Review of Niamh O’Sullivan, In the Lion’s Den: Daniel MacDonald, Ireland and Empire, by Aoife O’Leary McNiece

O’SULLIVAN, NIAMH, In the Lion’s Den: Daniel MacDonald, Ireland and Empire, Quinnipiac: Quinnipiac University Press, 2016. ISBN 9 7809 9046 8684, € 29.00.

9780990468684-2Niamh O’Sullivan’s biography of Daniel MacDonald weaves skillfully through the intersecting conflicts of class, politics and religion that characterised Ireland in the mid-nineteenth-century. O’Sullivan seeks to present MacDonald as unique in his depiction of the Irish Famine, and the Irish peasantry in general. She places him firmly within a milieu of intelligentsia, folklorists and artists that inhabited Cork city and London.

In Chapter One O’Sullivan presents a vibrant, detailed and entertaining description of the cultivated ascendency class in mid-nineteenth-century Cork, accompanied by an annotated sketch completed by McDonald in 1843. The sketch includes ballad singers, a devout pilgrim, and Daniel O’Connell with the Shandon Bells looming in the background. She traces the development of MacDonald’s career by examining some of his early illustrations. Throughout the book, which is A4 and printed on glossy paper, images are given supremacy. The works O’Sullivan describes in most detail are given a double page-spread. Further thumbnails depicting smaller details are reproduced alongside the analysis of the images. The book’s layout is kind to the reader.

In the second chapter O’Sullivan deftly outlines the political landscape of a pre-famine Ireland, where militant secret agrarian societies were active alongside the peace-promoting O’Connell and where the Protestant Ascendency, of which MacDonald was a member, occupied an ambiguous position between Ireland and Britain. Her interdisciplinary approach is manifested in the diversity of her sources, which include; nineteenth-century journals and sketches, private letters, the novels of Lady Sydney Morgan, court cases, paintings by several different artists, and of course modern scholarship from historians and literary critics. Her research into MacDonald’s lineage is comprehensive and easy to follow. Like much of MacDonald’s life, the circumstances of his name embody the differing forces at work in mid-nineteenth century Ireland. Born Daniel McDaniel, his family later took the name MacDonald, claiming a Scottish lineage from the Isle of Skye. O’Sullivan describes how MacDonald’s father was also involved in a further claim seeking to legitimize a descent from the Annandale and Hartfell peerage. These conflicts around demonstrate the ambiguity of the Irish identity of ascendency families, who sought to ennoble themselves by identifying an elevated origin elsewhere.

O’Sullivan expands upon this exploration of the relationship between the ascendency and the Irish peasantry by exploring the friendship between Daniel’s father and the antiquarian Thomas Crofton Croker. She suggests that the work of Croker anticipates the Celtic Revival that would peak at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth. She describes the action of Crofton Croker, MacDonald and his father as a ‘co-option of national identity’ (30). They collected oral stories and traditions from the Celtic past and linked this past with Greek legends to create a new type of Irish masculinity removed from the current existence of the rural peasantry. She contrasts this work with the work of Catholic antiquarians, who were more interested with valorizing the scholarly achievements of early Christian Ireland. However, O’Sullivan argues that MacDonald’s treatment of the Irish peasantry in his work is more nuanced than simply depicting superstitious savages. Through close readings of his paintings she creates the image of an artist who has a respect for and fascination with the practices and culture of the people of West Cork. He depicts them as noble, attractive and monumental.

In the third chapter O’Sullivan focuses on MacDonald’s depiction of the Great Famine. MacDonald’s treatment of the Famine was unique in that he depicted scenes from the Famine that he witnessed during the event.  This is powerfully demonstrated in his painting The Irish Peasant Family Discovering the Blight of their Store. The work was exhibited at the British Institution in 1847 but received little attention. O’Sullivan suggests this was due to the uneasiness created in Britain by contemporary tragedies like the Famine. Indeed, this was unusual fodder for genre paintings in this style, particularly in Britain. O’Sullivan draws some parallels with European genre artists Goya and Gericault and I would have welcomed a more detailed comparison with these figures. Indeed, comparing the art scene in London with that of Paris, and the impact works such as The Raft of the Medusa may have had on MacDonald would be interesting. However, I am not sure whether evidence justifies such a suggestion.

As mentioned, O’Sullivan focuses on the uniqueness of MacDonald’s depiction of the famine victims. The peasants are attractive, Grecian and beautiful, but also deeply distressed. O’Sullivan suggests that MacDonald’s unique depiction of this scene is further evidence of his strained identity. He was a member of the wealthy Ascendency class, untouched directly by famine, yet unlike his contemporaries, he brought the famine to the centre of the colonial administration, London, and forced its intellectual elite to ponder over this catastrophe taking place so nearby.

In the final chapter O’Sullivan examines MacDonald’s depiction of rural everyday life in Ireland. Again, his work documents all aspects of Irish life, she examines sketches depicting hedge schools, soldiers attempting to recruit men through the lure of free alcohol, the distilling of poitín, and a game of road bowling between two aristocrats. O’Sullivan continuously focuses on MacDonald’s interest in folklore, rural life and the peasantry, as well as the upper classes.

At the close MacDonald remains a somewhat elusive figure. O’Sullivan has assembled a comprehensive and impressive number of sources, including MacDonald’s own letters, allowing his voice to be present directly in the text. The appendix contains a catalogue of the artist’s work, created by O’Sullivan. Yet perhaps due to scholarly neglect until now, or his youth when he died, MacDonald’s character lurks just beneath his work and the events that he witnessed. O’Sullivan has created a comprehensive, if necessarily compact picture of a life that traversed many social and class barriers in Ireland, yet remained defined by the ambiguity of Ascendency lineage. MacDonald lived in a complicated, violent and tragic time in Irish history. O’Sullivan manages to encompass the political, the social, and the human tragedy under the umbrella of MacDonald’s work. O’Sullivan’s work justifies giving MacDonald a place in the canon of Irish artists, not simply for his talent, but for his egalitarian treatment of his subjects, and the questions his work raises about class, religion and national identity.