The open secret of Ireland



(a) Coloured

Mendacity follows the flag. There never yet was an invader who did not, in obedience to a kindly human instinct, lie abundantly respecting the people whose country he had invaded. The reason is very plain. In all ages men delight to acquire property by expedients other than that of honest labour. In the period of private war the most obvious alternative to working is fighting, or hiring servants to fight; the sword is mightier than the spade. If we add that an expedition into a foreign country offers the additional advantages of escape from your exacting creditors, and your still more exacting king, we have something very like the economics of the Invasion of Anywhere in early feudal times. Had the leaders of these invasions, or rather their clerkly secretaries, written the plain tale of their doings they would have left some such record as this: “There were we, a band of able-bodied, daring, needy men. Our only trade was war; our only capital our suits of armour, our swords and battle-axes. We heard that there was good land and rich booty to be had in Anywhere; we went and fought for it. Our opponents were brave men, too, but badly organised. In some places we won. There we substituted our own law for the queer sort of law under which these people had lived; when they resisted too strongly we had, of course, no option but to kill them. In other places we got mixed up completely by alliances and marriages with the old stock, and lived most agreeably with them. In others again the natives killed us, and remained in possession. Such was the Invasion of Anywhere.”

But (I had almost said unhappily) the invaders were not content with having swords, they had also consciences. They were Christians, and thought it necessary to justify themselves before the High Court of Christian Europe. Consequently the clerks had to write up the record in quite a different fashion. They discovered that their bluff, hard-bitten, rather likeable employers, scarcely one of whom could read or write, had really invaded Anywhere as the trustees of civilisation. Now it may be said in general – and the observation extends to our own time – that the moment an invader discovers that he is the trustee of civilisation he is irretrievably lost to the truth. He is forced by his own pose to become not an unprincipled liar, but that much more disgusting object, a liar on principle. He is bound, in order to legitimise his own position, to prove that “the natives” are savages, living in a morass of nastiness and ignorance. All facts must be adapted to this conclusion. The clerks, having made this startling discovery, went on to supplement it by the further discovery that their masters had invaded Anywhere in order to please the Pope, and introduce true religion. This second role completes the dedication of the invaders on the altar of mendacity. It was Leo XIII. himself who, with that charming humour of his, deprecated the attitude of certain _a priori_ historians who, said he, if they were writing the Gospel story would, in their anxiety to please the Pope, probably suppress the denial of Peter.

These things which might have happened anywhere did, in fact, happen in Ireland. Out of the footprints of the invaders there sprang up a legion of fictionists, professional cooks of history. Beginning with Giraldus Cambrensis they ought to have ended, but, as we shall see, did not end with Froude. The significance of these mercenaries of literature can hardly be exaggerated; it is not too much to say that they found Ireland a nation, and left her a question. It is not at all that they put on record the thing that was not as regards the events of their own period. That might be and has been amended by the labours of impartial scholarship. The real crime of the fabulists lies in this, that their tainted testimony constituted for honest Englishmen the only information about Ireland easily obtainable. The average Englishman (that is to say, the forty millions of him who do not read learned books of any kind) comes to the consideration of contemporary Ireland with a vision distorted almost beyond hope of cure. The treasured lies of seven hundred years are in his heart to-day. For time runs against the cause of truth as well as with it. Once create a Frankenstein of race hatred, and he will gather strength in going. The chronicler’s fable of this century becomes the accredited historical fact of the next. Give it what billiard-players call “legs” enough and it will mature into a tradition, a proverb, a spontaneous instinct. There is a whole department of research concerned with the growth of myths, stage by stage, from a little nebulous blotch into a peopled world of illusion. The strange evolution there set forth finds an exact parallel in the development of English opinion on Ireland. And, indeed, the more you study “the Irish Question,” as it is envisaged by the ruling mind of Great Britain, the more conscious are you of moving in the realm not of reason but of mythology.

All this will seem obvious even to the point of weariness. But it is of interest as furnishing a clue to the English attitude towards Irish history; I should rather say attitudes, for there are two. The first is that of the Man of Feeling. His mode of procedure recalls inevitably an exquisite story which is to be found somewhere in Rousseau. During country walks, Jean Jacques tells us, his father would suddenly say: “My son, we will speak of your dear, dead mother.” And Jean Jacques was expected to reply: “Wait, then, a moment, my dear father. I will first search for my handkerchief, for I perceive that we are going to weep.” In precisely such a mood of deliberate melancholy does the sentimentalist address himself to the Confiscations and the Penal Laws. He is ready to praise without stint any Irish leader who happens to be sufficiently dead. He is ready to confess that all his own British forerunners were abominable blackguards. He admits, not only with candour but even with a certain enthusiastic remorse, that England oppressed Ireland in every phase of their relations. Then comes the conclusion. So terrible have been the sins of his fathers that he feels bound to make restitution. And in order to make restitution, to be kind and helpful and remedial, he must retain the management of Irish affairs in his benevolent hands. In order to expiate the crimes of the past he must repeat the basal blunder that was the cause and source of them. For this kind of sympathy we have only to say, in a somewhat vulgar phrase, that we have no use whatever. The Englishman who “sympathises” with Ireland is lost.

But the more general attitude differs widely from this. Confronting us with a bluff and not unkindly demeanour, worthy of the nation that invented cold baths as a tonic against all spiritual anguish, the practical, modern Englishman speaks out his mind in straight-flung words and few. “You fellows,” he says, “brood too much over the past. After all, this is the twentieth century, not the twelfth. What does it matter whether my ancestors murdered yours or not? Both would be dead now in any event. What does it matter whether yours were the saints and men of letters and mine the savages, or whether the boot was on the other leg? That’s all over and done with. Imitate me. Let bygones be bygones.”

Now this is, in some respects, the authentic voice of health. Undoubtedly the most characteristic thing about the past is that it is not present, and to lavish on it too tragic and intense a devotion is to love death more than life. And yet our bluff Englishman can learn in two words how it comes about that his invitation represents a demand for the impossible. In the first place, the bygones have not gone by. Our complaint is made not against the crimes of his fathers, who are dead, but against the crimes of himself and his fellows, who are alive. We denounce not the repealed Penal Laws but the unrepealed Act of Union. If we recall to the memory of England the systematic baseness of the former, it is in order to remind her that she once thought them right, and now confesses that they were cruelly wrong. We Irish are realists, and we hold the problems of the present as of more account than any agonies or tyrannies of the past. But our realism has the human touch in it, and that constitutes the second impossibility in the invitation tendered us. _Que messieurs les assassins commencent!_ The anti-Irish legend is not dead nor even sleeping, nor are the resources of calumny yet exhausted. An instance is immediately at hand. I have, at this moment, on my desk a volume lately issued – “The School History of England.” It is published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford; Mr Rudyard Kipling contributes twenty-three pieces of verse, and a Mr C. R. L. Fletcher, whose qualifications are not stated, appears to be responsible for the prose. The book has been praised in most of the papers, and it will no doubt go far. This is the picture of the coming to Ireland of the Cymro-Frankish adventurers which its pages will imprint on the minds of the youth of England:

“One event of his reign (Henry II.’s) must not be forgotten, his visit to Ireland in 1171-2. St Patrick, you may have heard, had banished the snakes from that island, but he had not succeeded in banishing the murderers and thieves who were worse than many snakes. In spite of some few settlements of Danish pirates and traders on the eastern coast, Ireland had remained purely Celtic and purely a pasture country. All wealth was reckoned in cows; Rome had never set foot there, so there was a king for every day in the week, and the sole amusement of such persons was to drive off each other’s cows and to kill all who resisted. In Henry II.’s time this had been going on for at least seven hundred years, and during the seven hundred that have followed much the same thing would have been going on, if the English Government had not occasionally interfered.”

The English whom Henry II. left behind him soon became “as wild and barbarous as the Irishmen themselves.”

Oxford, the home of so many other lost causes, apparently aspires to be also the home of the lost cause of mendacity. The forcible-feeble malice of Mr Fletcher calls for no serious discussion; submit it to any continental scholar, to any honest British scholar, and he will ask contemptuously, though perhaps with a little stab of pain, how the name of Oxford comes to be associated with such wicked absurdities. Every other reference to Ireland is marked by the same scientific composure and balanced judgment. And this document, inspired by race hatred, and apparently designed to propagate race hatred, is offered to the youth of these countries as an aid towards the consolidation of the Empire. It is a case not merely of the poisoning of a well, but of the poisoning of a great river at its source. The force of cowardice can no farther go. So long as it goes thus far, so long as the Froudes find Fletchers to echo them, Irishmen will inevitably “brood over the past.” We do not share the cult of ancestor-worship, but we hold the belief that the Irish nation, like any other, is an organism endowed with a life in some sort continuous and repetitive of its origins. To us it does matter something whether our forerunners were turbulent savages, destitute of all culture, or whether they were valiant, immature men labouring through the twilight of their age towards that dawn which does not yet flush our own horizon. But we are far from wishing that dead centuries should be summoned back to wake old bitterness that ought also to be dead. Hand history over to the scholars, if you will; let it be marshalled as a multitudinous and coloured pageant, to incite imaginations and inspire literature. Such is our desire, but when we read the clotted nonsense of persons like Mr Fletcher we can only repeat: _Que messieurs les assassins commencent_!

For the purpose of this inquiry it is inevitable that some brief account should be rendered of the past relations between England and Ireland. The reader need not shrink back in alarm; it is not proposed to lead him by the reluctant nose through the whole maze and morass of Irish history. The past is of value to political realists only in that residue of it which survives, namely, the wisdom which it ought to have taught us. Englishmen are invited to consider the history of Ireland solely from that point of view. They are prayed to purge themselves altogether of pity, indignation, and remorse; these are emotions far too beneficent to waste on things outside the ambit of our own immediate life. If they are wise they will come to Irish history as to a school, and they will learn one lesson that runs through it like the refrain of a ballad. A very simple lesson it is, just this: Ireland cannot be put down. Ireland always has her way in the end. If the opposite view is widely held the explanation lies on the surface. Two causes have co-operated to produce the illusion. Everybody agrees that Great Britain has acted in a most blackguardly fashion towards Ireland; everybody assumes that blackguardism always succeeds in this world, therefore Ireland is a failure. The only flaw in this syllogism is that it is in direct conflict with every known fact. For the rest we have to thank or blame the sentimentalism of Mr Matthew Arnold. His proud but futile Celts who “went down to battle but always fell” have been mistaken for the Irish of actual history. The truth is, of course, that the phrase is in the grand manner of symbolism. When Ecclesiastes laments that the eye is not filled with seeing nor the ear with hearing we do not argue him deaf and blind; we take his words as a proclamation of that famine and fierce appetite of the spirit which has created all the higher religions. Ireland agrees with Ecclesiastes. Perceiving that there is in matter no integral and permanent reality she cannot be content with material victories; her poets are subtle in what a French writer styles the innuendoes by which the soul makes its enormous claims. The formula of her aspiration has been admirably rendered by the late Mrs Nora Chesson:

“He follows after shadows when all your chase is done; He follows after shadows, the King of Ireland’s son.”

Were I to read the poem, of which these lines are the motif, to certain genial Englishmen of my acquaintance they would observe that the gentleman in question was a “queer cove, staying up late at night and catching cold, and that no doubt there was a woman in the case.” But these are considerations a little remote from the daily dust of politics. In the sense in which every life is a failure, and the best life the worst failure, Ireland is a failure. But in every other sense, in all that touches the fathomable business of daylight, she has been a conspicuous success.

A certain type of fanaticism is naive enough to regard the intercourse of England with Ireland as that of a superior with an inferior race. This is the sanction invoked to legitimise every adventure in invasion and colonisation. M. Jules Hormand, who has attempted, in his recent book, “Domination et Colonisation,” to formulate a theory of the whole subject, touches bed-rock when he writes:

“We must then accept as our point of departure the principle that there is a hierarchy of races and of civilisations, and that we belong to the higher race and civilisation…. The essential legitimation of conquest is precisely this conviction of our own superiority…. Nations which do not hold this belief, because incapable of such sincerity towards themselves, should not attempt to conquer others.”

The late Lord Salisbury was grasping at such a justification when he likened the Irish to Hottentots; it would be a justification of a kind if it chanced to be validated by the facts. But it does not. There is so much genuine humour in the comparison that, for my part, I am unable to take offence at it. I look at the lathe painted to look like iron, and I set over against him Parnell. That is enough; the lathe is smashed to fragments amid the colossal laughter of the gods. The truth is that in every shock and conflict of Irish civilisation with English, it is the latter that has given way. The obscuration of this obvious fact is probably to be ascribed to the military successes of the Norman, or rather the Cymro-Frankish invaders. If we were the higher race why did we not put them out? Replying on the same plane of thought we observe that if they were the higher race they would have put us down. But a more detailed assignment of qualities between the two peoples is possible. In general it may be said that the two stood on much the same level of mentality, but that they had specialised on different subjects, the Normans on war and politics, the Irish on culture. Of the many writers who help us to reconstruct the period we ought to signalise one, Mrs A.S. Green, who to a rare scholarship adds something rarer, the genius of common sense. This is not the place in which to recall the whole substance of her “Making of Ireland and its Undoing” and her “Irish Nationality”; but from borrowings thence and elsewhere we can piece together a plain tale of that first chapter of the Irish Question.

Dantonien Journal