Outer Edge of Ulster
A Memoir of Social Life in Nineteenth-Century Donegal
358 pages, 6.00 x 9.00
Paperback | 9780268037116 | September 2001
Hardcover | 9780268037123 | September 2001
eBook (Web PDF) | 9780268200916 | August 2020
Hugh Dorian was born in poverty in rural Donegal in 1834. He survived Ireland’s Great Famine, only to squander uncommon opportunities for self-advancement. Having lost his job and clashed with priests and policemen, he moved to the city of Derry but never slipped the shadow of trouble. Three of his children died from disease and his wife fell drunk into the River Foyle and drowned. Dorian declined into alcohol-numbed poverty and died in an overcrowded slum in 1914. A unique document survived the tragedy of Dorian’s life. In 1890 he completed a “true historical narrative” of the social and cultural transformation of his home community. This narrative forms the most extensive lower-class account of the Great Famine. A moving account of the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, it invites comparison with the classic slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. Dorian achieves a degree of totality in his reconstruction of the world of the pre-Famine poor that is unparalleled in contemporary memoir or fiction. He describes their working and living conditions, sports and drinking, religious devotions and festivals. And then he describes the catastrophe that obliterated that world. Horror is remembered vividly but with restraint: “in a very short time there was nothing but stillness; a mournful silence in the villages; in the cottages grim poverty and emaciated faces showing all the signs of hardships.” The picture of starvation is stark but authentic: “the cheek bones became thin and high, the cheeks blue, the bones sharp, and the eyes sunk . . .. the legs and the feet swell and get red and the skin cracks . . .”. And at last came “the dispersion . . . to places which their fathers never heard of and which they themselves never would have seen, had the times not changed.” No one," he writes, “can measure the distance of the broad Atlantic speedier and better than a father whose child is there.” A sense of loss, closer to bereavement than nostalgia, is threaded through the text: it is a lament for the might have been — the future as imagined before the Famine — rather than the actual past. The final and lasting image is of trauma without recovery: the wise-men who had sat late into the small hours debating politics in the years before the Famine congregated in the after years but sat now in silence “their subjects . . . lacking words.” Dorian’s narrative was never published in his own lifetime and all but forgotten after the author’s death. First published in Ireland in August 2000, The Outer Edge of Ulster includes a scholarly introduction that traces the troubles that beset the author and locates the narrative in wider literary contexts. Appearing for the first time in America, this critically acclaimed book offers an intimate look at the everyday lives of ordinary people facing extraordinary challenges.
Hugh Dorian (1834-1914), was a native of Fanaid on the Atlantic coast of north Donegal.
Breandán Mac Suibhne is associate professor of history at Centenary College.
David Dickson is associate professor of history at Trinity College, Dublin.
“The Outer Edge of Ulster is the evocative memoir of Hugh Dorian, a country schoolmaster from County Donegal. Dorian’s Narrative looks back to the years surrounding the Great Famine and weaves a richly textured tapestry of people and landscape that transports us to another place and time. It remains one of the very few first-hand accounts of this tumultuous era written through the lens of ordinary people. It is also an engaging introduction to the social history of Ireland in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. For years it was forgotten and remained unpublished. Editors Breandán MacSuibhne and David Dickson have done us an invaluable service in resurrecting this work. Their illuminating introduction, rich contextualization, and informative footnotes provide the reader with an invaluable lens from which to view Dorian’s world. This engaging memoir has something for everyone." —Irish Literary Supplement
“This is a riveting view of traumatic social change in Ireland, recorded with pithy eloquence by a combative local schoolteacher, enhanced by a masterly introduction and notes.” —Times Literary Supplement
“A fascinating account of a world which has passed away . . . It should become a classic." —Irish Independent
“Aside from a few (understandable) intemperate moments, Dorian’s ‘true historical narrative’ is a considerable achievement. . . . Whatever his failings may or may not have been, Hugh Dorian was a servant of his people, the people of the Outer Edge. And his work endures.” —LA Review of Books
“Rich and beautifully-written evocations of a time and a place. Dorian’s hitherto unpublished memoirs will delight anyone interested in the life of the ‘rude people’ — the resilient poor of 19th century Ireland.”—The Sunday Tribune
“A remarkable testimony . . . to the cruel hardships suffered by the native Irish peasant under landlordism and British rule.”—Ireland on Sunday
“Students of Irish history are now fortunate to have this important work available in a superbly edited format. Mac Suibhne and Dickson provide a lengthy introduction that sketches Dorian’s career and provides abundant information about the context and setting of the manuscript. Extensive documentation and illustrations enhance the quality of the book. It will be of use to anyone interested in the social history of 19th-century Ireland and Europe.” —Choice