From The United Irishman, December 23, 1899.
From the days of Herodotos down to these, our times, when every apologist for a raid or buccaneering war thinks wise to inflict a vast network of ravelled facts on a large-suffering mankind, the conceptions of history have been many and varied. “Happy the nation that has no history,” cries Montesquieu, probably despairful of the future of any people who have endless traditions of the past, to first map out accurately and then live up to them. The philosopher may be right in so far as he discusses the merits or advantages of a National legend enshrined in an overgrown shell of historical annals. But the value of universal history, or history taken as part of the general philosophy of life, stands altogether on another plane. Some there are who think that history is old-fashioned, that it is bound to be musty, obsolete, out of date utterly; and that in these workaday times people should be more practical, and instead of bothering about Julius Caesar’s siege of Alesia, discuss the more knotty problem of the siege of Ladysmith or the present whereabouts (here or hereafter) of Herr Andree. This view is entirely uninformed, and is founded on an utter ignorance as to the office of history. Clio is an impartial goddess, and binds herself neither by the distinctions of nations nor the lapse of ages; her lessons are applicable to all time, her teachings affect every incident in the world’s career. Therefore, a mere string of annals, a diary of the centuries, do not make history in the true sense; they form the skeleton around which our philosophy must clothe the living essence that will give it speaking power. What events and occurrences happened in the time of Caesar happen today; the facts are different, but the logical sequence will be the same. The fall of Poland and the fall of Ireland are due much to the same cause, and it behoves the true student of history to analyse and sift to the primal cause of all.
The history of our own country is roughly divisible into three epochs, more or less vague and rude – First, the golden age prior to the Norman invasion; second, the struggle by force of arms for the mastery, lasting from the 12th century to the Peace of Limerick, when the Irish nation reached its lowest ebb; third, the subsequent resurrection of Ireland, with the assimilation of some Anglo-Norman blood of the Pale, a resurrection not yet consummated, but showing in our days a sign of approaching life and glorious liberty once more. An examination into the annals of the first epoch shews the deficiencies of the Irish system of government under the Gaelic regime, which permitted the country to be more liable to the solid, persevering, definite policy of the Normans. While every petty chieftain had his own ideas as to what his neighbour should or should not do, and while he would persist in expounding these ideas to the detriment of his neighbours’ peace and toleration by force of arms, the Normans were welded in a feudal system which, whatever its other social defects, at least enabled them to build up a politico-military machine of State before which the Irish monarchy crumbled and tottered. To give one instance, see how at the frown of Henry II., the great Strongbow, the titular King of Leinster, abased himself and was as but the merest unit before the unseen, but not unfelt, power of the King of England. In the second epoch the racial struggle has been, except in one or two notable instances, directless or wanting in definitive objective. Of all Irish leaders who are entitled to rank as statesmen Hugh O’Neill stands out as perhaps the only man who conceived the reality of an Irish Nation. Patrick Sarsfield, after the fall of Kinsale in the Jacobite wars, had an opportunity of asserting the dominant rights of the nation by repudiating the halting, English-interest Government of the Duke of Berwick. He would have had the unanimous support of the Irish army and the principal men of the Council designed by Tyrconnell were in his favour. He could have scotched incipient treason and saved Limerick. But he parleyed and made a pact with what was then known as the New Interest, which we call the West Briton party. Says the Chronicle: –
“Sarsfield was sent for and a final resolution taken to set up another form of government, excluding Berwick and all Tyrconnell’s creatures. Happy Ireland, if that resolution was executed!”
Agents were sent to St. Malo, in France, to negotiate direct with the French King, but the New Interest men triumphed, and Sarsfield did not press boldly for what Hugh O’Neill would have grasped – the repudiation of all English dominion, Jacobite as well as Williamite. In the third epoch of our history, in which we now find ourselves, we see a gradual progression of the idea of a nation from Molyneux’s assertion of an independent kingdom of the Pale, through Swift’s regret of the decadence of the native Irish element, through Grattan’s declaration specifically applying to a mere Parliament of the English interest in Ireland, but applicable in a wider sense to the rights of this nation to self-rule, through Wolfe Tone’s conception of a sovereign, free Irish State, through the entangled political sophistry of the present century down to today, when a clearer insight into the moral of our history guides us back to the nation of Tone, of the Old Interest men of the Jacobite days, of Hugh O’Neill, of all those who tolerated no idea of master from outside the four seas of Ireland.
The true use of history, then, is to recognise beneath all the vandal plaster of modern word-spatterers the unity and continuity of our ideal – how our public men in the past strove for it; how far they approached it. We will note their mistakes and try to avoid their recurrence. One Treaty of Limerick ought to be enough in the lifetime of the Irish nation.