Jane has heard a great deal of [Ireland's] beauty; from Mr Dixon, I mean -- I do not know that she ever heard about it from any body else; but it was very natural, you know, that he should like to speak of his own place while he was paying his addresses -- and as Jane used to be very often walking out with them -- for Colonel and Mrs Campbell were very particular about their daughter's not walking out often with only Mr Dixon, for which I do not at all blame them; of course she heard every thing he might be telling Miss Campbell about his own home in Ireland; and I think she wrote us word that he had shewn them some drawings of the place, views that he had taken himself. He is a most amiable, charming young man, I believe. Jane was quite longing to go to Ireland, from his account of things." Jane Austen, Emma
Jane Austen is known for her love of England. In her novels, she praises all aspects of her England, from its beautiful countryside to its Navy and though little travelled, she patriotically preferred it above any other. In her letters, she censures the traveller who does not long for home, "I hope your letters from abroad are satisfactory. They would not be satisfactory to me, I confess, unless they breathed a strong spirit of regret for not being in England." Did this partiality for her home country extend to its nearest neighbour, Ireland? Since the invasion of the island nation by England in 1171, the relationship of the two countries had been stormy and as lately as 1799 her brother, Henry, and his militia regiment were sent to Ireland to maintain the peace after riots in 1798.
By 1801, both the British and Irish parliaments had passed the Act of Union which merged the Kingdom of Ireland and the Kingdom of Great Britain to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In this way, Ireland became part of an extended United Kingdom, ruled by the London Parliament. This did not, however, mean that all Englishmen considered the two countries as one. When Jane wrote Emma in 1816, talkative Miss Bates comments that, “it very strange to be in different kingdoms, I was going to say, but however different countries". Is this the musing of an old woman not accustomed to a new political system or Jane's own musings on the partnership? A Civil war in the 1920s finally created a sovereign nation for Ireland and at last the nations were, once again, two Kingdoms.
“I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth's, yours, and my own.” Jane Austen to Anna Austen Lefroy, September 1814
One can read through Jane Austen’s songbooks and letters and know that she had a fondness for Irish music and Irish writers. Maria Edgeworth (1767-1849), an Austen family favourite, was an Anglo-Irish novelist who wrote Belinda and Castle Rackrent. Her father had been born here in Bath and when he remarried after the death of her mother, returned to the family seat in Edgeworthstown, Ireland. Another Irish novelist known to have been read by the Austen family was Sydney Owenson (1781-1859), a young lady who blossomed into a strong conversationalist and avid reader after spending some time as a governess. Jane did not, however, give Owensen the same wholehearted approval as Edgeworth, writing to Cassandra in 1809, “To set against your new novel, of which nobody ever heard before, and perhaps never may again, we have got 'Ida of Athens,' by Miss Owenson, which must be very clever, because it was written, as the authoress says, in three months. We have only read the preface yet, but her Irish Girl does not make me expect much. If the warmth of her language could affect the body it might be worth reading in this weather.” Owenson had begun her career by writing words to fit old Irish tunes, setting a new fashion in poetry. Her novel, The Wild Irish Girl, made her name as a controversial author and “ardent champion of her native country, a politician rather than a novelist, extolling the beauty of Irish scenery, the richness of the natural wealth of Ireland, and the noble traditions of its early history.” It was no doubt this warmth of expression that Jane was referring to in her letter. Thomas Moore (1779 -1852) was another writer Jane would no doubt have been familiar with. An Irish poet, singer, songwriter, and entertainer, he is best remembered for the lyrics to The Last Rose of Summer, which he wrote in 1805.
"You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have this moment received from you, that I am almost afraid to tell you how my Irish friend and I behaved. Imagine to yourself everything most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together. I can expose myself however, only once more, because he leaves the country soon after next Friday, on which day we are to have a dance at Ashe after all. He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you." Jane Austen to Cassandra Austen January, 1796Perhaps Jane’s warmest connection with Ireland stems from her courtship with Thomas Lefroy, nephew of her dear friend Anne Lefroy. Jane and Thomas met in late 1795 when she was twenty years old and carried on a flirtation for several weeks before he returned to law school in January, 1796. It is unclear how close their relationship was or how long it continued after Lefroy’s return to school. What is known, however, is that he married in 1799 and carried his family back to Ireland where he eventually rose to the position of Lord Chief Justice. It is perhaps with Thomas in mind that she allows Lady Darymple to mistake Captain Wentworth for an Irishman in Persuasion.
"A very fine young man indeed!" said Lady Dalrymple. "More air than one often sees in Bath. Irish, I dare say."Many scholars contend that Thomas Lefroy broke Jane’s heart. With the destruction of so many letters after her death, it is impossible to know how deeply Jane felt about the unlooked end to her hopes. Perhaps thoughts of Ireland held the sting of disappointment throughout her life.
"We finished [your novel] last night after our return from drinking tea at the Great House. The last chapter does not please us quite so well; we do not thoroughly like the play, perhaps from having had too much of plays in that way lately [in Mansfield Park, perhaps], and we think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home." Jane Austen to Anna Austen Lefroy in August, 1814All in all, Jane had little to say of the country either way in her novels. Mr. Dixon carries Miss Campbell thither in Emma, paving the way for Jane Fairfax to return to Highbury. In The Watsons, Emma's aunt makes an imprudent marriage to an Irish Captain, and Lady Darymple and her daughter are happily claimed as “family connections among the nobility of England and Ireland” in Persuasion. Claiming her own advice, Jane may have felt uneasy about delving any further into lifestyles she knew nothing about. It is interesting to note, however, that her three nieces Marianne, Louisa and Cassandra all settled in Donegal, Ireland in the name of love. Cassandra's daughter in particular, Norah, made a considerable impact on Donegal, opening a convalescent home for working women in 1883.