This blog serial explored aspects of the 1888 book Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American, by journalist William Henry Hurlbert. Previous posts and other background material are available at the project landing page. #IUCRevisited
“…as we are dealing not with the history of Ireland in the past, but with the condition of Ireland at present … ”
–William Henry Hurlbert
In the 130 years since Hurlbert published his Irish political journal and travelogue, contemporary historians have occasionally, but sparingly, cited his reporting in their works about the Land War period.
Among the earliest references was The fall of feudalism in Ireland; or, The story of the land league revolution, the 1904 book by Michael Davitt. Hurlbert briefly interviewed the agrarian activist. (See series posts Meeting Davitt and More Davitt.) In his book, the Irishman made a few brief mentions of the American, by then dead for nine years:
Ireland Under Coercion … was intended to show that Mr. Parnell and the National League, not Mr. Balfour and Dublin Castle, were the true coercionists in Ireland. What the purpose or motive of the book was has remained a mystery.
Here are three more recent examples:
- Coercion and Conciliation in Ireland, 1880-1892, by Lewis Perry Curtis Jr., 1963. Citing an August 1888 letter from Arthur Balfour, Perry reported that Hurlbert “ingratiated himself” to the Irish chief secretary and other unionists “by professing his willingness to educate the American public about the ‘true’ nature of Irish nationalism.” (Curtis also referenced Hurlbert in his 2011 book, The Depictions of Eviction in Ireland, 1845-1910.)
- Irish Terrorism in the Atlantic Community, 1865-1922, by Jonathan Gantt, 2010. In a one paragraph summary of IUC in his section about the Land War, Gantt noted that “…according to Hurlbert, the presence of ferocious agrarianism represented a failure for all concerned and marked a breakdown in civilization.”
- Mr. Parnell’s Rottweiler: Censorship and the United Ireland Newspaper, 1881-1891, by Myles Dungan, 2014. Dungan wrote of Hurlbert:
He rejected the nationalist narrative of extreme agrarian distress and cited the significant rise in savings bank deposits in areas where the Plan [of Campaign] was in operation as proof of the capacity, and unwillingness, of tenant farmers to pay even arbitrated rents. He was also highly skeptical of the nationalist narrative of press suppression, suggesting there were greater abuses of press freedom by the Lincoln administration during the American Civil War.
Ireland Under Coercion is probably referenced in a few more history books, but not too many. Hurlbert’s work was absent from dozens of books and websites that I consulted in researching this blog series. I suspect he has been overlooked either because he was an American, or because of his pro-landlord, pro-unionist views.
“There is another and more important factor,” Irish historian Felix M. Larkin, co-founder and former chairman of the Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland, wrote in an email: “Historians are loath to use contemporary press reports and journalists’ memoirs as sources.”
Larkin just wrote a piece for The Irish Catholic newspaper that criticizes the new, four-volume Cambridge History of Ireland for ignoring the print media. Hurlbert isn’t cited in its index, either, he wrote.
Nevertheless, the online availability of Hurlbert’s book may prompt some fresh looks at his travels in Ireland. As noted earlier in this series, Hurlbert’s quote about Sion Mills is included in a 2014 BBC online profile of the village; and extended passages of his visit to Miltown Malbay are posted on the County Clare Library website.
Ireland Under Coercion also figures into two books about the mystery of “The Diary of a Public Man.” The anonymously-authored North American Review article about the eve of the U.S. Civil War was published in 1879. The mystery of “a public man,” a historical detective story, a 1948 book by Frank Maloy Anderson, and A secession crisis enigma : William Henry Hurlbert and “The diary of a public man, a 2010 exploration by Daniel W. Crofts, each reference Hurlbert’s 1888 Ireland book. Crofts concluded that Hurlbert wrote the magazine piece nine years earlier.
As mentioned in an earlier post, Hurlbert’s trip to Ireland is detailed in Travellers’ Accounts as Source-Material for Irish Historians, a reference by Christopher J. Woods, and The Tourist’s Gaze, Travellers to Ireland, 1800 to 2000, edited by Glen Hooper, which features a passage from IUC.
Hurlbert and his Ireland work are long gone, but not completely forgotten.
NOTES: Top quote from page 291 of Ireland Under Coercion: The Diary of an American. Davitt, page 559; Curtis, page 263; Gantt, page 125; and Dungan, pages 291-93. Crofts, especially pages 180-187.
NEXT: Final thoughts
Copyright 2018 by Mark Holan