Ireland has been in the press a lot in connection with Brexit, trade and borders. The July feature of the month from Senate House Library is ‘L’Irlande sociale, politique et religieuse’, a former bestselling monograph about an earlier Ireland which was bequeathed by George Grote in 1871 and is one of the library’s founding collections.

In Harriet Grote’s biography of her husband George (the University of London vice-chancellor from 1862 to 1871) she describes how in June 1835 ‘two young Frenchmen then rising into notice as public men’, Alexis de Tocqueville and his friend and fellow traveller Gustave de Beaumont, visited them at home several times. Beaumont returned to London with his wife for a few months in 1848, as the French Republic’s envoy, and the Grotes joined the Beaumonts at their official residence in Manchester Square for the latters’ final evening in London.

The personal connection explains the presence in George Grote’s library of an inscribed copy of Beaumont’s L’Irlande sociale, politique et religieuse: presumably hot off the press, for had he waited, Beaumont might instead have given him the English translation published only a few months later. Grote does not appear to have been particularly interested in Ireland. Harriet’s biography describes visits to Scotland, Wales and parts of Continental Europe, but not to Ireland. Irish questions arose for parliamentary debate and Grote consorted with men involved with them in a way that any educated person in his social position might have done. Yet occasional annotations indicate that he read the book.

However, Gustave de Beaumont was passionate about Irish affairs. When he wrote L’Irlande sociale, politique et religieuse, he already had two successful works behind him, made clear on the title page of L’Irlande by his description as the author of Marie, ou, L’esclavage aux États-Unis and co-author (with Tocqueville) of the Système penitentiare aux États-Unis (1833).

The novel Marie (1835), which looked at US society’s more sordid side, was reprinted numerous times in French, while the Système penitentiare aux États-Unis won the annual Montyon prize for the book rendering the greatest service to humanity. In writing about Ireland, Beaumont was applying the same care that he had shown for oppressed members of society in the New World to a European country.

Beaumont and Tocqueville had travelled around the US together to gather information for their books about that country. L’Irlande sociale, politique et religieuse also results from travel, as stated in the preface: a six-week trip with Tocqueville in 1835, followed by a fact-finding trip with Beaumont’s newish wife (m. 1836) in 1837. To avoid stepping metaphorically upon each other’s toes, Beaumont and Tocqueville agreed on a division of research interests, whereby Ireland fell completely into Beaumont’s area.

L’Irlande appeared in two volumes. The first is devoted to a historical overview of the country, from 1169 through to Catholic emancipation in 1829. English conquest, religious wars and tensions, penal laws, revival and enfranchisement (1776–1829) and the effects on Ireland of the American wars of independence and the French Revolution stand out. Volume Two deals with contemporary conditions.

Much as Beaumont admired the UK as the world’s oldest democracy, he had concluded that Ireland was to Britain what slavery was to America. His section and chapter headings reveal his sympathies: ‘Persécution légale’ (legal persecution); ‘Misère de ses habitants’ (misery of its inhabitant’); ‘Une mauvaise aristocratie et la cause première de tous les maux de l’Irlande’ (bad aristocracy is the chief cause of all of Ireland’s evils); ‘Misère extrême des fermiers’ (extreme misery of the farmers);  ‘Où l’on expose comment … l’Irlande a résisté à l’oppression’ (showing how … Ireland has resisted oppression).

In the preface Beaumont describes his motivation for writing as having been attracted to Ireland by its misfortune. Finding it torn apart by misery, injustice and disagreement, with pitiable scenes, he was troubled in his soul and thought that a portrayal of his impressions would be both interesting and useful. He concluded the preface by declaring that his efforts would be rewarded if they exposed a single political truth which would benefit the populace, a single moral principle which would be useful, and if he succeeded in strengthening in some people a sense of justice, love for liberty, and hatred of tyranny. Writing at a time when Ireland was an agrarian country ruled by a tiny English aristocracy with many absentee landlords and no love was lost between the native, mainly Catholic, population and its rulers, Beaumont strongly recommended abolishing that aristocracy.

By all standards, Beaumont succeeded. Although publication history indicates far more interest in his work in France than in Britain, land reform took place and Ireland’s farmers became owner-occupiers. The book won Beaumont the prestigious Montyon Prize for the second time. In addition to prompt translation into English, it underwent numerous French editions, reaching the seventh in 1863. For this edition, the last before the author’s death from an epidemic in 1866, he added an introduction covering the Potato Famine of 1845–52.

As with many publications with significant content, including Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, the book is unattractive to look at. In content it is a sociological classic. It is a classic of its time, as Ireland struggled towards democracy, and it sheds a light on modern issues of race, class and opportunity, or lack of it.

We invite you to take a look at its physical form as Grote’s French first edition, the 1839 English translation, or the expanded 1863 edition in Senate House Library; at the digital surrogates of all of these on the database Making of the Modern World (available to library members), or at the 21st-century ebook whose editor shows by choosing to edit the work just how important it remains.

Dr Karen Attar is curator of rare books and university art at Senate House Library, and a research fellow at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. She has published widely on library history and aspects of special collections and is the reviews editor for Library & Information History.

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