“We are a great race”, said a priest to me the first day I arrived in Ireland. As I had not been in my native land for a long period I was glad to hear that flattering statement. I readily assented to the view, the more so as it was so agreeable. Since then, however, I have spent a month in the South of Ireland, and if I met His Reverence this moment there would be a lively argument.
The resident native of a country is, perhaps, too familiar with everything to see anything. The foreigner is always prejudiced; everything that differs from his view is, so far, bad, for we know that each country would like to rule the destinies of the world for the greater good of the human race. I suggest that the native who has lived for years among a different people is usually the best equipped for the role of observer and critic.
I have no desire to add to the existing definitions of that which we call a nation. But if we regard countries as several collections of human energies, then one is differentiated from another by certain general characteristics affecting the manner in which these energies are put forth. A characteristic way of expressing thought, a
distinct language, is usually the most prominent mark of a nation. Then there will be found a native colour in arts, industries, literature, social habits, points of view, music, amusements, and so on, throughout all the phases of human activity. It is scarcely necessary to point out that of the things which go to the making of a nation, some, such as art, practically do not exist in Ireland; others, such as the language we speak and the literature we read, are borrowed from another country. There are certainly some traits to be found in Ireland which stamp the people as a distinct race even yet; but they characterise her torpor and decay rather than her development. If one were asked to sum up the present condition of the country in one epigram, he might say that our activities spring from a foreign inspiration, and that we only preserve a national colour about the manner in which we don’t do things. The condition of a country might appear quite hopeless at the first glance, but if there were a real and virile national spirit left in it it would be too soon to say that the nation was dying. That reflection brings us to the question: Is there such a national spirit in Ireland at the present time?
One can never dare to find fault with one’s countrymen but he will be instantly told that there are historical causes which explain all our defects. We are ever laying contribution on poor history to explain away our shortcomings. Was it not Fergus O’Connor, of Chartist fame, something of a giant in physique, who told a gaping English mob that only for famines every Irishman would be as fine a specimen as he? And you will meet men every day who will ask you how in the world could Ireland be prosperous considering that England stole our woollen industry from us some hundreds of years ago. Heaven knows we have overdone that sort of nonsense. Those who don’t see eye to eye with the “national” politicians are held up as the enemies of their race – a state of public feeling which is responsible, I think, for the regrettable fact that in Ireland there is no criticism, only abuse.
Still, it were well to look at things as they are, apart from our boasting, our invincible spirit – of which we talk so much – and our ’98 processions. There are after all no penal laws now, and we are getting little bits of freedom by degrees. Of course it is true that we cannot make our laws yet. That is a fact which we never forget, and, when we are playing at excuses, it is our trump card. There is an old saying about the making of a country’s ballads, the significance of which it would appear we have
never rightly appreciated. Everything is to come straight when we can make those precious laws; in the meantime it would be futile to do anything. In other words, all
the national life is to be left to bleed out of us, until we come by our right to make laws for the corpse.
Throughout my visit a few unwelcome questions would keep troubling me for an answer. Has the relief, such as it is, come too late? Have we been crushed so thoroughly that we are unable to rise now that the weight has been somewhat lightened? I look in vain for that fiery hate of subjection we hear so much of from the political platforms. Contempt for England, and all things pertaining thereto, is not to be found outside the sunburstry songs. The Irish Gael, when he does work himself into a passion of patriotism, generates no further energy than that which enables him to shout himself hoarse at the local political meeting. He then goes home, and looking out over his half-door, self-pitying, contemplates the weakness of his own, and the greatness of the English people. It never strikes him – how could it, as he was never told? – that, were he true to himself, he might, his rags notwithstanding, hold his head as proudly as any other man. I have no desire to direct contempt upon him. There he is, an honest, ignorant, spirit-broken man, swelling with a little national self-esteem whilst the brass bands and the banners of some political procession go by. After that his attitude may be summed up in an expression very frequently on his lips – “There’s some ‘myaw’ (mi-áḋ) on poor ould Ireland.” The Land League, which seemed to make a spirited Irishman of him for a time, was – though a great and necessary agitation – in one sense an utter delusion; for, while it imposed itself upon the people as an outburst of patriotism, it was, in its essence, only a material movement. Whilst it bellowed and sent its echoes all over the world, the real national life was asleep or else gliding away.
The tendencies of the people, at the present time are not altogether inspiring. The ignorant peasants are the most interesting portion of the population. In them are yet to be seen, undeveloped and clouded perhaps, the marks of the Gaelic race. An impassable gulf separates them from any type to be met with in England. They still possess the unspoiled raw material for the making of a vigorous and a real Irish character. The moment we mount up the social scale, the prospect is less pleasing. Teach the peasant to read and write in English, put a black coat on him and let him earn his living in some “genteel” fashion, and what does he become? Well – they call him Irish.
If you go into a Kerry town in the centre of an Irish-speaking district at the fall of the day, you will probably meet the bank clerk in his knickers and brown boots stroking his moustachios with one hand and petting his dog with the other. He, of course, is above the interests of the common folk. He is not a bad looking specimen of a man, all the same, and he is a Gael if his name is any indication. The type will stand for thousands who are not in banks. A great world of interest and romance surrounds him. Not a stone nor a stream in the neighbourhood but has its history. Most of the interest is, however, inseparable from a knowledge of the Irish language, and of course he knows nothing so common as that; even if he did he would deny it. He might learn much about his country in the English tongue if he cared to, but he prefers to read Tit Bits, and discover how many times one issue if stretched out would go round the world and that sort of thing. He is a man of culture amongst the native savages. He may know an Irish phrase or two by rote which he will hurl now and again at the head of the servant-maid and laugh consumedly at the brilliant joke. But where are the distinctive marks of nationality about this man? Further up the street you will probably meet a young fellow who considers himself very clever, and who is credited, in a vague sort of way, with being a classical scholar, and who certainly has written letters to the newspapers. Though about thirty years of age, he has never done anything for his living, as his father keeps him. The four or five others along with him by no means run any risk of sinking into an early grave by reason of the amount of work they have to do. This group are very “patriotic.” The Irish language, it is well to remember, is spoken in their hearing every day.
However, upon the language and upon the people who speak it, they look down with bragging contempt until they are challenged to justify their attitude. Then their superior airs desert them, and they begin to look sheepish. If you ask them why, as they are patriotic men and have leisure, they are not anxious to learn something of their native tongue and their native literature, they all have the one reply. If they said that the language was too difficult, it might pass as a kind of excuse, even though we knew that some of them stayed up of nights learning a little bit of French or Latin. But nothing of the kind. The universal answer is – “Ah, sure, what use would it be to us?” The utilitarian point of view of these young men, who during the greater part of the day have nothing useful to do, is really exasperating. The busy man who can get profitable work for his every waking hour, may, with some reason, refuse work otherwise desirable, because it would be of no use to him; but when one hears men whose sentiments are hotly “patriotic” and whose chief business is to kill time, talking in this way, it fills one with dismay. Has the iron gone in so far that even the sense of the ludicrous has been driven out? Of course the fact is, these men take no interest whatever in their country; they have ceased to be Irish, except in name and in what they call “politics”. How they would chaff one of their friends if he told them that he loved one girl and despised another and showed his feelings by giving all his attention to the latter! For it is to England and her tittle-tattle periodicals that they turn their eyes and open their hearts. On all sides one sees only too much evidence that the people are secretly content to be a conquered race, though they have not the honesty to admit it. Even the pride that frequently dignifies failure is not there. There is nothing masculine in the character; and when the men do fall into line, with green banners overhead, and shout themselves hoarse, is it not rather a feminine screech, a delirious burst of defiance on a background of sluggishness and despair?
I am being misunderstood if this is considered as a wholesale denunciation of the people; rather it is a denunciation of the false standards of Nationality that have grown up everywhere and are quickly driving everyone into the mire. The native charm of the Gaelic race takes a lot of killing, and good nature we have always with
us. When this much has been admitted, all that remains to be added is that the people have “patriotic” opinions. It would be interesting to inquire into the development of that strange idea, that a set of professed political opinions, which may or may not be believed in, constitutes a man a patriot. Any person outside Ireland might, and many actually do, see eye to eye politically with Irishmen. I suggest that, looked at from any comprehensive standpoint, “Ireland a Nation” is rapidly dissolving out of view.
Are there any causes, besides national degeneration, for this deplorable state of affairs? We must allow at once that an aristocracy and society, more or less alien in blood and almost exclusively alien in feeling, is a great stumbling-block to the growth and development of character racy of the soil. Irish fashionable society is, as we know, a satellite of Mayfair. It follows the English lead in everything. Under these circumstances, what is there for the Irish masses to follow? In Ireland the struggle
between the path of least resistance and some other path that is vaguely felt to be national is always going on. The natural tendency is to follow our “betters”. The people who drive in carriages, and hold authority in the land, form, under normal conditions, the social standards; in them is vested the right to confer social distinction and set the fashion for the manners and popular points of view of the country. In Ireland, where conditions are never normal, and where the right of the classes to influence the country is flouted, the temptation to follow their lead has, nevertheless, been apparently too great. A strong man may stand out against it; but the masses are not composed of robust units.
They must stand in a body with a clearly defined purpose, or drift straggling with the tide. I need not pause to point out what the Irish “classes” think of anything Irish. In England they are glad enough to glory in the name of Ireland, on the principle, no doubt, that cows in Connacht have long horns. In Ireland they have been brought up to despise everything racy of their native land and of the Gaelic people. During all this century we notice these two contending forces at work – the sense of a separate nationality, with the duties it entails, warring against the natural tendency to imitate the rich and mighty, who happen to be a foreign race. Under the most favourable conditions the struggle would be a hard one. But there was no orderly struggle; every man was left to fight for himself if he chose; he generally didn’t choose, and all along the line we have given our nationality away with our eyes open. We have given so much of it away that in recent years the word has lost all meaning for us except as an expression for a certain set of political opinions.
We are now neither good English nor good Irish. While everyone has been quarrelling about political party cries, the essentials of national life have been overlooked. From whom can one get any rational expression of that nationality about which all talk so loudly? The ’98 processions are a grand intoxication, and no more. What, after all, was the great Wolfe Tone demonstration significant of? Violent, undefined passions of love and hate probably filled most of the great mass who took – I don’t know how many hours – to pass a given point. How many of them had any seriously considered views, reasonable or unreasonable, as to the building up of a national life? What was it all but a mere parade of men being dragged further and further after the British chariot, or rather not being dragged, but going open-eyed that way, the while they cried out to deceive themselves and the world: – “ We are not English!” If not, what are they? let me ask again. They have discarded their language, and they know nothing of their literature. The national character was not allowed to grow from its own roots, but was cut off from the parent tree and engrafted clumsily on the worst branches of the British oak.
The prevailing manners at the present time are the resultant of good-nature, the influence of Lover’s novels, and a half-hearted attempt to copy the English lower middle class, who, in the shape of cheap holiday trippers, are a dream of gentility to the Irish snob. Sulky West Britons is the only name by which the great majority of
“Nationalists” can be designated. Of course, everybody agrees to give up the well-to-do and “respectable” natives – those who send, or would like to send, their children to English schools for good-breeding and the accent – as hopeless. Further, we are constantly told that the mainstay of “nationality” is the working men in the towns; the people who preserve in some degree the traditions of the Gael are the ignorant peasants. This state of affairs points to a rather hopeless outlook. Improve the condition of the peasants and you wipe out the traditions and the language; advance the more intelligent of the working men, as a consequence of material prosperity, into a higher class, and you weaken the prop even of “nationality,” and add to the already large contingent of the vulgargenteel. Truly, there is something rotten in the state.
It is hard to put much blame on the masses. For what are they to do? They look for light and they get none. All the guidance they receive from those who would lead
them is to join this political league or that political league, and cry – “Down with the English”. When they have done that they are taught that they have performed the whole duty of Irishmen. As for the language and such trifles as that, the politicians have taught them to ask – What use are they? That material standard has been drummed into them with unwearied energy. It has one bright side. The people are now asking – What use are the politicians? Has history ever presented such a sorry spectacle as an historic nation wiping herself out while her flags are flying and her big drums beating? Why not call ourselves British right away and have done with all this clatter and clap-trap about nothing, which we miscall nationality? It deceives no one but ourselves; and if we would only stop this self-deception for a while we might get a better perspective of things and a clearer view of what nationality means. If instead of talking pikes and blunder-busses and bragging about being a great people we learned in public, what so many have a suspicion of in private, that we are getting parlously near that time when we shan’t be a distinctive people at all, we might then mend our ways and do something masculine.