Irish Impressions

Chapter V.

The Englishman in Ireland

With no desire to decorate my travels with too tall a traveller’s tale, I must record the fact that I found one point upon which all Irishmen were agreed. It was the fact that, for some reason or other, there had been a very hopeful beginning of Irish volunteering at the beginning of the war; and that, for some reason or other, this had failed in the course of the war. The reasons alleged differed widely with the moods of men; some had regarded the beginnings with hope and some with suspicion; some had lived to regard the failure with a bitter pleasure, and some with a generous pain. The different factions gave different explanations of why the thing had stopped; but they all agreed that it had begun. The Sinn Feiner said that the people soon found they had been lured into a Saxon trap, set for them by smooth, subservient Saxons like Mr. Devlin and Mr. Tim Healy. The Belfast citizen suggested that the Popish priest had terrorised the peasants when they tried to enlist, producing a thumbscrew from his pocket and a portable rack from his handbag. The Parliamentary Nationalist blamed both Sinn Fein and the persecution of Sinn Fein. The British Government officials, if they did not exactly blame themselves, at least blamed each other. The ordinary Southern Unionist (who played many parts of a more or less sensible sort, including that of a Home Ruler) generally agreed with the ordinary Nationalist that the Government’s recruiting methods had been as bad as its cause was good. But it is manifest that multitudes at the beginning of the war thought it really had a very good cause; and moreover a very good chance.

The extraordinary story of how that chance was lost may find mention on a later page. I will begin by touching on the first incident that befell me personally in connection with the same enterprise. I went to Ireland at the request of Irish friends who were working warmly for the Allied cause, and who conceived (I fear in far too flattering a spirit) that I might at least be useful as an Englishman who had always sympathised as warmly with the Irish cause. I am under no illusions that I should ever be efficient at such work in any case; and under the circumstances I had no great hopes of doing much, where men like Sir Horace Plunkett and Captain Stephen Gwynne, far more competent, more self-sacrificing, and more well-informed than I, could already do comparatively little. It was too late. A hundredth part of the brilliant constancy and tragic labours of these men might easily, at the beginning of the war, have given us a great Irish army. I need not explain the motives that made me do the little I could do; they were the same that at that moment made millions of better men do masses of better work. Physical accident prevented my being useful in France, and a sort of psychological accident seemed to suggest that I might possibly be useful in Ireland; but I did not see myself as a very serious figure in either field. Nothing could be serious in such a case except perhaps a conviction; and at least my conviction about the great war has never wavered by a hair. Delenda est–and it is typical of the power of Berlin that one must break off for want of a Latin name for it. Being an Englishman, I hoped primarily to help England; but not being a congenital idiot, I did not primarily ask an Irishman to help England. There was obviously something much more reasonable to ask him to do. I hope I should in any case have done my best for my own country. But the cause was more than any country; in a sense it was too good for any country. The Allies were more right than they realised. Nay, they hardly had a right to be so right as they were. The modern Babylon of capitalistic states was hardly worthy to go on such a crusade against the heathen; as perhaps decadent Byzantium was hardly worthy to defend the Cross against the Crescent. But we are glad that it did defend the Cross against the Crescent. Nobody is sorry that Sobieski relieved Vienna; nobody wishes that Alfred had not won in Wessex. The cause that conquered is the only cause that survived. We see now that its enemy was not a cause but a chaos; and that is what history will say of the strange and recent boiling up of barbaric imperialism, a whirlpool whose hollow centre was Berlin. This is where the extreme Irish were really wrong; perhaps really wrong for the first time. I entirely sympathise with their being in revolt against the British Government. I am in revolt in most ways against the British Government myself. But politics are a fugitive thing in the face of history. Does anybody want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side at the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten? Does anybody want to be remembered as a friend of Attila, through a breach of friendship with Aetius? In any case, it was with a profound conviction that if Prussia won, Europe must perish, and that if Europe perished England and Ireland must perish together, that I went to Dublin in those dark days of the last year of the war; and it so happened that the first occasion when I was called upon for any expression of opinion was at a very pleasant luncheon party given to the representatives of the British Dominions, who were then on an official tour in the country inspecting its conditions. What I said is of no importance except as leading up to later events; but it may be noted that though I was speaking perhaps indirectly to Irishmen, I was speaking directly, if not to Englishmen, at least to men in the more English tradition of the majority of the Colonies. I was speaking, if not to Unionists, at least largely to Imperialists.

Now I have forgotten, I am happy to say, the particular speech that I made, but I can repeat the upshot of it here, not only as part of the argument, but as part of the story. The line I took generally in Ireland was an appeal to the Irish principle, yet the reverse of a mere approval of the Irish action, or inaction. It postulated that while the English had missed a great opportunity of justifying themselves to the Irish, the Irish had also missed a similar opportunity of justifying themselves to the English. But it specially emphasised this; that what had been lost was not primarily a justification against England, but a joke against England. I pointed out that an Irishman missing a joke against an Englishman was a tragedy, like a lost battle. And there was one thing, and one thing only, which had stopped the Irishman from laughing, and saved the Englishman from being laughable. The one and only thing that rescued England from ridicule was Sinn Fein. Or, at any rate, that element in Sinn Fein which was pro-German, or refused to be anti-German. Nothing imaginable under the stars except a pro-German Irishman could at that moment have saved the face of a (very recently) pro-German Englishman.

The reason for this is obvious enough. England in 1914 encountered or discovered a colossal crime of Prussianised Germany. But England could not discover the German crime without discovering the English blunder. The blunder was, of course, a perfectly plain historical fact; that England made Prussia. England was the historic, highly civilised western state, with Roman foundations and chivalric memories; Prussia was originally a petty and boorish principality used by England and Austria in the long struggle against the greatness of France. Now in that long struggle Ireland had always been on the side of France. She had only to go on being on the side of France, and the Latin tradition generally, to behold her own truth triumph over her own enemies. In a word, it was not a question of whether Ireland should become anti-German, but merely of whether she should continue to be anti-German. It was a question of whether she should suddenly become pro-German, at the moment when most other pro-Germans were discovering that she had been justified all along. But England, at the beginning of her last and most lamentable quarrel with Ireland, was by no means in so strong a controversial position. England was right; but she could only prove she was right by proving she was wrong. In one sense, and with all respect to her right action in the matter, she had to be ridiculous in order to be right.

But the joke against the English was even more obvious and topical. And as mine was only meant for a light speech after a friendly lunch, I took the joke in its lightest and most fanciful form, and touched chiefly on the fantastic theory of the Teuton as the master of the Celt. For the supreme joke was this: that the Englishman has not only boasted of being an Englishman; he has actually boasted of being a German. As the modern mind began to doubt the superiority of Calvinism to Catholicism, all English books, papers, and speeches were filled more and more with a Teutonism which substituted a racial for a religious superiority. It was felt to be a more modern and even a more progressive principle of distinction, to insist on ethnology rather than theology; for ethnology was supposed to be a science. Unionism was simply founded on Teutonism. Hence the ordinary honest, patriotic Unionist was in a highly humorous fix, when he had suddenly to begin denouncing Teutonism as mere terrorism. If all superiority belonged to the Teuton, the supreme superiority must clearly belong to the most Teutonic Teuton. If I claim the right to kick Mr. Bernard Shaw on the specific ground that I am fatter than he is, it is obvious that I look rather a fool if I am suddenly kicked by somebody who is fatter still. When the earth shakes under the advancing form of one coming against me out of the east who is fatter than I (for I called upon the Irish imagination to embrace so monstrous a vision), it is clear that whatever my relations to the rest of the world, in my relations to Mr. Bernard Shaw I am rather at a disadvantage. Mr. Shaw, at any rate, is rather in a position to make game of me; of which it is not inconceivable that he might avail himself. I might have accumulated a vast mass of learned sophistries and journalistic catchwords, which had always seemed to me to justify the connection between waxing fat and kicking. I might have proved from history that the leaders had always been fat men, like William the Conqueror, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Charles Fox. I might have proved from physiology that fatness is a proof of the power of organic assimilation and digestion; or from comparative zoology that the elephant is the wisest of the beasts. In short, I might be able to adduce many arguments in favour of my position. Only, unfortunately, they would now all become arguments against my position. Everything I had ever urged against my old enemy could be urged much more forcibly against me by my new enemy. And my position touching the great adipose theory would be exactly like England’s position touching the equally sensible Teutonic theory. If Teutonism was creative culture, then on our own showing the German was better than the Englishman. If Teutonism was barbarism, then on our own showing the Englishman was more barbaric than the Irishman. The real answer, of course, is that we were not Teutons but only the dupes of Teutonism; but some were so wholly duped that they would do anything rather than own themselves dupes. These unfortunates, while they are already ashamed of being Teutons, are still proud of not being Celts.

There is only one thing that could save my dignity in such an undignified fix as I have fancied here. It is that Mr. Bernard Shaw himself should come to my rescue. It is that Mr. Bernard Shaw himself should declare in favour of the corpulent conqueror from the east; that he should take seriously all the fads and fallacies of that fat-headed superman. That, and that alone, would ensure all my own fads and fallacies being not only forgotten but forgiven. There is present to my imagination, I regret to say, a wild possibility that this is what Mr. Bernard Shaw might really do. Anyhow, this is what a certain number of his countrymen really did. It will be apparent, I think, from these pages that I do not believe in the stage Irishman. I am under no delusion that the Irishman is soft-headed and sentimental, or even illogical and inconsequent. Nine times out of ten, the Irishman is not only more clear-headed, but even more cool-headed than the Englishman. But I think it is true, as Mr. Max Beerbohm once suggested to me in connection with Mr. Shaw himself, that there is a residual perversity in the Irishman, which comes after and not before the analysis of a question. There is at the last moment a cold impatience in the intellect, an irony which returns on itself and rends itself; the subtlety of a suicide. However this may be, some of the lean men, instead of making a fool of the fat man, did begin almost to make a hero of the fatter man; to admire his vast curves as almost cosmic lines of development. I have seen Irish-American pamphlets which took quite seriously (or, I prefer to think, pretended to take quite seriously) the ridiculous romance about the Teutonic tribes having revived and refreshed civilisation after the fall of the Roman Empire. They revived civilisation very much as they restored Louvain or reconstructed the Lusitania. It was a romance which the English for a short time adopted as a convenience, but from which the Irish have continually suffered as from a curse. It was a suicidal perversity that they themselves, in their turn, should perpetuate their permanent curse as a temporary convenience. That was the worst error of the Irish, or of some of the best of the Irish. That is why the Easter Rising was really a black and insane blunder. It was not because it involved the Irish in a military defeat; it was because it lost the Irish a great controversial victory. The rebel deliberately let the tyrant out of a trap; out of the grinning jaws of the gigantic trap of a joke.

Many of the most extreme Nationalists knew this well; it was what Kettle probably meant when he suggested an Anglo-Irish history called “The Two Fools”; and of course I do not mean that. I said all this in my very casual and rambling speech. But it was based on this idea, that men had missed the joke against England, and that now unfortunately the joke was rather against Ireland. It was Ireland that was now missing a great historical opportunity for lack of humour and imagination, as England had missed it a moment before. If the Irish would laugh at the English and help the English, they would win all along the line. In the real history of the German problem, they would inherit all the advantages of having been right from the first. It was now not so much a question of Ireland consenting to follow England’s lead as of England being obliged to follow Ireland’s lead. These are the principles, which I thought, and still think, the only possible principles to form the basis of a recruiting appeal in Ireland. But on the particular occasion in question I naturally took the matter much more lightly; hoping that the two jokes might, as it were, cancel out, and leave the two countries quits and in a better humour. And I devoted nearly all my remarks to testifying that the English had really, in the mass, shed the cruder Teutonism that had excused the cruelties of the past. I said that Englishmen were anything but proud of the past government of Ireland; that the mass of men of all parties were far more modest and humane in their view of Ireland than most Irishmen seem to suppose. And I ended with words which I only quote here from memory, because they happen to be the text of the curious incident which followed: “This is no place for us to boast. We stand here in the valley of our humiliation, where the flag we love has done very little that was not evil; and where its victories have been far more disastrous than defeats;” and I concluded with some general expression of the hope (which I still entertain) that two lands so much loved, by those who know them best, are not meant to hate each other for ever.

A day or two afterwards a distinguished historian who is a professor at Trinity College, Mr. Alison Phillips, wrote an indignant letter to the Irish Times. He announced that he was not in the valley of humiliation; and warmly contradicted the report that he was, as he expressed it, “sitting in sackcloth and ashes.” He remarked, if I remember right, that I was middle-class, which is profoundly true; and he generally resented my suggestions as a shameful attack upon my fellow Englishmen. This both amused and puzzled me; for of course I had not been attacking Englishmen, but defending them; I had merely been assuring the Irish that the English were not so black, or so red, as they were painted in the vision of “England’s cruel red.” I had not said there what I have said here, about the anomaly and absurdity of England in Ireland; I had only said that Ireland had suffered rather from the Teutonic theory than the English temper; and that the English temper, experienced at close quarters, was really quite ready for a reconciliation with Ireland. Nor indeed did Mr. Alison Phillips really complain especially of my denouncing the English, but rather of my way of defending them. He did not so much mind being charged with the vice of arrogance. What he could not bear was being charged with the virtue of humility. What worried him was not so much the supposition of our doing wrong, as that anybody should conceive it possible that we were sorry for doing wrong. After all, he probably reasoned, it may not be easy for an eminent historical scholar actually to deny that certain tortures have taken place, or certain perjuries been proved; but there is really no reason why he should admit that the memory of using torture or perjury has so morbid an effect on the mind. Therefore he naturally desired to correct any impression that might arise, to the effect that he had been seen in the valley of humiliation, like a man called Christian.

But there was one fancy that lingered in the mind over and above the fun of the thing; and threw a sort of random ray of conjecture upon all that long international misunderstanding which it is so hard to understand. Was it possible, I thought, that this had happened before, and that I was caught in the treadmill of recurrence? It may be that whenever, throughout the centuries, a roughly representative and fairly good-humoured Englishman has spoken to the Irish as thousands of such Englishmen feel about them, some other Englishman on the spot has hastened to explain that the English are not going in for sackcloth and ashes, but only for phylacteries and the blowing of their own trumpets before them. Perhaps whenever one Englishman said that the English were not so black as they were painted in the past, another Englishman always rushed forward to prove that the English were not so white as they were painted on the present occasion. And after all it was only Englishman against Englishman, one word against another; and there were many superiorities on the side which refused to believe in English sympathy or self-criticism. And very few of the Irish, I fear, understood the simple fact of the matter, or the real spiritual excuses of the party thus praising spiritual pride. Few understood that I represented large numbers of amiable Englishmen in England, while Mr. Phillips necessarily represented a small number of naturally irritable Englishmen in Ireland. Few, I fancy, sympathised with him so much as I do; for I know very well that he was not merely feeling as an Englishman, but as an exile.

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