet for a few years. Snakes are not the most cuddly of pets, so many of them have been set free, bringing snakes to Ireland after all the centuries of being free of them, courtesy of the legendary saint himself.

Few of stories and celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day have anything to do with the culture or history of Ireland and many of the heroes of the country, as well as most of the heroines are unknown today. One of the most unlikely lovers of Irish culture was Charlotte Brooke, born in County Cavan in 1740 to an Anglo-Irish family. Her father, Henry Brooke was a well-known playwright of the time, so Charlotte was raised in a cultured, literary family. Many Anglo-Irish people were fond of Ireland and enjoyed living there, but they thought of themselves as quite separate from the Irish peasants who lived around them. Very few learned the Irish language or knew the native Irish people except as servants. In fact the English did their best to stamp out all traces of Irish Roman Catholicism, the Irish language, and all of Irish culture. Charlotte was an exception. She learned the Irish language and appreciated the beauty of Irish poetry and legends and she became determined to preserve the legacy from extinction.

While her father was alive, Charlotte, like a dutiful 18th century daughter, devoted herself to helping him in his writing of now long-forgotten plays. When he died, she took on the task of collecting his plays and poetry and preparing them for publication. It was only after she had accomplished all this that she felt justified in turning to translating some of the Irish poetry she had found. Like most writers of the time, she had to find sponsors to provide money for publication and find them she did. Finally her book Reliques of Irish Poetry was published in 1789. She published not only her translations but the original Irish texts that she had used. The importance of this work is confirmed by a listing on the Cavan County Libraries site which points out that this book “confirms her place in the history of Irish literature and acclaims her as a forerunner of the literary movement for the revival of Irish in the nineteenth century and the formation of the Gaelic League. This was the first time that a wide selection of Irish verse appeared in print.”

Despite the importance of her contribution to the study of Irish literature and the influence that she had on poets of the 19th and 20th centuries, Charlotte Brooke is almost forgotten today. Her translations sound old-fashioned, written as they are in the style of the 18th century, but some of them capture the vitality of the Irish originals and can be enjoyed by modern readers. My favorite is this touching elegy written by a young man for his wife:

Sad the bird that sings alone,
Flies to wilds, unseen to languish,
Pours, unheard, the ceaseless moan,
And wastes on desert air its anguish!

Mine, o hapless bird! Thy fate!
The plunder’d nest, the lonely sorrow!
The lost—lov’d—harmonious mate!
The wailing night, the cheerless morrow!

O thou dear hoard of treasur’d love!
Though these fond arms should ne’er possess thee,
Still—still my heart its faith shall prove,
And its last sighs shall breathe to bless thee!