Irish Impressions

Chapter VII.

The Mistake of Ireland

There is one phrase which certain Irishmen sometimes use in conversation, which indicates the real mistake that they sometimes make in controversy. When the more bitter sort of Irishman is at last convinced of the existence of the less bitter sort of Englishman, who does realise that he ought not to rule a Christian people by alternations of broken heads and broken promises, the Irishman has sometimes a way of saying, “I am sure you must have Irish blood in your veins.” Several people told me so when I denounced Irish conscription, a thing ruinous to the whole cause of the Alliance. Some told me so even when I re-called the vile story of ’98; a thing damned by the whole opinion of the world. I assured them in vain that I did not need to have Irish blood in my veins in order to object to having Irish blood on my hands. So far as I know, I have not one single drop of Irish blood in my veins. I have some Scottish blood; and some which, judging merely by a name in the family, must once have been French blood. But the determining part of it is purely English, and I believe East Anglian, at the flattest and farthest extreme from the Celtic fringe. But I am here concerned, not with whether it is true, but with why they should want to prove it is true. One would think they would want to prove precisely the opposite. Even if they were exaggerative and unscrupulous, they should surely seek to show that an Englishman was forced to condemn England, rather than that an Irishman was inclined to support Ireland. As it is, they are labouring to destroy the impartiality and even the independence of their own witness. It does not support, but rather surrenders Irish rights, to say that only the Irish can see that there are Irish wrongs. It is confessing that Ireland is a Celtic dream and delusion, a cloud of sunset mistaken for an island. It is admitting that such a nation is only a notion, and a nonsensical notion; but in reality it is this notion about Irish blood that is nonsensical. Ireland is not an illusion; and her wrongs are not the subjective fancies of the Irish. Irishmen did not dream that they were evicted out of house and home by the ruthless application of a land law no man now dares to defend. It was not a nightmare that dragged them from their beds; nor were they sleepwalkers when they wandered as far as America. Skeffington did not have a delusion that he was being shot for keeping the peace; the shooting was objective, as the Prussian professors would say; as objective as the Prussian militarists could desire. The delusions were admittedly peculiar to the British official whom the British Government selected to direct operations on so important an occasion. I could understand it if the Imperialists took refuge in the Celtic cloud, conceived Colthurst as full of a mystic frenzy like the chieftain who fought with the sea, pleaded that Piggott was a poet whose pen ran away with him, or that Sergeant Sheridan romanced like a real stage Irishman. I could understand it if they declared that it was merely in the elvish ecstasy described by Mr. Yeats that Sir Edward Carson, that famous First Lord of the Admiralty, rode on the top of the dishevelled wave; and Mr. Walter Long, that great Agricultural Minister, danced upon the mountains like a flame. It is far more absurd to suggest that no man can see the green flag unless he has some green in his eye. In truth this association between an Irish sympathy and an Irish ancestry, is just as insulting as the old jibe of Buckingham, about an Irish interest or an Irish understanding.

It may seem fanciful to say of the Irish nationalists that they are sometimes too Irish to be national. Yet this is really the case in those who would turn nationality from a sanctity to a secret. That is, they are turning it from something which every one else ought to respect, to something which no one else can understand. Nationalism is a nobler thing even than patriotism; for nationalism appeals to a law of nations; it implies that a nation is a normal thing, and therefore one of a number of normal things. It is impossible to have a nation without Christendom; as it is impossible to have a citizen without a city. Now normally speaking this is better understood in Ireland than in England; but the Irish have an opposite exaggeration and error; and tend in some cases to the cult of real insularity. In this sense it is true to say that the error is indicated in the very name of Sinn Fein. But I think it is even more encouraged, in a cloudier and therefore more perilous fashion, by much that is otherwise valuable in the cult of the Celts and the study of the old Irish language. It is a great mistake for a man to defend himself as a Celt when he might defend himself as an Irishman. For the former defence will turn on some tricky question of temperament, while the latter will turn on the central pivot of morals. Celticism, by itself, might lead to all the racial extravagances which have lately led more barbaric races a dance. Celts also might come to claim, not that their nation is a normal thing, but that their race is a unique thing. Celts also might end by arguing not for an equality founded on the respect for boundaries, but for an aristocracy founded on the ramification of blood. Celts also might come to pitting the prehistoric against the historic, the heathen against the Christian, and in that sense the barbaric against the civilised. In that sense I confess I do not care about Celts; they are too like Teutons.

Now of course every one knows that there is practically no such danger of Celtic Imperialism. Mr. Lloyd George will not attempt to annex Brittany as a natural part of Britain. No Tories, however antiquated, will extend their empire in the name of the Buff and Blue of the Ancient Britons. Nor is there the least likelihood that the Irish will overrun Scotland on the plea of an Irish origin for the old name of the Scots; or that they will set up an Irish capital at Stratford-on-Avon merely because avon is the Celtic word for water. That is the sort of thing that Teutonic ethnologists do; but Celts are not quite so stupid as that, even when they are ethnologists. It may be suggested that this is because even prehistoric Celts seem to have been rather more civilised than historic Teutons. And indeed I have seen ornaments and utensils in the admirable Dublin museum, suggestive of a society of immense antiquity, and much more advanced in the arts of life than the Prussians were, only a few centuries ago. For instance, there was actually what appeared to be a safety razor. I doubt if the godlike Goths had much use for a razor; or if they had, if it was altogether safe. Nor am I so dull as not to be stirred to an imaginative sympathy with the instinct of modern Irish poetry to praise this primordial and mysterious order, even as a sort of pagan paradise; and that not as regarding a legend as a sort of lie, but a tradition as a sort of truth. It is but another hint of a suggestion, huge, yet hidden; that civilisation is older than barbarism; and that the further we go back into pagan origins, the nearer we come to the great Christian origin of the Fall. But whatever credit or sympathy be due to the cult of Celtic origins in its proper place, it is none of these things that really prevents Celticism from being a barbarous imperialism like Teutonism. The thing that prevents imperialism is nationalism. It was exactly because Germany was not a nation that it desired more and more to be an empire. For a patriot is a sort of lover, and a lover is a sort of artist; and the artist will always love a shape too much to wish it to grow shapeless, even in order to grow large. A group of Teutonic tribes will not care how many other tribes they destroy or absorb; and Celtic tribes when they were heathen may have acted, for all I know, in the same way. But the civilised Irish nation, a part and product of Christendom, has certainly no desire to be entangled with other tribes or to have its outlines blurred with great blots like Liverpool and Glasgow, as well as Belfast. In that sense it is far too self-conscious to be selfish. Its individuality may, as I shall suggest, make it too insular; it will not make it too imperial. This is a merit in nationalism too little noted; that even what is called its narrowness is not merely a barrier to invasion, but a barrier to expansion. Therefore, with all respect to the prehistoric Celts, I feel more at home with the good if sometimes mad Christian gentleman of the Young Ireland movement, or even the Easter Rebellion. I should feel more safe with Meagher of the Sword than with the primitive Celt of the safety razor. The microscopic meanness of the Mid-Victorian English writers, when they wrote about Irish patriots, could see nothing but a very small joke in modern rebels thinking themselves worthy to take the titles of antique kings; but the only doubt I should have, if I had any, is whether the heathen kings were worthy of the Christian rebels. I am much more sure of the heroism of the modern Fenians than of the ancient ones.

Of the artistic side of the cult of the Celts I do not especially speak here. And indeed its importance, especially to the Irish, may easily be exaggerated. Mr. W. B. Yeats long ago dissociated himself from a merely racial theory of Irish poetry; and Mr. W. B. Yeats thinks as hard as he talks. I often entirely disagree with him; but I disagree far more with the people who find him a poetical opiate, where I always find him a logical stimulant. For the rest, Celticism in some aspects is largely a conspiracy for leading the Englishman a dance, if it be a fairy dance. I suspect that many names and announcements are printed in Gaelic, not because Irishmen can read them, but because Englishmen can’t. The other great modern mystic in Dublin, “A. E.,” entertained us first by telling an English lady present that she would never resist the Celtic atmosphere, struggle how she might, but would soon be wandering in the mountain mists with a fillet round her head; which fate had apparently overtaken the son or nephew of an Anglican bishop who had strayed into those parts. The English lady, whom I happen to know rather well, made the characteristic announcement that she would go to Paris when she felt it coming on. But it seemed to me that such drastic action was hardly necessary, and that there was comparatively little cause for alarm; seeing that the mountain mists certainly had not had that effect on the people who happen to live in the mountains. I knew that A. E. knew, even better than I did, that Irish peasants do not wander about in fillets, or indeed wander about at all, having plenty of much better work to do. And since the Celtic atmosphere had no perceptible effect on the Celts, I felt no alarm about its effect on the Saxons. But the only thing involved, by way of an effect on the Saxons, was a practical joke on the Saxons; which may, however, have lasted longer in the case of the bishop’s nephew than it did in mine. Anyhow, I continued to move about (like Atalanta in Calydon) with unchapleted hair, with unfilleted cheek; and found a sufficient number of Irish people in the same condition to prevent me from feeling shy. In a word, all that sort of thing is simply Mr. Russell’s humour, especially his good humour, which is of a golden and godlike sort. And a man would be very much misled by the practical joke if he does not realise that the joker is a practical man. On the desk in front of him as he spoke were business papers of reports and statistics, much more concerned with fillets of veal than fillets of vision. That is the essential fact about all this side of such men in Ireland. We may think the Celtic ghost a turnip ghost; but we can only doubt the reality of the ghost; there is no doubt of the reality of the turnip.

But if the Celtic pose be a piece of the Celtic ornament, the spirit that produced it does also produce some more serious tendencies to the segregation of Ireland, one might almost say the secretion of Ireland.

In this sense, it is true that there is too much separatism in Ireland. I do not speak of separation from England; which, as I have said, happened long ago in the only serious sense, and is a condition to be assumed, not a conclusion to be avoided. Nor do I mean separation from a federation of free states unfortunately known as the British Empire; for that is a conclusion that could still be avoided with a little common sense and common honesty in our own politics. I mean separation from Europe, from the common Christian civilisation by whose law the nations live. I would be understood as speaking here of exceptions rather than the rule; for the rule is rather the other way. The Catholic religion, the most fundamental fact in Ireland, is itself a permanent communication with the Continent. So, as I have said, is the free peasantry which is so often the economic expression of the same faith. Mr. James Stephens, himself a spiritually detached man of genius, told me with great humour a story which is also at least a symbol. A Catholic priest, after a convivial conversation and plenty of good wine, said to him confidentially: “You ought to be a Catholic. You can be saved without being a Catholic; but you can’t be Irish without being a Catholic.”

Nevertheless, the exceptions are large enough to be dangers; and twice lately, I think, they have brought Ireland into danger. This is the age of minorities; of groups that rule rather than represent. And the two largest parties in Ireland, though more representative than most parties in England, were too much affected, I fancy, by the modern fashion, expressed in the world of fads by being Celtic rather than Catholic. They were just a little too insular to accept the old unconscious wave of Christendom; the Crusade. But the case was more extraordinary than that. They were even too insular to appreciate, not so much their own international needs, as their own international importance. It may seem a strange paradox to say that both nationalist parties underrated Ireland as a nation. It may seem a more startling paradox to say that in this the most nationalist was the least national. Yet I think I can explain, however roughly, what I mean by saying that this is so.

It is primarily Sinn Fein, or the extreme national party, which thus relatively failed to realise that Ireland is a nation. At least it failed in nationalism exactly so far as it failed to intervene in the war of the nations against Prussian imperialism. For its argument involved, unconsciously, the proposition that Ireland is not a nation; that Ireland is a tribe or a settlement, or a chance sprinkling of aborigines. If the Irish were savages oppressed by the British Empire, they might well be indifferent to the fate of the British Empire; but as they were civilised men, they could not be indifferent to the fate of civilisation. The Kaffirs might conceivably be better off if the whole system of white colonisation, Boer and British, broke down and disappeared altogether. The Irish might sympathise with the Kaffirs; but they would not like to be classed with the Kaffirs. Hottentots might have a sort of Hottentot happiness if the last European city had fallen in ruins, or the last European had died in torments. But the Irish would never be Hottentots, even if they were Pro-Hottentots. In other words, if the Irish were what Cromwell thought they were, they might well confine their attention to Hell and Connaught; and have no sympathy to spare for France. But if the Irish are what Wolfe Tone thought they were, they must be interested in France, as he was interested in France. In short, if the Irish are barbarians, they need not trouble about other barbarians sacking the cities of the world; but if they are citizens, they must trouble about the cities that are sacked. This is the deep and real reason why their alienation from the Allied cause was a disaster for their own national cause. It was not because it gave fools a chance of complaining that they were Anti-English. It was because it gave much cleverer people the chance of complaining that they were Anti-European. I entirely agree that the alienation was chiefly the fault of the English Government; I even agree that it required an abnormal imaginative magnanimity for an Irishman to do his duty to Ireland, in spite of being so insolently told to do it. But it is none the less true that Ireland to-day would be ten thousand miles nearer her deliverance if the Irishman could have made that effort; if he had realised that the thing ought to be done, not because such rulers wanted it, but rather although they wanted it.

But the much more curious fact is this. There were any number of Irishmen, and those among the most Irish, who did realise this; who realised it with so sublime a sincerity as to fight for their own enemies against the world’s enemies; and consent at once to be insulted by the English and killed by the Germans. The Redmonds and the old Nationalist party, if they have indeed failed, have the right to be reckoned among the most heroic of all the heroic failures of Ireland. If theirs is a lost cause, it is wholly worthy of a land where lost causes are never lost. But the old guard of Redmond did also in its time, I fancy, fall into the same particular and curious error; but in a more subtle way and on a seemingly remote subject. They also, whose motives like those of the Sinn Feiners were entirely noble, did in one sense fail to be national, in the sense of appreciating the international importance of a nation. In their case it was a matter of English and not European politics; and as their case was much more complicated, I speak with much less confidence about it. But I think there was a highly determining time in politics when certain Irishmen got on to the wrong side in English politics, as other Irishmen afterwards got on to the wrong side in European politics. And by the wrong side, in both cases, I not only mean the side that was not consistent with the truth, but the side that was not really congenial to the Irish. A man may act against the body, even the main body, of his nation; but if he acts against the soul of his nation, even to save it, he and his nation suffer.

I can best explain what I mean by reaffirming the reality which an English visitor really found in Irish politics, towards the end of the war. It may seem odd to say that the most hopeful fact I found, for Anglo-Irish relations, was the fury with which the Irish were all accusing the English of perjury and treason. Yet this was my solid and sincere impression; the happiest omen was the hatred aroused by the disappointment over Home Rule. For men are not furious unless they are disappointed of something they really want; and men are not disappointed except about something they were really ready to accept. If Ireland had been entirely in favour of entire separation, the loss of Home Rule would not be felt as a loss, but if anything as an escape. But it is felt bitterly and savagely as a loss; to that at least I can testify with entire certainty. I may or may not be right in the belief I build on it; but I believe it would still be felt as a gain; that Dominion Home Rule would in the long run satisfy Ireland. But it would satisfy her if it were given to her, not if it were promised to her. As it is, the Irish regard our government simply as a liar who has broken his word; I cannot express how big and black that simple idea bulks in the landscape and blocks up the road. And without professing to regard it as quite so simple, I regard it as substantially true. It is, upon any argument, an astounding thing the King, Lords, and Commons of a great nation should record on its statute-book that a law exists, and then illegally reverse it in answer to the pressure of private persons. It is, and must be, for the people benefited by the law, an act of treason. The Irish were not wrong in thinking it an act of treason, even in the sense of treachery and trickery. Where they were wrong, I regret to say, was in talking of it as if it were the one supreme solitary example of such trickery; when the whole of our politics were full of such tricks. In short, the loss of justice for Ireland was simply a part of the loss of justice in England; the loss of all moral authority in government, the loss of the popularity of Parliament, the secret plutocracy which makes it easy to take a bribe or break a pledge, the corruption that can pass unpopular laws or promote discredited men. The lawgiver cannot enforce his law because, whether or no the law be popular, the lawgiver is wholly unpopular, and is perpetually passing wholly unpopular laws. Intrigue has been substituted for government; and the public man cannot appeal to the public because all the most important part of his policy is conducted in private. The modern politician conducts his public life in private. He sometimes condescends to make up for it by affecting to conduct his private life in public. He will put his baby or his birthday book into the illustrated papers; it is his dealings with the colossal millions of the cosmopolitan millionaires that he puts in his pocket or his private safe. We are allowed to know all about his dogs and cats; but not about those larger and more dangerous animals, his bulls and bears.

Now there was a moment when England had an opportunity of breaking down this Parliamentary evil, as Europe afterwards had an opportunity (which it fortunately took) of breaking down the Prussian evil. The corruption was common to both parties; but the chance of exposing it happened to occur under the rule of a Home Rule party; which the Nationalists supported solely for the sake of Home Rule. In the Marconi Case they consented to whitewash the tricks of Jew jobbers whom they must have despised; just as some of the Sinn Feiners afterwards consented to whitewash the wickedness of Prussian bullies whom they also must have despised. In both cases the motive was wholly disinterested and even idealistic. It was the practicality that was unpractical. I was one of a small group which protested against the hushing up of the Marconi affair, but we always did justice to the patriotic intentions of the Irish who allowed it. But we based our criticism of their strategy on the principle of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. The man who will cheat you about one thing will cheat you about another. The men who will lie to you about Marconi, will lie to you about Home Rule. The political conventions that allow of dealing in Marconis at one price for the party, and another price for oneself, are conventions that also allow of telling one story to Mr. John Redmond and another to Sir Edward Carson. The man who will imply one state of things when talking at large in Parliament, and another state of things when put into a witness-box in court, is the same sort of man who will promise an Irish settlement in the hope that it may fail; and then withdraw it for fear it should succeed. Among the many muddle-headed modern attempts to coerce the Christian poor to the Moslem dogma about wine and beer, one was concerned with abuse by loafers or tipplers of the privilege of the Sunday traveller. It was suggested that the travellers’ claims were in every sense travellers’ tales. It was therefore proposed that the limit of three miles should be extended to six; as if it were any harder for a liar to say he had walked six miles than three. The politicians might be as ready to promise to walk the six miles to an Irish Republic as the three miles to an Irish Parliament. But Sinn Fein is mistaken in supposing that any change of theoretic claim meets the problem of corruption. Those who would break their word to Redmond would certainly break it to De Valera. We urged all these things on the Nationalists whose national cause we supported; we asked them to follow their larger popular instincts, break down a corrupt oligarchy, and let a real popular parliament in England give a real popular parliament to Ireland. With entirely honourable motives, they adhered to the narrower conception of their national duty. They sacrificed everything for Home Rule; even their own profoundly national emotion of contempt. For the sake of Home Rule, or the solemn promise of Home Rule, they kept such men in power; and for their reward they found that such men were still in power; and Home Rule was gone.

What I mean about the Nationalist Party, and what may be called its prophetic shadow of the Sinn Fein mistake, may well be symbolised in one of the noblest figures of that party or any party. An Irish poet, talking to me about the pointed diction of the Irish peasant, said he had recently rejoiced in the society of a drunken Kerry farmer, whose conversation was a litany of questions about everything in heaven and earth, each ending with a sort of chorus of “Will ye tell me that now?” And at the end of all he said abruptly, “Did ye know Tom Kettle?” and on my friend the poet assenting, the farmer said, as if in triumph, “And why are so many people alive that ought to be dead, and so many people dead that ought to be alive? Will ye tell me that now?” That is not unworthy of an old heroic poem, and therefore not unworthy of the hero and poet of whom it was spoken. “Patroclus died, who was a better man than you.” Thomas Michael Kettle was perhaps the greatest example of that greatness of spirit which was so ill rewarded on both sides of the channel and of the quarrel, which marked Redmond’s brother and so many of Redmond’s followers. He was a wit, a scholar, an orator, a man ambitious in all the arts of peace; and he fell fighting the barbarians because he was too good a European to use the barbarians against England, as England a hundred years before had used the barbarians against Ireland. There is nothing to be said of such things except what the drunken farmer said, unless it be a verse from a familiar ballad on a very remote topic, which happens to express my own most immediate feelings about politics and reconstruction after the decimation of the great war.

“The many men so beautiful
And they all dead did lie
And a thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on, and so did I.”

It is not a reflection that adds any inordinate self-satisfaction to the fact of one’s own survival.

In turning over a collection of Kettle’s extraordinary varied and vigorous writings, which contain some of the most pointed and piercing criticisms of materialism, of modern capitalism and mental and moral anarchism generally, I came on a very interesting criticism of myself and my friends in our Marconi agitation; a suggestion, on a note of genial cynicism, that we were asking for an impossible political purity; a suggestion which, knowing it to be patriotic, I will venture to call pathetic. I will not now return on such disagreements, a man with whom I so universally agree; but it will not be unfair to find here an exact illustration of what I mean by saying that the national leaders, so far from merely failing as wild Irishmen, only failed when they were not instinctive enough, that is, not Irish enough. Kettle was a patriot whose impulse was practical and whose policy was impolitic. Here also the Nationalist underrated the importance of the intervention of his own nationality. Kettle left a fine and even terrible poem, asking if his sacrifices were in vain, and whether he and his people were again being betrayed. I think nobody can deny that he was betrayed; and it was not by the English soldiers with whom he marched to war, but by those very English politicians with whom he sacrificed so much to remain at peace. No man will ever dare to say his death in battle was in vain, not only because in the highest sense it could never be, but because even in the lowest sense it was not. He hated the icy insolence of Prussia; and that ice is broken, and already as weak as water. As Carlyle said of a far lesser thing, that at least will never through unending ages insult the face of the sun any more. The point is here that if any part of his fine work was in vain, it was certainly not the reckless romantic part; it was precisely the plodding parliamentary part. None can say that the weary marching and counter-marching in France was a thing thrown away; not only in the sense which consecrates all footprints along such a via crucis, or highway of the army of martyrs; but also in the perfectly practical sense, that the army was going somewhere, and that it got there. But it might possibly be said that the weary marching and counter-marching at Westminster, in and out of a division lobby, belonged to what the French call the salle des pas perdus. If anything was practical it was the visionary adventure; if anything was unpractical it was the practical compromise. He and his friends were betrayed by the men whose corruptions they had contemptuously condoned, far more than by the men whose bigotries they had indignantly denounced. There darkened about them treason and disappointment, and he that was the happiest died in battle; and one who knew and loved him spoke to me for a million others in saying: “And now we will not give you a dead dog until you keep your word.”

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