From An Claidheamh Soluis, 29 April 1899.
Wherever one turns he is constantly hearing moans about the manner in which Ireland is flooded with the dregs of cheap English literature. The matter is made the subject of bishops’ pastorals; it cropped up recently in a lecture, and in the discussion which followed, at the Irish Literary Society, London; it is sometimes referred to in the Irish press, where the English periodicals are piously anathematised and a rhetorical sentence about “Keeping this vile literary sewage away from our uncorrupted youths and maidens,” finishes up a windy and meaningless article. Most people shake their heads at the question as if the explanation of the phenomenon was altogether beyond the human ken.
Life is made up of passions and energies, and all one can hope to do is to control these forces within reason and divert them into worthy channels. It is all nonsense saying “Don’t read this or don’t read that” to a naturally curious people who have been taught the art of reading, and then turn your back and leave them there. The men think that the portion of the Irish people who cannot afford costly books – should be content to read the advertisement posters on the dead walls all the days of their lives?
As the devil should be given his due, the question of fact as to whether this reading matter which is complained of is really as bad as it painted ought to be inquired into before the pious opinions are let loose in torrents. From a genuine Irish – that is a Gaelic – point of view most of the whole output, whether it is should at a penny a number or six shillings a volume, is demoralising and corrupting, giving us literature which is not real, standards that are false, even in England, and utterly unfitting to the social and intellectual condition of Ireland. No nation adopts the literature of another as its staple mental food. But Ireland – which, of course, in this respect is not a nation at all – lives on the dregs of the printed output of another country. However, is not this “literature” in the main fairly well in keeping with the unreal, unhealthy and unnational atmosphere in which the people who can read are being brought up? The whole thing may be saturated in humbug and a painted fact has a correspondingly great cause – or causes – behind it; and to top off the one without taking heed of the other is what quacks are trying to do all the world over.
There are, I think, three main causes which explain the prevalence of this “vile” literature in our midst. Where several causes combine to produce a given effect it is, perhaps, impossible to say which is the greatest. Be that as it may, one of the great causes – we meet it whenever we look below the surface of things in Ireland – is an economic one. The English penny and other periodicals supply a house demand of some hundreds of thousands of copies of each publication. The cost of running off an extra ten or twenty thousands for Irish consumption is comparatively infinitesimal. An amount of paper and reading matter – the original of which was heavily paid for – can be sold in Ireland by London firms for a penny that could not be produced in Ireland – for Irish circulation only – at probably threepence. And if a good Irish paper were produced at that price it would be difficult to get 500, not to talk of 20,000, people to pay the price. This is one great difficulty in the way of keeping the trash complained of out of the hands of “our uncorrupted youths and maidens.”
Where, in the next place, is any Irish attempt – commensurate with the possibilities – to supply good literature? Are all the weekly national papers correctives? Some people may know of weekly national papers that contain, as a chief feature, glorifying particulars, with portraits, of English music hall ballet girls and other Irish national reading matter of a like kind. And many of the tales, if one may judge by the headings and the pictures – I confess I cannot judge by any more extended knowledge of them – are as “vile,” “bluggy,” and trashy as any of the much-abused English stuff. Further, is the conventional Irish story written from artificial points of view and which run in the old party groove – the story about evil landlords and saintly tenants with an English “gentlemen” brought in as a stock figure to make patronising comments on the virtues and blunderings of the child-man which the Anglicised Irish literary person considers his poorer fellow-countryman to be – are these good enough to satisfy the Irish mind, and if so are they calculated to invigorate it? One must feel respect for the Irish mind for jibbing against that sort of thing anyway.
The third cause may be put in the form of a question. What is Irish literature, and if we are prepared to pay for it where are we to get it? We are in a period of rapid transition in regard to this matter; and those who think and say that anything artistic in the Irish language – whether it treats about Ireland or about Hong Kong – is Irish literature, and that everything in the English language in English literature, are still a small minority. The great body think – or rather they don’t think but they have a hazy idea – that Irish literature is to be discovered somewhere in the English language; that, perhaps, it consists in writing picturesquely of an Irish hill-side, or a priest like Father O’Flynn, or of a countryman who says funny things without meaning them, or nebulous twaddle labelled “the Celtic note.” They go on searching in all these quarters without any result except that no sooner have they got out of one bog hole than they tumble into another. Any man may be safely defied to define what is Irish literature in the English language.
To sum up the position – the cheap price of English periodical literature, the lack of Anglo-Irish reading matter to counteract the wholesale consumption of the former, the absence of a healthy or defined Irish taste – the consequence of our upbringing – and the fog that exists with regard to what Irish literature really is doesn’t leave one much to learn as to the why and wherefore of the state of things complained of. We are simply drifting aimlessly along the line of least resistance.
In the meantime, however, the question as to the English literature that is read is a serious one. But as the responsibility for the low standard of taste, and the truckling after a mean idea of English “gentility,” which shows itself, amongst other ways, by a silly delight in reading accounts of fanciful dukes and duchesses who run away with one another’s husbands and wives as part of the day’s work, written by people who never saw one or the other, if we except an odd peep through a carriage window, rests principally on those who think that the English language was the best thing that we ever imported from that country, let them also research for tinkering remedies for the disease. But the Gaelic propaganda, if it is a slow is still the sure cure for the evil. It gives us a national standard of criticism, and a natural taste which may enable us to distinguish the good from the rotten even in English literature. Few people worth thinking about would put much account on “Spring Heeled Jack,” if they had once got the smack of Father O’Leary’s “Seadna” on their lips. But if Irish people have not a standard of their own in literature most of them will go down the abyss which has already swallowed millions of the present English generation – and fortunately few of us have reached that depth yet.
The whole outcry against this questionable literature is about as futile as crying for the moon unless the evil is sought to be eradicated by developing our Gaelic side, and by an endeavour to get back our national backbone. We are a poor people who can’t afford to buy the best of anything, and when we join unreservedly, and without any Irish isolating forces protecting us, in the English crowd we inevitably have the English worser classes for our bedfellows.