The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
A Modern Daedalus (1887)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
A Modern Dædalus was written by Tom Greer. Greer (1846-1904) was an Irish writer and surgeon who lived in England from about 1880.
A Modern Dædalus is about Jack O’Halloran, a patriotic Irishman. Even as a child, O'Halloran is obsessed with flight. After graduating from college he returns to Ireland to build a flying device. After much experimentation he discovers a means of unaided unpowered flight. Its specifics are never detailed, although O’Halloran describes wearing a pair of six-foot-long wings and flying with them. Nor are his means of propulsion detailed; the reader is left with the implication that O'Halloran flaps like a bird to propel himself. There are some obvious logistical difficulties with this, especially since he routinely hits speeds of 100 mph.
Jack is the son of an independence-minded father, and has three brothers (their mother has passed away). His father is an ideologue who is given to statements like “freedom never lasts unless it is clamped with iron and cemented with blood, and one ounce of lead weighs heavier than fifty columns of speeches”1 and who condemns the British for acts that he condones coming from the Irish. When Jack refuses to give the flying device to his father to help against the English, his father throws him out of the house. Jack rebuilds the wings at a friend's house and flies to London and makes his public debut. This creates a sensation, and he writes a newspaper column describing himself. Jack attends a long-winded Parliament debate and then approaches the Home Secretary and arranges for demonstration of his device. O'Halloran is looking to produce the device for the good of mankind and is not interested in monetary gain. But Jack is followed back to his friend’s house by a government agent, and when Jack realizes this he flees. When he hears news of an Irish uprising, he returns to Parliament to hear the debates, but he is caught in a stampede there and is partially trampled, ending up in the medical care of the British government.
The Irish uprising becomes a full-scale revolt. The Home Secretary offers Jack a large salary to make the wings for the British. Jack wants to make the device available for the world, but the Home Secretary is afraid of the wings falling into the hands of the Irish or the Continentals, who would use them to attack and bombard England. When Jack refuses to sell the device to the British, even for £100,000, the Home Secretary refuses to let him go free–if the British can't have the wings, no one will. News filters in about the Irish guerrillas humiliating the British troops; the Irish snipers are so accurate that they are able to slaughter the British officers, whose deaths so demoralize the British troops that they are unable to function.
Jack is rescued by his brother, who he teaches to use the wings. They escape together to Ireland and Jack, now forgiven by his father and hailed by the common people as a hero, trains a brigade of fliers. They drop bombs on a British brigade and sink several British ironclads. The Irish aviators destroy the English forces in Ireland, England submits to Irish independence, and the Irish continue to build a flying force, which at novel's end is a thousand strong.
A Modern Dædalus is far less enjoyable than it is interesting. Greer wrote it as propaganda and accordingly skewed his portrayal of both the British, who are uniformly shown to be conceited and evil, and the Irish, who are all noble, patriotic, and brave. Jack hypocritically mews about how he sickened he is by the deaths he causes, but he never hesitates to cause them. Nor is Greer’s style entertaining. O'Halloran writes that he does not want to be accused of “unpardonable egotism and wearisome prolixity,”2 but that is an adequate description of both the narrator and the book.
However, A Modern Dædalus does include a few matters of interest to the modern reader. The manner in which the Irish snipers disconcert the British troops in the novel, by killing the officers, had been carried out in reality, during the First Anglo-Boer War (1880-1881), with Boer snipers taking a particular toll on British officers during the Battle of Majuba Hill (27 February 1881), the last battle in which British colors were carried uncased into battle. But the British public and military did not learn from this, although Greer apparently did, and were forced to undergo a similar experience in the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902).
A Modern Dædalus is also a rare example of an anarchy novel privileging the ideology of the anarchists, and of a Future War novel, written in English and published in England, favoring the side of England’s opponents. Most anarchist novels were written from the viewpoint of the country being attacked, whether Britain, the United States, France or Germany, and even those novels which presented the anarchists as the protagonists (see: Satan’s Children) made them the villains. A Modern Dædalus portrays the anarchists as the heroes. George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution is another novel which does this, although it’s doubtful that Griffith, who had a surfeit of creativity, was at all influenced or had even heard of A Modern Dædalus. Even if he had, it’s dubious he would have used it as a resource, he being against the idea of Irish independence.
Greer was also one of the few writers in the nineteenth century to make use of science fictional devices in a novel in which Ireland frees itself from England. A Modern Dædalus was clearly written as a reaction to the 1886 Home Rule Crisis, in which William Gladstone’s Government of Ireland bill, which would have granted Ireland the right to self-governance, was defeated by Parliament. The bill itself was controversial with British and Irish alike; its defeat helped deepen the division between the Irish loyalist and Irish nationalists, and greatly increased the nationalists’ hatred for the British government. In light of this, A Modern Dædalus can be seen as political wish-fulfillment on Greer’s part, as a reaction to the controversy over Richard Barry O’Brien’s “The Best Hundred Irish Books” list of 18863–a list that drove home to many Irish readers and writers how little they knew of the literature of their home country4–and as a near-anticipation of the Irish Literary Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which began a short time after the debut of A Modern Dædalus, with the publication of William Butler Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888). (It must be wondered what the sales of A Modern Dædalus were like in England compared to Ireland).
Lastly, as Barbara Arnett Melchiori writes, there is the possibility that the young James Joyce might have read A Modern Dædalus: “the spelling of the name [Dædalus] with the Latin diphthong æ coincides with that adopted by Joyce as pseudonym when he published the first stories of Dubliners in The Irish Homestead in 1904."5
Print: Tom Greer, A Modern Dædalus. New York: Arno Press, 1975.
For Further Research
Stephen Morton, State of Emergency: Colonialism, Literature, and the Law. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013.
1 Tom Greer, A Modern Dædalus (London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden & Walsh, 1887), 37.
2 Greer, A Modern Dædalus, xvi.
3 Clare Hutton, “‘The Promise of Literature in the Coming Days’: The Best Hundred Irish Books Controversy of 1886,” Victorian Literature and Culture 39.2 (2011): 581-592.
4 Clare Hutton, “‘The Promise of Literature in the Coming Days,’” 584.
5 Barbara Arnett Melchiori, “A Modern Daedalus,” Joyce Studies in Italy 3 (1991), 14.