From Sinn Féin, April 19 and April 26, 1913. The following forms correspondence between Griffith, as editor of Sinn Féin, and Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, a pacifist and Irish nationalist later summarily executed by British forces during the Easter Rising, on a eulogy Griffith wrote for the then-recently deceased Frederick Ryan, an Irish socialist republican where he questioned Ryan’s adherence to nationalism.1
Thus Mr. Sheehy-Skeffington writes:—
‘In your appreciative notice of Fred Ryan you say that he was not a Nationalist. This rather surprises me, as, knowing him intimately for seven or eight years, I have always regarded him as one of the best Nationalists I knew. No doubt the difference between us is largely one of definition. But I should be interested to see how you would frame a definition of Nationalism that would exclude Fred Ryan.’
A Nationalist is one who sets the interest of his nation above democracy and aristocracy, and renders to it alone undivided allegiance. Further, a Nationalist is at one with the spirit and tradition of his country.
Thus Mr. Sheehy-Skeffington:—
‘Your attempt to define ‘a Nationalist’ so as to exclude Fred Ryan is a characteristic example of what he used to reprobate as a ‘metaphysical’ way of looking at concrete questions. ‘A Nationalist is one who sets the interest of his nation above democracy and aristocracy.’ But what is ‘his nation,’ apart from the human individuals who make up that nation? And how is it possible, except in mere word-spinning, to separate the interest of these individuals from the solution of the problems involved in the mention of democracy and aristocracy?’
‘Let me illustrate by three quotations from Fred Ryan’s essays:
‘I claim also to be a lover of Ireland. Though by ‘Ireland’ I do not mean any ‘literary,’ or mystic entity or any ‘nationality’ divorced from the real life of the people. By Ireland I mean the peasants in the fields, the workers in the factories, the teachers in the schools, the professors in the colleges, and all others who labour in Ireland and desire to make this people a great people, an intellectual people, a noble people. But in building up that people we must, I submit, keep our eyes fixed on the permanent standards of right and wrong, of good politics and bad, and less and less on the mere ebb and flow of national impulse. Our desire should be not to copy England or any other nation, still less to aimlessly differentiate ourselves from other nations, but to choose the best from all nations. It is an ignoble thing to be a sycophant; it is a foolish thing to be a factious antagonist. If we possess a good method or a useful custom it is unwise to abandon it merely because another nation which we dislike has it too. When the hurricanes of national and racial antagonism die away we must always come back to equity, to utility, and to righteousness.’
‘And again, with reference, to some such definition as yours:—
‘Much more profitable than such theorising is the problem of how to create in Ireland a people, healthy, educated, cultured in the best sense, with sufficient material comfort, developing their minds and their bodies to the end of maximising life, sensitive to intellectual and moral values, and conducting their national life on lines of justice, and freedom, and good faith… I stand for Irish independence because by it alone can we obtain the machinery to produce this. No alien administration can possibly produce it.’
‘And yet again:—
‘We desire to concentrate on real issues, on real development, development of life, and all that makes life nobler and more humane. But working for that ideal we are Nationalists perforce, because no moral or political progress is possible under political servitude… Those who desire to better the moral, intellectual, and social condition of the Irish people must work for National freedom—not for the sake of a new flag, not for the sake of a poetic phrase, not as a quasi-religious exercise or a literary pose, not for the purpose of ministering to a petty collective vanity or racial pride, but for a clear, definite, and real reason: Only by National freedom shall we attain the machinery for social reform.’
‘Fred Ryan was an advocate of the complete political independence of the Irish people, he desired to see them absolutely free to work out their own destinies without foreign intervention. Why should you seek to deny him the title of Nationalist because his vision of what might and should be done in and by a free Ireland was different from yours?’
We did not deny Mr. Ryan the title of Nationalist because his vision of what a free Ireland ought to do was different from ours, but because he himself implied, like Mr. Skeffington in his present letter, that a nation was nothing more than a collection of human beings, and that the interests of the nation were nothing more than the interests of the said human beings—a body without a soul. Ten castaways on a coral island would have been as much a nation to Mr. Ryan as the Ireland that stretches back to Emain Macha. No doubt Mr. Ryan loved Ireland as a geometrician might love an equilateral triangle, but he loved half-a-dozen other countries in equal fashion. Egypt, Persia, China were as much to him as his own country, and those who held that the business of a man is with his own nation and that no man has a right to give her services to another nation howsoever in need of them while his own is in straits were Obscurantists. When we say we love Ireland we do not mean by Ireland the peasants in the fields, the workers in the factories, the teachers in the schools, the professors in the colleges—we mean the soul into which we were born and which was born into us. If this be a metaphysical way of looking at concrete questions we shall remain in the metaphysical pit along with the unenlightened world that existed before Rousseau and the Manchester school whom poor Ryan so implicitly accepted as the repository of the wisdom of all the ages. As to Mr. Skeffington’s questions, ‘his nation’ is a man’s ancestral title on the earth, which it is his first duty and point of honour to maintain, and as to the ‘solution of problems involved in democracy and aristocracy,’ the business of the nation is not to let any ‘problem’ or its ‘solution,’ interfere with its continued existence as a distinctive and conserving force. The man who declared he wanted National freedom in order to promote social reform did not understand the meaning of the nation.
1 ‘Mr Ryan was one of the members of the Celtic Literary Society, and the only one who was not or did not become a Nationalist, although he was once perilously near being saved… The nation seemed to him a small thing—even an obstructive thing—to the apotheosis of man and the suffering Egyptian had not less claim on him than his own countrymen.’ – Death of Frederick Ryan, SF, April 12, 1913.