By LORD ASHBOURNE
[NOTE.–This chapter was written by Lord Ashbourne in French, because he is so strong an Irishman that he objects to write in English. The translation has been made by the Editors.]
To those of us who are interested in the future of our country there is at this very moment presented a really serious problem. The political struggle of the last century has been so intense that many of our people have come to have none but a political solution in view. For them the whole question is one of politics, and they will continue to believe that Ireland will have found salvation the moment we get Home Rule or something like it. Such an attitude seems natural enough when we remember what our people have suffered in the past. Nevertheless, on a little reflection, this error–for error it is, and an enormous one, too–will be quickly dissipated. In the first place, the political struggle of today is only the continuation of a conflict which has lasted seven hundred years, and in point of fact we have a right to be proud that after so many trials there still remains to us anything of our national inheritance. We find ourselves indeed on the battlefield somewhat seriously bruised, but we can console ourselves with the thought that our opponent is in equally doleful case, that he is beginning to suffer from a fatal weariness, and that he is anxious to make peace with us.
In order to place the present political situation in its true light and to take into account its comparatively limited importance, we must not lose sight of the fundamental fact that what Home Rule connotes is rather a tender of peace on the part of Ireland than a gift which England presents us of her own free will. In fact, our neighbor across the Channel has as much interest as ourselves, and perhaps even more, in bringing the struggle to an end. Through us, England has already lost much prestige, and that famous British Constitution, which in times past everyone admired while trying in vain to imitate it, has lost caste considerably. I am not now speaking of the danger which an Ireland discontented, and even hostile, and having nothing to lose, would constitute for England in case of war. It is especially from our neighbor’s point of view that we can cry up Home Rule or any other solution that will bring peace. But let us leave to Great Britain the task of getting out of trouble as best she may. On our side, what shall we say of it?
In our conflict with the English we are not wearied; rather are we hardened for the fray. We have acquired the habit of fighting, and many of us can now scarcely regulate our conduct in a manner suitable to a state of peace with England. Nevertheless, as I have already said, we have not emerged unscathed from this war of the centuries. National sentiment remains with us, no doubt, and our traditions are not wholly lost, especially among the country people of the West. But our commerce is almost ruined and the national language is no longer spoken throughout the greater part of the country. It is true that a continuation of the hitherto existing state of war cannot do us much more harm; that for purposes of mere destruction all the advantages are on our side; and that on the other hand we can begin a reconstruction at home without waiting for a treaty of peace to be signed. But we have some things to do for which a home government would be useful to us, and further, in the absence of such a government, it would be difficult to imagine what means could be employed to turn the people away from their too exclusive absorption in Anglo-Irish politics.
It is, then, from a practical point of view that we wish for peace. But, we may lawfully ask, will not this peace bring with it a special danger, against which we ought to take precautions? As a matter of fact, there is such a danger, and it lies in the fact that the people have been to so great an extent obsessed by the political struggle that they run the risk, once their end is attained, of collapsing and of losing interest in the national question. Let us not forget that that question is to save our language and our civilization; without that, it is all over with our nationality. Let us endeavor to turn our parliament to account in order to work seriously on the reconstruction of our national life, and it is certain that Ireland will find therein her salvation.
We can, therefore, take advantage either of England’s prolonged resistance or of peace. If England decides to continue the contest, she will suffer more from it than we. Her empire, her institutions, her safety, will be more and more impaired, while, as for us, there will result a strong growth in patriotism and in anti-British bitterness. What we have to do, right now, is to take our bearings in such a way that, no matter what happens to England, our own future shall be assured. We can do it if we wish it: the question is, shall we wish it?
Here it may be objected, Cui bono The English language is quite enough for us. We have it now and we speak it, sometimes, even better than the English people themselves. We are proud of using the same language as Sheridan, Burke, and Grattan used. Such an opinion has its modicum of truth, though less now than a hundred years ago. Formerly there was in Ireland, and especially around Dublin, a little colony of Anglo-Irish. The members of this colony spoke a very pure and classic English, and this fact is largely responsible for the place which Ireland at one time held in English literature. But during the last century the remains of this colony have been swamped beneath a flood of half-Anglicized people, of Irishmen from the country districts, who were formerly excluded, and who brought with them such a mixture of expressions and of phonetic tendencies derived from the Gaelic that the language of Grattan, Sheridan, and Burke has well-nigh gone out of existence. The reason of this is that since the date of Catholic emancipation, most careers are open to everybody. The result has been that the newly enfranchised majority has ultimately absorbed the minority, and that the atmosphere of culture, of which we have just spoken, has disappeared. We thus reach an Ireland which, in a sense, has neither culture nor language, a country in which the Gaelic spoken by a people humiliated and deeply demoralized by an anti-Catholic legislation, which was both savage and degrading, tended to coalesce with an English already condemned to death. It is from the moment when the Catholics had finally triumphed over persecution that we must date the beginning of that political struggle with which we are familiar, a struggle which has resulted in absorbing all the energies of a great part of the population. That is why this tremendous problem presents itself to us, at the very time when we should be justified in feeling ourselves elated by triumph because of our victories in parliament. And let not England rejoice too much at our dilemma. If we are doomed to die, she will die with us, for before disappearing we shall prove to be a great destructive force, and out of the ruins of the British power we shall raise such a monument that future generations will know what it costs to murder a nation.
But, if possible, we must live and let live. The elements of reconstruction are always at hand. Anglo-Irish culture is indeed dead, but Gaelic culture is only seriously sick, and on that side there is always room for hope. Sooth to say, its sickness consists above all in the fact that the Irish language is no longer spoken in a great part of the country. But, on the other hand, where it is preserved, that same language is spoken in all its purity. By going there to find it all Ireland will gradually become Gaelic.
But, it will be objected, what a loss of time and energy! If it is a question of languages, why not learn one of the more useful ones? To this we may reply that, while English deforms the mouth and makes it incapable of pronouncing any language which is not spoken from the tip of the lips, Gaelic, on the contrary, so exercises the organs of speech that it renders easy the acquisition and the practice of most European idioms. Let us add, by way of example, that French, which is usually difficult for strangers, is much more within the compass of Irishmen who speak Irish, no less because of certain linguistic customs than from the original relationship between the two languages.
This remark brings us to another objection which is often lodged against our movement. It is urged that Ireland is already isolated enough, and that by making it a Gaelic-speaking nation, we shall make that state of affairs still worse. English, say the objectors, is spoken more or less everywhere, while Gaelic will never be able to claim the position of a quasi-universal language. To this line of reasoning it might be answered, for one thing, that no one can tell how far Gaelic will go, in case our movement is a success, and that many a language formerly “universal” is today as dead as a door-nail. But we must look at the question from another point of view. John Bull’s language is spread everywhere, while he himself retains the most exclusive insularity. He travels to every land and there finds his own language and his own customs. Now it goes without saying that from this very universalization his language is corrupted and becomes vulgarized. The idiom of Shakespeare and Milton gives place gradually to the idiom of the seaports. Furthermore, far from isolating us, Gaelic will tend to put us in touch with the civilization of the West. As a people Anglicised, and badly Anglicised at that, we share, and even exaggerate, the faults which I have just described. It is Anglo-Saxon speech which isolates us, and we wish on this ground to break with it and to hold out our hand to our brothers of the continent.
But, it may be said, what a pity to dig yet another abyss between Ireland and Great Britain, for it is with the latter that our geographical position will always link us for common defense. For, while it is true that history does not show us a single case of an empire which has not sooner or later fallen to pieces, nevertheless, whatever happens, the two islands will be necessarily forced to co-operate for the common good. Well, let us take it that things will so fall out, and let us suppose an Anglicised Ireland called upon to face such a situation. It would be a revolutionary Ireland, a restless Ireland, an Ireland seeking vaguely for revenge on someone, deprived of really national character, and, in a general way, suspecting England of responsibility for the disappearance from our country of everything that constitutes the idea of nationality. And let us remark that we are no longer living in those good old times when entire nations allowed themselves to be absorbed by their conquerors. The art of printing has changed all that. Today a “suppressed” nation is one that will sooner or later have its revenge. Thus let us suppose that we are destined to make political peace with England and to enter of our own accord into a Hiberno-Britannic confederation. From our point of view, what would be the result of that arrangement? The result would be strange. Here again, as in the case of Home Rule, it is rather we who offer advantages to England than she who offers them to us. Only, in this latter case, the result depends on ourselves alone. If we die, it will be because we have wished it. Our language is not dead; on the contrary, although not widely spread, it is in itself much more alive than English, which as a literary language is in full decay. We may congratulate ourselves that our idiom is intact. Our civilization is old, but it has not yet lived its full life. If we wish, the future is ours. And let us truly believe that that is worth while, for the race which has produced epics like those of Ossian and all that magnificent literature which has been preserved for us through the ages, the race that gave to Europe that great impulse of missionary activity which is associated with the names of Columcille, Brendan, Columbanus, and Gall, not to mention men like the famous Scotus Erigena–that race is certainly called upon to play an important part in the modern world. But–let us repeat it–it must have the wish.