The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Rebels: A Romance of Ireland in 1798 (1899)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
The Rebels: A Romance of Ireland in 1798 was written by M. McDonnell Bodkin. Bodkin (1850-1933) was an Irish nationalist politician and M.P. as well as an author, journalist, newspaper editor and barrister. The Rebels is an entertaining historical novel flawed by a bad authorial decision.
In The Rebels the Irish are being savagely oppressed by the British occupiers and are in a state of violent unrest, although outright rebellion has not yet occurred. But Lord Clare, newly arrived in Dublin, is determined to pacify the natives: “I’ll make these Irish savages as tame as cats before I’m done with them.” Lord Clare makes this announcement at a dinner in Dublin Castle, and it causes no little disagreement. Several of the Irish (and one or two English) nobles and members of Parliament vehemently disagree with him, seeing that the persecutions and barbarities of the occupying British troops have provoked and maddened the Irish people. Lord Clare sneers at those who disagree with him, accusing them of cowardice, sympathy with the rebels, and disloyalty to the Crown, and Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant, placidly agrees with Lord Clare. The dinner ends with bitter feelings on both sides, although most of those present side with Lord Clare and chat among themselves in the reception afterward about the wickedness of the “papists and rebels.” After the dinner Lord Clare’s undersecretary, the bland, crafty Cooke, brings to Clare a spy, Thomas Reynolds, who had been a part of the “conspiracy” to rebel against the British but who favored peaceful change and was horrified at the “revolution, massacre, and anarchy” which the group aimed at. Reynolds is proud of his honor but allows himself to be bought and tells Lord Clare where the conspiracy’s ringleaders will meet.
Only Lord Edward Fitzgerald is not on the list. He is Reynolds’ dearest friend and patron and a man Lord Clare particularly wants to catch. Reynolds had told Fitzgerald not to attend, but he reverses himself and sends Fitzgerald a letter telling him that he is needed there. Fitzgerald and his friend Maurice Blake arrive in time to see the other members of the conspiracy arrested. He makes it home and sees his wife, but Reynolds leads the troops to Fitzgerald’s house, and so Fitzgerald is forced to flee, escaping through the troops by wearing his wife’s clothes. Reynolds acts stupidly and tries to bribe Fitzgeralds’ maid into betraying Fitzgerald’s new hiding place, which only lets the rebellion know that Reynolds is a spy. Clare and Cooke plot to find Lord Edward, and after eluding the British for some time and moving from safe house to safe house Fitzgerald is eventually captured. He is treated badly in prison and dies of the injuries he incurred during his capture. Blake and his friend Cristy Culkin escape into the countryside and see all the horrors which the British troops have inflicted on the Irish peasantry. Blake and Culkin take part in the general uprising. After one battle with the British Blake is captured, but Culkin engineers his escape. They meet up with Blake’s wife and Lord Edward’s wife and son, and they go west, meeting up with the French troops who have landed to support the uprising. The Irish and French clash with the British and beat them, but the defeated troops rampage across the countryside and capture Blake’s wife. Blake’s wife eventually escapes, and Blake, his wife, Culkin, and Lord Edward’s wife and son board an American ship and set sail for America.
The first half of The Rebels is much better than the second half. Lord Clare and Lord Edward are both colorfully drawn, and the pursuit of Lord Edward is great historical romance fun. But Bodkin kills Lord Edward off on page 181, leaving 177 pages of Culkin and Blake, and the latter pair simply aren’t as enjoyable to read about. There is an element of high spirits to Lord Edward, a liveliness and wit, which Culkin and Blake lack, and the absence of Lord Edward and Lord Clare reduces the level of fun in the novel. The emphasis of the story changes, from Edward to Blake and Culkin, and Lord Clare disappears. What replaces him is Bodkin’s central concern in the novel, the awful British treatment of the Irish, and Bodkin treats the subject too seriously, so that the lighter touch of the novel’s first half disappears, leaving a leaden and grimly serious narrative.
The novel’s most damaging flaw is Bodkin’s approach to the British occupation of Ireland. The Question is a contentious one, only marginally less so today than it was in 1798, when the novel is set, or in 1899, when Bodkin wrote it. To those intimately involved in it, whether by blood or by friendship, it is impossible to remain neutral on the issue of the British in Ireland. Bodkin, an Irish Nationalist M.P., had strong feelings on the matter, and seemingly wrote The Rebels to persuade his readers of the rightness of the Irish cause. Unfortunately, as is often the case with didactic literature, The Rebels not only fails to make a good argument, but turns the reader against the author’s position through the shrill one-sidedness of the presentation. This was also the case with another novel dealing with The Question, Tom Greer’s A Modern Dædalus. Bodkin stacks the deck against the British, portraying them as unrelievedly wicked, raping, torturing, and murdering without compassion or mercy, even trapping pet dogs inside of burning houses. Lord Clare is no better. He is an evil caricature rather than something resembling a real person. The Rebels is not as poisonous in its pro-Irish, anti-British bigotry as Gogol was in Taras Bulba with its antisemitism, and most modern readers probably won’t feel as soiled when they finish The Rebels as they will when they finish Taras Bulba, but the didactic element of The Rebels is nonetheless quite bad.
But The Rebels as a whole is not awful. Large parts of it are quick moving, well told, and vivid. Lord Edward is fun; he is a traditional historical romance hero: honorable, witty, tricky, patriotic, a good swordsman and a good father. But even while reading the good parts, like the pursuit of Edward, the modern reader will still be aware of the underlying hatred of the British in The Rebels.
The centennial of the 1798 Irish rebellion
occasioned a rash of novels that provided nationalist and unionist interpretations of the origins, progress, and consequences of the “fierce red harvest.” Public interest and a profitable market were central factors in the publication of novels to coincide with the anniversary of the insurrection, but the subject of the rebellion in many genres throughout the nineteenth century had remained a lively one.1
Bodkin’s The Rebels was but one of thirty novels published between 1880 and 1914 dealing with the ‘98 rebellion. Many were nationalist, like The Rebels, but a surprising number were Unionist.
Lord Clare is an entertaining villain, enjoyable in his evil awfulness. He is despicable and almost cartoonishly vile. He intensely hates the Irish, and his loyalty to the Crown is genuine. He is proud, ruthless and cruel toward the Irish, rude toward those he disagrees with, and willing to allow British troops great latitude in quelling the rebellion, which translates into allowing the troops to do anything they want to the Irish people. Clare is willing to stop at nothing to crush the rebellion. The only thing he does not do is twist his mustache and cackle in a sinister manner.
Print: M. McDonnell Bodkin, The Rebels. Dublin: Talbot Press, 1921.
1 Eileen Reilly, “Rebel, Muse, and Spouse: The Female in ‘98 Fiction,” Eire-Ireland, 34, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 135.