The Editors of ‘Fianna’ have been pestering me to write an article for their Christmas Number. Being naturally lazy I hate to write an article, and being naturally good natured I hate to refuse. Of course, while everybody will consent to the accuracy of the first description a few evil disposed persons will refuse to accept the second. So to prove that I am really good natured I will write something. But why an article? We are all tired of articles—fed up with them, to use an elegant English expression. So I will not write an article, but will rather make some suggestions to the boys and girls who are to be our future novelists and romancers.
Boys and girls love romances and spirited tales about spirited people. More than boys and girls do. I do, and I am not a boy, although a certain friend of mine persists in calling me a ‘gorgeous boy’ for some inscrutable reason, despite my continued asseveration that I am neither ‘gorgeous’ nor a ‘boy.’ Anyone who does not love romances and spirited tales is already dead to the world, and ought to be decently interred as soon as possible. They are scarcely human, and are decidedly not Irish, for as the profession of the Seannachie, or Storyteller, was one of the most honoured in ancient Erin it must have been that the honour in which the Seannachie was held arose from a universal craving in the Irish heart for the tales of which he was the repository. These were not only heroic tales, but were also tales of romance, of love, of adventure, and of wonder.
Such being the case, the love of tales of romance and adventure being so Irish, why should it not be considered a worthy act to suggest some unexplored fields for literary activity for our future novelists—fields in which a definite historical background exists, for stirring exploits and deeds of derring do. We have had a plethora of stories of Irish heroes in the English service, a few stories of Irish soldiers and Irish wars for Freedom. I rise to suggest the needs for a few stories of Irish blackguards waging war upon the English masters of Ireland, and through and despite their blackguardism retaining a fierce love for their lost country.
Remember, being over desirous of keeping close to reality I desire to emphasise the word BLACKGUARDS. The central figures must be blackguards, picturesque if you will, and being Irish must of necessity be a strange mixture of good and evil, but the fact of the blackguardism must be obtrusive, or the tale will of necessity lose alike its necessary savour of wickedness, and its fidelity to truth.
Let me illustrate by giving an instance in point—
About the third quarter of the 18th Century the coast around Ireland, especially the Channel between Ireland and England, was the scene of the exploits of a number of Irish privateers (armed vessels flying the green flag of Ireland) preying upon English commerce, seizing English noblemen and merchants and holding them to ransom, defying the garrisons of coast towns, and occasionally blockading Irish ports in the absence of English men of war. At one time the whole Port of Dublin was held up as no one would venture outside in terror of the Irish privateers lying defiantly and threateningly in Dublin Bay. On another occasion a vessel was stopped and a Bishop of the Church of Ireland and his two daughters were taken off and held as hostages.
Does not your breath stop in sheer ecstasy of delight in thinking of the splendid romance a real novelist could weave around that incident. Imagine the captain of the privateer, a real handsome, dashing Irish blackguard, and imagine (if you can) one of the daughters of the captured Bishop falling in love with the captain. Imagine this love affair continuing after the Bishop was ransomed, and the subsequent adventures in disguise of the privateer captain, landing at Howth or Skerries and going up to Dublin to steal an interview with his sweetheart. It makes my mouth water even to write about it.
And to lend a further zest to the episode you have only to picture the daring, reckless life of the crew of the privateer, and reflect that in all probability some of the descendants are living in our eastern seaport towns to this day.
My great fear is that the inspiration to write this tale will come to some sentimental idiot, who will represent the captain and his crew as refined Irish gentlemen instead of as what their profession would inevitably call for, and make of its followers blackguards, who preferred the life of a blackguard to that of a slave.
Then consider what a virtually virgin field of literature lies awaiting the pen of the Irish literary genius with daring enough to write sympathetically, and with insight, of the peasant associations of the 18th and early 19th Centuries.
The Shanavests, Caravats, Terry Alts, Whiteboys, Rockites, Ribbonmen, and all the other fearless and daring fighters who, at a time when it was death to snare a rabbit or steal a loaf, combined themselves to establish their own secret Courts of Justice against the public Courts of Law owned by their oppressors. What a field for the man or woman who can write of them as they were! All who dealt with them up to the present have written for an English public, or for an Irish public accustomed to judge other men’s acts by the petty code of their own snugly secured lives. We await the novelist who will imbue himself or herself with the feelings of an outraged peasant striking back at his oppressors and their creatures, as mercilessly as they had struck at him and his, and glorying in it.
One of the leaders of these societies was in hiding in Wicklow whilst his wife was living in Dublin. The woman was starving, and her husband hearing of it came to her with the proposition that she should inform on him, and get the large reward the Government had put on his head. She refused. But he eventually told her, moved by her suffering, that if she would not he would surrender himself, and the reward would be lost. She yielded, gave the information to the authorities, her husband was arrested and transported to Botany Bay, where she afterwards joined him and they spent the reward together.
Oh! for a genius to tell such a tale as that with all the appropriate literary embroidery! And the story of the peasant conspiracies is full of such tales waiting to be written up by men or women who can write them without snivelling over them, who can get themselves into the skin of a blackguard and tell them as our genial blackguards tell their exploits. Tell them unconscious of wrong, but proud of achievement.
The story of the early Trade Unions in Ireland fighting in the towns the same fight as the illegal peasant associations fought in the rural districts, the story of the Irish smugglers, the story of the Irish tinkers and tramps—all, all are calling for a modern native Irish literature of reality.
I hope that some of the boys and girls now reading these suggestions will blossom out into that genius capable of achieving that task, and so help to immortalise worthily some of our bad, but lovable, Irish blackguards, for—
‘Trust Ireland’s strength to-day
Her truest strength is still.
The rough and ready roving boys,
Like Rory of the Hill.’