This page is referenced by:
Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The Role of Historical Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The historical political figures featured by Joseph O’Connor in Star of the Sea serve several roles in the novel. Functioning as a postmodern questioning of objective reality, an allusion to the continuing Irish struggle long after the events in Star of the Sea conclude, or a reminder that many English and Protestants did, in fact, fight for the rights of deeply oppressed Irish Catholics, the political figures of the novel serve diverse but important roles throughout Star of the Sea.
Although this theme is more prominent among O’Connor’s artistic figures, a postmodernist questioning of objective reality through the use of historical people also exists among the political figures. Naomi Jacobs writes in The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction that “The presence of the historical figure signifies our questioning of the artificial boundaries between truth and lie, history and fiction, reality and imagination” (xxi). Perhaps the best example of this questioning occurs with women’s education reform advocate and suffragist Emily Davies, who in the world of Star of the Sea is good friends with David Merridith’s sister Natasha; Natasha is even said to have edited Davies’s real-life work The Higher Education of Women (O’Connor 103). This mixing of the historical and the fictional aids O’Connor in the questioning of any one objective history, which is a particularly important examination to make in the context of a postcolonial novel, due to the colonizing country’s suppression of the atrocities it has committed against the colonized.
Other political historical figures are used by O’Connor to remind readers that the Irish struggle for independence continued long after the end of the potato famine. John Mitchel and James Connolly are both quoted in epigraphs decrying Irish oppression, Mitchel in 1856 and Connolly in 1916; prefacing the novel with these quotations reminds or informs readers before the novel even begins that the struggle for Irish independence and horrors committed by the English continued long after the potato famine. The third historical figure serving as a reminder of the continuing struggle, Charles Parnell, who advocated for Ireland in Parliament during the 1870s and 80s, is alluded to in the novel’s epilogue as a final reminder of the post-novel fight for independence (O’Connor 366).
Finally, O’Connor works in Star of the Sea to paint a nuanced portrayal of the English by mentioning political figures who supported the Irish cause. Angela Burdett-Coutts, for example, along with Charles Dickens, runs a safehouse for prostitutes, many of whom were poverty-stricken, starving Irish women, as we see in the novel. Additionally, we are reminded that Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish but not Catholic, nonetheless “fought and died for Ireland as captain of the revolutionaries in ’98” (O’Connor 67).
O’Connor’s use of historical political figures in Star of the Sea clearly serves a diverse set of purposes throughout the course of the novel. However, what these diverse purposes all have in common is that they demonstrate the complexity and deftness with which O’Connor weaves his tale.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey GunnBack to Historical Figures
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Theobald Wolfe Tone
Political Figure from 44 Stafford Street, Dublin, Ireland
Theobald Wolfe Tone, who would eventually earn the title “father of Irish republicanism,” was born in 1763 in Dublin to Protestant parents. After a failed business venture as a coachmaker, Tone’s father moved the family from Dublin to the family farm near Bodenstown, Ireland. Although Tone wished to join the army, his father insisted that he attend college; he graduated from Trinity College in 1786. When he was 21, Tone eloped with Matilda Witterington, age fifteen (Wallace 66).
“She didn’t know why Presbyterians were reckoned to be dangerous; the great Wolfe Tone had been a Presbyterian; he had fought and died for Ireland as captain of the revolutionaries in ’98.”
-Star of the Sea, 67
After graduation, Tone, along with his friend Thomas Russell, began to criticize the government (Wallace 66). One of Tone’s most famous pamphlets was An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, in which he wrote, “That Ireland, as deriving her Government from another country, requires a strength in the people which may enable them, if necessary, to counteract the influence of that Government, should it ever be, as it indisputably has been, exerted to thwart her prosperity:… no reform is honorable, practicable, efficacious, or just, which does not include, as a fundamental principle, the extension of elective franchise to the Roman Catholics” (Wolfe Tone).
Tone acted on his criticism of the government in 1791, when he became one of the founders of the Nationalist group the Society of United Irishmen. This group initially fought for governmental reform, but became revolutionaries after the English government banned them from meeting in 1794. Although himself a Protestant, Tone was particularly concerned with extending rights to Catholics, and served on the Catholic Committee of the United Irishmen.
After the United Irishmen began working towards revolution in 1794, Tone enlisted the help of the French, united in their hatred of the English. Unfortunately, the English were able to squash the rebellion, and harshly punished those Irish who had participated. Tone was charged with treason and sentenced to die in 1798; he instead killed himself in his prison cell (Wallace 69).
One point that O’Connor makes throughout the novel is that nobody should be judged solely on their nationality or religion; there are both English who do good and Irish who commit atrocities in Star of the Sea. Wolfe Tone, as the quote at the top of the page demonstrates, was Protestant, yet fought to the death for the rights of Irish Catholics. Wolfe Tone’s identity as a Protestant who cared deeply for the Irish Catholic people demonstrates the Postmodernist idea of disorientation; like many main characters in the novel, his true identity is far more complex and contradictory than one realizes at first glance.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Wallace, Martin. 100 Irish Lives. Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Print.
Wolfe Tone, Theobald. An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics in Ireland. CELT: The Corpus
of Electronic Texts. Cork, Ireland: UCC. Accessed 15 February 2016.
Back to Political Figures in Star of the Sea