Jeremy Felt

Irishly In The Poorhouse Fair

I’m approaching the half way point in John Updike‘s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, and ran into few lines that stuck in my head:

Given his post, he had accepted it. Irishly, he had hoped for something dramatic, but the administration of order had few dramatic departments. The modern world afforded few opportunities for zeal anywhere.

Conner, the prefect at the poorhouse, is briefly recounting his tenure and seems to simultaneously mourn what could have been while biding the time before he can prove himself in another position. Using the word Irishly to describe his internal hope for dramatics strikes me as strange.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of Irishly is:

in a manner characteristic of the Irish

Is it characteristic of the Irish to hope for something dramatic? I undertook a search.

The Constitutional History of England From the Accession of Henry VII to the Death of George II, published in 1827, has a phrase which includes a quote from another document, the Statutes at large, passed in the parliaments held in Ireland, which itself was published in 1786:

It recites the chapter to be “except a very few of them, both by nation, education, and custom, Irish, Irishly affectioned, and small hopes of their conformities or assent unto any such devices as would tend to the placing of any such number of civil people there, to the disadvantage or bridling of the Irish.”

This is the first use of ‘Irishly’ in a sentence that I can find online, though Merriam-Webster indicates that the word was first used in the 16th century. This first use seems to reference the respect or fondness of a culture and has nothing to do with dramatics.

In an issue of The Monthly Review, from 1802, we find a review written for a scientific paper on bees that had recently been published by a Swiss naturalist, Pierre Huber. The tone is somewhat amusing in its snark:

The author also flatters himself that he has discovered a convenient family-character in the relative elongation of the head; and he asserts (rather Irishly) that the head of the common bee is more broad than long, or, at least, never longer than broad, as is uniformly the case with respect to the humble-bee.

I can’t determine the exact meaning here, but one could imagine the assertion presented with dramatic flair. Though if we ponder this, the trait presented as ‘Irishly’ could be anything that made sense in the context of 1802. I wanted to dig deeper by reading Huber’s Observations on several Species of the Genus Apis in order to gain context, but the only text I can find is in French. So we move on.

An article titled Irish Reapers from an 1838 publication, The Museum of foreign literature, science, and art, provides us this description of a child hanging around his working father:

while a little Irish imp, not more than two years old – and Irishly clad, too – was half crawling round him, like a kind of tame frog, (if such a thing could be,) through the stubbles; father and son making very good company with each other, and eloquently discussing various subjects in their native tongue.

Besides being a great scene to imagine, this section does nothing to connect dramatics with the use of Irishly. Instead, it seems to align directly with the definition of the word in the context of dressing – ‘in a manner characteristic of the Irish’.

Next, we have something written around 1837, though it’s a little hard to figure out the exact date of this volume. From Memoirs of a Peeress: or, The days of Fox, or, even more eerily, the Posthumous Memoirs of a Peeress:

The climate, the aspect of the place and people, tend to maintain a singular elasticity of spirits. In Paris, if I may so Irishly express it, the environs are nearer to town. After a ten minutes’ drive, you reach the country, and shake off the artificiality of coteries and courts.

Either it’s Irish in manner to express that the the city is more compact, or it was a widely known trait of Irish towns in the 1800s. Unless the peeress is implying that her expression of this is dramatic, the use of Irishly in this case does not appear to apply to Updike.

Greville, or, A Season in Paris seems like it may be an entertaining read. In a really, really long sentence explaining how Monsieur de Rambuteau is amazing and can work harder than everyone else, the author gives us this:

a hint I afford you, en passant, to explain the common belief that ce bon Prefet is ubiquitous; or, as one of your Irish senators Irishly observed, that, like a bird, he manages to be in two places at once.

This seems to be another case where the substitution of dramatically for Irishly in a sentence could make sense. Maybe we’re on to something here…

…And on to something we are. I skipped ahead a bunch of years, as the examples seemed to be of the same variant for a while. I then ran into a great profile of Jack Yeats in a biography written by Bruce Arnold:

[Jack] was praised for his grasp of character, for his understanding of people, of the west of Ireland, of Irish scenes – in the dramatic rather than the landscape sense. There is justice in much of this. He was struggling with a less than perfect technique, brilliant draughtsmanship and good perception of character, but without the benefit of a fully realised palette and with composition that is often predictably mundane. ‘He can paint an Irish scene, any Irish scene, Irishly, so to speak; others have to look out for something “characteristic,” as they imagine — something with a pig in it. This is Jack as he was to remain: a powerful invoker of atmosphere, but always limited technically.

Though I’m not sure it served the purpose I set out with, this last passage did a lot in my head to describe how the word dramatic could tie in with the word Irishly. There are no doubt many other examples I could find, but this is probably the best one, and I’ve taken up a bunch of time already.

It is interesting how much the use of a word can change over the years. And if you really think into this, a word like Irishly, based on characteristics of the Irish people, is so dynamic that its definition is subject to change any time that a general perception of Irish characteristics changes. Not only that, it can change depending on who the reader is and their specific perception of Irish characteristics.

So while I still think the use of Irishly in the original setting seems out of place, I’m more satisfied with what it could have meant.

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