Irish Impressions

Chapter II.

The Root of Reality

The only excuse of literature is to make things new; and the chief misfortune of journalism is that it has to make them old. What is hurried has to be hackneyed. Suppose a man has to write on a particular subject, let us say America; if he has a day to do it in, it is possible that, in the last afterglow of sunset, he may have discovered at least one thing which he himself really thinks about America. It is conceivable that somewhere under the evening star he may have a new idea, even about the new world. If he has only half an hour in which to write, he will just have time to consult an encyclopaedia and vaguely remember the latest leading articles. The encyclopaedia will be only about a decade out of date; the leading articles will be aeons out of date– having been written under similar conditions of modern rush. If he has only a quarter of an hour in which to write about America, he may be driven in mere delirium and madness to call her his Gigantic Daughter in the west, to talk of the feasibility of Hands Across the Sea, or even to call himself an Anglo-Saxon, when he might as well call himself a Jute. But whatever debasing banality be the effect of business scurry in criticism, it is but one example of a truth that can be tested in twenty fields of experience. If a man must get to Brighton as quickly as possible, he can get there quickest by travelling on rigid rails on a recognised route. If he has time and money for motoring, he will still use public roads; but he will be surprised to find how many public roads look as new and quiet as private roads. If he has time enough to walk, he may find for himself a string of fresh footpaths, each one a fairy-tale. This law of the leisure needed for the awakening of wonder applies, indeed, to things superficially familiar as well as to things superficially fresh. The chief case for old enclosures and boundaries is that they enclose a space in which new things can always be found later, like live fish within the four corners of a net. The chief charm of having a home that is secure is having leisure to feel it as strange.

I have often done the little I could to correct the stale trick of taking things for granted: all the more because it is not even taking them for granted. It is taking them without gratitude; that is, emphatically as not granted. Even one’s own front door, released by one’s own latchkey, should not only open inward on things familiar, but outward on things unknown. Even one’s own domestic fireside should be wild as well as domesticated; for nothing could be wilder than fire. But if this light of the higher ignorance should shine even on familiar places, it should naturally shine most clearly on the roads of a strange land. It would be well if a man could enter Ireland really knowing that he knows nothing about Ireland; if possible, not even the name of Ireland. The misfortune is that most men know the name too well, and the thing too little. This book would probably be a better book, as well as a better joke, if I were to call the island throughout by some name like Atlantis, and only reveal on the last page that I was referring to Ireland. Englishmen would see a situation of great interest, objects with which they could feel considerable sympathy, and opportunities of which they might take considerable advantage, if only they would really look at the place plain and straight, as they would at some entirely new island, with an entirely new name, discovered by that seafaring adventure which is the real romance of England. In short, he might do something with it, if he would only treat it as an object in front of him, and not as a subject or story left behind him. There will be occasion later to say all that should be said of the need of studying the Irish story. But the Irish story is one thing, and what is called the Irish Question quite another; and in a purely practical sense the best thing the stranger can do is to forget the Irish Question and look at the Irish. If he looked at them simply and steadily, as he would look at the natives of an entirely new nation with a new name, he would become conscious of a very strange but entirely solid fact. He would become conscious of it, as a man in a fairy tale might become conscious that he had crossed the border of fairyland, by such a trifle, as a talking cow or a haystack walking about on legs.

For the Irish Question has never been discussed in England. Men have discussed Home Rule; but those who advocated it most warmly, and as I think wisely, did not even know what the Irish meant by Home. Men have talked about Unionism; but they have never even dared to propose Union. A Unionist ought to mean a man who is not even conscious of the boundary of the two countries; who can walk across the frontier of fairyland, and not even notice the walking haystack. As a fact, the Unionist always shoots at the haystack; though he never hits it. But the limitation is not limited to Unionists; as I have already said, the English Radicals have been quite as incapable of going to the root of the matter. Half the case for Home Rule was that Ireland could not be trusted to the English Home Rulers. They also, to recur to the parable, have been unable to take the talking cow by the horns; for I need hardly say that the talking cow is an Irish bull. What has been the matter with their Irish politics was simply that they were English politics. They discussed the Irish Question; but they never seriously contemplated the Irish Answer. That is, the Liberal was content with the negative truth, that the Irish should not be prevented from having the sort of law they liked. But the Liberal seldom faced the positive truth, about what sort of law they would like. He instinctively avoided the very imagination of this; for the simple reason that the law the Irish would like is as remote from what is called Liberal as from what is called Unionist. Nor has the Liberal ever embraced it in his broadest liberality, nor the Unionist ever absorbed it into his most complete unification. It remains outside us altogether, a thing to be stared at like a fairy cow; and by far the wisest English visitor is he who will simply stare at it. Sooner or later he will see what it means; which is simply this: that whether it be a case for coercion or emancipation (and it might be used either way) the fact is that a free Ireland would not only not be what we call lawless, but might not even be what we call free. So far from being an anarchy, it would be an orderly and even conservative civilisation–like the Chinese. But it would be a civilisation so fundamentally different from our own, that our own liberals would differ from it as much as our own conservatives. The fair question for an Englishman is whether that fundamental difference would make division dangerous; it has already made union impossible. Now in turning over these notes of so brief a visit, suffering from all the stale scurry of my journalistic trade, I have been in doubt between a chronological and a logical order of events. But I have decided in favour of logic, of the high light that really revealed the picture, and by which I firmly believe that everything else should be seen. And if any one were to ask me what was the sight that struck me most in Ireland, both as strange and as significant, I should know what to reply. I saw it long after I had seen the Irish cities, had felt something of the brilliant bitterness of Dublin and the stagnant optimism of Belfast; but I put it first here because I am certain that without it all the rest is meaningless; that it lies behind all politics, enormous and silent, as the great hills lie beyond Dublin.

I was moving in a hired motor down a road in the North-West, towards the middle of that rainy autumn. I was not moving very fast; because the progress was slowed down to a solemn procession by crowds of families with their cattle and live stock going to the market beyond; which things also are an allegory. But what struck my mind and stuck in it was this: that all down one side of the road, as far as we went, the harvest was gathered in neatly and safely; and all down the other side of the road it was rotting in the rain. Now the side where it was safe was a string of small plots worked by peasant proprietors, as petty by our standards as a row of the cheapest villas. The land on which all the harvest was wasted was the land of a large modern estate. I asked why the landlord was later with his harvesting than the peasants; and I was told rather vaguely that there had been strikes and similar labour troubles. I did not go into the rights of the matter; but the point here is that, whatever they were, the moral is the same. You may curse the cruel Capitalist landlord or you may rave at the ruffianly Bolshevist strikers; but you must admit that between them they had produced a stoppage, which the peasant proprietorship a few yards off did not produce. You might support either where they conflicted, but you could not deny the sense in which they had combined, and combined to prevent what a few rustics across the road could combine to produce. For all that we in England agree about and disagree about, all for which we fight and all from which we differ, our darkness and our light, our heaven and hell, were there on the left side of the road. On the right side of the road lay something so different that we do not even differ from it. It may be that Trusts are rising like towers of gold and iron, overshadowing the earth and shutting out the sun; but they are only rising on the left side of the road. It may be that Trades Unions are laying labyrinths of international insurrection, cellars stored with the dynamite of a merely destructive democracy; but all that international maze lies to the left side of the road. Employment and unemployment are there; Marx and the Manchester School are there. The left side of the road may even go through amazing transformations of its own; its story may stride across abysses of anarchy; but it will never step across the road. The landlord’s estate may become a sort of Morris Utopia, organised communally by Socialists, or more probably by Guild Socialists. It may (as I fear is much more likely) pass through the stage of an employer’s model village to the condition of an old pagan slave-state. But the peasants across the road would not only refuse the Servile State, but would quite as resolutely refuse the Utopia. Europe may seem to be rent from end to end by the blast of a Bolshevist trumpet, sundering the bourgeois from the proletarian; but the peasant across the road is neither a bourgeois nor a proletarian. England may seem to be rent by an irreconcilable rivalry between Capital and Labour; but the peasant across the road is both a capitalist and a labourer. He is several other curious things; including the man who got his crops in first; who was literally first in the field.

To an Englishman, especially a Londoner, this was like walking to the corner of a London street and finding the policeman in rags, with a patch on his trousers and a smudge on his face; but the crossing-sweeper wearing, a single eyeglass and a suit fresh from a West End tailor. In fact, it was nearly as surprising as a walking haystack or a talking cow. What was generally dingy, dilatory, and down-at-heels was here comparatively tidy and timely; what was orderly and organised was belated and broken down. For it must be sharply realised that the peasant proprietors succeeded here, not only because they were really proprietors, but because they were only peasants. It was because they were on a small scale that they were a great success. It was because they were too poor to have servants that they grew rich in spite of strikers. It was, so far as it went, the flattest possible contradiction to all that is said in England, both by Collectivists and Capitalists, about the efficiency of the great organisation. For in so far as it had failed, it had actually failed, not only through being great, but through being organised. On the left side of the road the big machine had stopped working, because it was a big machine. The small men were still working, because they were not machines. Such were the strange relations of the two things, that the stars in their courses fought against Capitalism; that the very clouds rolling over that rocky valley warred for its pigmies against its giants. The rain falls alike on the just and the unjust; yet here it had not fallen alike on the rich and poor, It had fallen to the destruction of the rich.

Now I do, as a point of personal opinion, believe that the right side of the road was really the right side of the road. That is, I believe it represented the right side of the question; that these little pottering peasants had got hold of the true secret, which is missed both by Capitalism and Collectivism. But I am not here urging my own preferences on my own countrymen; and I am not concerned primarily to point out that this is an argument against Capitalism and Collectivism. What I do point out is that it is the fundamental argument against Unionism. Perhaps it is, on that ultimate level, the only argument against Unionism; which is probably why it is never used against Unionists. I mean, of course, that it was never really used against English Unionists by English Home Rulers, in the recriminations of that Irish Question which was really an English Question. The essential demanded of that question was merely that it should be an open question; a thing rather like an open wound. Modern industrial society is fond of problems, and therefore not at all fond of solutions. A consideration of those who really have understood this fundamental fact will be sufficient to show how confusing and useless are the mere party labels in the matter. George Wyndham was a Unionist who was deposed because he was a Home Ruler. Sir Horace Plunkett is a Unionist who is trusted because he is a Home Ruler. By far the most revolutionary piece of Nationalism that was ever really effected for Ireland was effected by Wyndham, who was an English Tory squire. And by far the most brutal and brainless piece of Unionism that was ever imposed on Ireland was imposed in the name of the Radical theory of Free Trade, when the Irish juries brought in verdicts of wilful murder against Lord John Russell. I say this to show that my sense of a reality is quite apart from the personal accident that I have myself always been a Radical in English politics, as well as a Home Ruler in Irish politics. But I say it even more in order to reaffirm that the English have first to forget all their old formula and look at a new fact. It is not a new fact; but it is new to them.

To realise it, we must not only go outside the British parties but outside the British Empire, outside the very universe of the ordinary Briton. The real question can be easily stated, for it is as simple as it is large. What is going to happen to the peasantries of Europe, or for that matter of the whole world? It would be far better, as I have already suggested, if we could consider it as a new case of some peasantry in Europe, or somewhere else in the world. It would be far better if we ceased to talk of Ireland and Scotland, and began to talk of Ireland and Serbia. Let us, for the sake of our own mental composure, call this unfortunate people Slovenes. But let us realise that these remote Slovenes are, by the testimony of every truthful traveller, rooted in the habit of private property, and now ripening into a considerable private prosperity. It will often be necessary to remember that the Slovenes are Roman Catholics; and that, with that impatient pugnacity which marks the Slovene temperament, they have often employed violence, but always for the restoration of what they regarded as a reasonable system of private property. Now in a hundred determining districts, of which France is the most famous, this system has prospered. It has its own faults as well as its own merits; but it has prospered. What is going to happen to it? I will here confine myself to saying with the most solid confidence what is not going to happen to it. It is not going to be really ruled by Socialists; and it is not going to be really ruled by merchant princes, like those who ruled Venice or like those who rule England.

It is not so much that England ought not to rule Ireland as that England cannot. It is not so much that Englishmen cannot rule Irishmen, as that merchants cannot rule peasants. It is not so much merely that we have dealt benefits to England and blows to Ireland. It is that our benefits for England would be blows to Ireland. And this we already began to admit in practice, before we had even dimly begun to conceive it in theory. We do not merely admit it in special laws against Ireland like the Coercion Acts, or special laws in favour of Ireland like the Land Acts; it is admitted even more by specially exempting Ireland than by specially studying Ireland. In other words, whatever else the Unionists want, they do not want to unite; they are not quite so mad as that. I cannot myself conceive any purpose in having one parliament except to pass one law; and one law for England and Ireland is simply something that becomes more insanely impossible every day. If the two societies were stationary, they would be sufficiently separate; but they are both moving rapidly in opposite directions. England may be moving towards a condition which some call Socialism, and I call Slavery; but whatever it is, Ireland is speeding farther and farther from it. Whatever it is, the men who manage it will no more be able to manage a European peasantry than the peasants in these mud cabins could manage the Stock Exchange. All attempts, whether imperial or international, to lump these peasants along with some large and shapeless thing called Labour, are part of a cosmopolitan illusion which sees mankind as a map. The world of the International is a pill, as round and as small. It is true that all men want health; but it is certainly not true that all men want the same medicine. Let us allow the cosmopolitan to survey the world from China to Peru; but do not let us allow the chemist to identify Chinese opium and Peruvian bark.

My parallel about the Slovenes was only a fancy; yet I can give a real parallel from the Slavs which is a fact. It was a fact from my own experience in Ireland; and it exactly illustrates the real international sympathies of peasants. Their internationalism has nothing to do with the International. I had not been in Ireland many hours when several people mentioned to me with considerable excitement some news from the Continent. They were not, strange as it may seem, dancing with joy over the disaster of Caporetto, or glowing with admiration of the Crown Prince. Few really rejoiced in English defeats; and none really rejoiced in German victories. It was news about the Bolshevists; but it was not the news of how nobly they had given votes to the Russian women, nor of how savagely they had fired bullets into the Russian princesses. It was the news of a check to the Bolshevists; but it was not a glorification of Kerensky or Korniloff, or any of the newspaper heroes who seem to have satisfied us all, so long as their names began with K and nobody knew anything about them. In short, it was nothing that could be found in all our myriad newspaper articles on the subject. I would give an educated Englishman a hundred guesses about what it was; but even if he knew it, he would not know what it meant.

It had appeared in the little paper about peasant produce so successfully conducted by Mr. George Russell, the celebrated “A. E.,” and it was told me eagerly by the poet himself, by a learned and brilliant Jesuit, and by several other people, as the great news from Europe. It was simply the news that the Jewish Socialists of the Bolshevist Government had been attempting to confiscate the peasants’ savings in the co-operative banks; and had been forced to desist. And they spoke of it as of a great battle won on the Danube or the Rhine. That is what I mean when I say that these people are of a pattern and belong to a system which cuts across all our own political divisions. They felt themselves fighting the Socialists as fiercely as any Capitalist can feel it; but they not only knew what they were fighting against, but what they were fighting for; which is more than the Capitalist does. I do not know how far modern Europe really shows a menace of Bolshevism, or how far merely a panic of Capitalism. But I know that if any honest resistance has to be offered to mere robbery, the resistance of Ireland will be the most honest, and probably the most important. It may be that international Israel will launch against us out of the East an insane simplification of the unity of Man, as Islam once launched out of the East an insane simplification of the unity of God. If it be so, it is where property is well distributed that it will be well defended. The post of honour will be with those who fight in very truth for their own land. If ever there came such a drive of wild dervishes against us, it would be the chariots and elephants of plutocracy that would roll in confusion and rout; and the squares of the peasant infantry would stand.

Anyhow, the first fact to realise is that we are dealing with a European peasantry; and it would be really better, as I say, to think of it first as a Continental peasantry. There are numberless important inferences from this fact; but there is one point, politically topical and urgent, on which I may well touch here. It will be well to understand about this peasantry something that we generally misunderstand, even about a Continental peasantry. English tourists in France or Italy commonly make the mistake of supposing that the people cheat, because the people bargain, or attempt to bargain. When a peasant asks tenpence for something that is worth fourpence, the tourist misunderstands the whole problem. He commonly solves it by calling the man a thief and paying the tenpence. There are ten thousand errors in this, beginning with the primary error of an oligarchy, of treating a man as a servant when he feels more like a small squire. The peasant does not choose to receive insults; but he never expected to receive tenpence. A man who understood him would simply suggest twopence, in a calm and courteous manner; and the two would eventually meet in the middle at a perfectly just price. There would not be what we call a fixed price at the beginning, but there would be a very firmly fixed price at the end: that is, the bargain once made would be a sacredly sealed contract. The peasant, so far from cheating, has his own horror of cheating; and certainly his own fury at being cheated. Now in the political bargain with the English, the Irish simply think they have been cheated. They think Home Rule was stolen from them after the contract was sealed; and it will be hard for any one to contradict them. If “_le Roi le veult_” is not a sacred seal on a contract, what is? The sentiment is stronger because the contract was a compromise. Home Rule was the fourpence and not the tenpence; and, in perfect loyalty to the peasant’s code of honour, they have now reverted to the tenpence. The Irish have now returned in a reaction of anger to their most extreme demands; not because we denied what they demanded, but because we denied what we accepted. As I shall have occasion to note, there are other and wilder elements in the quarrel; but the first fact to remember is that the quarrel began with a bargain, that it will probably have to end with another bargain; and that it will be a bargain with peasants. On the whole, in spite of abominable blunders and bad faith, I think there is still a chance of bargaining, but we must see that there is no chance of cheating. We may haggle like peasants, and remember that their first offer is not necessarily their last. But we must be as honest as peasants; and that is very hard for politicians. The great Parnell, a squire who had many of the qualities of a peasant (qualities the English so wildly misunderstood as to think them English, when they were really very Irish), converted his people from a Fenianism fiercer than Sinn Fein to a Home Rule more moderate than that which sane statesmanship could now offer to Ireland. But the peasants trusted Parnell, not because they thought he was asking for it, but because they thought he could get it. Whatever we decide to give to Ireland, we must give it; it is now worse than useless to promise it. I will say here, once and for all, the hardest thing that an Englishman has to say of his impressions of another great European people: that over all those hills and valleys our word is wind, and our bond is waste paper.

But, in any case, the peasantry remains: and the whole weight of the matter is that it will remain. It is much more certain to remain than any of the commercial or colonial systems that will have to bargain with it. We may honestly think that the British Empire is both more liberal and more lasting than the Austrian Empire, or other large political combinations. But a combination like the Austrian Empire could go to pieces, and ten such combinations could go to pieces, before people like the Serbians ceased to desire to be peasants, and to demand to be free peasants. And the British combination, precisely because it is a combination and not a community, is in its nature more lax and liable to real schism than this sort of community, which might almost be called a communion. Any attack on it is like an attempt to abolish grass; which is not only the symbol of it in the old national song, but it is a very true symbol of it in any new philosophic history; a symbol of its equality, its ubiquity, its multiplicity, and its mighty power to return. To fight against grass is to fight against God; we can only so mismanage our own city and our own citizenship that the grass grows in our own streets. And even then it is our streets that will be dead; and the grass will still be alive.

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