The open secret of Ireland



Ireland, then, has made it her foible to be not only right but irresistible in her past demands. What is it that she now claims, and on what grounds? She claims the right to enter into possession of her own soul. She claims the toga virilis, and all the strengthening burdens of freedom. Now it is difficult to represent such a demand in terms of argument. Liberty is no mere conclusion of linked logic long-drawn out: it is an axiom, a flaming avatar. The arguments by which it is defended are important, but they bear to it much the same relation that a table of the wave-lengths of various rays of light bears to the immediate glory of a sunrise. There is another obstacle. Self-government, like other spiritual realities, say love or civilisation, is too vast, obvious, and natural to be easily imprisoned in words. You are certainly in love; suppose you were suddenly asked “to state the case” for love? You are probably civilised; suppose you were suddenly asked “to state the case for civilisation”? So it is with the Home Rule idea. To ask what is the gate of entrance to it is like asking what was the gate of entrance to hundred-gated Thebes. My friend, Mr Barry O’Brien, in lecturing on Ireland, used to begin by recounting a very agreeable and appropriate story. A prisoner on trial was asked whether he would accept for his case the jury which had tried the last. He objected very vehemently. “Well, but,” said the Judge, “what is the nature of your objection? Do you object to the panel or to the array?” “Ah!” replied the traverser, “if you want to know, I object to the whole damned business.” That is approximately our objection to the present system of government in Ireland. But let me attempt to group under a series of somewhat arbitrary headings the “case for Home Rule,” that is to say, the case for applying to Ireland the plain platitudes of constitutional freedom.

The whole matter roots in the fact of nationality. Nationality is to political life what personality is to mental life, the mainspring, namely, of the mechanism. The two principles of organisation have this in common, that although by, through, and for them the entire pageant of our experience is unfolded, we are unable to capture either of them in a precise formula. That I am a person I know; but what is a person? That Ireland is a nation I know; but what is a nation? “A community of memories and hopes,” says Anatole France; but that applies to a football club. Something for which a man will die, says Mr T. M. Healy: but men will die for strange reasons; there was a French poet who shot himself because the trees were always green in the spring and never, for a change, blue or red. A cultural unit, say the anthropologists; an idea of the divine mind, declare Mazzini and the mystics’ of sociology. Each of these formulas possesses a certain relative truth, but all of them together come short of the whole truth. Nationality, which acts better perhaps than it argues, is one of the great forces of nature and of human nature that have got to be accepted. Nationality will out, and where it exists it will, in spite of all resistance, strain fiercely to express itself in some sort of autonomous government.

German romance depicts for us the misery and restlessness of a man who had lost his shadow. Catholic theologians – if the masters of a wisdom too high and too austere for these days may be invoked – tell us that the departed soul, even though it be in Paradise, hungers with a great desire for the Resurrection that it may be restored to its life-long comrade, the body.

“The crimson-throbbing glow
Into its old abode aye pants to go.”

Look again at Ireland and you will discern, under all conflicts, that unity of memory, of will, of material interest, of temperamental atmosphere which knits men into a nation. You will notice the presence of these characteristics, but it is an absence, a void that will most impress you. You will see not a body that has lost its shadow, but something more sinister – a soul that has been sundered from its natural body. She demands restoration. She sues out a _habeas corpus_ of a kind not elsewhere to be paralleled. That is the “Irish Question.”

You may not like this interpretation of things. It may seem to you fantastic, nasty, perilous to all comfort. Life often does make on the tender-hearted an impression of coarse violence; life, nevertheless, always has its way. What other interpretation is possible? Lancashire, to take any random contrast, is much richer than Ireland in wealth and population; but Lancashire is not a “Question.” Lancashire is not a “Question” because Lancashire is not a nation. Ireland is a “Question” because Ireland is a nation. Her fundamental claim is a claim for the constitutional recognition of nationality.

We have seen that in almost every conflict between English and Irish ideas the latter have had the justification of success. This holds good also as regards our long insistence on nationality as a principle of political organisation. In various passages of the nineteenth century it seemed to be gravely compromised. Capital, its mobility indefinitely increased by the improved technique of exchange, became essentially a citizen of the world. The earth was all about it where to choose; its masters, falsely identifying patriotism with the Protectionism then dominant, struck at both, and the Free Trade movement philosophised itself into cosmopolitanism. Labour, like capital, showed a rapid tendency to become international or rather supernational. “The workers,” proclaimed Marx, “have no fatherland.” While this was the drift of ideas in the economic sphere, that in the political was no more favourable. Belgium seemed on the point of extinction, Italy was a mere geographical expression, Hungary was abject and broken. In the narrower but even more significant sphere of British colonial policy the passion for centralisation had not yet been understood in all its folly. Downing Street still functioned as the Dublin Castle of the Empire. The possibility of the overseas possessions developing that rich, strong individuality which characterises them to-day would have been dismissed with horror. The colour and texture of men’s thought on these subjects has undergone a notable transformation. Cosmopolitanism of the old type is a slain hallucination. Capital in our time is not content to be a patriot, it is a Jingo. As to labour, if we turn to its politics we find Herr Bebel declaring that the German socialist is first of all a German, and Mr Ramsay MacDonald pledging his adherents to support any war necessary for the assertion of English prestige. If we turn to its theoretical sociology we find the national idea rehabilitated and triumphant.

Such intellectual reconstructions do not, as a rule, begin in England, or find in English their characteristic formulæ. Mr Blatchford might indeed be cited, but it is in the brilliant literature of German Social Democracy that the most scientific expression of the new spirit is to be sought. Truly Marx has been indeed translated. His abstract and etiolated internationalism has been replaced by the warm humanity of writers like, say, David or Pernerstorfer. The principle of nationality is Vindicated by the latter in a noble passage. I quote it from Sombart’s “Socialism and the Social Movement.”

“Nationality in its highest form is … a precious possession. It is the highest expression of human civilisation in an individual form, and mankind is the richer for its appearance. Our purpose is not only to see to it that men shall be housed and fed and clothed in a manner worthy of human beings, but also that they may become humanised by participation in the culture of centuries, that they may themselves possess culture and produce it. All culture is national. It takes its rise in some special people, and reaches its highest form in national character…. Socialism and the national idea are thus not opposed to each other. Every attempt to weaken the national idea is an attempt to lessen the precious possessions of mankind…. Socialism wants to organise, and not disintegrate, humanity. But in the organisms of mankind, not individuals, but nations are the tissues, and if the whole organism is to remain healthy it is necessary for the tissues to be healthy…. The peoples, despite the changes they undergo, are everlasting, and they add to their own greatness by helping the world upward. And so we are at one and the same time good Socialists and good Germans.”

This might almost seem to be a rhapsody, but every movement of continental politics in recent times confirms and enforces its plain truth. “The spirit of resurgent nationality,” as Professor Bury of Cambridge tells us, “has governed, as one of the most puissant forces, the political course of the last century and is still unexhausted.” It has governed not only the West but the East; the twain have met in that demand for a constitutional national State which in our day has flamed up, a fire not to be put out, in Turkey, Persia, Egypt. But it is in Imperial politics that the bouleversement has been most complete. When critics now find fault with the structure of the Empire they complain not that there is too much Downing Street in it, but that the residual power of Downing Street-is not visible to the naked eye. To us Irish the blindness of England to the meaning of her own colonial work is a maddening miracle. A wit of the time met Goldsmith at dinner. The novelist was a little more disconcerting than usual, a result, let us charitably hope, of the excellence of the claret. Afterwards they asked his fellow-diner what he thought of the author. “Well,” he replied, “I believe that that man wrote ‘The Vicar of Wakefield,’ and, let me tell you, it takes a lot of believing.” Similarly when we in Ireland learn that Great Britain has founded on the principle of local autonomy an Empire on which the sun never sets, we nerve ourselves to an Act of Faith. It is not inappropriate to observe that a large part of the “founding” was done by Irishmen.

But the point of immediate interest lies in this. The foolishness of England in Ireland finds an exact parallel, although on a smaller scale and for a shorter period, in the early foolishness of England in her own colonies. In both cases there is an attempt to suppress individuality and initiative, to exploit, to bully, to Downing Street-ify. It was a policy of Unionism, the sort of Unionism that linked the destiny of the lady to that of the tiger. The fruits of it were a little bitter in the eating. The colonies in which under the Home Rule regime “loyalty” has blossomed like the rose, were in those days most distressingly disloyal.

Cattle-driving and all manner of iniquities of that order in Canada; the boycott adopted not as a class, but as a national, weapon in Cape Colony; the Eureka stockade in Australia; Christian De Wet and the crack of Mausers in the Transvaal – such were the propædeutics to the establishment of freedom and the dawn of loyalty in the overseas possessions. But in this field of government the gods gave England not only a great pioneer, Lord Durham, but also the grace to listen to him. His Canadian policy set a headline which has been faithfully and fruitfully copied. Its success was irresistible. Let the “Cambridge Modern History” tell the tale of before and after Home Rule in the Dominion:

“Provincial jealousies have dwindled to vanishing point; racial antipathies no longer imperil the prosperity of the Dominion; religious animosities have lost their mischievous power in a new atmosphere of common justice and toleration. Canada, as the direct outcome of Confederation, has grown strong, prosperous, energetic. The unhappy divisions which prevailed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and which darkened with actual revolt and bloodshed the dawn of the Victorian era, are now only a memory. The links which bind the Dominion to Great Britain may on paper seem slight, but they are resistless. Imperial Federation has still great tasks to accomplish within our widely scattered Imperial domains, but its success in Canada may be accepted as the pledge of its triumph elsewhere. Canada is a nation within the Empire, and in Kipling’s phrase is ‘daughter in her mother’s house and mistress in her own.'”

This is the authentic harvest of freedom.

The “unity” of the old regime which, in a Bismarckian phrase, was like paper pasted over ever-widening cracks, was abandoned. The Separatist programme triumphed. And the outcome? The sham unity of government has been replaced by a real unity of interest, affection and cultural affinity. We find administrators like Mr Lyttleton, former Tory Secretary for the Colonies, engaged to-day not in suppressing but in celebrating the “varied individuality” of the overseas possessions. As for the political effects of the change, every English writer repeats of the Colonies what Grattan, in other circumstances, said of the Irish: Loyalty is their foible. There is indeed one notable flaw in the colonial parallel. I have spoken as if the claim of the Colonies on foot of the principle of nationality was comparable to that of Ireland. That of course was not the case. They were at most nations in the making; she was a nation made. Home Rule helped on their growth; in its benign warmth Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa have developed not only a political complexion characteristic of each but a literature, an art and even a slang equally characteristic. Ireland, on the other hand, has manifested throughout her whole history an amazing faculty of assimilating and nationalising everything that came to her from without.

The will to preserve her nationality motived her whole life, especially in the modern period. The declared dream of Grattan was, as we have seen, to transform a Protestant colony into an Irish nation. Wolfe Tone confessed the same inspiration; Emmet’s speech from the dock was that and nothing else. It was the whole of Davis in thought, and of O’Connell in action. Isaac Butt yielded to its fascination, and found for it the watchword, Home Rule. It was formulated by Parnell in a speech the capital passage of which forms the inscription on his monument. It echoes and re-echoes through the resolutions of every meeting, and constitutes for many orators their total stock of political ideas. It provides the title of the Irish delegation to Parliament, and is endorsed at General Election after General Election by a great and unchanging majority. A people such as this is not to be exterminated. An ideal such as this is not to be destroyed. Recognise the one, sever the ligatures that check the free flow of blood through the veins of the other, and enrich your federation of autonomous peoples with another rich individuality. Imitate in Ireland your own wisdom in dealing with the Colonies, and the same policy will bear the same harvest. For justice given the Colonies gave you friendship, as for injustice stubbornly upheld they had given you hatred. The analogy with Ireland is complete so far as the cards have been played. The same human elements are there, the same pride, the same anger, the same willingness to forget anger. Why should the augury fail?

I can hear in imagination the sniff of the unimaginative reader; I can figure to myself his instant dismissal of all these considerations as “sentiment.” Let the word stand, coloured though it is with associations that degrade it. But is “sentiment” to be ignored in the fixing of constitutions? Ruskin asks a pertinent question. What is it after all but “sentiment,” he inquires, that prevents a man from killing his grandmother in time of hunger? Sentiment is the most respectable thing in human psychology. No one believes in it more thoroughly than your reactionary Tory. But he wears his heart on his sleeve with a difference. He is so greedily patriotic that he would keep all the patriotism in the world to himself. That he should love his country is natural and noble, a theme so high as to be worthy of Mr Kipling or even Mr Alfred Austin himself. That we should love ours is a sort of middle term between treason and insanity. It is as if a lover were to insist that no poems should be written to any woman except _his_ mistress. It is as if he were to put the Coercion Act in force against anyone found shedding tears over the sufferings of any mother except _his_ mother. In fact it is the sort of domineering thick-headedness that never fails to produce disloyalty.

The national idea, then, is the foundation of the “case for Home Rule.” It might indeed be styled the whole case, but this anthem of nationality may be transposed into many keys. Translated into terms of ethics it becomes that noble epigram of Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman’s for which I would exchange a whole library of Gladstonian eloquence: “Good government is no substitute for self-government.” In Ireland we have enjoyed neither. Political subjection has mildewed our destiny, leaf and stem. But were it not so, had we increased in wealth like Egypt, in population like Poland, the vital argument for autonomy would be neither weaker nor stronger. Rich or poor, a man must be master of his own fate. Poor or rich, a nation must be captain of her own soul. In the suburban road in which you live there are probably at least a hundred other house-holds. Now if you were all, each suppressing his individuality, to club together you could build in place of the brick-boxes in which you live a magnificent phalanstery. There you could have more air for your lungs and more art for your soul, a spacious and a gracious life, cheaper washing, cheaper food, and a royal kitchen. But you will not do it. Why? Because it profiteth a man nothing to gain the services of a Paris maître d’hôtel and to lose his own soul. In an attic fourteen feet by seven, which he can call his own, a man has room to breathe; in a Renaissance palace, controlled by a committee on which he is in a permanent minority of one, he has no room to breathe. Home Rulers are fond of phrasing their programme as a demand on the part of Ireland that she shall control the management of her domestic affairs. The language fits the facts like a glove. The difference between Unionism and Home Rule is the difference between being compelled to live in an ostentatious and lonely hotel and being permitted to live in a simple, friendly house of one’s own.

Translated into terms of administration the gospel of autonomy becomes the doctrine of “the man on the spot.” That is the Eleven Rule of Imperial Policy, and although it has sometimes been ridden to death, in fact to murder, as in the Denshawai hangings, it is a sound rule. A man who has gone to the trouble of being born, bred, and ordinarily domiciled in, say, Kamskatcka is more likely to understand the affairs of Kamskatcka than a man whose life oscillates daily like a pendulum between Clapham and the Strand. The old natural philosophers accepted the theory of actio distans, that is to say they assumed that a body could act effectively where it was not. This was Unionism in science, and needless to say it was wrong. In politics it is equally wrong, and it has been repudiated everywhere except in Ireland. Physical vision is limited in range; as the distance increases the vision declines in clearness, becomes subject to illusion, finally ceases. Now you in London, through mere limitations of human faculty, cannot see us in Dublin. You are trying to govern Ireland in the fashion in which, according to Wordsworth, all bad literature has been written, that is to say, without your eye on the object. But it is time to have done with this stern, long chase of the obvious.

Translated into terms of economics the gospel of autonomy becomes the doctrine of a “stake in the country.” England has, indeed, a stake in Ireland. She has the same interest in seeing Ireland prosperous that a bootmaker has in learning from his farmer client that the crops are good. Each country is in great measure the economic complement of the other. But if the bootmaker were to insist on having his finger in the farmer’s pie, the pie, destined for the bootmaker’s own appetite, would not be improved. If he were to insist on applying to the living cow those processes which he applies with such success to the dead leather, the cow would suffer and ultimately there would be no boots. Generally speaking, each of us improves his own business by declining to mind anybody else’s. Home Rule will give England precisely this chance of sticking to her last. To Ireland it will come with both hands full of new opportunities and new responsibilities.

To realise that the national idea in Ireland arouses an emotion, at once massive, intense, and enduring, is to understand many derivative riddles. We are all familiar with the complaint that there is in Ireland too much politics and too little business. Of course there is, and not only too little business but too little literature, too little philosophy, too little social effort, too little fun. We Nationalists have grasped this better and proclaimed it more steadily than any Unionist. There is as much truth in saying that life begins where politics end, as in saying that love begins where love-making ends. Constitutional freedom is not the fifth act of the social drama in modern times, it is rather the prologue, or, better still, the theatre in which other ideas that move men find an arena for their conflict. Ireland, a little exhausted by her intense efforts of the last thirty years, does assuredly need a rest-cure from agitation. But this healing peace is itself a gift of autonomy. A tooth-ache concentrates the whole mind on one particular emotion, which is a bad thing, and breeds profanity, which is worse. But it is idle to tell a man with a tooth-ache that what he needs in his life is less cursing and more business. He cannot work effectively so long as he suffers; the only way to peace is to cure the tooth-ache. And in order to get rid of politics in Ireland, you must give Ireland Home Rule.

Dantonien Journal