One suspects that few people today are aware of, let alone have read, the works of Constantia Maxwell who in the middle of the last century was probably the best-known woman writing on Irish history. This is a pity, because she was a first-rate stylist and her books impart a great deal of information in an agreeable fashion, which is often not the case today. Furthermore, she is worthy of study in her own right, being something of an academic pioneer. The daughter of an ophthalmic surgeon, she was born in Dublin in 1886 and was among the first women to be admitted to Trinity College Dublin as an undergraduate (the college had been exclusively male until 1904). In 1909, she became the first woman to join the institution’s academic staff when appointed a lecturer in modern history. Thirty years later, she was the first woman to be made a professor at TCD, when given a chair in economic history and then, when appointed to the Lecky Professorship of History, was again the first woman to hold this chair. Without question, she was an impressive trailblazer, and not just thanks to her ascent of the academic hierarchy. In some respects, not least owing to her interest in Ireland during the 18th century, Maxwell might be considered the successor to Froude and Lecky, but she is less polemical than either of them, less determined to represent a particular point of view, more desirous to engage and hold the reader’s attention. Her knowledge was prodigious – the bibliography for Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges (of which more below) runs to some 22 pages – but it was lightly worn. There are no stodgy passages in her books, they race along from one anecdote to the next, so that knowledge is shared with the lightest of touches. Her work has sometimes been criticised for concentrating on the ruling elite of the Georgian period, but at the time this was the case with almost anyone writing about the period: history was still perceived as belonging to the victors. Furthermore, as will be seen, she was keenly aware of and sympathetic towards the dreadful misfortunes experienced by the poor during the period under consideration, so censure levelled at her is not altogether fair. The college where she taught for so long offers a scholarship in her name, but surely the time has come for a revival of interest in Constantia Maxwell, and the republication of her books.
Constantia Maxwell enjoyed popular success in 1936 with the publication of Dublin under the Georges, which explored all aspects of the city’s development from 1714 to 1830. In the space of some 300 pages, she celebrated Dublin’s golden age while not overlooking the misery that could be found beneath its glittering surface: an entire chapter is devoted to ‘Life of the Poor’ in which she cites many contemporary visitors to the city. When the English MP John Curwen came in 1818 while he declared ‘the style and beauty of Dublin have greatly surpassed my expectations,’ at the same time he could not but note ‘poverty, disease, and wretchedness exist in every great town, but in Dublin the misery is indescribable.’ Maxwell also quotes from the likes of the Rev James Whitelaw who recounted only too vividly the filth and squalor in which many of the city’s occupants lived. We are inclined to imagine tenements as being the product of the late 19th/early 20th centuries but almost 100 years earlier Whitelaw could write of frequently finding ‘from ten to sixteen persons, of all ages and sexes, in a room not 15 feet square, stretched on a wad of filthy straw swarming with vermin, and without any covering, save the wretched rags that constituted their wearing apparel.’ But of course Maxwell also devoted much attention to the glories of the era, reporting on the lives of the wealthy and the splendid residences they constructed for themselves. Furthermore she took time to look at how those residences were furnished and decorated, thanks to the many specialist craftsmen who flourished owing to the patronage of the domestic market. Everything from wool and linen production to glass and cabinet making was explored in her text, and again the breadth of the author’s reading is impressive; there seem to be no available sources she had not examined. It’s worth remembering that when Maxwell wrote her book, far less relevant material had been placed in the public domain, and far less research into it undertaken. As in so much else, she was a pioneer and almost everyone else who followed, from Maurice Craig onwards, was indebted to her.
Following on from the success of Dublin under the Georges, in 1940 Constantia Maxwell published Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges. This follows much the same format as its predecessor and demonstrates the same depth of knowledge presented in an equally engaging format. Maxwell understood the advantages of the well-told anecdote, whether writing of the foibles of the gentry or the misfortunes of the peasantry. With regard to the latter, she also demonstrated her inherent empathy, observing that her readers ‘need scarcely be reminded that the Irish peasant in the eighteenth century had none of the advantages of the small-holder in England. He had no permanent interest in the soil, because he had no security of tenure. He had no capital to spend upon improvements, and very little knowledge of agriculture. He was the product of an evil land system established by conquest, under which the landlord, who could never feel absolutely secure in the midst of an alien population, looked mainly for immediate profits.’ The consequences of this system were then thoroughly examined over the course of the pages that followed. One chapter of particular interest is devoted to a study of Ireland’s provincial towns during the 18th century. So much attention is paid to Dublin’s growth at the time, it is easy to forget that many other urban centres underwent expansion and improvement from the early 1700s onwards. Many of these became centres of industry and trade, such as Clonmel, County Tipperary, described by John Wesley in 1756 as ‘the pleasantest town beyond all comparison which I have yet seen in Ireland.’ and Cork city which Arthur Young thought displayed ‘by much the most animated scene of shipping in all Ireland.’ Incidentally, with regard to this specific subject, David Dickson – who has already written so eloquently on the developments of both Dublin and Cork – is due to publish his next work The First Irish Cities: An Eighteenth-Century Transformation in May (Yale University Press). In the meantime, for those who have yet to engage with Constantia Maxwell, an investigation of her work is encouraged. Despite the passage of many decades since the books’ first appearance, they continue to engage and inform.
Illustrations taken from Dublin under the Georges and Country and Town in Ireland under the Georges, both by Constantia Maxwell.