Address given to the Irish Literary Society, June 1893.
It is nearly a year since I opened to this Society the design of inducing young Irishmen of the present generation to take up anew a task which famine and political disaster interrupted among their predecessors—the task of teaching the Irish people to understand their own country. The Irish people have never ceased to love their country, they have never shrunk from any labour or sacrifice to serve her, but they do not understand Ireland as the Swiss understand Switzerland; as the Flemings understand the sandbank which their industry has turned into a model farm; or as the Venetians understand the primitive quagmire which Italian genius transformed into one of the wonders of the world.
A year may seem a long time to have employed in preliminary arrangements; but it was not wasted. There were many difficulties to overcome and they have been overcome. We are now in a position to announce that our first volume is printed, and ready to be issued, that the second volume is in the printer’s hands, and successive volumes for more than a year are in preparation. I may mention that the original design of acting through a Limited Liability Company was abandoned in favour of a better plan; a successful and experienced publisher, Mr. Fisher Unwin, takes the responsibility of producing the books, leaving the men of letters to the task for which they are fitter, that of devising and writing them.
The new Irish Library will be offered to all who desire to welcome it, in New York and Melbourne and the continents to which they belong, as well as in Dublin and London; and we hope by an organised system of colportage to carry the books to many districts where there are no regular booksellers at present, or no market for Irish books.
When I say we do not understand Ireland, I do not mean merely that we are imperfectly acquainted with its history, its literature, its art, and its memorable men; but which of us studies Irish statistics till he understands them as he does a current account with a tradesman or a banker? Which of us studies the topography, the political and commercial geography, the botany, the geology, the resources and deficiencies of the country so as to qualify him to handle its interests, in a parish or a parliament, if that task should present itself?
The prosperous wiseacre whom the Germans call a Philistine, and the French an épicier, will tell you that study does not pay. But that respectable citizen may be assured that whatever he values most in his narrow life, whatever adds to its comfort and convenience, whatever simplifies and facilitates his beloved trade (of which steam and electricity are the nerves and sinews) is nothing else than the remote result of some student’s midnight toil. The garments he wears, the furniture of his trim home, not less than the laws which protect his life and the customs which render it easy and pleasant, even the ideas grown commonplace by time which he daily thinks he is thinking, were discovered, invented, or brought from regions more civilised, by men whose toil he undervalues; and if all he owes to study and the intellectual enterprise it begets were snatched away, his home would be almost as naked as the Redman’s wigwam. But if the man of business be moreover a man of meditation and culture, he and his class are among the most indispensable forces of a nation, for it is such men who turn the student’s airy speculation into accomplished fact.
Of all studies that one which a nation can least safely dispense with is a study of its own history. Some one has invented the audacious axiom that history never repeats itself, but it would be truer to affirm that history is always repeating itself; assuredly in our own history identical weaknesses and identical virtues recur from generation to generation, and to know them may teach us where weak places in national and individual character need to be fortified and strong ones developed.
Of politics, if it were only the politics of a parish, what can we know worth knowing unless the lamp of history lights the misty way? And the great problem of all—for what special career do the gifts and deficiencies of our race, their position on the globe, their past and their present career best fit them?—only a familiarity with their annals will enable any one to say.
Another use of historical study is to enable us to vindicate our race from unjust aspersions. This is no sentimental gain, but one eminently practical; Ireland and Irishmen suffer wrong from systematic misrepresentation, which only better knowledge will cure. Which of us has not heard mimics of Macaulay disparaging the Irish Parliament of James II. as a disgrace to civilisation, or Mr. Froude’s gloomy devotees lift their hands in horror at the Rising of 1641? We purpose to face these calumnies. In the first volume of our series, Thomas Davis, reprinting the principal Acts of James’ Parliament, criticises them in careful detail, and finds them for the most part just, moderate, and generous. Whoever takes up the story of 1641, in the same judicial spirit cannot fail to pronounce that though in the end barbarities were committed on both sides of that struggle, according to the evil habit of the age throughout Europe, the original design of the old inhabitants to repossess themselves of lands taken from them by fraud and violence a generation earlier, was a design which the twelve apostles might have sanctioned. I read recently, with a good deal of surprise, a new reproach to Irishmen, derived from the history of the last century. It was not Celts, we are told, but Normans and Saxons, who served the Empire with distinction a century ago in peace and war. Marvellous fact, indeed, that the Catholic Celt did not distinguish himself as a statesman or a general when he was peremptorily shut out by law from the Senate and the Council of War, and that he did not make scientific and practical discoveries when he was deliberately denied education. But history will teach us that wherever there was an open door, as on the Continent and in the New World beyond the Atlantic, and in later times in all the Colonies of the Empire, the Celt has done notable work, and never in a solitary instance been unfaithful to the trust so tardily and so reluctantly confided to him. These mordant critics would exalt the men of English descent by disparaging the men of Celtic breed, but in vain. We regard all Irishmen who love their country, whatever be their creed or pedigree, as equally our countrymen. We rejoice in the splendid record of success in arms, arts, literature, and diplomacy which the Irish minority can exhibit; we acknowledge thankfully that wherever the rank of native patriots became thin or broken, men of the other race leaped into their perilous places; and we cannot look on the noble edifices which adorn the Irish capital, two of them not excelled by the Palace of Legislation or the Palace of Commerce in any capital of Europe, without thankfully remembering how much our country owes to the cultivated genius of the minority. If the races who inhabit these islands are ever to understand and honour each other, it must be on condition of comprehending the past, not hiding it away; and history is the reservoir from which such knowledge is drawn.
I know no civilised country, except Ireland, whose history is not familiar to its people. In England you encounter English history everywhere; in literature, in art, on the stage, and even in the pulpit. In France, not merely endless books, but museums and picture galleries are devoted to the illustration of French history. In the United States the schoolboy is taught the principles of the American constitution as part of the regular curriculum. Even in Australia its brief history of a single century has been made a school-book in State schools; but in Ireland the national history is never named in the schools called national, and that it may be known volunteers must attempt the task which the State has neglected and forbidden.
If the statesman gladly acknowledges that such intellectual discipline makes men better citizens, the moralist rejoices to know that it makes them better men. I can confidently affirm, for I have seen the prodigy wrought, that strenuous self-discipline, with love of country for its inspiration, burns up the grosser sentiments in young men, and teaches them that life has happier as well as nobler pursuits than self-indulgence; teaches them to abjure sensual and slavish vices, and warm their souls with the divine flame of patriotism. An Irish poet has named the teacher “God’s second priest,” and a great ecclesiastic, who was also a wise guide in mundane affairs, the illustrious J. K. L. declared more than half a century ago that religion could not dispense with this potent auxiliary.
“Religion herself,” he said, “loses her beauty and influence when not attended by education; and her power, splendour, and majesty are never so exalted as when cultivated genius and refined taste become her heralds and her handmaids. Many have become fools for Christ, and by their simplicity and piety have exalted the glory of the Cross; but Paul, not John, was the Apostle of the Nations; and doctors, even more than prophets, have been sent to declare the truth before kings and princes, and the nations of the earth.”
One of the worst defects in our course of discipline in and out of school (for a young man gives himself his most effectual education after he has escaped from the hands of the schoolmaster) is that it is rarely practical. We learn little thoroughly, and little of a useful and reproductive character, and we commonly pay the penalty in a lower place in the world. As far as I am able to judge Scotsmen are not gifted by nature with qualities superior to those of Irishmen, but in more than one country I have seen Irishmen performing some of the roughest and most menial offices in gangs directed by Scotch overseers. And why? No intelligent man has any doubt of the cause. For nearly two centuries Scotland has had excellent parish schools, where the children of the industrious population get a practical and religious education at the cost of the State. In Dublin I have seen two of the most national institutions in the country, a great Irish journal and a great Irish publishing house, managed by Scotsmen. Again why? For no intelligible reason except that the Scotch boy is taught mathematics and trained early in business. This defect, like so many of our shortcomings, has an origin which we must search for in history. Till 1833 there were no public schools in Ireland which were not openly designed to proselytise the people, and since there have been neutral schools, the principal condition of their existence has been the exclusion from their teaching of the history and religion of the people. I remember Mr. Bright saying to me during some temporary repulse of the North in the American Civil War: “Be assured the end is not at all doubtful; the States which have had three generations of solid education must win against a mob of arrogant self-indulgent slave-drivers.” I felt bitterly that the converse of the axiom might be applied to our own country. And if we look into the matter the happiness and independence of nations seem everywhere to bear a strict proportion to their moral and intellectual training. Switzerland spends as much money on education as on soldiers and their costly equipment; Denmark half as much, and Belgium about a third, and these are all prosperous and contented little States. But the great empires which clutch territory and ignore men, spend prodigally on their armies and parsimoniously on their people. In Prussia education obtains scarcely a fifth of the amount lavished on preparations for war; in England only one-sixth the amount; in Italy less than a tenth; and in Russia a hundred pounds are squandered on turning peasants into soldiers for every twenty shillings spent on making the peasants fitter to perform their duties in the world. For my part I would rather see our people developed according to their special gifts than see them masters of limitless territory or inexhaustible gold reefs. A Celtic people trained to become all that their nature fits them to be—humane, joyous, and generous, living diligent, tranquil lives in their own land, and sending out from time to time, as of old, men whose gifts and faculties fitted them to become benefactors of mankind—that is the destiny I desire for my country. None of us can be ignorant of the fact that a change has come over the national character in latter times which is not altogether a change for the better. The people are more alert and resolute than of old, and that is well; but they are more gloomy and resentful, and something of the piety and simplicity of old seems to have disappeared. Nature made them blithe, frank, and hospitable; pleasant comrades and trusty friends; but hard laws and hard taskmasters have sometimes perverted their native disposition. To my thinking that patient, long-suffering, bitterly wronged people still preserve fresh and perennial many of the spiritual endowments which are among the greatest possessions of a nation. But, like soldiers returning from a long campaign, who bring back something of the manners and morale of the camp, twenty years of agitation, which however just and necessary was inevitably demoralising, has blunted their moral sensibility. Blessed be those who will warn them that to be just and considerate towards friends and opponents, to refrain from cruelty or wrong under any temptation, and to speak and act and applaud only the rigid truth, are the practices which make nations honoured and happy.
What writers ought to aim at, who hope to benefit the people, is to fill up the blanks which an imperfect education, and the fever of a tempestuous time, have left in their knowledge, so that their lives might become contented and fruitful. Let me take an instance—I have sometimes marvelled that no one has made it his special task to teach the “tenants at will,” who have become proprietors under the Land Purchase Act, what wonders they may accomplish for themselves and the country. To become prosperous and independent by systematic industry is not the greatest of their opportunities; by liberal education and healthy spiritualised lives, spent on the paternal estate, they may make their sons and daughters types of whatever is best in the Celtic character. But they have much to learn and few to teach them. In the United States there is a public department whose business is to furnish settlers on the public lands with the latest information on agricultural science, and with a supply of suitable seeds for new experiments. In the Colonies they are helped also, though less effectually I think. In Ireland scarcely any one has given them so much as good advice or good wishes. I hope some one will write in the new Irish Library a book for this class, describing the petites cultures, and the localised industries of the Continent and the honest outdoor enjoyments which help to make life happy. Why may these men not realise the dream of the poet of what Irish farmers, free from feudal bonds, might become?
“The Happy Land,
Studded with cheerful homesteads fair to see,
With garden grace and household symmetry;
How grand the wide-brow’d peasant’s lordly mien
The matron’s smile serene!
O happy, happy land!”
I have refrained from specifying books which might be written, and books which ought to be republished, because a design is fatally discounted by promising too much at the outset. It is perhaps enough to say that they must be issued at a price which the people can afford to pay, or they will not buy them; and they must interest them, or they will not read them, though they got them for nothing. Although it is an essential basis of the enterprise to publish books useful to the people, that is not enough. If you would drive out the impure and atheistical but sensational literature borrowed from the French, you must replace it by stimulating stories of our own land: and it will not be safe to neglect poetry, for as a recent poet sings—
“Dear to the Gael’s the clash of swords,
And dear the ring of rhyme.”
The editors will not print anything which they do not believe useful and beneficial, but they must not be held responsible for every sentence and sentiment in books originated, or reprinted, under their direction. A too rigid strictness might involve an amount of alteration, which would be fair neither to the author nor the reader, and would be fatal to the generous and liberal freedom in which alone literature thrives. I will only add that if the Irish people second our design cordially, the stream which will now begin to flow shall not soon run dry. But remember that success depends mainly on you and your compeers. What is the use of writing books if they are not read and pondered on, and their lessons taken to heart? Without a sympathetic audience the orator is only a lay figure, without a sympathetic circle of readers the writer is a wasted force. We labour for the young men and young women of Ireland, on whom the future of our race depends; and our hope is that they may respond as cordially as their predecessors did fifty years ago; that they may aim to gain a complete knowledge of their own country, and come forth from the study steeped in Irish memories, proud of Irish traditions, panting with Irish hopes. Every Irishman, anywhere in the world, who wishes well to our design, can help it a little; but there is one class whose good wishes are indispensable. Father Hogan, a professor of Maynooth College, has appealed to his brethren in the ministry, in language which I prefer to any I could employ on the subject:—
“None like the working clergy (he says) can realise the baneful effects that are produced by pernicious books, and how fatal to the innocence of youth, and to the strength of national as well as of personal character, they so often prove. There are none, moreover, who have the same responsibility cast upon them to oppose the current of evil, and to maintain at the same time the noble and traditional generosity of the Church towards literature and men of letters. Our denunciations of dangerous books, and especially of light and licentious reading, would be justly regarded as mere empty sound were we unwilling to lend a helping hand to a movement, the chief object of which is to stir up and encourage amongst the young men of Ireland a wholesome desire for what is good, and a salutary contempt for what is either silly or debased.”
There is another class whose help we cannot spare—Irish journalists in Ireland, England, America, and Australia. They can make our undertaking known to all who read, and can drop the same thought, as de Tocqueville says, into a thousand minds at the same moment. They have helped us hitherto, and they will help us for the future, I make no doubt, as far as we deserve help, and we are entitled to expect no more.
It will be a pleasant task hereafter, I trust, to remember some of the dismal predictions which our enterprise had to encounter at the outset. The black prophets, who believe in no good till it is accomplished, warned us that we labour in vain, that our population is yearly decreasing, and is destined to merge in an imperial race, whose voice may be heard uttering the word of command in the five great divisions of the world, and that the men who remain are broken by quarrels as old as tradition, and never likely to end. I would like to conclude with a word on each of these objections. It is true we are united to a race who dominate huge tracts of the globe, but I have visited four of the five great divisions in question, and I can affirm that the word of command is not unfrequently uttered with an Ulster burr, or an unequivocal Munster brogue. In every great colony it has been spoken from the dais of authority in the accents we love. Nay, more, I met officers in the service of France and Belgium, and some who had served in Austria, indistinguishable from Frenchmen and Germans in their ordinary conversation, who, when they strayed into English, became unmistakably Leinster-men or Munster-men, but none of these Irishmen show the least disposition to merge themselves in any other race. And the millions of our people in America, are they not more Irish than the Irish at home? No, there is no danger that we shall lose our nationality, or weary of labouring for it.
“The toil for Ireland once begun,
We never will give o’er,
Nor own a land on earth but one—
We’re Paddies evermore.”
It is too true that our population is still diminishing; generations must perhaps pass before it regains the maximum it had reached fifty years ago; but let not that disastrous fact discourage us overmuch. It is not by the number, but by the intrinsic value of its men and women that a country becomes powerful and memorable. The true admeasurement, as we may learn from the inspiring story of small nations, is not geometrical but metaphysical. Little Athens gave philosophy, literature, and art to mankind; little Rome imposed her will on all the peoples of the known world; in modern times little Portugal, with a population which sometimes fell short of the population of Munster, undertook great enterprises, made memorable discoveries of new territory, and established in Asia and Africa settlements, which, after troubled centuries, still survive. The little Netherlands, with no more men than Portugal, held its own against the most powerful monarchy in Europe, and planted new Netherlands in distant countries. Florence almost alone created and fostered the Renaissance which after desolate ages
With arts anew, and civilised the world.”
But these are the commonplaces of history, compared to the story of the single city of Italy, which, with one arm, “held the golden East in fee,” and with the other drove back the conquering Turk, bent on the destruction of Christendom. Or, for an example, that not men but mind is the conquering force, turn to the barren mountains of Switzerland, where free institutions were first planted by a handful of husbandmen and hunters, less than occupy one Irish county, and to-day a federated league of two and twenty separate republics enjoy substantial prosperity and ideal liberty, though they muster fewer men than still occupy the two of the Boyne. No; trust me, you have men enough, if they be endowed with the gifts and disciplined by the culture, which make the destiny of nations.
It would be vain to deny that national quarrels are the most intractable of our troubles. The Celt is placable and generous in private transactions, but for public conflicts he has an unsleeping memory. Some of these quarrels are nearly as old as the Flood. The late Martin Haverty, who wrote a meritorious history of Ireland, was once discovered by a friend in a perturbed and angry mood, which he explained by the fact that he had been reading a record of ill-usage his ancestors sustained from the invaders. “The slaughter of the Milesians by Strongbow?” queried his friend. “No,” said the historian, “I speak of the slaughter inflicted by the villanous Milesians on my ancestors the Tuatha De Danaans.” No one can tell with certainty the date of that transaction within a thousand years or so, and it might perhaps be permitted to rest in peace. There is another Irish historian and poet, who represents a race to which we have not yet got altogether reconciled. Our friend, Dr. Sigerson, is as unmitigated a Dane as the great soldier from whom his name is derived. When I was last in Dublin I proposed a final burial of national feuds, ancient and modern, and, as a last victim might be required to consecrate the transaction, I suggested, that we might execute this last Dane on the field of Clontarf, where, by some unaccountable mischance, his ancestor escaped the conquering sword of Bryan. The Doctor offered no objection to so reasonable a proposal, but suggested that the tramway from Nelson’s Pillar to Clontarf should run quarter-hour trains on the day of execution, as he wanted a large audience to tell them what they certainly did not know, that there was a strong Danish contingent in Bryan’s Irish army, and that the Danes, so far from being exterminated at Clontarf, maintained themselves in Ireland for many generations afterwards, and still constitute a solid element in our population. Some clement person suggested that as the sons and daughters of Siger are among the most gifted patriots in the country just now, it might be discreet to forgive them offences nearly ten centuries old, but he was pronounced out of order. I am rejoiced to say a compromise was arrived at in the end, by which, if the learned doctor will undertake to translate some of the most characteristic of the Scandanavian sagas for the new Irish Library, and make us better acquainted generally with the Norse literature, so far as it relates to Ireland, his punishment may be postponed, and perhaps altogether remitted. There is another nation with whom our quarrels are more recent, more bitter, and more prolonged, but it would be genuine wisdom to make peace with them also if they will let us. The memory of wrongs which are perpetuated and renewed cannot be forgotten; but, while no man knows better than I do how just are our complaints and how terrible the memories they evoke, I affirm that the best Irishmen are prepared toto corde to forget and forgive the past, if its policy and practices are never to reappear. The Rules of this Society forbid me to speak of later quarrels, whether international or internecine; but surely no people ever were more emphatically exhorted by the circumstances in which they stand, to close their ranks and end their feuds. Our efforts in this Society will, I trust, contribute to promote that end.
I have spoken only of the revival of literature for the people, for happily there has never been altogether wanting a literature for the studious and thoughtful, maintained by the spontaneous zeal of a few gifted men and women. It slept at times, but only for an interval. O’Conor and Curry, Miss Edgeworth and Lady Morgan, Banim and Griffin, have had successors down to our own day when we are still at times delighted with glowing historic or legendary stories, or charming idylls of the people, bright and natural as a bunch of shamrocks with the dew of Munster fresh upon them. One secluded scholar has spent his manhood collecting our national records with a care and zeal which in any other country would compel the recognition and reward of the State; a group of scholars not connected, I think, except by the camaraderie of a kindred pursuit, have created a great revival in Gaelic literature; and the Irish press has not for a generation devoted so much thought to native literature and art, national customs and manners, as it does just now. There are still local periodicals full of the enthusiasm of old for our national antiquities, and it is pleasant to know that they are often sustained by men who differ from the majority in race, creed, and political opinions. I rarely see without a strong sentiment of affection and sympathy a little sixpenny magazine conducted for twenty years by the zeal of one solitary priest who watches like a father over whatever concerns the Irish intellect. It is good, therefore, to know that we are not sailing against wind and tide. The spirit of the era, the state of men’s minds as well as the manifest need of such an enterprise are favourable to our experiment, and I trust it shall not fail by any indolence or apathy of those who have taken the responsibility of initiating it.
If I were to express in one phrase the aim of this Society, and of kindred societies, and of the literary revival of which I have been speaking, it is to begin another deliberate attempt to make of our Celtic people all they are fit to become—to increase knowledge among them, and lay its foundations deep and sure; to strengthen their convictions and enlarge their horizon; and to tend the flame of national pride, which, with sincerity of purpose and fervour of soul, constitute the motive power of great enterprises. Intellectual experiments have not in our own day been unfruitful of results. Early in this century the philosopher Arago organised a literary propaganda in Paris, before which Louis Philippe in the end vanished like a spectre. Dr. Newman and a few of his friends in Oxford attacked the Puritanism of the English Church with results with which we are all familiar. One or two Westminster reviewers, and two or three Manchester manufacturers, reversed the commercial policy of England in less than a dozen years. Do not be deterred by the manifest difficulties of the task. The task is difficult but noble, for it is better to have the teaching of a people than the governing of them. Nor shall such labour lack its fitting reward, for toil and sacrifice in a generous cause are among the keenest enjoyments given to man.