The open secret of Ireland



(b) Plain

In those days war was the most lucrative industry open to a young man of breeding, courage, and ability. Owners of capital regarded it as a sound investment. What Professor Oman tells us of the Normans in 1066 was equally true of them in 1169:

“Duke William had undertaken his expedition not as a mere feudal lord of the barons of Normandy but rather as the managing director of a great joint-stock company for the conquest of England, in which not only his own subjects but hundreds of adventurers, poor and rich, from all parts of Western Europe had taken shares.”

The Normans, then, came to Ireland with their eyes on three objects. In the first place, property. This was to be secured in the case of each individual adventurer by the overthrow of some individual Irish chieftain. It necessitated war in the shape of a purely local, and indeed personal grapple. In the second place, plunder. This was to be secured by raids, incursions, and temporary alliances. In the third place, escape from the growing power and exactions of the Crown. This was to be secured geographically by migration to Ireland, and politically by delaying, resolutely if discreetly, the extension in that country of the over-lordship of the King. Herein lies the explanation of the fact that for three and a half centuries the English penetration into Ireland is a mere chaos of private appetites and egotisms. The invaders, as we have said, were specialists in war, and in the unification of states through war. This they had done for England; this they failed to do for Ireland. The one ingredient which, if dropped into the seething cauldron of her life, must have produced the definite crystallisation of a new nationality, complete in structure and function, was not contributed. True, the Cymro-Franks proved themselves strong enough in arms to maintain their foothold; if that physical test is enough to establish their racial superiority then let us salute Mr Jack Johnson as Zarathustra, the superman. But in their one special and characteristic task they failed lamentably. Instead of conquest and consolidation they gave us mere invasion and disturbance. The disastrous role played by them has been unfolded by many interpreters of history, by none with a more vivid accuracy than we find in the pages of M. Paul-Dubois:

“Had Ireland,” he writes, “been left to herself she would, in all human probability, have succeeded, notwithstanding her decadence, in establishing political unity under a military chief. Had the country been brought into peaceful contact with continental civilisation, it must have advanced along the path of modern progress. Even if it had been conquered by a powerful nation, it would at least have participated in the progress of the conquering power. But none of these things happened. England, whose political and social development had been hastened by the Norman Conquest, desired to extend her influence to Ireland. ‘She wished,’ as Froude strangely tells us, ‘to complete the work of civilisation happily begun by the Danes.’ But in actual fact she only succeeded in trammelling the development of Irish society, and maintaining in the country an appalling condition of decadent stagnation, as the result of three centuries and a half of intermittent invasions, never followed by conquest.”

On the other hand the triumph of Irish culture was easy and absolute. Ireland, unvisited by the legions and the law of Rome, had evolved a different vision of the life of men in community, or, in other words, a different idea of the State. Put very briefly the difference lay in this. The Romans and their inheritors organised for purposes of war and order, the Irish for purposes of culture. The one laid the emphasis on police, the other on poets. But for a detailed exposition of the contrast I must send the reader to Mrs Green’s “Irish Nationality.” In a world in which right is little more than a secretion of might, in which, unless a strong man armed keeps house, his enemies enter in, the weakness of the Gaelic idea is obvious. But the Roman pattern too had a characteristic vice which has led logically in our own time to a monstrous and sinister growth of armaments.

To those who recognise in this deification of war the blackest menace of our day the vision of a culture State is not without charm. The shattering possibilities enfolded in it would have fevered Nietzsche and fascinated Renan. But, be that as it may, Ireland played Cleopatra to the Antony of the invaders. Some of them, indeed, the “garrison” pure and simple, had all their interests centred not only in resisting but in calumniating her. But the majority yielded gaily to her music, her poetry, her sociability, that magical quality of hers which the Germans call _Gemütlichkeit_. In a few centuries a new and enduring phrase had designated them as more Irish than the Irish themselves. So far as any superiority of civilisation manifests itself in this first period it is altogether on the side of Ireland. This power of assimilation has never decayed. There never was a nation, not even the United States, that so subdued and re-fashioned those who came to her shores, that so wrought them into her own blood and tissue. The Norman baron is transformed in a few generations into an Irish chieftain, and as often as not into an Irish “rebel.” The Jacobite planter of the first decade of the seventeenth century is in the fifth decade found in arms against Cromwell; the Cromwellian settler is destined in turn to shed his blood for James II. and Catholicity. Protestant colonists who, in the early eighteenth century, enforce and defend the abominable Penal Laws, will in 1782 demand, with drawn swords, that henceforth there shall be no longer a Protestant colony but in its place an Irish nation. The personal history of the captains of the Irish cause in modern times is no less remarkable. O’Connell begins his public career in the Yeomanry called out to put down the insurrectionary movement of Emmet. Isaac Butt comes first into note as the orator of the Orange Party in Dublin. Parnell himself steps out of a Tory milieu and tradition into the central tumult of agitation. Wave after incoming wave of them, her conquerors were conquered. “Once again,” cried Parnell in the last public utterance of his life, “I am come to cast myself into the deep sea of the love of my people.” In that deep sea a hundred diverse currents of blood have met and mingled; they have lost their individual drift to become part of the strong tide of national consciousness and national unity. If Irish history is to be regarded as a test of racial superiority then Ireland emerges with the crown and garlands of victory. We came, we the invaders, to dominate, and we remained to serve. For Ireland has signed us with the oil and chrism of her human sacrament, and even though we should deny the faith with our lips she would hold our hearts to the end.

But let us translate her triumph into more concrete speech. The essential lesson of experience, then, is that no device, plan, or policy adopted by England for the subjugation of Ireland has ever been anything except an abject failure. And the positive of this negative is that every claim that ever formed part of the national programme of Ireland has won its way against all enmities. No plough to which she ever put her hand has been turned back or stayed eternally in mid-furrow. It does not matter what period you call to the witness-box; the testimony is uniform and unvarying. Until Tudor times, as has been noted, there cannot be said to have been in any strict sense an English policy in Ireland; there was only a scuffle of appetites. In so far as there was a policy it consisted of sporadic murder for the one half, and for the other of an attempt to prevent all intercourse that might lead to amalgamation between the two peoples. The Statute of Kilkenny – which is, all things considered, more important than the Kilkenny cats though not so well known in England – made it a capital offence for a settler to marry an Irishwoman or to adopt the Irish language, law, or costume. The Act no doubt provided a good many ruffians with legal and even ecclesiastical fig-leaves with which to cover their ruffianism, and promoted among the garrison such laudable objects as rape and assassination. But as a breakwater between the two races it did not fulfil expectation. The Statute was passed in 1367: and two centuries later Henry VIII. was forced to appoint as his Deputy the famous Garrett Fitzgerald whose life was a militant denial of every clause and letter of it. With the Tudors, after some diplomatic preliminaries, a very clear and business-like policy was developed. Seeing that the only sort of quiet Irishman known to contemporary science was a dead Irishman, English Deputies and Governors were instructed to pacify Ireland by slaughtering or starving the entire population. The record of their conscientious effort to obey these instructions may be studied in any writer of the period, or in any historian, say Mr Froude. For Mr Froude, in his pursuit of the picturesque, was always ready to resort to the most extreme measures; he sometimes even went so far as to tell the truth. The noblest and ablest English minds lent their aids. Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser were both rather circumambulatory on paper; the work of each is ‘a long monotone broken by two or three exquisite immortalities. But they were both as concise in action as an Elizabethan headsman. Sir Walter helped Lord Grey, the recognised pattern in those days of the Christian gentleman, to put to death seven hundred prisoners-of-war at Smerwick. Spenser, being no soldier, leaned rather to famine. In his famous book he recommends the destruction of crops, houses, cattle, and all necessaries of life so that the Irish should “soon be compelled to devour each other.” The Commanders-in-Chief and the Deputies specialised in poison, as became men whose wealth and learning enabled them to keep in touch with the Italian Renaissance. Bluff, straightforward troopers like Mountjoy, Malby, Wilmot, Bagenal, Chichester, and the rest, not pretending to such refinements, did their best in the way of hanging, stabbing, and burning. In those days as well as ours the children had their Charter. “Nits,” said the trustees of civilisation, “will grow to lice.” And so they tossed them on the points of their swords, thus combining work with play, or fed them on the roast corpses of their relatives, and afterwards strangled them with tresses of their mother’s hair.

I do not recall these facts in order to show that Elizabethan policy was a riot of blackguardism. That is obvious, and it is irrelevant. I mention them in order to show that the blackguardism under review was an unrelieved failure. At one time, indeed, it seemed to have succeeded.

“Ireland, brayed as in a mortar, to use Sir John Davies’ phrase,” writes M. Paul-Dubois, “at last submitted. In the last years of the century half the population had perished. Elizabeth reigned over corpses and ashes. Hibernia Pacata – Ireland is ‘pacified.'”

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The blunder discloses itself at a glance. Only half the population had perished; there were still alive, according to the most probable estimate, quite two hundred thousand Irishmen. The next generation helps to illustrate not only the indestructibility of Ireland, but her all but miraculous power of recuperation. So abundant are the resources of his own vitality that, as Dr Moritz Bonn declares, an Irish peasant can live where a continental goat would starve. And not having read Malthus – Mr Malthus at that time being even less readable than since – the Irish remnant proceeded to develop anew into a nation. In forty years it was marching behind that _beau chevalier_ Owen Roe O’Neill to battle and victory. O’Neill, a general famous through Europe, the one man who might have measured equal swords with Cromwell, was removed by poison, and then came the massacres. In eleven years, Sir William Petty assures us, 616,000 out of a total population of 1,466,000 perished by the sword or by starvation. For the remainder the policy of root and branch extermination was abandoned in favour of a policy of State-aided migration and emigration. As an alternative to hell the Irish were deported to Connaught or the Barbadoes. Henceforth there were to be three provinces of loyal English, and one of rebelly Irish. This again was not a radiant success. The transformation of the Cromwellian settler has been indicated; if you were to search for him to-day you would probably find him President of the local branch of the United Irish League. The story repeats itself period after period. The Penal Laws did not protestantise Ireland. The eighteenth century may be said to mark the lowest ebb of national life, but the tide was to turn. After Aughrim and the Boyne, the new device of England was to sacrifice everything to the “garrison.” “Protestant Ireland,” as Grattan put it, “knelt to England on the necks of her countrymen.” In one aspect the garrison were tyrants; in another they were slaves. They were at once oppressors and oppressed. There was a sort of “deal” between them and the English Government by which the public welfare was to be sacrificed to the English Government, the Irish Catholics to the “garrison.” A vile programme, but subtle and adroit, it bore its unnatural fruit of legislation, passed by the Westminster Parliament and the Dublin Garrison Parliament alike, for the destruction of every manufacturing and commercial interest in Ireland that was thought to conflict with a similar interest in England. But another debacle has to be chronicled. Out of the very baseness of this regime a new patriotism was begotten. The garrison, awakening abruptly to the fact that it had no country, determined to invent one; and there was brought to birth that modern Ireland, passionate for freedom, which has occupied the stage ever since. In our own time it has knit, as a fractured limb knits, into one tissue with the tradition of the Gaelic peasantry. Hanging and burning, torture and oppression, poison and Penal Laws, bribes and blackguardism so far from exterminating the Irish people actually hammered them into a nation, one and indestructible, proud of its past and confident of its future.

Take instances still more recent and particular – the struggle for religious freedom or the struggle for the land. Catholic emancipation is a leading case: obstinacy against obstinacy, the No! of England against the Yes! of Ireland, and the former sprawling in the ditch at the end of the tussle. “The Law,” ran the dictum of an eighteenth-century Lord Chancellor, “does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic.” At this moment a Catholic holds the seals and purse of the Chancellorship. Never did ministers swallow their own stubborn words more incontinently than did Peel and Wellington. So late as 1828 Peel was loudly declaring that the continuance of these bars, which excluded the Catholics from the acquisition of political power, was necessary for the maintenance of the Constitution and the safety of the Church, and Wellington was echoing his words. A year later, utterly defeated by O’Connell, Peel was introducing the Catholic Relief Bill in the Commons. Wellington had it for his task to induce, or rather frighten the king to assent. Ireland not only emancipated the Catholics, she went on to emancipate the Dissenters, a service of freedom of conscience which is too often forgotten.

The Tithe System was similarly declared to be part of the fabric of the Constitution, to be upheld at the point of the bayonet. Scythe in hand, the Irish peasant proclaimed that it must go. It went. Still more fundamental was the existence of the Protestant Established Church. To touch it was to lay hands on the Ark. Orange orators threatened civil war; two hundred thousand Ulstermen were to shoulder their Minie Rifles, and not merely slaughter the Catholics but even depose Queen Victoria.

Ireland said that the Establishment too must go; and, with the echoed menace of Fenianism ringing in his ears, Mr Gladstone hauled down the official blazon of Ascendancy. “Ulster” did not fight. But the fierce struggle for the land affords the crucial test. Landlordism of that most savage type which held for its whole gospel that a man may do what he likes with his own was conceived to be the very corner-stone of British rule in Ireland. It controlled Parliament, the judiciary, the schools, the Press, and possessed in the Royal Irish Constabulary an incomparable watch-dog. It had resisted the criticism and attack loosened against it by the scandal of the Great Famine. Then suddenly Ireland took the business in hand. On a certain day in October 1879, some thirty men met in a small hotel in Dublin and, under the inspiration of Michael Davitt, founded the Land League. To the programme then formulated, the expropriation of the landlords at twenty years’ purchase of their rents, England as usual said No! The proposal was thundered against as confiscation, communism, naked and shameful. To any student, with patience sufficient for the task, the contemporary files of such journals as the Times will furnish an exquisite chapter in the literature of obtuseness. England sustained her No! with batons, bullets, plank-beds, Coercion courts, and an occasional halter; Ireland her Yes! with “agitation.” Is it necessary to ask who won? Is it necessary to trace step by step the complete surrender of the last ditchers of those days? The fantastic and wicked dreams of the agitators have in thirty years translated themselves into Statute Law and solid fact. An English statesman of the period, say Mr Balfour or Mr Wyndham, is fortunate if, with a few odd rags pilfered from the Land League wardrobe, he can conceal from history his utter poverty of ideas.

This, then, is the essential wisdom of Irish history: Ireland has won all along the line. The Normans did not normanise her. The Tudors did not exterminate her. She has undone the Confiscations, and drawn a cancelling pen through the Penal Laws. The Act of Union, so far from suppressing her individuality or overwhelming it, has actually brought it to that full self-consciousness which constitutes the coming of age of a nation. Tears, as we read in Wordsworth, to human suffering are due; if there be anyone with tears at command he may shed them, with great fitness, and with no profit at all, over the long martyrdom of Ireland. But let him, at least if he values facts, think twice before he goes on to apply to her that other line which speaks of human hopes defeated and overthrown. No other people in the world has held so staunchly to its inner vision; none other has, with such fiery patience, repelled the hostility of circumstances, and in the end reshaped them after the desire of her heart. Hats off to success, gentlemen! Your modern God may well be troubled at sight of this enigmatic Ireland which at once despises him, and tumbles his faithfullest worshippers in the sand of their own amphitheatre. Yet, so it is. The Confederate General, seeing victory suddenly snatched from his hands, and not for the first time, by Meagher’s Brigade, exclaimed in immortal profanity: “There comes that damned Green Flag again!” I have often commended that phrase to Englishmen as admirably expressive of the historical role and record of Ireland in British Politics. The damned Green Flag flutters again in their eyes, and if they will but listen to the music that marches with it, they will find that the lamenting fifes are dominated wholly by the drums of victory.

Dantonien Journal