Charles Kingsley on the Irish

I’ve been aware since my schooldays that there has been (and still is) a significant tendency among the English (especially their governing classes) to regard the Irish as lawless barbarians, but this quote which I found in a book I’ve been reading really took my breath away. It’s from a letter written by Charles Kingsley to his wife in 1861, while he was travelling through an Ireland still reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine:

But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault, I believe that there are not only more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.

This passage is revolting in so many ways that I don’t think it needs any further comment, but it is worth mentioning that Charles Kingsley was, by the standards of his time, regarded as something of a progressive. As well as being a Church of England priest, Professor of History and a novelist (I read The Water-Babies when I was a child), he was also a social reformer involved in such initiatives as the working men’s college and labour cooperatives. Clearly his concern for the poor and oppressed didn’t extend much beyond his own people.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Charles Kingsley did his undergraduate studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as did I (thought not at the same time).

12 Responses to “Charles Kingsley on the Irish”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    He was a strange man, who caused me to side with John Henry Newman (not something I often do) in their clash.

  2. I too read The Water Babies as a child. It gave me nightmares and I think is still the most disturbing book I have ever read. I slept under the bedclothes for months afterwards.
    On the Irish issue – in England we were (and I presume still are) taught almost nothing in school of Irish history. I strongly recommend the BBC radio series “A Short History of Ireland” (in about 100×6 minute episodes); available as an audiobook. I found it gripping and it explained a lot about the issues continuing to the present day. For example, the “chimpanzee” references are consistent with the “sport” at one time of going out hunting the indigenous poulation – as happened also in Australia.

    • telescoper Says:

      Although I thought The Water Babies was a bit weird, I don’t think it really unsettled me. In fact I don’t even remember much about it, which suggests I wasn’t all that impressed at the time.

      My O-level history course (I posted the exam here) covered some aspects of 19th Century Irish history, particularly the numerous failed attempts at Home Rule. I learnt a bit about major characters such as Parnell too, but it was a rather superficial treatment.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Can you document that claim about Australia, please?

  3. I think it was the colonisation phase that shocked me the most – and I now understand why Cromwell is hated in Ireland…

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, the facts of Cromwell’s `pacification’ of Ireland and the cruel Penal Laws are for some reason not taught in British schools…but they most certainly are in Ireland.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The conquest of Ireland took place under the Tudor monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth, and colonisation under Elizabeth and her successor James Stuart (King James VI of Scotland and I of England). Cromwell invaded Ireland a lifetime later to forestall the threat of imminent invasion of Britain from Ireland – he even broke off an urgent military campaign in Scotland for that reason – and pursued a scorched earth campaign mainly because the locals were uniformly hostile to him, unlike in divided Scotland and England. Were I Irish, I think I’d be more peeved at the Tudors than at Cromwell.

      • Anton Garrett Says:


        Cromwell’s Irish campaign actually abided by the conventions of the time regarding war in a hostile region. I was told this by an Irish friend (secular at the time he spoke) who served in the military. I am *not* exonerating the historical actions of the British in Ireland, but I consider that the Tudors (re conquest) and the Victorians (re the famine) have more to answer for.

        As for the deeper history, Henry II of England invaded Ireland in the 12th century, after which London had control, via Dublin, of varying amounts of Ireland. Many English overlords ‘went native’ and by Henry VIII’s time little practical English power remained there. Henry VIII was determined to impose English law and centralised government throughout Ireland, extending from the relatively Anglicised parts to the areas under traditional Irish tribal law controlled by Gaelic chieftains. His armies, and then those of his daughter Elizabeth, accomplished that. King James I of England (Elizabeth’s successor) oversaw the ‘planting’ of confiscated land by English and, particularly in the north, Scottish protestant settlers. (James *was* a Scottish protestant.) Of course the native Irish ardently maintained their Catholic religious identity.

        Henry II’s invasion was licensed by the Pope of the time, since Henry claimed to be furthering Catholicism by his invasion. Or was it? The papal document in question, Laudabiliter, is not found in papal archives where one might expect a master copy to reside. And the Pope in question was the only English one, Nicholas Brakspear of Hertfordshire (Pope Adrian IV). Was there a plot between Pope and King? On the other hand, plenty of important documents known to have existed are missing from papal archives. This is one of the more interesting uncertainties of history.

      • One day I should do a post about a famous historical figure from these parts called ‘Silken Thomas’ whose exploits led to his execution during the reign of Henry VIII.

      • P. S. The area of Ireland under direct control from England prior to the colonisation was called The Pale. Centred on Dublin, it extended as far West as Maynooth.

  4. telescoper Says:

    It’s depressing to see comments ssserting that Kingsley was correct. In line with my policy I have blocked them.

  5. Similar sentiment meter out to the Welsh. Considered immoral, backward and savages. One such example being this laying the blame at the Welsh language, and a reason to seek its erasure. Attitudes that are openly perpetuated today on the media.

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