Review of Mary Hatfield (ed.) Happiness in Nineteenth-Century Ireland by Conor Heffernan

Review of Hatfield, Mary, ed. Happiness in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2021.

What is happiness? And, if it exists, is it the same for everyone? Larger, existential questions, aside, this new edited collection by Mary Hatfield provides a stunning array of different historical approaches to the study of happiness in nineteenth century Ireland. 

Although ideas of happiness, sadness, anger etc. are often presumed to exist within historical works and biographies, only a handful of substantive studies have been conducted in Irish history. Interestingly given the fantastic work by Katie Barclay on gender and emotions in Irish history, it is Liam Kennedy’s MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever) enquiry in Irish history which influences a great deal of the chapters.[1] Kennedy’s work disrupted the idea that the Irish were unique in their oppression and victimhood. It is a thought-provoking and empirically grounded work that showcases the cultural power presumed stories can have. Barclay, on the other hand, discusses emotions, masculinity, and performativity in eighteenth-century Irish court cases. This collection should be situated alongside Kennedy and Barclay’s books for one simple reason. It provokes thought and revisions of acce pted narratives. The genius, and value of this edited collection, lies precisely in its depth. As contributors are keen to stress – the happiness found in one arena was not the same found in another. Where such relativity could be viewed as a weakness, here it is a key strength.

Surveying the nineteenth and early twentieth century, contributors examined political happiness or jubilation to the nuances in social class and happiness. The nineteenth century, as Mary Hatfield explains in the work’s introduction, was a time when conceptions of happiness shifted from ideas of virtue and godliness to the experience of pleasure and contentment (p. 4). Emotions, as the collection stresses, are mediated through social constructs and hence, subject to change. This was true both across time, but also across groups. Structurally, the collection is divided across three key areas – national identity, the social conditions ‘needed’ for happiness and cultural expressions of happiness. 

Although differing in their subject matter, Kerron Ó Luain and Paul Huddie both explored the relationship between happiness and politics/national identity. Ó Luain’s chapter on differing sectarian groups and their celebrations posed some fascinating questions – when does MY happiness impact others? And is it possible to be antagonistically happy? Huddie’s discussion of the Crimean War, which is dubbed to be Ireland’s happiest war of the century, encouraged readers to truly dive into the duality of war wherein the blood on the battlefield can often be outshone by the fighting sentiments at home. In either case the contributors made sure to situate happiness within its social-cultural contexts. Using such an approach, happiness is not a light contributor to historical change, but is embedded within it.

The second section of the book, addressing the social conditions needed for happiness is likewise excellent. Here Kristina Varade, David McCready, Andrew Tierney and Simon Gallaher touched on the Anglo-Irish memoir, theology, architecture and workhouses. What struck the reviewer, and which linked all chapters, was the nexus between individual circumstance and the society itself. As each author showed, the individual’s conception of happiness is mediated, but still at times protected from, the broader society. There was no one unifying happiness across these chapters but rather a discussion of when, where and why happiness (or a lack thereof) was represented in a certain field.

The collection finishes with five excellent discussions of cultural representations of happiness by Shannon Devlin, Ciara Thompson, Ian d’Alton, Mai Yatani and Anne Dolan respectively. Covering everything from family correspondences to lullabies, the section is as strong theoretically and empirically as the previous one. Studying the middle and upper classes Devlin and d’Alton’s chapters contrast wonderfully with Simon Gallaher’s previous chapter on the workhouse.

Likewise, Devlin and Yatani’s examination of gender and happiness, with relation to femininity, explore the subtle dynamics between male and female emotional expressions. In the case of Devlin such dynamics, especially in a family context, connected to broader themes related to emigration, familial obligations, and employment. On the family Thompson’s study of lullabies explored the subtle stories told to children repeatedly as they developed. Lullabies taught emotional expressions and had a range much greater than mere happiness but also sadness, anger etc. 

The collection ends with Anne Dolan’s discussion of happiness in twentieth-century Ireland and grapples (successfully) with the tensions arising in discussing happiness during this time. Much like Huddie’s contribution on the Crimean War, Dolan’s question is simple but complex – is it  possible to find happiness in often dark moments? Addressing both the aforementioned MOPE thesis, and several troubling moments in that century, Dolan’s chapter nevertheless highlights the multiple moments of fun to be had in the early twentieth century through an examination of commerce, sport, the arts, and public celebrations. 

Mary Hatfield and the contributors should be commended on producing a thought-provoking and highly nuanced account of emotions in Irish history. This is not an all-encompassing collection, nor one attempting to create a grand theory on the history of emotions during this time. Rather, this collection represents the best that a history of emotions approach has to offer to historians outside the field. Strong archival work, combined with a rich theoretical bent, is brought to enliven, and at times disrupt, existing discourses. The collection simultaneously serves as an excellent entry point for those new to the field, and as a firm reminder of the field’s richness for those already versed in it.

This is not just a study of happiness. It is a study of people, groups, and societies. Here happiness intersects with ideas of gender, commerce, national identity, the family, leisure, and warfare. Whether or not this collection will drive a deeper (much needed enquiry) into the history of emotions in Ireland is difficult to know. Should that happen, however, the editor and contributors have provided an excellent starting point. 

Dr. Conor Heffernan is a Lecturer in the Sociology of Sport at Ulster University. In 2020 he published The History of Physical Culture in Ireland with Palgrave MacMillan. 

[1] Liam Kennedy, Unhappy the Land: The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? (Dublin, 2015), Katie Barclay, Men on trial: Performing embodiment, emotion and identity in Ireland, 1800-45 (Manchester, 2018).