From The United Irishman, June 24, 1899.
“What’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business” is an adage that contains a lot of truth – applied to Ireland it is at least as truthful as it is of other countries. Under ordinary conditions it would not matter so very much, but as the conditions which prevail in Ireland are not ordinary, but extraordinary, we cannot afford to indulge in the luxury of indifference, whether other people do so or whether they don’t.
If we pause to think for a few moments on any of the questions that are before the country, as a means towards the material or mental advancement of the people, we will be forced to admit that three-fourths of the interest which is apparently aroused, and of the support which the matter would appear to be receiving, is absolutely artificial and insincere. It is the easiest thing in the world to organise a meeting – a most enthusiastic meeting even – in Ireland. All you require is a fine day – then the people will come out, and when they come out they are always enthusiastic, if the subject have the least tinge of a National complexion. But the enthusiasm is not genuine, unless the subject be one the solution of which would mean an actual material advantage, immediately accruing to some section of the people; and, even then, it is only genuine amongst that particular section. The general mass of the people fail to grasp the fact that whatever contributes to the welfare of any portion of our countrymen is really strengthening the position of the nation as a whole, and that consequently it should be a matter of “everybody’s business” to assist, as far as they can, the cause of any section. Towards National questions which offer no immediate material benefit to any section of the people – however great the ideals on which they are based – the masses, generally speaking, evince no sympathy whatever. Given a fine day, they will, of course, attend a public meeting, give the speakers a hearing and a cheer, and then go home and forget all about it.
This unfortunate indifference to everything but personal concerns – this failure to understand that in a country like Ireland governed with a most absolute selfishness in the interests of another, an active and practical sympathy is needed with the most humble movement that in any way would tend to strengthen our position or in the least degree assist us to continue the unequal struggle in which we are engaged – is most discouraging to anybody who ventures to enter on a National work whose successful conclusion cannot be accurately computed in pounds, shilling and pence. It is the “business” of every Irishman to appreciate the value of every detail in Ireland’s case, and to take a genuine interest in every National effort. Till every individual Irishman understands his “business,” efforts towards National advancement must continue to fail.
In this bit of criticism I do not mean to say that Irishmen are any worse than the remainder of mankind, but only that, in view of our position, they are worse than they ought to be, or even from a purely material standpoint, they are worse than they can afford to be. If Ireland were an independent nation, entirely free from the influence or control of any other country, the necessity of being perpetually on the watch to guard its interests would no longer be a matter of individual concern. The destiny of the country would be under the guiding influence of the executive, and the instinctive ambition pertaining to every free people, which would grow up amongst the masses, would be quite sufficient, without any special active measures, to prevent the acceptance of foreign ideals, and to ensure that “everybody’s business” would be conducted in a light of a purely-Irish thought, and consequently in the interests of the Irish nation. We would be jealous of our country’s welfare and solicitous for its progress as a matter of pure instinct, just as is the American, the German, or the Englishman today.
But not being a free and independent nation, we have not the incentive of a National prestige to be maintained in the same sense that a free and independent nation has it; we have only our national hopes as an incentive, and the difference throws upon us the responsibility of greater efforts and substitution of an instinctive National pride by unremitting individual exertion. We are in the position of a man beginning life as compared with the man who has established and controls a flourishing business – very little effort on the part of the latter is required to keep everything working smoothly, while the former, if he wishes to succeed, must strive late and early, and day by day, and cannot afford to miss an opportunity that will in any way help him forward.
The Irish people have not been acting in this spirit – they have only rather worked in sections for sectional advantages; and they have almost utterly failed to realise the truth that every movement which aims to preserve the National traits of character, or to counteract the influence of outside fashions, customs or ideas, is working to get them to take their place as a Nation in the future – working much more so in that direction than many of the movements which claim support on the grounds that their successful issue means a monetary gain to the people. I have a full and complete sympathy with every effort that is made towards the material welfare of the people; but movements which look further into the future are also deserving of support.
Taking “Everybody’s business is nobody’s business” as a text, a valuable political sermon might be preached on the Irish language question, the necessity of a revival of the interest in Irish literature, the restoration to favour of our National songs and music, the desirability of practising our Irish games, and many other matters – the pursuit of which at present offers no immediate addition to our incomes.
The future of Ireland must be Irish in thought, speech, and tastes, if we ever hope to attain the ideals which we profess to entertain – if the Anglicisation which has already progressed so far be allowed to continue unchecked we shall soon have lost all claim to be regarded as a separate Nationality; and in course of time may even cease to advance that claim ourselves. The facts of our situation as we find them, justify us in actually considering the question of Ireland in the future surrounded by a purely Celtic atmosphere or Ireland in the future as an English province. If we go on as we are going, it is quite possible that eventually we may cease to hold the idea that we are entitled to a separate existence as a nation; and if we cease to hold the idea, we shall never achieve the object. We shall become an English province outside England, debarred from the benefits of English progress. The Englishman holds no sympathy for any but his own people; and practically, only for such of them as live in England. In developing his colonies, matters are so arranged that the heavy end of the profits finds its way to England; and if at any time he seriously sets to work in Ireland we may be perfectly satisfied that he is working with the same idea in his mind. So that, in drifting towards Saxonism, and risking our chances of ultimate freedom, we are making a very foolish move.
If, on the other hand, we remain Irish in every sense, and endeavour to preserve the National traits of character which remain, and to recover those which have gone or are going, then, when fortune favours our desires and places the destiny of the country in our own hands, we shall be in a position to set about building up an Irish nation, under the influence of a purely Irish thought, and in the interests, before everything else, of the Irish people themselves.
Thus, it is clear that it is not only duty, but good policy as well, to guard against the subversion or loss of our native characteristics. The spirit of freedom, in a free country, is sufficient, as a rule, to make every man a patriot by instinct. A practical patriot shows a preference for, and a jealous interest in the language, manners, customs, literature, music, amusement, and industries which pertain to his own people. One would think that in a country which is not free the desire of freedom should prove as strong, if not a stronger stimulus; but to judge by Ireland to think so is really very far from right. Our language, manners, amusements, and everything else have come to be much more English than Irish, and the man who shows a preference for what ought to be the natural tastes of everybody, is considered vulgar by many, and an out-of-date crank by many more. This condition of affairs is not only treacherous to Ireland, but from a purely material point of view, is it “very bad business” also.
The remedy is a matter of individual concern. Let every Irishman form in his own mind an ideal Ireland; Irish in everything it says, Irish in every note it sings, Irish in its social life, Irish in everything it buys; and then, let him act up to his ideal as far as he possibly can. If he does this, the future of the country will be safe, be our period of suspense short or be it long. If he will not do it, the less we think upon the subject the better for our peace of mind.