Franken­stein’s Ire­land

Ire­land’s place in Mary Shel­ley’s 1818 masterpiece has been mon­strously over­looked

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Our place in Mary Shel­ley’s clas­sic

In 1818, Ire­land was in the midst of a hor­ren­dous ty­phus epi­demic that may have claimed as many as 100,000 lives. In July that year, the Church of Ire­land cler­gy­man Charles Robert Ma­turin, whose Mel­moth the

Wan­derer (1820) is a clas­sic of Gothic lit­er­a­ture, pub­lished Women, a tale of doomed love and dam­aged psy­chol­ogy. To­wards the end of the novel, its hero­ine re­marks on “that ter­ri­ble sen­sa­tion so com­mon in the imag­i­na­tions of the Ir­ish, of a be­ing whom we be­lieve not to be alive, yet know­ing not to be dead”.

Women sold strongly but its rep­u­ta­tion has been eclipsed by a novel pub­lished ear­lier that year, a book also con­cerned with break­ing through “the ideal bounds” be­tween life and death. Like Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula (1897), Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein is a Gothic masterpiece. Yet while many read­ers have re­marked on the Ir­ish res­o­nances of Stoker’s novel, few have no­ticed the place of Ire­land in Shel­ley’s masterpiece.

The story is well known – even if the be­ing is of­ten mis­tak­enly given his maker’s name. Cen­tral to it is a Swiss stu­dent, Vic­tor Franken­stein, who seeks to cre­ate hu­man life and ends up mak­ing a mon­ster. The book opens and closes with Vic­tor’s mis­er­able jour­ney across a des­o­late Arctic land­scape, in pur­suit of his crea­ture.

On the ice the young stu­dent meets the ex­plorer Robert Wal­ton, to whom he recounts his early life and ed­u­ca­tion, his dab­bling in ar­cane hu­man sciences and his ter­ri­ble cre­ation story. In a ref­er­ence to the re­birth of Bri­tish po­lar and Arctic ex­plo­rations at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Wal­ton is voy­ag­ing in search of the fa­bled North West Pas­sage be­tween the At­lantic and Pa­cific. But Mary Shel­ley knew that Bri­tain’s im­pe­rial reach al­ready took in ter­ri­tory much closer to home and she threads the case of Ire­land into her global nar­ra­tive of am­bi­tion, ex­plo­ration and ex­ploita­tion.

Ap­palled at the crea­ture’s ca­pac­i­ties, Vic­tor re­luc­tantly agrees to make a mate for him: in re­turn the crea­ture prom­ises to flee to “the vast wilds of South Amer­ica”. Vic­tor es­tab­lishes his lab­o­ra­tory on the Orkney is­lands but, in de­spair fol­low­ing an ar­gu­ment with the crea­ture who has pur­sued him, he de­cides to sub­merge his sci­en­tific equip­ment in the sea, just off the Orkneys. The crea­ture has al­ready “shot across the wa­ters with an ar­rowy swift­nesss”, headed, we later learn, to Ire­land. Hav­ing fallen asleep in his boat, Vic­tor wakes with no op­tion but to “drive be­fore the wind”, avoid­ing “the wide At­lantic”. Blown across haz­ardous wa­ters, he finds him­self in Ire­land, a “wild and rocky’ place with ‘traces of civil­i­sa­tion’.


On shore, some fish­er­men (in­clud­ing one Daniel Nu­gent) have al­ready ob­served “a strong northerly blast ris­ing” and seen the boat put into the har­bour. A murder has taken place – the crea­ture has killed his cre­ator’s old­est friend, ship­wrecked in Ire­land – and Vic­tor is pre­sumed guilty of this crime. He spends the next two months in an Ir­ish prison un­til fi­nally re­leased thanks to the in­ter­ven­tion of a kindly mag­is­trate, Squire Kir­wan. Vic­tor Franken­stein de­parts from Dublin to Holy­head, leav­ing be­hind “the de­tested shore” of a “wretched coun­try”.

When north­east­erly winds carry Franken­stein from the Orkneys to the coast of Ire­land, Shel­ley asks read­ers to imag­ine is­lands joined by sea, buf­feted by wind and weather. There are many ref­er­ences to the mis­eries of travel by sea in the jour­nals and let­ters of the Shel­ley cir­cle: rou­tine de­lays, squally weather and sea­sick­ness all fea­ture. Her hus­band, the poet Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, had him­self taken the ar­du­ous route to Dublin via Holy­head on visits in 1812 and 1813, when he sought to reawaken a repub­li­can pol­i­tics. Vic­tor Franken­stein is hardly so pur­pose­ful, how­ever, more of­ten lost be­tween wak­ing and sleep. In Oc­to­ber 1814 the Shel­leys and Claire Clair­mont had con­sid­ered found­ing a utopian com­mu­nity in the west of Ire­land. Per­haps Franken­stein’s strange dreams and im­prob­a­ble ex­pe­ri­ence of hos­pi­tal­ity in an Ir­ish prison con­nect back to this ide­alised mo­ment?

Only two con­tem­po­rary re­view­ers made any­thing of the Ir­ish scenes. One was Percy Bysshe Shel­ley, who pub­lished an anony­mous review of his wife’s novel. Ad­mir­ing its orig­i­nal­ity, he finds “only one in­stance … in which we de­tect the least ap­proach to imi­ta­tion; and that is the con­duct of the in­ci­dent of Franken­stein’s land­ing in Ire­land”. The ref­er­ence is to his fa­ther-in-law, the nov­el­ist Wil­liam God­win, to whom Mary Shel­ley ded­i­cated her novel. The un­fairly ac­cused hero of God­win’s Caleb

Wil­liams; or, Things as They Are (1790) de­cides to “bend my course to the near­est sea­port on the west side of the is­land, and trans­port my­self to Ire­land”. For God­win, how­ever, Ire­land is fa­tally en­tan­gled with Bri­tain and “a place of less se­cu­rity than most other coun­tries which are di­vided from it by the ocean”.


John Wilson Cro­ker, the other re­viewer alert to the role of Ire­land in Franken­stein, held views on Ir­ish pol­i­tics that dif­fered sharply from God­win’s. Cro­ker, born in Gal­way, was sec­re­tary to the ad­mi­ralty and a Tory MP. One of the most no­to­ri­ous crit­ics of the day, he was the au­thor of a vi­cious review of Endymion that was said to have killed John Keats. He de­tails the geo­graph­i­cal range of Franken­stein in mock­ing de­tail, claim­ing to ad­mire the “laud­able minute­ness” of the Ir­ish scenes. Finding some­thing im­plic­itly ridicu­lous in the use of such Ir­ish names as Kir­wan and Nu­gent, Cro­ker re­marks that “it would, how­ever, have been but fair to have given us also those of the im­par­tial judge and en­light­ened jury … at the as­sizes of Done­gal”.

Why does Cro­ker spec­ify Done­gal, which is nowhere men­tioned in the text of Franken­stein? Might he have known that Mary Woll­stonecraft, Mary Shel­ley’s mother, was born in Ballyshan­non? Or per­haps Cro­ker just fol­lows the route of the novel’s imag­ined geog­ra­phy? How­ever un­likely a route from the Orkneys to the north of Ire­land may seem (we must imag­ine Franken­stein’s “skiff” bat­tling with pre­vail­ing south­west­erly winds while nav­i­gat­ing treach­er­ous He­bridean cur­rents), Done­gal is a prob­a­ble point of ar­rival. The Ir­ish names sug­gest spe­cific ref­er­ences: Paul O’Brien (au­thor of Shel­ley and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Ire­land) spec­u­lates that the novel’s fish­er­man is named for the United Ir­ish­woman Cather­ine Nu­gent, a Dublin friend and cor­re­spon­dent of Percy Shel­ley. And when Cro­ker fas­tens on the name of the mag­is­trate, might he have had other known in­di­vid­u­als in mind?

Adap­ta­tions of the novel pro­vide no an­swers to these ques­tions. Even a film that de­clares its faith­ful­ness to the orig­i­nal novel and one with a Belfast-born di­rec­tor to boot – Ken­neth Branagh’s Mary Shel­ley’s Franken­stein from 1994 – omits the Ir­ish scenes.

Ghastly patch­work

Ir­ish po­lit­i­cal com­men­tary, though, sus­tained the con­nec­tion be­tween Ire­land and Franken­stein. In 1824, Thomas Moore com­pared the 1801 Act of Union be­tween Bri­tain and Ire­land to “Franken­stein’s ghastly patch-work made up of con­tri­bu­tions from the whole char­nel-house of po­lit­i­cal cor­rup­tion”. Af­ter the Famine, the nov­el­ist Wil­liam Car­leton re­marked that the Ir­ish land­lords had cre­ated a mon­ster in their cul­ti­va­tion of a class of sub­di­vided ten­ant farm­ers (the 40-shilling free­hold­ers) to do their bid­ding. Now dis­en­fran­chised in the af­ter­math of Catholic eman­ci­pa­tion, these 40-shilling free­hold­ers rep­re­sent an evil, Car­leton said, that “Like Franken­stein in the novel … pur­sues them to the present mo­ment, and must be sat­is­fied or ap­peased in some way, or it will un­ques­tion­ably de­stroy them.” The Vic­to­rian car­toon The Ir­ish Franken­stein, con­fuses the crea­ture with his cre­ator as it de­picts a ragged pop­u­la­tion com­ing to ugly life.

The res­o­nances of the ref­er­ences to Ire­land in Franken­stein echo in lit­er­ary works that probe the boundary be­tween life and death. From Ma­turin and Stoker through to Anne En­right’s evo­ca­tion of a corpse await­ing burial in The Gath­er­ing and Colm Tóibín’s star­tling ac­count of the re­vived Lazarus in Tes­ta­ment of

Mary, Ir­ish fic­tion con­tin­ues to imag­ine bod­ies that cross bound­aries be­tween worlds.

■ Claire Con­nolly is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern English atUniver­si­tyCol­legeCorkand2018-19Par­nell Fel­low in Ir­ish Stud­ies at Mag­da­lene Col­lege, Univer­sity of Cam­bridge. She is writ­ing a book on Ir­ishRo­man­ti­cism­forCam­bridgeUniver­si­tyPress


An awestruck Charles Ste­wart Par­nell cow­ers be­fore his ‘Crea­ture’ in a car­toon from Punch mag­a­zine, May 20th, 1882.

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