One of the most accomplished literary, scientific and cultural treatises on the Giant’s Causeway and the north coast of Ireland is William Hamilton Drummond’s 1811 epic work, The Giant’s Causeway. A work in which Drummond repeatedly promotes Belfast as a ‘northern Athens’; a civic authority to rival Edinburgh and Dublin. This paper will explore how Drummond uses the classical characteristics of the epic genre and British georgic-based verse to enhance the poem’s declamatory and authoritative voice, as a means to construct and perform a new vision of Ulster’s ascendance within post-rebellion / post-Union Ireland. In a letter to the Bishop of Dromore, Thomas Percy, in 1784, William Jessop appears to articulate Irish Ascendancy fears when he states,
The Ultonians are Scots […] we are genuine Irish […] we look upon Ulster as one grand volcano, ready every moment to shake the earth around it, and pour forth its burning lava. In the south the climate and the people are milder. Potatoes are a cooling diet; oaten bread and whisky are combustibles.
Drummond’s poem may be read as a riposte of sorts to this indictment, appropriating the languages of ethnicity, agriculture, environment and geology to promote an enlightened Ulster. Drummond champions a Presbyterian-led and mercantile-sponsored coterie of scholars in Belfast, as the erudite guardians of this now quiescent region within Ireland and within the new Union. Yet under this new guise, the activities of the North’s rural cotter-class as they appear in The Giant’s Causeway – mediated by georgic-verse conventions to extol the north of Ireland’s productive energies – seem to become synonymous with a passive and fecund landscape, meaning that at times the poetic persona drifts alarmingly close to a language of autonomous colonial authority. Ultimately this analysis of The Giant’s Causeway using Ulster-Scots Criticism and Ecocriticism will attempt to offer further means of negotiating Irish history and culture during an intense period of change in Ireland.
Authority and Wisdom: The 8th Biannual Conference of the Nordic Irish Studies Network (NISN)