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This article is taken from PN Review 14, Volume 6 Number 6, July - August 1980.

Edmund Spenser and Ireland Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly

IN A recent essay in the New Statesman (13 July 1979), entitled "Rug-Headed Irish Kerns and British Poets", John Arden adds his mite to the discussion of the oldest of British colonial relationships, that with Ireland. He refers to the "incapacitating moral cramp created in England by the oppression of Ireland", the "strange vein of obsessed dis- tressed uncomprehending hostility to Irish habits of life and their political embodiment", the "deep-rooted emotional reaction" of the English towards Ireland, taking a side-swipe at Jim Callaghan and Conor Cruise O'Brien in passing. His main argument, however, concerns English "literature and drama", including Shakespeare, which he maintains has propagated a "poisonous" attitude towards Ireland, beginning in the 16th century. He singles out two writers in particular, John Bale, Bishop of Ossory in Ireland for six months in 1553, and Edmund Spenser. Bale and Spenser, says Arden, "combined religious intolerance with racial prejudice to a remarkable degree. Spenser espoused genocide".

Now as an Irishwoman, I do not feel competent to judge the existence of moral cramp, obsessed distressed uncomprehending hostility and other emotions in the British breast and it seems to me that Messrs Callaghan, Cruise O'Brien, Shakespeare and even Bishop Bale can look after themselves. I do, however, want to take serious issue with the view of Spenser propounded here by Arden, and wish to devote the rest of this article to a discussion of Spenser's attitude to Ireland and its conquest, as expounded mainly in his prose tract, A ...


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