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Irish Interest in Henry David Thoreau

Updated on January 27, 2019
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Richard F. Fleck spent six months in Ireland with his family while doing research on sabbatical leave at Trinity College Library, Dublin.

Michael Yeats on his father Wm Butler Yeats

Trinity College Library, Great Room, Dublin
Trinity College Library, Great Room, Dublin
Irish Countryside--a land of legend and lore
Irish Countryside--a land of legend and lore | Source

Irish Interest in Thoreau

During the academic year of 1972-1973 I had the privilege of taking sabbatical leave from the University of Wyoming to go to Ireland for researching the possible influence of Henry David Thoreau on Irish writers before and after the Irish Revolution of 1916. I also had occasion to hop over to Paris to present a paper "Thoreau Comme Mythologue" to Les Amis d'Henri David Thoreau (The French Thoreau Society). But what a profound pleasure it was to spend many a day in the Great Room of Trinity College Library, Dublin (see image) to have three books at a time brought to my table not far from where The Book of Kells was on display. The smell of shelves on end of musty books and the hourly toll of Trinity College bell lent an air of austerity while I plowed through the books. In addition to spending time in the library, I interviewed a number of scholars and political leaders of the day to assess Thoreau's influence.

Henry David Thoreau's greatest influence in Ireland was during Ireland's gradual political emergence from England from the 1870's until the 1930s. Perhaps it was Thoreau's emphasis upon simple joys and unchained freedom that appealed to an Irish audience that looked upon English political and industrial domination as a serious threat to full emergence. The Irish, during the turn of the century, were like that bug in the conclusion of Walden (1854) that gnawed and gnawed until it spring free.

During this period Irish writers including George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, William Butler Yeats, George William Russell (A.E.), William Kirkpatrick Magee (John Eglinton), and labor leader James Larkin became acquainted with and inspired by the writings of Thoreau ironically either through key British studies such as Henry Salt's or through various British editions of Walden and other works.

As Herbert Howarth explains in The Irish Writers 1880-1940, the nation's literary mood during the turn of the century, "It would have been sufficient justification of the Irish struggle for political freedom from England simply to say 'we want to be free.' The literary movement was curiously uncontent with that. It elaborated a social case as well; England stood for commerce and 'materialism,' whereas Ireland stood for 'imagination and spirituality.'" When Thoreau was introduced to Ireland during the 1870's and 1880's, Irish writers involved in the "freedom-movement" became engrossed with the philosophy of Walden (Simplify, simplify). They did not want to see rural Ireland turn into the English industrial Midlands, but they wanted to see a new Ireland take stock of its rugged wildness rich and legend and lore.

William Butler Yeats became enticed with Walden as seen in Michael Yeats letter to me through his father's reading aloud passages from Walden each day. His famous poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"(1893) was written in London when he felt homesick for his beloved Ireland. In this poem he mentions wishing to have nine bean rows and a hive for the honey bee. It is no small coincidence that Henry Thoreau had nine bean rows near his cabin at Walden Pond. Yeats probably introduced George William Russell to the writings of Thoreau, and it was Russell more than anyone else who helped spread the name of Thoreau across the Emerald Isle.

In addition to reading Walden, Russell read with deep interest Henry Salt's Life of Henry David Thoreau with its implicit comparison of Thoreau and the legendary Hindu Avatar: "As, in Hindoo [sic] mythology, the legendary Avatar descends to set right the moral and physical disorders which disturb the world." Russell followed his reading of Thoreau with a close examination of oriental scriptures and adopted the concept of the spiritual Avatar to Ireland's struggle for independence from industrial England.

Dissatisfied with Ireland's quasi-English society of the late 1920s and early thirties, Russell wrote a futurist fantasy The Avatars (1933) which concerns a cult of woodland artists who foresee Avatars arising out of clay. Civilized powers eventually destroy this strange new society, but the Avatar cult grows through legend and artistic record. One of the artists is indeed reminiscent of Henry David Thoreau in that he takes flight from wretched mechanical civilization, and he "wondered if time would ever come when the city dwellers would revolt as he had done, return to nature and let that mother restore their lost likeness in soul and body to the ancestral beauty."

Yet another Irish writer, William Kirkpatrick Magee (pseudonym John Eglinton), a close friend of Yeats and Russell wrote Two Essays on the Remnant (1894) that has the Thoreauvian thesis that the individual or thinking man (the remnant) has outgrown the state and the only way for self-development is to live in philosophic independence from the state (as Thoreau claimed his independence from the State of Massachusetts after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed). Like Russell, Magee admonished his fellow Irishmen to take solace in Nature.

Mention must be made of Irish Labor leader James Larkin who led the famous "Dublin Lockout" of 1913. He wrote, "How did I get the love of comrades, only by reading Whitman? How did I get this love of humanity except by understanding men like Thoreau and Emerson." In the tradition of Larkin, leaders (like Frank Gogarty) of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association of the 1970s were inspired by Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" (1849) and by Dr. Martin Luther King's peace marches.of the 1960s.

It is poetically fitting that Thoreau, who had great concern for the Irish immigrant in America, should be respected and admired by the nation of those immigrants.

For those wishing to read more of my findings in Ireland, please see "A Report on Irish Interest in Thoreau," in The Thoreau Journal Quarterly (October, 1974), 21-27.

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