The articles which follow were contributed by me to Irish Freedom during the eight months extending from June 1913 to January 1914. They thus form a contemporary commentary on the period immediately preceding and covering the rise of the Irish Volunteers: a period which, when things assume their proper perspective, will probably be regarded as the most important in recent Irish history. I commenced the series with the deliberate intention, by argument, invective, and satire, of goading those who shared my political views to commit themselves definitely to an armed movement. I felt quite sure that the hour was ripe for such a movement, but did not in the beginning foresee the precise form it was to assume. When I wrote the article for November 1913, a group of Nationalists with whom I was in touch had decided to found the Irish Volunteers, and we were looking about for a leader who would command the adhesion of men less ‘advanced’ than we were known to be: of our own followers we were sure. When I wrote the article for December 1913, Eoin MacNeill had (quite unexpectedly) published his article ‘The North Began’ in An Claidheamh Soluis, and we had agreed to invite him to put himself at our head. The rest is a part of Irish history.
In the article for August 1913, I have omitted part of the Open Letter to Douglas Hyde; and I have made one or two verbal changes in a few other articles.
P. H. Pearse
St. Enda’s College,
The Hermitage, Rathfarnham
1st of June 1915.
Not everyone that lives in a hermitage is a hermit. And not every hermit himself is hermit-hearted. As for me, I have only two qualities in common with the real (or imaginary) hermit who once lived (or did not live) in this place: I am poor and I am merry. Now, all hermits are poor, and all hermits, unless they are frauds, are merry. I am visibly poor, but am merry only in an esoteric or secret sense, exhibiting to the outer world an austerity of look and speech more befitting my habitation than my heart. Understand that, however harshly I may express myself in the comments and proposals I shall from time to time make here, I am in reality a genial and large-hearted person, and that if I chasten my fellows it is only because I love them.
I have, as I have suggested, some proposals to make. The first is that we who are determined to rehabilitate this nation should commence working towards that end instead of arguing. The Nationalist movement in Ireland has degenerated into a debating society. In all our national or quasi-national organs we argue as to what a nation is, what nationality, what a Nationalist. As if definitions mattered! Our love of disputation sometimes makes us indecent, as when we argue over a dead man’s coffin as to whether he was a Nationalist or not, and sometimes makes us ridiculous, as when we prove by a mathematical formula that the poet who has most finely voiced Irish nationalism in our time is no Nationalist. As if a man’s opinions were more important than his work! I propose that we take service as our touchstone, and reject all other touchstones; and that, without bothering our heads about sorting out, segregating, and labelling Irishmen and Irishwomen according to their opinions, we agree to accept as fellow-Nationalists all who specifically or virtually recognise this Irish nation as an entity and, being part of it, owe it and give it their service. This will save endless discussion, and make it wholly unnecessary to inquire, before giving a fellow Irishman one’s hand, what is his attitude towards bimetallism or what his opinion of The Playboy of the Western World.
This thing of service merits to be dwelt upon. Ireland, in our day as in the past, has ex-communicated some of those who have served her best, and has canonised some of those who have served her worst. We damn a man for an unpopular phrase; we deify a man who does a mean thing gracefully. The word to us is ever more significant than the deed. When a man like Synge, a man in whose sad heart there glowed a true love of Ireland, one of the two or three men who have in our time made Ireland considerable in the eyes of the world, uses strange symbols we do not understand, we cry out that he has blasphemed and we proceed to crucify him. When a sleek lawyer, rising step by step through the most ignoble of all professions, attains to a Lord Chancellorship or to an Attorney-Generalship, we confer upon him the freedom of our cities. This is really a very terrible symptom in contemporary Ireland. It is not for me to judge the Redmond Barrys and the Ignatius O’Briens and the Thomas F. Moloneys, and I say no word in condemnation of them here: I merely point out that they have not in any way served Ireland — they have served themselves and they have served England; and when England rewards them for their service there is absolutely no reason why Ireland should rejoice. A bargain has been completed. Servants of England have done their day’s work and been paid their price. It is a commercial transaction, not a matter of public rejoicing. It is a business between England and these men. Ireland has nothing to do with it.
When such commercial transactions are concluded I think the less said about them the better. I would not pursue these men as traitors, for I do not think they were ever with us. But I do think that an effort should be made to prevent ‘rebel’ cities like Cork from honouring their mean success. Is it too late, even now, to expunge their names from the roll of freemen? Let someone in Cork look to it.
This generation of Irishmen will be called upon in the near future to make a very passionate assertion of nationality. The form in which that assertion shall be made must depend upon many things, more especially upon the passage or non-passage of the present Home Rule Bill. In the meantime there is need to be vigilant. Yet, every day we allow insults to the nation to pass, forgetting that every fresh stripe endured by a slave makes him so much more a slave. There comes to a slave, as there comes to a tortured child or to a tortured animal, a time when stripes seem normal and it seems easier to endure them than to protest. Any underling of the British government can now lay hands on Ireland with impunity; only now it is no longer necessary to deal heavy stripes — a delicate and facetious slap in the face is a sufficient symbol of over-lordship. One Mr Justice Boyd sneered at the Irish language from the Bench in Belfast a few weeks ago; one would have thought that there were enough Gaels in Belfast to prevent the fellow from being heard in his own court the next day until he apologised. The National Council of Sinn Féin recently sent an anti-enlisting car through the streets of Dublin. It was seized by the police and the posters defaced. Afterwards the excuse was tendered that the cart exceeded the size allowed by the Corporation for advertisement vans. The National Council promptly sent another anti-enlisting car, of regulation size, into the streets, and at present it parades unmolested. But there should have been enough spirit in Dublin to enable the National Council to send a whole procession of anti-enlisting cars into the streets. And, had these been seized, a hundred sandwich men should have appeared with anti-enlisting posters. And, had these been interfered with, National citizens should have set out for business the next morning with anti-enlisting badges in their buttonholes. Should the police have disliked the aesthetic effect of this decoration, neat anti-enlisting flags might have appeared in citizens’ hat-bands. Should all sartorial eccentricities have been objected to, Nationalist Dublin could have started whistling some tune agreed upon and recognised to mean ‘anti-enlisting’. There are countless ways in which such an agitation might be carried on, for the glory of God and the honour of Ireland. Once and for all, if there is to be an anti-enlisting movement, let there be an anti-enlisting movement. Opinions may differ as to the advisability of such a movement, but there can be no two opinions as to the inadvisability of playing at such a movement.
I am aware that some of the courses I recommend are open to the objection that they would land some people in gaol. But gaol would do some people good.
Symbols are very important. The symbol of a true thing, of a beneficent thing, is worthy of all homage; the symbol of a false thing, of a cruel thing, is worthy of all reprobation. A gibbet has come to be the noblest symbol in the world, because it symbolises the noblest thing that has ever been done among men. The red coat of a soldier, a gallant thing in itself, has come to be a symbol of unspeakably evil import because such unspeakable things have been done by the empire for which the red-coated soldiers fight, such murders perpetrated, such tyrannies upheld for centuries. Thus, a shameful thing may come to have a glorious significance, a ridiculous thing may achieve venerability, while a goodly thing may become so degraded that the stomach of a strong man heaves when he looks upon it. Consider this: if a man were to walk down O’Connell Street wearing a double-pointed conical hat a full foot high and of a glaring yellow colour, we should laugh; yet when a man mounts the steps of an altar with a hat of that precise pattern on his head we are dumb and reverent, for we see in the preposterous headgear the awful symbol of apostolic succession. This matter of symbols came into my mind today as I watched a Bishop administer Confirmation. The Church to which I belong, the wise Church that has called into her service all the arts, knows better than any other institution, human or divine, the immense potency of symbols: with symbols she exorcises evil spirits, with symbols she calls into play for beneficent purposes the infinite powers of omnipotence. And those of her children who honour not her symbols she pronounces anathema.
A nation should exact similar respect for its symbols. Free nations do. They salute their flags with bared heads; they hail with thundering cannon the nincompoops that happen to be their kings. A man with whom you would not sit at meat if he were a private individual, whom you would cut every time you saw him approaching you in the street, receives your homage, and justly receives your homage, when he symbolises the majesty of your nation. A man whom, as an individual, you would consider too insignificant to be an object of your dislike, becomes an object of holy hatred when he symbolises some evil thing that oppresses you or yours. No one in Ireland either likes or dislikes George Wettin; yet every true man of Ireland hates, or should hate, to see his not very intellectual features on a coin or on a stamp, for they symbolise there the foreign tyranny that holds us. A good Irishman should blush every time he sees a penny. A good Irishman should tingle with shame every time he sees a red coat.
I know an old woman who never passes a soldier without railing at him. As a girl she made bullets for the Fenians, moulding them out of the leaden lining of tea cases. During the half century that has gone by, while our fathers and we have been parleying with the English, she has cherished in her heart an enduring hate. I saw her a few weeks ago as she went by the Wellington Barracks on her way to the Wolfe Tone Aeridheacht, and as she passed the sentry at the gate she paused and said something bitter to him. I would not have done that. I could not even if I would. Neither could you. A strong man would regard it as futile; a man with a sense of humour would regard it as ridiculous, just as most men regard the demonstrations of the Suffragettes. Yet I think the women are right and not we. At the root of that old woman’s demonstration against the stolid sentry was an instinct profoundly true. She is in revolt against the evil thing that holds her country, and of that evil thing the sentry is the symbol. She is an unconquered soul, one of the few unconquered souls in Ireland. She has not made peace, and will never make peace. She has never even parleyed. It were wrong to laugh at her little feeble demonstration against the soldier. I do not call for demonstrations against soldiers until we are able to do more than demonstrate; but the fact that we pass them by every day, every hour, without grinding our teeth is symptomatic of our loss of manhood. We no longer feel their presence here a reproach.
Of the nation’s symbols the most august is her language, and it is a measure of Ireland’s degradation that she can endure to see her language derided by a Mr Justice Boyd and that she can discuss the propriety of selling it for £10,000 a year to a Mr Secretary Birrell. Ireland has lost the sense of shame. Her inner sanctities are no longer sacred to her. Keating (whom I take to be the greatest of Irish Nationalist poets) used a terrific phrase of the Ireland of his day: he called her ‘the harlot of England’. Yet Keating’s Ireland was the magnificent Ireland in which Rory O’More planned and Owen Roe battled. What would he say of this Ireland? His phrase if used today would no longer be a terrible metaphor, but would be a more terrible truth; a truth literal and exact. For is not Ireland’s body given up to the pleasure of another, and is not Ireland’s honour for sale in the market-places?
As long as Ireland is unfree the only honourable attitude for Irishmen and Irishwomen is an attitude of revolt. It is base of us to be quiescent. It is base not only for the nation, but for each individual in the nation: each of us is guilty of a personal baseness, each of us suffers a personal stigma, as long as this thing endures. When we go to Wolfe Tone’s grave next Sunday we should remember with bitterness that we suffer the ignominy which he died rather than endure. If we mean to go on suffering it, we have no business going in pilgrimage to that dead man’s grave. If we do not really mean to carry on his work, why disturb the quiet of Bodenstown with protestations?
I said last month that this generation of Irishmen will be called upon in the near future to make a very passionate assertion of nationality, and that the form which that assertion shall take must depend largely upon the passage or non-passage of the present Home Rule Bill. If the Home Rule Bill passes I imagine that the assertion I speak of will be made by the creation of what we may call a Gaelic party within the Home Rule Parliament, with a strong following behind it in the country; a party which shall determinedly set about the rehabilitation of this nation, resting not until it has eliminated every vestige of foreign interference with its concerns. If the Home Rule Bill does not pass (and those who are offering an instalment of liberty to Ireland are proving such bad guardians of liberty in their own country that it is doubtful whether their own countrymen will retain them in office sufficiently long to allow them to pass Home Rule), the assertion must be made in other ways: I believe that if we who hold the full national faith have but the courage to step forward we shall succeed more easily than most people suppose in gaining the people’s adhesion to our ideals and our methods — lesser ideals having proved unattainable and wiser methods more foolish.
Once I knew a Bishop who used to devote the greater part of his spare time to writing Limericks in competition for prizes offered by newspapers. You will find it difficult to imagine a Bishop writing Limericks. One imagines a Bishop in his spare hours writing biblical commentaries or cultivating a neat garden in which the characteristic flower is lily-of-the-valley. And yet my Bishop was a saint. The not very apostolic occupation of his leisure had its origin in an apostolic simplicity and charity. The Bishop had a little niece of whom he was very fond, and the ambition of the little niece’s life was to win one of the large prizes offered by London newspapers for clever Limericks. The good Bishop sent in a vast number of Limericks in his niece’s name, and if he or she won a prize (which, I am sorry to say, neither of them ever did), half the money was to be spent in sending the little niece on a pilgrimage to Lourdes and the other half to given to the Society of St Vincent de Paul. If I had not learned all this from a friend of the little niece’s I might have set down the Limerick writing (for some of the Limericks were very bad) as a reprehensible eccentricity on the part of an otherwise excellently behaved Bishop.
At that time I was not a hermit, and was not versed in the wise foolishness of saints. From the Bishop’s and from other instances I have since elaborated this piece of wisdom: when a good man does an inexplicable thing there is always a motive creditable to his goodness. Men’s follies are often more symptomatic of their virtues than of their vices. Apply this to those round about you, your home, in your office, in your organisation: apply it to the busy-bodies and the fools who appear to be making a mess of everything you are interested in, from your breakfast to your country, and you will come to respect them for their very blunders, to love them for their lunacy. You prefer your eggs well boiled. Your wife insists on serving them to you half raw. This is not perverseness on her part: she knows that the albumen of eggs when solidified is highly indigestible and when swallowed hastily every morning, and washed down with tea, will assuredly induce appendicitis. You hate to sit in a draught. The man whose stool is next you in your office insists on keeping a window open from which an atmospheric stream constantly impinges upon your thinly-thatched cranium. This is not cruelty on his part: he knows (being a reader of Lady Aberdeen’s Slainte) that you are tubercular, and that fresh air is the only thing that will kill the germs. You are a member of the Gaelic League. A friend and colleague writes to the press to point out that you are selling the League to the Liberals and that your reward will be a title. This is not a damned lie: it is his way of hinting that you ought to be a little more strenuous, to smite a little harder and a little oftener, to keep up perpetually a sort of Berserker rage or riastral in the way of the old heroes. It is his crude, inartistic, modern notion of playing Laegh to your Cúchulainn. The bravest hero of the Gael had to endure being called ‘a little fairy phantom’ by his charioteer. Were he fighting at the Ford today he would be called a ‘Do-Nothing’. When Cúchulainn was reviled by Laegh he did not turn round and fell him. He fought on the harder against the foe of his country.
I love and honour Douglas Hyde. I have served under him since I was a boy. I am willing to serve under him until he can lead and I can serve no longer. I have never failed him. He has never failed me. I am only one of many who could write thus, who at this moment are thinking thus. But probably my service has been longer than that of most, for it began when I was only sixteen; and perhaps it has been more intimate than that of all but a very few, for I have been in posts that required constant communication with him for fifteen years. It has, too, been my privilege to be the first fosterer of many who are now serving under him — pupils of mine, now pupils of his in the National University or young workers in the Gaelic League; and these form a new bond between him and me. Thus by service given and service received I have earned the right to say here the things I am about to say. I can speak to him at once as friend to friend and as loyal soldier to loyal captain.
Or rather, since it has become the fashion to write Open Letters to Douglas Hyde, I will write him an Open Letter. I will commence: ‘My dear Hyde, — Among God’s gracious gifts to you, perhaps the most gracious, at any rate the most useful, is your gift of humour. You have always had a great Homeric laugh. I call upon you to laugh it now. I could show you much matter for laughter in these noises and irrelevancies that disturb you … Laugh, my dear Craoibhin. Laugh your great genial laugh. It will ease the situation. Bulfin used to say that O’Daly’s smile would split the ceiling at 24 Upper O’Connell Street. Let your laughter shake the Clock Tower in Earlsfort Terrace.’
To be quite serious, laughter is what is required just now. A shout of laughter that will roll out from the Ard-Fheis at Galway till it re-echoes from the cliffs of Aran and reverberates through the stony solitudes of the Burren. Why all this passion of invective when laughter will solve the difficulty? Let us laugh. Laughter is the one gift that God has given to men but denied to brutes and angels. Laughter is the crowning grace of heroes. The epic tells how the dying Cúchulainn noticed that a raven which had stooped to drink his blood, becoming tangled in the clotted gore, was ludicrously upset. ‘Then Cúchulainn, knowing that it was his last laugh, laughed aloud.’ I think that Emmet, I am quite sure that Tone, would have laughed in similar circumstances.
For my own part, I have found the need of laughter in order to preserve my sanity. And you, Craoibhin, have counselled sanity. Here is one piece of sanity that I have learned from being a schoolmaster. Always remember that in a school you have to deal with boys, not cherubim. An enthusiastic teacher often makes the mistake of forming an ideal picture of schoolboy virtue, and is shocked and disheartened when he finds that his actual pupils fall far below his ideal. You have, for instance, a little pupil with a virginal face. You say to yourself, ‘This boy will surely never buy cigarettes in the forbidden shop at the corner, or steal into the garden when the apples are ripe.’ You come upon him some day in the walk through the wood, and as you approach he hastily conceals a cigarette; you enter the garden in autumn time, and you notice a slight figure with the face of a saint making a dash from the place where the apple-trees are. You are angry with the boy, but it is with yourself you should be angry, or rather you should laugh at yourself for a blunderer. The boy has only proved himself a boy, whereas you have proved yourself a goose. Instead of taking down the boy’s trousers, you ought to take down the impossible image you had so foolishly erected.
I wonder whether this schoolmaster’s wisdom might not be of service to Dr Hyde. He must try to remember that those around him are men, not archangels. They are men with all the little lovable and unlovable weaknesses of men, and without any of the vision and strength of angels. And he must try to forgive them and to imagine that they mean well even when they act badly; that sometimes at the bottom of their blundering there may be a grain of sense; and that often their fury is only a slightly diseased love of the cause we all serve. And perhaps human causes are best served by men with human strength and human weaknesses. Archangels are fitted to go upon the mighty embassies of God, not to do the little paltry tasks of human life. Archangels are at home in the shining spaces of heaven, not in the habitations and committee rooms of earth. Curious as it seems, we ridiculous men, with all our faults and all our follies, are very capable where angels might fail. Angelic attributes might hinder us in our humble and humdrum but necessary little careers. The inconveniences of being angels on earth would be dreadful. As we sat on our office stools, as we gathered round the table of our committee room, where, for instance, should we tuck in our wings? The buildings would have to be enlarged. In point of fact, a heaven would be necessary to our comfort. But this is earth. And so we are back at our first position that we must put up with our human world and with the human material we have got, until we are all translated and become members of the eternal committee and delegates to the Ard-Fheis of God.
Thus much to Dr. Hyde. To those on whose behalf I appeal to his magnanimity I say only this: O ye of little sense, know ye not when ye have got a good captain for a good cause? And know ye not that it is the duty of the soldier to follow his captain, unfaltering, unquestioning, ‘seeing obedience in the bond of rule’? If ye know not this, ye know not the first thing that a fighting man should know.
I have been considering the ways of chafers and dragon-flies. During the long summer they are my only entertainment in this wilderness. The dragon-flies make pageant for me in the noontide splendour: the chafers are my orchestra in the dusky evening. Marbhén before me was similarly attended:
Swarms of bees and chafers, the little musicians of the world,
A gentle chorus.
Your beetle has in him many of the contradictions of the artist. In seemly black, he appeals to you as shy and retiring; suddenly, while you are sympathetically examining him, he splits up the middle, shocking you at first with the indecency of the act, but soon displays hidden wings as though he were an angel in disguise, and then, waving wild arms (like a Yeats making a speech), whirls into ecstasies, and is gone with multitudinous and iridescent whirr of wings and wing-cases. This is nature’s symbolling forth of the divina insania of the poets. It were perhaps too curious to assign certain beetles to certain poets and dramatists as their types and figures, associating for instance the Necydalis Major, long and graceful, with Mr Yeats, the familiar Coccinella, pleasant and comfortable-looking, with Lady Gregory, the Creophilus Maxillosus, a creature which haunts drains and feeds on garbage (and which I take to be the beetle celebrated in a well-known passage of Keating), with Mr George Moore.
Upon the dragon-fly a literature might be written. The dragon-fly is one of the most beautiful and terrible things in nature. It flashes by you like a winged emerald or ruby or turquoise. Scrutinise it at close quarters and you will find yourself comparing its bulky little round head, with its wonderful eyes and cruel jaws, to the beautiful, cruel head of a tiger. The dragon-fly among insects is in fact as the tiger among beasts, as the hawk among birds, as the shark among fish, as the lawyer among men, as England among the nations. It is the destroyer, the eater-up, the cannibal. Two dragon-flies will fight until nothing remains but two heads. So ferocious an eater-up is the dragon-fly that it is said that, in the absence of other bodies to eat up, it will eat up its own body until nothing is left but the head, and it would doubtless eat its own head if it could; a feat which would be as remarkable as the feat of the saint, recorded by Carlyle and recalled by Mitchel, who swam across the Channel carrying his decapitated head in his teeth. The dragon-fly is the type of greedy ascendancy — a sinister head preying upon its own vitals. The largest and most wonderful dragon-flies I have seen in Ireland haunt the lovely woods that fringe the shore of Lough Corrib, near Cong. And at Cong, I remember, there is a great lord who has pulled down many homes in order that no ascending smoke may mar the sylvan beauty of his landscape.
Of the doings of men only rumours reach me in this solitude. I have heard faint echoes of laughter at Galway, and am pleased to think that the Gael has not entirely lost his sense of humour: a catastrophe which I had feared, for Dr Hyde had been talking about his aunt’s will and Mr Griffith had been advising Dr Hyde as to how to conduct a movement to success. The Irish-speaking crowd surging around the brake in Galway square recalls one to the realities of the movement, and to the field that is lying fallow. I want a missionary, a herald, an Irish-speaking John the Baptist, one who would go through the Irish West and speak trumpet-toned of nationality to the people in the villages. I would not have him speak of Gaelic Leagues, or of Fees for Irish, or of Bilingual Programmes, or of Essential Irish in Universities: I would have him speak of Tone and Mitchel and the Hawk of the Hill and of men dead or in exile for love of the Gael; all in Irish. In the meantime I welcome Éamonn Ceannt and ‘Bean an Fhir Ruaidh’.
Books sometimes find their way to this remote place, and fortunately books, even very profane books, are not forbidden by my rule. This month I have received a good book and a bad book. The good book is indeed one of the holy books of Ireland: no other than John Mitchel’s Jail Journal, the last gospel of the New Testament of Irish Nationality, as Wolfe Tone’s Autobiography is the first; John Mitchel’s Jail Journal nobly presented, supplemented by an additional chapter of his Out of Jail Journal, enriched with good notes and portraits, and introduced by Arthur Griffith in a finely written preface. Mr Griffith speaks of the ‘haughty manhood’ of Mitchel. A Man is so rare a phenomenon in Ireland that the appearance of one takes his generation by surprise and he dies broken-hearted or is hanged or transported before his people have made up their minds whether to crown him or to stone him — or simply to ignore him. Mitchel brought reality into a national movement busy with discussions as our own movement is busy with discussions today. He admits that he miscalculated: underestimating both ‘the vigour and zeal’ of the enemy and ‘the much-enduring patience and perseverance’ of the Irish. It comes to this: a Man cannot save his people unless the people themselves have some manhood. A Man, even if he be a Man-God, will live and die in vain for all who are voluntary slaves. Christ cannot save you if you want to be damned: much less can any earthly hero.
I agree with one who holds that John Mitchel is Ireland’s greatest literary figure — that is, of those who have written in English. But I place Tone above him both as a man and as a leader of men. Tone’s was a broader humanity with as intense a nationality; Tone’s was a sunnier nature with as stubborn a soul. But Mitchel stands next to Tone: and these two shall teach you and lead you, O Ireland, if you hearken unto them, and not otherwise than as they teach and lead shall you come unto the path of national salvation. For this I will answer on the Judgment Day.
I was wrong in speaking of my second book as a bad book. It is a good book, lovingly written, but it is spoiled by a profane preface. I am speaking of Maurice Moore’s life of his father and of George Moore’s preface thereto. The soldier has told the facts of his father’s life (I wish he had not called him ‘an Irish Gentleman’) simply and well, and the novelist has tried to suggest that his father was not an ‘Irish gentleman’ but an Irish blackguard. Many Irish gentlemen have indeed been blackguards, but I do not think George Henry Moore was one. In a mean and difficult time he worked manfully for Ireland; and towards the end of his life he was willing to become a Fenian. Blackguards do not generally work manfully for their country or become Fenians. But it is absurd and unnecessary to defend George Henry Moore, even against his son. A man’s life really speaks for itself, and requires only such faithful record as George Henry Moore’s has received here from Maurice Moore. No man’s life needs a Defensio or an Apologia, and I am often sorry to see men really great and simple go to such pains to explain themselves: as if your explanation could make your deeds more eloquent! George Henry Moore was no wrathful and haughty Mitchel, no gay and heroic Tone; but he was a very worthy and gallant figure in his time, and might have served Ireland well if he had learned to know her sooner.
It is not amusing to be hungry; at least (for I desire to be moderate in my language), it it not very amusing. Though hunger be proverbially good sauce, one may have too much of it, as of most good things; and, while meat without sauce is tolerable, sauce without meat is apt to pall. Yorkshire Relish (I am told) is delicious, but one would not care to dine upon it. Hunger Sauce must be still less sustaining. Indeed, the only advantage that Hunger Sauce seems to possess over other brands is its extreme cheapness. The very poorest can enjoy it, and it is one of the few luxuries that the rich will not grudge them. But, as far as nutritious properties are concerned, the cakes recommended by Marie Antoinette to the starving peasants of France, in lieu of bread, were preferable.
‘Why are the people crying?’
‘Your Majesty, they have no bread.’
‘But why not eat cake?’ asked the Queen.
Poor Marie Antoinette did not quite grasp the situation in France. In the end they grasped her and hurried her to the guillotine. If Marie Antoinette could have got at the peasants’ point of view there might have been no French Revolution. There are only two ways of righting wrongs: reform and revolution. Reform is possible when those who inflict the wrong can be got to see things from the point of view of those who suffer the wrong. Some men can see from other men’s points of view by sympathy; most men cannot until you actually put them in the other men’s shoes. I would like to put some of our well-fed citizens in the shoes of our hungry citizens, just for an experiment. I would try the hunger cure upon them. It is known that hunger is a good sauce; it is also known that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is further known that a pound a week is sufficient to sustain a Dublin family in honest hunger — at least very rich men tell us so, and very rich men know all about everything, from art galleries to the domestic economy of the tenement room. I would ask those who know that a man can live and thrive, can house, feed, clothe, and educate a large family on a pound a week to try the experiment themselves. Let them show us how the thing is done. We will allow them a pound a week for the sustenance of themselves and their families, and will require them to hand over their surplus income, over and above a pound a week, to some benevolent object. I am quite certain that they will enjoy their poverty and their hunger. They will go about with beaming faces; they will wear spruce and well-brushed clothes; they will drink their black tea with gusto and masticate their dry bread scientifically (Lady Aberdeen will tell them the proper number of bites per slice); they will write books on ‘How to be Happy though Hungry’; when their children cry for more food they will smile; when their landlord calls for the rent they will embrace him; when their house falls upon them they will thank God; when policemen smash in their skulls they will kiss the chastening baton. They will do all these things — perhaps; in the alternative they may come to see that there is something to be said for the hungry man’s hazy idea that there is something wrong somewhere.
It is, of course, easy for me, a well-fed hermit, to write with detachment about hunger. It is always easy for well-fed persons to take detached views of such things; indeed, sometimes the views of the well-fed on these matters are so detached from their subject as to have no relation to it at all. If I were hungry, I should probably write with a little more passion than I am displaying. Indeed, if I were as hungry at this moment as many equally good men of Ireland undoubtedly are, it is probable that I should not be sitting here wielding this pen; possibly I should be in the streets wielding a paving-stone. I frankly admit that I am well-fed; but you must not imagine me a sybarite. Being a hermit, I limit myself to four square meals a day, except on feast-days when, for the greater glory of God, I allow myself five. If I were not thus explicit my views on economic questions might be discounted; I should be described as belonging to the ‘lowest stratum’ of society, and therefore not in any real sense a member of society, or indeed of the human race, at all; it would be hinted that I am a ‘loafer’, that I frequent ‘street corners’, that I am a ‘socialist’, a ‘syndicalist’, and other weird things. I once took a modest part in breaking up a meeting in the Antient Concert Rooms. The next day the Independent called me an ‘unwashed youth’. A youth I certainly was, but I had washed myself with scrupulous care that blessed morning; indeed, it is my habit to wash myself in the mornings. A distinguished scholar (now a Professor of the National University) and a distinguished woman of letters (now prominent in the counsels of the United Irishwomen) were beside me on that occasion, and they, too, were described as ‘unwashed youths’: the words ‘of both sexes’ were added, lest it might be left open to inference that even the ladies who disagree with the Independent are so virtuous as to wash themselves. When, therefore, you differ in opinion from a newspaper it is always well to let it be known that you wash yourself regularly, that you take the normal number of meals, that you pay your rent and taxes, that you go to church or chapel, and that, in short, you conform in all particulars to the lofty standard of conduct set up by such an eminent fellow-citizen of yours as Mr William M Murphy.
Personally, I am in a position to protest my respectability. I do all the orthodox things. My wild oats were sown and reaped years ago. I am nothing so new-fangled as a socialist or a syndicalist. I am old-fashioned enough to be both a Catholic and a Nationalist. I am not smarting under any burning personal wrong — except the personal wrong I endure in being a member of an enslaved nation. I am at peace with all the men of Ireland. It becomes both my character and my profession to be at peace with my fellow-slaves, whether capitalist or worker, whether rich or poor, whether fed or hungry. God knows that we, poor remnant of a gallant nation, endure enough shame in common to make us brothers. And yet here is a matter in which I cannot rest neutral. My instinct is with the landless man against the lord of lands, and with the breadless man against the master of millions. I may be wrong, but I do hold it a most terrible sin that there should be landless men in this island of waste yet fertile valleys, and that there should be breadless men in this city where great fortunes are made and enjoyed.
I calculate that one-third of the people of Dublin are underfed; that half the children ending Irish primary schools are ill-nourished. Inspectors of the National Board will tell you that there is no use in visiting primary schools in Ireland after one or two in the afternoon: the children are too weak and drowsy with hunger to be capable of answering intelligently. I suppose there are twenty thousand families in Dublin in whose domestic economy milk and butter are all but unknown: black tea and dry bread are their staple articles of diet. There are many thousand fireless hearth-places in Dublin on the bitterest days of winter; there would be many thousand more only for such bodies as the Society of St Vincent de Paul. Twenty thousand Dublin families live in one-room tenements. It is common to find two or three families occupying the same room; and sometimes one of the families will have a lodger! There are tenement rooms in Dublin in which over a dozen persons live, eat, and sleep. High rents are paid for these rooms, rents which in cities like Birmingham would command neat four-roomed cottages with gardens. The tenement houses of Dublin are so rotten that they periodically collapse upon their inhabitants, and if the inhabitants collect in the streets to discuss matters the police baton them to death.
These are among the grievances against which men in Dublin are beginning to protest. Can you wonder that protest is at last made? Can you wonder that the protest is crude and bloody? I do not know whether the methods of Mr James Larkin are wise methods or unwise methods (unwise, I think, in some respects), but this I know, that here is a most hideous wrong to be righted, and that the man who attempts honestly to right it is a good man and a brave man.
Poverty, starvation, social unrest, crime, are incidental to the civilisation of such states as England and America, where immense masses of people are herded into great Christless cities and the bodies and souls of men are exploited in the interests of wealth. But these conditions do not to any extent exist in Ireland. We have not great cities; we have not dense industrial populations; we have hardly any ruthless capitalists exploiting immense masses of men. Yet in Ireland we have dire and desperate poverty; we have starvation; we have social unrest. Ireland is capable of feeding twenty million people; we are barely four million. Why do so many of us starve?
Before God, I believe that the root of the matter lies in foreign domination. A free Ireland would not, and could not, have hunger in her fertile vales and squalor in her cities. Ireland has resources to feed five times her population: a free Ireland would make those resources available. A free Ireland would drain the bogs, would harness the rivers, would plant the wastes, would nationalise the railways and waterways, would improve agriculture, would protect fisheries, would foster industries, would promote commerce, would diminish extravagant expenditure (as on needless judges and policemen), would beautify the cities, would educate the workers (and also the non-workers, who stand in direr need of it), would, in short, govern herself as no external power — nay, not even a government of angels and archangels — could govern her. For freedom is the condition of sane life, and in slavery, if we have not death, we have the more evil thing which the poet has named Death-in-Life. The most awful wars are the wars that take place in dead or quasi-dead bodies when the fearsome things that death breeds go forth to prey upon one another and upon the body that is their parent.
There are incongruities which are humorous, and there are incongruities which are disgusting. All humour has its source in incongruity, but so has all sin. Sometimes the humour of an incongruity is so great that we overlook the fact of its wickedness; sometimes the wickedness of an incongruity is so apparent that only a saint can laugh at its humour (for your saint laughs at things whereat your man of less sanctity, which means of less charity and less humility, is scandalised). There are obvious incongruities at which everyone, from a saint to a solicitor, will at least smile. Thus, when one hears a noble air of Gounod’s sung to such words as ‘My wife stole a hell of a lump of beef’; when one meets an archbishop in gaiters wheeling a perambulator containing his off-spring, when one comes upon a bull in a china shop or upon a member of the Chamber of Commerce in an art gallery, one smiles no matter how respectable one is. No question of ethics enters into these cases. It is a pity that a Gounod march should be sung to profane words; but Gounod would suffer no diminution of just fame if all the kleptomaniac exploits of all the wives of the world were chanted to his music. One may have rigid ideas as to the impropriety of archbishops wheeling their offspring in perambulators — and it is certainly going too far to wear gaiters while doing so unarchiepiscopal a thing; but it is not a very serious sin, if sin at all. A bull in a china shop may break a good deal of crockery, but he can hardly break any of the Commandments; and a member of the Chamber of Commerce in an art gallery will not do the pictures any harm, nor, unless he be as sensitive as some Gaelic Leaguers I have known (and that is impossible), will the pictures do him any harm. In these instances nothing suffers but the Law of Congruity; and laws have made so many people suffer that one can well tolerate the notion of a law suffering once in a way.
But there are incongruities which disgust, or at any rate ought to disgust. A millionaire promoting Universal Peace is such an incongruity; an employer who accepts the aid of foreign bayonets to enforce a lock-out of his workmen and accuses the workmen of national dereliction because they accept foreign alms for their starving wives and children, is such an incongruity; a public body in an enslaved country which passes a resolution congratulating a citizen upon selling himself to the enemies of that country, and upon making a good bargain of it, is such an incongruity; an Irish Nationalist, unable to pull the trigger of a gun himself, who sneers at the drillings and rifle-practices of Orangemen, is such an incongruity. The Eastern and the Western Worlds are indeed full of incongruities of this sort; each of them matter for a play by a Synge.
To dilate a little on one of them. It is now the creed of Irish nationalism (or at least of that Irish nationalism which is vocal on platforms and in the press) that the possession of arms and a knowledge of the use of arms is a fit subject for satire. To have a rifle is as ridiculous as to have a pimple at the end of your nose, or a bailiff waiting for you round the corner. To be able to use a rifle is an accomplishment as futile as to be able to stand on your head, to be able to wag your ears. This is not the creed of any other nationalism that exists or has ever existed in any community, civilised or uncivilised, that has ever inhabited the globe. It has never been the creed of Irish nationalism until this our day. Mitchel and the great confessors of Irish nationalism would have laughed it to scorn. Mitchel, indeed, did laugh to scorn a similar but much less foolish doctrine of O’Connell’s; and the generation that came after O’Connell rejected his doctrine and accepted Mitchell. The present generation of Irish Nationalists is not only unfamiliar with arms but despises all who are familiar with arms. Irish Nationalists share with certain millionaires the distinction of being the only people who believe in Universal Peace — here and now. Even the Socialists who want Universal Peace propose to reach it by Universal War; and so far they are sensible.
It is symptomatic of the attitude of the Irish Nationalist that when he ridicules the Orangeman he ridicules him not for his numerous foolish beliefs, but for his readiness to fight in defence of those beliefs. But this is exactly wrong. The Orangeman is ridiculous in so far as he believes incredible things; he is estimable in so far as he is willing and able to fight in defence of what he believes. It is foolish of an Orangeman to believe that his personal liberty is threatened by Home Rule; but, granting that he believes that, it is not only in the highest degree common sense but it is his clear duty to arm in defence of his threatened liberty. Personally, I think the Orangeman with a rifle a much less ridiculous figure than the Nationalist without a rifle; and the Orangeman who can fire a gun will certainly count for more in the end than the Nationalist who can do nothing cleverer than make a pun. The superseded Italian rifles which the Orangemen have imported may not be very dangerous weapons; but at least they are more dangerous than epigrams. When the Orangemen ‘line the last ditch’ they may make a very sorry show; but we shall make an even sorrier show, for we shall have to get Gordon Highlanders to line the ditch for us.
I am not defending the Orangeman; I am only showing that his condemnation does not lie in the mouth of an unarmed Nationalist. The Orangeman is a sufficiently funny person; and he is funny mainly because he is so serious. He has no sense of incongruity; in his mind’s eye he sees without smiling Cardinal Logue sending Protestant worthies to the stake and Sir Edward Carson undergoing the fatigues of a campaign — things which will never be. At least, I think not; for Cardinal Logue is kindly and humorous, and Sir Edward Carson is a lawyer with a price. The Orangeman’s lack of a sense of the incongruous is sometimes painful. In Belfast they are selling chair cushions with Sir Edward Carson’s head embroidered upon them; which is pretty much as if a man were to emblazon the arms of his country upon the seat of his trousers. One should not put a sacred emblem where it is certain to be sat upon and liable to be kicked; and only Orangemen would think of honouring their chief by sitting on his head.
But the rifles of the Orangemen give dignity even to their folly. The rifles are bound to be useful some day. At the worst they may hasten Sir Edward Carson’s final exit from Ulster; at the best they may crack outside Dublin Castle. The Editor of Sinn Féin wrote the other day that when the Orangemen fire upon the King of England’s troops it will become the duty of every Nationalist in Ireland to join them: there is a deal of wisdom in the thought as well as a deal of humour. Or negotiations might be opened with the Orangemen on these lines: You are erecting a Provisional Government of Ulster — make it a Provisional Government of Ireland and we will recognise and obey it. O’Connell said long ago that he would rather be ruled by the old Protestant Ascendancy Irish Parliament than by the Union Parliament; ‘and O’Connell was right,’ said Mitchel. He certainly was. It is unquestionable that Sir Edward Carson’s Provisional Government would govern Ireland better than she has been governed by the English Cabinet; at any rate, it could not well govern her worse. Any six Irishmen would be a better Government of Ireland than the English Cabinet has been: any six criminals from Mountjoy Prison, any six lunatics from the Richmond Asylum, any six Orangemen from Portadown. The Irishmen would at least try to govern Ireland in the interests of Irish criminals, lunatics, or Orangemen, as the case might be: the English have governed her in the interests of England. Better exploit Ireland for the benefit of Belfast than exploit her for the benefit of Westminster. Better wipe out Ireland in one year’s civil war than let England slowly bleed her to death.
A rapprochement between Orangemen and Nationalists would be difficult. The chief obstacles are the Orangeman’s lack of humour and the Nationalist’s lack of guns: each would be at a disadvantage in a conference. But a sense of humour can be cultivated, and guns can be purchased. One great source of misunderstanding has now disappeared: it has become clear within the last few years that the Orangeman is no more loyal to England than we are. He wants the Union because he imagines that it secures his prosperity; but he is ready to fire on the Union flag the moment it threatens his prosperity. The position is perfectly plain and understandable. Foolish notions of loyalty to England being eliminated, it is a matter for business-like negotiation. A Nationalist mission to North-East Ulster would possibly effect some good. The case might be put thus: Hitherto England has governed Ireland through the Orange Lodges; she now proposes to govern Ireland through the AOH. You object: so do we. Why not unite and get rid of the English? They are the real difficulty; their presence here the real incongruity.
I was once stranded on a desert island with a single companion. When two people are stranded on a desert island they naturally converse. We conversed. We sat on a stony beach and talked for hours. When we had exhausted all the unimportant subjects either of us could think of, we commenced to talk about important subjects. (I have observed that even on a desert island it is not considered good form to talk of important things while unimportant things remain to be discussed.) We had very different points of views, and very different temperaments. I was a boy; my companion was an old man. I was about to enter the most wicked of all professions; my companion was a priest. Being young, I was serious and conceited; being old, my companion was gay and humble. In some respects I was more learned than he: he was trying to spell his way through Keatings Trí Bior-Ghaoithe an Bháis and I was able to help him. But in every respect he was wiser beyond telling than I, for his life had been stormy and sorrowful, and withal very saintly, so that he had garnered much of the wisdom both of heaven and of earth; and I had garnered only the wisdom of the Board of Intermediate Education. We were thus as singularly ill-assorted a pair as ever sat down together on the beach of a desert island.
Yet we had one interest in common. There was at the bottom of my heart a memory which a course of Intermediate education (by some miracle of God’s) had not altogether obliterated. I had heard in childhood of the Fenians from one who, although a woman, had shared their hopes and disappointment. The names of Stephens and O’Donovan Rossa were familiar to me, and they seemed to me the most gallant of all names: names which should be put into songs and sung proudly to tramping music. Indeed, my mother (although she was not old enough to remember the Fenians) used to sing of them in words learned, I daresay, from that other who had known them; one of her songs had the lines:
Because I was O’Donovan Rossa,
And a son of Gráinne Mhaol
and although I did not quite know who O’Donovan Rossa was or what his deed had been, I felt that he must have been a gallant and kingly man and his deed a man’s deed. Alice Milligan had not yet made the ballad of ‘Owen Who Died’, which was to give these heroic names a place in literature:
You have heard of O’Donovan Rossa from nigh Skibbereen;
You have heard o’ the Hawk ‘o the Hill-top, if you have not seen;
You have heard of the Reaper whose reaping was of grain half green;
Such were the men among us in the days that have been.
None of my school-fellows had ever heard of those names; and if our masters had heard them they never mentioned them. O’Connell we heard about; and one day that stands out in my memory, Parnell’s name was mentioned, for a master came into the room and said: ‘Well, boys, they say Parnell is dead — the dirty fellow.’ We all grew very still, for we were all Parnellites; and we wondered why he should be called a dirty fellow, and thought it a cruel thing. That was before the Juggernaut car of the Intermediate had rolled over us, and we still retained most of the decent kindly instincts with which we had been born. Had it happened four years later we should probably have applauded the master’s announcement as rather neatly put.
But behold me on the beach of my desert island with my priest beside me. And my priest, as I found out when we began to talk about serious things, had known the Fenians, had made something of a stir in Fenian times, had even been called the Fenian priest! I do not know whether he had ever been a Fenian; but I know that all the Fenians of a countryside used to go to confession to him in preference to their own parish priests; and it was said that he had a Sodality of the Sacred Heart composed to a man of sworn Fenians: probably an exaggeration. But this I can vouch for, that he loved the name and fame of the Fenians, and he spoke to me, till his voice grew husky and his eyes filled with tears, of their courage, of their loyalty, of their enthusiasm, of their hope, of their failure. ‘Stephens should have given the word,’ he said; ‘we’ll never be as ready as we were the night he escaped from Richmond Prison. We’ve lost our manhood since.’ It was the first year of the Boer War. ‘Look at the chance we have now,’ he exclaimed: ‘the British army at the other end of the earth, and one blow would give us Ireland; but we’ve neither men nor guns. GOD ALMIGHTY WON’T GO ON GIVING US CHANCES if we let every chance slip. You can’t expect He’ll give us more chances than He gave the Jews. He’ll turn His back on us … And why,’ he added, ‘should a lot of old women be free, anyhow?’ The worthy man had not considered the Suffragist claim; or perhaps he would have allowed freedom to bona fide old women and denied it to old-woman-like young men — in which he would have been right.
For, after all, may it not be said with entire truth that the reason why Ireland is not free is that Ireland has not deserved to be free? Men who have ceased to be men cannot claim the rights of men; and men who have suffered themselves to be deprived of their manhood have suffered the greatest of all indignities and deserved the most shameful of all penalties. It has been sung in savage and exultant verse of a fierce Western clan that its men allowed themselves to be deprived of their sight by a triumphant foe rather than be deprived of their manhood; and it was a man’s choice. But modern Irishmen with eyes open have allowed themselves to be deprived of their manhood; and many of them have reached terrible the depth of degradation in which a man will boast of his unmanliness. For in suffering ourselves to be disarmed, in acquiescing in a perpetual disarmament, in neglecting every chance of arming, in sneering (as all Nationalists do now) at those who have taken arms, we in effect abnegate our manhood. Unable to exercise men’s rights, we do not deserve men’s privileges. We are, in a strict sense, not fit for freedom; and freedom we shall never attain.
It is not reasonable to expect that the Almighty will repeal all the laws of His universe in our behalf. The condition on which freedom is given to men is that they are able to make good their claim to it; and unarmed men cannot make good their claim to anything which armed men choose to deny them. One of the sins against faith is presumption, which is defined as a foolish expectation of salvation without making use of the necessary means to obtain it: surely it is a sin against national faith to expect national freedom without adopting the necessary means to win and keep it. And I know of no other way than the way of the sword: history records no other, reason and experience suggest no other. When I say the sword I do not mean necessarily the actual use of the sword: I mean readiness and ability to use the sword. Which, translated into terms of modern life, means readiness and ability to shoot.
I regard the armed Orangemen of North-East Ulster as potentially the most useful body of citizens Ireland possesses. In fact, they are the only citizens Ireland does possess at this moment: the rest of us for the most part do not count. A citizen who cannot vindicate his citizenship is a contradiction in terms. A citizen without arms is like a priest without religion, like a woman without chastity, like a man without manhood. The very conception of an unarmed citizen is a purely modern one, and even in modern times it is chiefly confined to the populations of the (so-called) British Islands. Most other peoples, civilised and uncivilised, are armed. This is a truth which we of Ireland must grasp. We must try to realise that we are collectively and individually living in a state of degradation as long as we remain unarmed. I do not content myself with saying in general terms that the Irish should arm. I say to each one of you who read this that it is YOUR duty to arm. Until you have armed yourself and made yourself skilful in the use of your arms you have no right to a voice in any concern of the Irish Nation, no right to consider yourself a member of the Irish Nation or of any nation; no right to raise your head among any body of decent men. Arm. If you cannot arm otherwise than by joining Carson’s Volunteers, join Carson’s Volunteers. But you can, for instance, start Volunteers of your own.
My priest on my desert island spoke to me glowingly about the Three who died at Manchester. He spoke to me, too, of the rescue of Kelly and Deasy from the prison van and of the ring of armed Fenians keeping the Englishry at bay. I have often thought that that was the most memorable moment in recent Irish history: and that that ring of Irishmen spitting fire from revolver barrels, while an English mob cowered out of range, might well serve as a symbol of the Ireland that should be; of the Ireland that shall be. Next Sunday we shall pay homage to them and to their deed; were it not a fitting day for each of us to resolve that we, too, will be men.
It has penetrated to this quiet place that some of the young men of Ireland have banded themselves together under the noble name of Irish Volunteers with intent to arm in their country’s service. I am inclined to doubt the rumour. It has an air of inherent improbability. I could have believed such a report of any generation of young Irishmen of which I have read; but of the generation that I have known I hesitate to believe it. It is not like what they would do. Previous generations of young Irishmen (if what our fathers have told us be true) were foolish and hot-headed, not to say wicked and irreligious. Of course, they had not been properly instructed. Intermediate Boards and National Universities were yet in the womb of the British Government. The expansive power of gunpowder and the immense momentum which can be acquired by a bullet discharged from a gun were not generally known until Natural Philosophy became a subject for Matriculation, and Kennedy published a one-and-sixpenny text-book on the subject: hence our forefathers did not realise how dangerous it is to let off firearms — how could they be expected to? This fact, not hitherto adverted to by historians, goes far to explain the otherwise inexplicable action of the Volunteers of 1778, of the insurgents of 1798, of the Fenians of 1867; men, apparently sane, who expended quite a lot of money on buying or manufacturing deadly arms. Had they realised that the weapons might kill the poor soldiers who were guarding their country, it is unquestionable that they would not have been so inhumane as to procure them. Again, former generations of young Irishmen had no sound notions as to what is proper and gentlemanly. They always failed to recognise that it is not respectable to get yourself hanged, and could never be got to see that prison clothes, no matter how well-made, are not becoming. Robert Emmet was actually guilty of the impropriety of smiling on the scaffold; and surely it was very near blasphemy for three Irish murderers, with manacled hands uplifted from an English dock, to call upon God to ‘save Ireland’ as if that were not the job of the British Government.
Fortunately, we live in a more cultured as well as in a more religious age. We have studied Dynamics and know that firearms are dangerous; we have studied Political Economy and know that it is bad economy to expend money upon a national armament, seeing that we already pay the British Army to fight for us; we have studied Ethics and know that it is unlawful to rise against an established government. We have also cultivated a sense of decorum and a sense of humour. We see that militarism is not only wrong but, what is worse, ridiculous; and we should (very properly) hesitate to go out drilling lest they might put a caricature of us in Punch.
My knowledge that all this is so makes me doubt the rumour that a considerable number of young Irishmen have resolved to take arms and to train themselves in the use of arms. The improbability is increased when I come to examine the details of the report. Thus, a Provisional Committee including university professors, schoolmasters, solicitors, barristers, journalists, aldermen, public servants, commercial men, and gentlemen of leisure, is spoken of. I have never known persons of that sort to do anything more exciting than talk over tea and scones in the DBC. There are among those classes in Dublin many who are quite fearless — in debate; many who are extraordinarily prompt — in retort; a few who are really able and vigorous — in smashing their opponents’ arguments. That such men would turn aside from the realities of dialectics to the theatricalities of military preparation seems highly improbable. When it is added that the Provisional Committee includes United Irish Leaguers, Hibernians, Sinn Féiners, Gaelic Leaguers, and even a few who call themselves simply Separatists, the untruth of the whole story becomes almost manifest; for it is well known that there never has been and that there never can be anything like cordial co-operation between such widely-differing sections of politicians and non-politicians in Ireland. I dismiss therefore the tale of a huge tumultuous meeting of seven or eight thousand people in the largest hall in Dublin, with immense overflow meetings in neighbouring buildings and gardens; the detailed accounts of nightly drillings in various halls; the absurd rumour that Galway (well known to have no other interests than racing, fishing, and British tourists) and Cork (which is prepared to fight all Ireland on the question of conciliation) have flung themselves into the movement; and finally the grotesque fable that young men who are eating their way to the bar or preparing to purchase dispensary appointments from Boards of Guardians have paused in their honourable careers in order to learn how to shoot. These things have happened in other countries and in other times; but surely not in our own country and in our own time.
Consider the dislocating effect of such a movement. In the first place, it would make Home Rule, now about to be abandoned in deference to armed Ulster, almost a certainty; in a second place, should Home Rule miscarry, it would give us a policy to fall back upon. Again, it would make men and citizens of us, whereas we are quite comfortable as old women and slaves. Furthermore, it would unite us in one all-Ireland movement of brotherly co-operation, whereas we derive infinite pleasure from quarrelling with one another. The comfortable feeling that we are safe behind the guns of the British Army, like an infant in its mother’s arms, the precious liberty of confuting one another before the British public and thus gaining empire-wide reputations for caustic Celtic humour and brilliant Celtic repartee — these are things that we will not lightly sacrifice. For these privileges have we not cheerfully allowed our population to be halved and our taxation to be quadrupled? Enough said. Volunteering is undesirable. Volunteering is impossible. Volunteering is dangerous.
It would appear that the impossible has happened (as, indeed, when one comes to think of the matter, it nearly always does), and that the young men of Ireland are learning again the noble trade of arms. They had almost forgotten that it was a noble trade; and when the young men of a nation have reached so terrible a depth as to be unconscious of the dignity of arms, one will naturally doubt their capacity for any virile thought, let alone any virile action. Hence my scepticism of last month. I who am as a babe, believing all things and hoping all things, felt it difficult to believe this. One is disillusioned so often. Once when I was a boy, a ballad-singer came to the farmhouse in which I was living for a time in a glen of the Dublin hills. He had ballads of ‘Bold Robert Emmet’ and ‘Here’s a Song for Young Wolfe Tone’; and he told me that in secret places of the hills Fenians had drilled and, for all he knew, were drilling still. So I fared forth in quest of them, trudging along mountain roads at night, full of the faith that in some moonlit glen I should come upon the Fenians drilling. But I never found them. Nowhere beneath the moon were there armed men wheeling and marching. The mountains were lonely. When I came home I said to my grandfather (who had himself been a Fenian, albeit I knew it not), ‘The Fenians are all dead.’
‘Oh, be the!’ said he (his oaths never got further than ‘be the’), ‘how do you know that?’
‘I have gone through all the glens,’ I answered, ‘and there were none drilling: they must be dead.’
And my naive deduction was very nearly right. If the Fenians were not all dead, the Fenian spirit was dead, or almost dead. By the Fenian spirit I mean not so much the spirit of a particular generation as that virile fighting faith which has been the salt of all the generations in Ireland unto this last. And is it here even in this last? Yea, its seeds are here, and behold they are kindling: it is for you and me to fan them into such a flame as shall consume everything that is mean and compromising and insincere in Ireland and in each man of Ireland — for in every one of us there is much that is mean and compromising and insincere, much that were better burned out. When we stand armed as Volunteers we shall at least be men, and so shall be able to come into communion of thought and action with the virile generations of Ireland: to our betterment, be sure.
The only question that need trouble us now is this: Will the young men of Ireland rise to the opportunity that is given them? They have a year before them: the momentous year of 1914. The fate of the Irish movement in our time will very likely be determined during the coming twelve months, and it will be determined largely by the way in which the Volunteer movement develops. In other words, it will depend upon the young men who have volunteered, for they have the making of the movement in their hands. This is a problem in which the British Government is not a factor; in which the Irish leaders — Parliamentarian, Sinn Féin, Separatist, Gaelic League — are not factors; the young men of the towns and countrysides are the only factors; they and whatever manly stuff is in them. It is a great opportunity for the young men of a people to get. A year is theirs in which to make history.
A former generation of Irishmen got such a year and used it well. An army of 100,000 drilled and equipped men was its glorious fruit. Can we of the twentieth century work to similar purpose and with similar result during the year that has been given to us? I believe we can. There are circumstances which seem to me to make our task easier than theirs.
In the first place, we are poorer than they were. Therefore we shall be more generous. There were many men of money among the Volunteers of 1778-83: it was one of the weaknesses of the movement. Those who have are always inclined to hold; always afraid to risk. No good cause in Ireland appeals for help in vain, provided those to whom it appeals are sufficiently poor. The young men who, I imagine, are volunteering today are for the most part poor: being poor, they will know how to save and pinch and scrape until each man of them has a rifle and a uniform. There are those among them who will give up tobacco for a spell, or at any rate reduce their consumption of tobacco; who will become total abstainers for a while; who will renounce betting; who will go less frequently to theatres, to music-halls, to picture-houses; who will dispense with all their little luxuries and rise above all their little follies, to the sole end that they may have, each man of them, before the year is out, a Volunteer rifle on his shoulder and a Volunteer coat on his back. Note well the companies: I prophesy that it is not the companies which draw their recruits from the most prosperous quarters that will be soonest equipped; not the sleekest-looking men that will first shoulder rifles. When you are starting upon any noble enterprise, it is a great thing to start poor. Wolfe Tone, reaching France with a hundred guineas in his pocket, sent three fleets against England. James Stephens with ninety pounds in hand embarked upon the organisation of the Fenians.
In the second place, this is a movement of the people, not of the ‘leaders’. The leaders in Ireland have nearly always left the people at the critical moment; have sometimes sold them. The former Volunteer movement was abandoned by its leaders; hence its ultimate failure. Grattan ‘led the van’ of the Volunteers, but he also led the retreat of the leaders; O’Connell recoiled before the cannon at Clontarf; twice the hour of the Irish Revolution struck during Young Ireland days, and twice it struck in vain, for Meagher hesitated in Waterford, Duffy and McGee hesitated in Dublin. Stephens refused to ‘give the word’ in ‘65; he never came in ‘66 or ‘67. I do not blame these men: you or I might have done the same. It is a terrible responsibility to be cast upon a man, that of bidding the cannon speak and the grapeshot pour. But in this Volunteer movement, as I understand it, the people are to be master; and it will be for the people to say when and against whom the Volunteers shall draw the sword and point the rifle. Now, my reading of Irish history is that, however the leaders may have failed, the instinct of the people has always been unerring. The Volunteers themselves, the people themselves, must keep control of this movement. Any man or any group of men that seeks to establish an ascendancy should be dealt with summarily: such traitors to the Volunteer spirit would deserve to be shot, but it will be sufficient if they be shot out.
In the third place, the young men of Ireland have been to school to the Gaelic League. Herein it seems to me lies the fact which chiefly distinguishes this generation from the other revolutionary generations of the last century and a half: from the Volunteer generation of 1778, from the United Irish generation of 1798, from the Young Ireland generation of 1848, from the Fenian generation of 1867. We have known the Gaelic League, and:
Lo, a clearness of vision has followed, lo, a purification of sight.
do not think we shall be as liable to make blunders, to pursue side issues, to mistake shadows for substance, to overlook essentials, to neglect details on the one hand or to get lost in them on the other, as were previous generations of perhaps better men. It is not merely (or at all) that we have now a theory of nationality by which to correct our instinct: indeed, I doubt if a theory of nationality be a very great gain, and plainly the instinct of the Fenian artisan was a finer thing than the soundest theory of the Gaelic League professor. It is rather that we have got into a fuller communion with what is most racy in our past: our ancestors have spoken to us anew. In a deeper sense than before we realise that Ireland is ours and that we are Ireland’s. Our country wears to us a new aspect, and yet she is her most ancient self. We are as men who, having wandered long through the devious ways of a forest, see again the familiar hills and fields bathed in the light of heaven, ancient yet ever-new. And we rejoice in our hearts, and bless the goodly sun.