Delivered to the Irish Literary Society, July 1892
Speaking to a Society of young Irishmen who love their country and burn to serve her, I am tempted to broach a subject which has long lain in my mind, waiting for the fit audience.
The famine of 1846 paralysed many forces in Ireland, and none more disastrously than our growing literature. How little has been done in the region of mind since that calamity, and by what isolated and spasmodic efforts? The era on which the famine fell was intellectually a singularly fruitful one. A group of young men, among the most generous and disinterested in our annals, were busy digging up the buried relics of our history, to enlighten the present by a knowledge of the past, setting up on their pedestals anew the overthrown statues of Irish worthies, assailing wrongs which under long impunity had become unquestioned and even venerable, and warming as with strong wine the heart of the people, by songs of valour and hope; and happily not standing isolated in their pious work, but encouraged and sustained by just such an army of students and sympathisers as I see here to-day. The famine swept away their labours; and their passionate attempts to arrest and redress the destruction which the famine inflicted, delivered them over to imprisonment and penal exile. Their incomplete work, produced amid the tumult and conflict of a great political struggle, has been a treasure to two generations of Irishmen; and it supplied the impulse of work which rivalled their own. The publisher of Petrie’s “Round Towers,” and John O’Donovan’s translation of “The Four Masters,” assured me that he could not have ventured to issue books so costly, but for the enthusiasm kindled in the public mind by the young nationalists, and Butt and Lefanu, who at that time were strict Conservatives, confessed that while writing “The Gap of Barnesmore” and “The Cock and Anchor,” they constantly thought how welcome such works would be to Young Irelanders. The patriot’s library has not been burthensome in latter times. But Moore’s melodies, Griffin’s and Banim’s novels, the histories of MacGeoghegan and Curry, and the writings of these young men have been a constant cordial to the sorely-tried spirit of our people. Since their day, individual writers have done useful work from the unquenchable desire God has planted in men’s heart to serve their own race, but there has been no organised attempt to raise the mind of the country to higher and more generous ideals of life and duty, or to quicken its interest in things which it behoves us to know. No nation can with impunity neglect the mind of the growing generation, the generation which after a little time will guide its counsels and guard its interests. The thought which has long haunted my reveries, and which I desire to speak out to-day, is this—that the young men of your generation might and should take up anew the unfinished work of their predecessors, and carry it another stage towards the end which they aimed to reach. Why should they not? Every generation of men furnishes its own tale of thinkers and workers. The mind of Ireland has not grown barren, nor can I believe that it has grown indifferent, though public cares have diverted it away from intellectual pursuits. There are men, I do not doubt, fit and worthy and willing to undertake such a task.
Have you reflected on all we have lost, and are losing by the subsidence of the intellectual enthusiasm of half a century ago? It is not alone that we are deficient in knowledge essential to equip us for the battle of life by an acquaintance with the character, capacities, and history of our own country; but, far worse than that, the mind of the generation destined some day to fill our place, the youthful mind which used to be kindled and purified by the poetry and legends of Ireland, runs serious risks of becoming debased, perhaps depraved, by battening on literary garbage.
I have made inquiries, and I am assured that the books chiefly read by the young in Ireland are detective or other sensational stories from England and America, and vile translations from the French of vile originals. It is for the moralist, and indeed for all of us who love Ireland, to consider whether the virtues for which our people were distinguished, purity, piety, and simplicity, are not endangered by such intellectual diet. I have been vehemently warned that these detestable books can only be driven out by books more attractive, and I will not dispute the proposition. There are histories and biographies that delight the student, there is a poetry that is an inspiration and a solace to healthy minds, which it would be useless, I admit, to offer to young men accustomed to the dram-drinking of sensational literature. To them, at any rate, you must bring books which will excite and gratify the love of the wonderful, and carry them away from the commonplace world to regions of romance. And why may not this be done? Why may there not be opened to them a nobler world of wonder, the story of transcendent achievements, the romance of history, the “fairy tales of science”? In the dominion of intellectual wonders there are many fair fields, and only one corner which is a stagnant fen. To the student, using that word in the wide sense which covers all who study, you must bring solider and more attractive offerings than the things you ask him to reject, and, again I ask, why should you not?
It may be demanded: where are the writers to supply these captivating books? Let me ask, Where, in 1840, were the writers who were exciting universal enthusiasm in 1843? Like them, the men of the future are consciously or unconsciously preparing for their task; they are waiting the occasion—occasion which is the stage where alone great achievements are performed. I could name, if it were needful, a few writers not unworthy to succeed the men of ’43, but their work will speak for them. I prefer to say that if there were not one man of genius left of the Irish race, there are already materials sufficient to furnish useful and delightful books for half-a-dozen years.
With a memory running back over six decades of reading, I confidently affirm that there are scattered in magazines and annuals, in luckless books neglected in the hurry of our political march, in publications the very names of which are forgotten by the present generation, Irish stories of surpassing interest, fit to win and fascinate young Irish readers, which would not degrade or debase them, but make them better men and better Irishmen. And in the other domains of intellect, Irish writers living in or belonging to a country where unhappily there was no market for books, carried their work to periodicals where it has lain interred for generations. How many rare and interesting books there are of which we have lost all trace and memory! I put lately into the hands of a friend of large intellectual appetite half-a-dozen little volumes of which he had never heard. “This,” I said, pointing to the first, “was written by a Presbyterian minister, who describes with infinite humour the relations between the squire and the peasant a hundred years ago, and it is almost as true to-day as it was then. The writer was hanged as a rebel in ’98 by the very squire whom he had depicted, but his little book is read with enthusiasm to this day by northern farmers who call themselves Orangemen and Unionists. This second volume, I said, is the first poem written by Bulwer Lytton, and the hero is an O’Neill who rallied his nation against England. Here’s a brochure on the Land Question, published in America fifty years ago by a poor exiled Irishman, which anticipates the alarming proclamation of first principles by Fintan Lalor and Henry George, and it is as unknown in Ireland as the lost books of Livy.” I do not suggest that you should publish these books or any of them, but surely they are finger-posts pointing to an unexplored territory. While I am speaking of the resources for a popular library, which we have in hand, I may say that one-third of the writings of Thomas Davis or Clarence Mangan has not been collected in volumes. Davis’s most remarkable achievement as an historian, “The Patriot Parliament” he calls it—not the Parliament of Grattan, but the Parliament of Tyrconnell, was prepared for publication by his own hand, and it has remained without a publisher for two generations. Nothing of the miscellaneous writings of John Blake Dillon, John O’Hagan, Thomas Meagher, or Charles Kickham, have been gathered into books. And how much of the wealth of our ancient Gaelic literature still lies buried in untranslated MSS., or in the transactions of learned societies.
A perfectly honest and respectable blockhead asked me recently, “What is the use of books for men working for their daily bread, or for young fellows whose first business in life is to make some way in the world?” From the highest class in the nation to the humblest, good books are the salt of life. They make us wiser, manlier, more honest, and what is less than any of these, more prosperous. It is not the least of their merits that good books make manly men and patriotic citizens. Robert Burns declared that reading the “Life of William Wallace” poured a tide of Scottish sentiment into his veins, which would boil till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest. A man who has done and suffered much for Ireland during the last forty years, has often avowed that he was made a patriot by reading the Poems of Thomas Davis; and how many other Irishmen have confessed the same debt to him and his associates? The great Dominican, Father Burke, and Professor Tyndall of Belfast, the fierce Unionist, are equally warm in their acknowledgment of the effect produced upon them in their youth by the writings of the Young Irelanders. The late Judge O’Hagan, one of the most upright and gifted of Irishmen, used to declare that the evening when he first read the address of John Blake Dillon to the College Historical Society, he was a Whig, but the next day, and ever after, he was a Nationalist. To how many of us is that Address still inaccessible? Would it not be a beneficent work to republish it? Surely there is no Irishman of any political persuasion who would not welcome the opportunity of reading a work which produced such an effect on such a man.
But the discipline of education is not for ornament merely, but for practical use. Without it men and nations miss their path in life, and see not at all, or only with purblind eyes, open roads to national prosperity. In Australia I have known a generation of shepherds and sheep-farmers, who long trod a soil seamed with gold, knowing nothing of the treasures beneath their feet. Is not the Irish farmer often as ignorant of the wealth which other nations draw from the earth, or from the enterprise born of the leisure and security which the possession of the soil creates? The domestic industries which help to make French farms prosperous are just as suitable to our own country, and just as feasible in it. London is supplied from Normandy with farm produce which would come more naturally from Munster, and the French make their households pleasant with dainty preparations of vegetables which the Irish fling away with contempt; Switzerland is more destitute of coal than Ireland, but Switzerland competes successfully with England in her own markets with manufactures for which she does not possess even the raw material. When I met in France, Italy, and Egypt the marmalade manufactured at Dundee, I felt it like a silent reproach. Oranges do not grow in Dundee, and sugar is not manufactured there, but enterprise and industrial education are native to the soil. Is not this a department in which there is something to be taught to the people by useful books? Ideas are the root of action, and books are the cabinets of ideas. If work of a practical and patriotic spirit is to be done in any country, books must be the beginning of that work; and why should we not have such books?
What do we hope to make of Ireland?—this is the fundamental question on which the character of education ought to depend. In Switzerland the bulk of the people live on their own farms, not needing or desiring great wealth, but enjoying free, simple lives, ennobled by the perfect liberty which the poet declares is a child of the mountains. In Belgium there are many husbandmen thriving on the benign industries cultivated at home, which rear a nobler class of men than the stricken legions who serve the steam-engine and the water-wheel. It is not for me to dogmatise on the proper development of Ireland, but assuredly to be wise and successful it must harmonise with the nature of the people, and correct it where correction is needful. Education is far stronger than nature, and there is no doubt the deficiencies in national character may be repaired by discipline. The highest teaching of a people is to accustom them to have a strict regard for the rights of others, to be prudent and temperate in action, and to regard the whole nation as members of a common household. To make our people politically free, yet leave them bond-slaves of some debasing social system like that which crowds the mines and factories of England with squalid victims, or make the artisans of France so often godless scoffers, would be a poor result of all Ireland’s labours and sacrifices.
Liberty will do much for a nation, but it will not do everything. Among a people who do not know and reverence their own ancestors, who do not submit cheerfully to lawful authority, and do not love the eternal principles of justice, it will do little. But moral sentiments, generous impulses, religious feelings still survive in the Irish race, and they give assurance that in that mystic clime on the verge of the Western Ocean, where the more debasing currents of European civilisation only reach it at high tide, there is place for a great experiment for humanity. There within our circling seas we may rear a race in which the fine qualities of the Celtic family, fortified by the sterner strength of the North, and disciplined by the Norman genius of Munster may at last have fair play; where, at lowest a pious and gallant race may after long struggles and nameless sufferings possess their own soil and their own souls in peace.
Let me say, though I have said it more than once before, that the Celts are among the most teachable of races. The drill, the jacket, the discipline, transform an Irish peasant into a sub-constable with almost as military a carriage, and as expert an eye and hand as a veteran of the Peninsula. A few years in a National School, and the boy who emerged from a smoky and squalid cabin, shared with a pig, is turned into a clean and shapely youth, fit to wrestle with the world, and perhaps to win the match. Look at a railway porter, or a railway policeman—the decent uniform and the punctual system soon make a new man of the peasant. An English priest in Paris, with little prejudice in favour of our race, assured me that no girls crossed the sea who acquire so speedily the carriage, deportment, and grace which distinguish French women, as girls from Munster, coming perhaps as servants to some great lady. And this physical training is a small achievement compared with the result of discipline on the intellect and practical power of cultivated, aspiring men. The one multiplies iron, the other multiplies rarest gold of Ophir. But we have not, I fear, made even a beginning in the practical education which makes industry prosperous. I lived for a quarter of a century in Australia, and there rarely came an English ship into the port of Melbourne that did not bring me letters of introduction with young Irishmen who hoped to make their home in the new country. Such of them as it was possible to place in the public service, and that was a limited number, did their work extremely well. But after I had done all that I reasonably could do—for I was administering the affairs of a colony where three-fourths of the inhabitants were English and Scotch, and the patronage had to be distributed in just relation to the population—an enormous remnant remained to be provided for. Some of them were as bright, intelligent young fellows as I ever met in the world, but they were wholly untrained in any business. They had no profession and no trade; they were merely nice fellows, and agreeable idle gentlemen. Now what became of them in the new country, where there was work and pay for everybody who was willing and able to work, and brought to the public service some capacity worth paying for? Multitudes of them sank to be waiters in hotels, barbers, and cabmen. The man who had a trade prospered in a wonderful manner, the man who had a profession prospered, according to his capacity, but the man who was ready “to do anything” generally found nothing to do.
It has been asked scornfully what we can hope to effect in a little country with diminishing population and limited resources? Ought not some Irish student to teach our people that it is not great states like those which the greed of conquerors has aggregated, but states scarcely larger than an Irish province which have done the most memorable work for humanity and civilisation? The achievements in arts, arms, science, and discovery, and in the art of government of the Greek Republics, of the Italian Republics, of the trampled provinces of Spain in the Low Countries, of the little rib taken out of the side of Spain, and called Portugal, how emphatically they teach the lesson that it is not by the quantity but by the quality of their men that states are glorified! A little book which told this great story would be a boon to our people.
It would be presumptuous to name the books which ought to be published in such an enterprise, but we may profitably consider the class and character to be preferred.
Big books of history are only for students, they are never read by the people. But they will read picturesque biographies, which are history individualised, or vivid sketches of memorable eras, which are history vitalised. A dozen lives of representative Irishmen would teach more of the training and growth of Ireland than a library of annals and State papers. They would familiarise us with great men, whom the Celt loves better than systems or policies. This is the class of books in which we are most deficient; there is no memoir of Roger O’Moore, none of Luke Wadding, none of Patrick Sarsfield, none of a man as fertile in intellect, as firm in judgment as any of these, a man whom some of us have seen in the flesh, the wise and fearless J. K. L. Mr. Fitzpatrick has collected his letters and literary remains with commendable care, it only needs that some sympathetic student should ponder over them till the electric spark is kindled, that a new figure may be given to our imagination for ever. The first great poet who sang the wrongs of Ireland with civilised Europe for an audience, has never had an adequate memoir. He has been singularly unfortunate in his biographer; Lord John Russell discharged on the public several cart-loads of undigested diaries as “The Memoirs and Journals of Thomas Moore.” They are of little use to anybody at present, but a skilful literary workman, or a chemist of the intellect, could extract a delightful little volume from the chaotic mass.
How profitable it would be if the best men of this time would contribute each of them a study to a gallery of representative Irishmen! We are accustomed to say, with not unjust reproach, that England knows little of our country; but, alas! my friends, we Irishmen know too little of it ourselves. ’Tis a great possession given to us by a gracious God, which we do not take adequate pains to comprehend; and the philosopher has declared with profound truth that men only possess what they understand.
And we want works reproduced which have disappeared out of circulation. The hundred best Irish books have been skilfully discussed in the newspapers, but the young student soon discovers that half of the hundred are out of print, or locked up in costly editions. Fifty pounds would not purchase the volumes recommended. But it would not be impossible to produce a library containing these very books, or a collection varied by admitting some books more pertinent to our present wants, for fifty shillings, to be paid over a period of three or four years—an expenditure which would be burthensome to few Irishmen accustomed to read.
How are the good books to be circulated effectually? I have always insisted, and I do now emphatically insist that if this thing is to be well done the young men of Irish birth at home and abroad must regard it as their work, and be determined it shall succeed. They must supply canvassers in every centre of Irish feeling in Ireland, England, Scotland, America, and Australia. And where the young men are still struggling for a foothold in the world, the work ought not to be made burthensome to them, but reproductive. There exists in America a system of canvassing agents by which books are brought to the remotest farmhouses, and the canvassers paid a reasonable compensation. Ought we not to imitate this method in our enterprise?
It will be our duty to see that the literary labourers also shall be fairly paid, for they are commonly neither a sordid nor even a provident race. It will be a labour of love to them to feed the mind of their country, as it has been a labour of love to the men of their class everywhere. Who can read without a glow of sympathy how the struggling Scotch farmer and exciseman who gave immortal songs to Scotland, refused pecuniary reward for a work which he desired to be one of pure patriotism; or how the indigent French poet, living contentedly in an humble Pension in the Champs Elysees, on an annuity from his publisher, declined a seat in the Chamber of Deputies from the Republic which he had done so much to make possible, and still more emphatically declined all aid or recognition from the Bonaparte family, to whose cause he had recalled the French nation by splendid but too indiscriminate panegyrics on its founder; or how our own national poet, who alone in modern times is fit to be named with the other two as a writer of songs that will live for ever, rejected in turn a national tribute, a seat in Parliament, and the assistance of opulent friends under unexpected calamity—Moore, like Burns and Beranger, being determined that the purity of his devotion to his country should run no risk of being misunderstood?
Wherever there is an Irish bookseller, at home or in the two new worlds, who has taken an intelligent, not merely a sordid interest in his business, he is the natural agent of this design; and in the many districts where there is no bookseller at present a quasi bookseller might be created. If the popular journals in Dublin encourage their agents to act on behalf of the enterprize, a solid body of retail dealers would be at once available. I have spoken only of Irish readers, our duty begins with them, but it does not end with them. Ireland has many friends in England, and good books have friends everywhere. The volumes of such a Library ought to be found on the bookstalls from Liverpool to Edinburgh, they ought to be proffered to the passengers by the great transatlantic routes, and to the eager crowd of purchasers who throng the book arcades of Melbourne and Sydney. Can all this be done? Who will be our Minister of Public Instruction, to organise it and set it in motion? If there be such a one, I think I see here many who will be his willing associates and assistants. For one old man who can only hope to see the good work fairly begun, I can promise that whatever he can do with his moderate resources to help it in money, or with his waning powers to help it with cordial co-operation, shall not be wanting.
If we can revive the love of noble books among our people, that is a result which standing alone is worth striving for. To love noble books is to share with statesmen and philosophers the pleasure on which they set the highest price. Time has made trite and commonplace the great saying of Fénélon, “If the crowns of Europe were laid at my feet in exchange for books and the love of reading, I would spurn them all.” Our own Goldsmith declares that taking up a new book worth reading is like making a new friend; a friend from whom we will never be separated by any of the melancholy mischances on which human friendships are so often wrecked. But good books will do more than this—they will awaken all that is best in our nature, and teach us to live worthier lives. They will do for us what we rarely permit the closest friend to do—they will teach us our faults and how to amend them. What they might do, not for the individual, but for the nation, I dare not predict—the possibilities are so prodigious. One of the keenest intellects of the eighteenth century declared that the world was ruled by books. What, think you, has most profoundly altered the condition of the world in the last hundred years? Kings, statesmen, conquerors? Not so; an armful of books, about as many as a schoolboy carries in his satchel. The result of these books was not always beneficent, but it was always immense. The war of arms and of diplomacy which England carried on against the French Republic and the French Empire for a dozen years, and which left us the National Debt as a memorial, took its first impulse from a little book written by Edmund Burke. The Revolution which it combatted was as certainly the fruit of other books. The declaration of Irish independence pronounced by the Convention at Dunganon, and confirmed by the parliament in College Green, simply formulated the doctrine of a little volume by Molyneux which the House of Commons at Westminster had caused to be burned by the common hangman. All that has been done in later days for Free Trade and unrestricted competition, for the self-government of Colonies, and the education of the people, was first taught in the treatise of an Edinburgh professor; a book which has influenced the current of thought and legislation in the British Empire, and far beyond it, more than any other book written since the invention of printing. The desire to unfetter the negro which culminated in the decrees of Abraham Lincoln and the victories of Ulysses Grant began in a work of genius written by a woman and read by the whole civilized world. The successive despots expelled during the last sixty years by the French people, from Charles the Tenth to Napoleon the Third, were driven out less at the point of the bayonet than at the point of the pen. The social changes wrought by books in the same era we would, perhaps, relinquish less willingly than any of these political gains. The humanising of English law long steeped in blood and tears, is less attributable to bench and bar than to the books of Jeremy Bentham. If the Court of Chancery is no longer the patron and factor of dilapidated edifices and ruined fortunes, if the Dotheboys halls of Yorkshire are shut up, is it not chiefly to a couple of novels by Charles Dickens we owe these salutary changes? One little volume written by a woman, critics assure us, routed filth and laziness out of the farmhouses of Scotland. It was the novelist Charles Reade who made Englishmen ashamed of the murderous silent system in prisons, and it was he and another novelist who put an end (for I hope the end has come) to the shameful abuses of private lunatic asylums. And it was only the other day that, by a little domestic story, Walter Besant, with the magic wand of art, raised a Palace of Delight, where the labouring poor find refreshment and culture in the dreary desert of East London—so fertilising and fruitful are good books.
Our books may not achieve any of these marvels, but there are results not beyond their reach. England holds the sympathies of all the communities which share her blood, less by obeying the same laws than by loving the same books. And if we do not fail in our task the volumes of the Irish Library will be read by the Irish settler in Canada, the Irish digger in California and Australia, our missionaries and soldiers in India, the adventurous pioneer in Africa, the exile far away in Florida, in Michigan, in Egypt, or in Siam, with more love and enthusiasm than even in the homesteads of Leinster and Munster.