Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen—
Though the duties of an Auditor practically begin and end with the delivery of the Inaugural Address, yet the position is, from one point of view, a far from enviable one. Like most posts of honour it is also a post of danger, as on the success or failure of the Inaugural Address depends, to some extent, the success or failure of the Session. The members of the Society have done me the honour of re-electing me to the position of Auditor, and, whilst deeply sensible of this honour, particularly as I know better than anyone how wholly unmerited it is on my part, I cannot but reflect with misgiving that I run the risk of losing any little degree of credit I may have gained by my Inaugural Address last Session. However, I am not given to making excuses: if the Address please you no excuses will be necessary; and if, as is more probable, it fail to do so, all the excuses I could possibly make would not tend to mend matters in the slightest degree. I prefer, then, to trust to your generosity; and I shall meekly bear whatever criticisms it may please you to make.
‘The Intellectual Future of the Gael’ is a subject which must, from its very nature, be of the deepest interest to us; a subject which must be fascinating not only to men and women of Gaelic race, but to all who have at heart the great causes of civilization, education, and progress; to all who bow before the ‘might of mind,’ the majesty of intellect; to all, in short, who take an interest in the intellectual life of mankind—and this is, after all, the true life, for life without intellect is death. To all these, then, but especially to us—to us, Irishmen, young, ardent, enthusiastic, trying to grope amid the darkness for a path to higher things—no question can be of more absorbing interest than this: What has destiny in store for this ancient race of ours? Is our noonday of glory gone by for ever? Or have we still a future before us more glorious than we have ever dreamt of in our moments of wildest enthusiasm? I shall try this evening, Mr. Chairman, to find an answer to this question; and if my ideas on the subject do not exactly coincide with those to which we are accustomed, it is because I believe that the ends which, as a nation, we have hitherto striven to attain are ignes fatui which are fated to elude us for ever.
Others have been struck before now by the fact that hundreds of noble men and true have fought and bled for the emancipation of the Gaelic race, and yet have all failed. Surely, if ever cause was worthy of success, it was the cause for which Laurence prayed, for which Hugh of Dungannon planned, for which Hugh Roe and Owen Roe fought, for which Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward and Robert Emmet gave their lives, for which Grattan pleaded, for which Moore and Davis sang, for which O’Connell wore himself out with toil. Yet these men prayed and planned, and fought and bled, and pleaded and wrote, and toiled in vain. May it not be that there is some reason for this? May it not be that the ends they struggled for were ends never intended for the Gael? Surely, Mr. Chairman, it would seem so. The Gael is a splendid soldier; yet it is extremely problematic whether we shall ever be a great military nation like Germany or France. The Gael is, and always has been, a cunning artificer, a subtle mechanic; yet it is almost certain that we shall never be a great manufacturing or commercial nation like England. Does it not seem that a nobler destiny than either of these awaits us? We have struggled as no other nation has struggled; we have bled as no other nation has bled; we have endured an agony compared with which the agonies of other nations have been as child’s play. Time after time have we lifted the chalice of victory to our lips; time after time have we essayed to quaff its delicious contents; yet time after time has it been dashed to the ground. To-day, after a continuous fight lasting for eight long centuries, we are, Heaven knows, farther off than ever from the goal towards which we have struggled. Who can look at our political and national life at the present moment, and continue to hope? The men whom we call our leaders are engaged in tearing out one another’s vitals, and there is no prospect that they will ever stop. The people are listlessly looking on—for the first time in Irish History they seem to be sunk in apathy. We are tempted to cry aloud in our despair, ‘O God! will the morning never come?’ Yes, the morning will come, and its dawn is not far off. But it will be a morning different from the morning we have looked for. The Gael is not like other men; the spade, and the loom, and the sword are not for him. But a destiny more glorious than that of Rome, more glorious than that of Britain awaits him: to become the saviour of idealism in modern intellectual and social life, the regenerator and rejuvenator of the literature of the world, the instructor of the nations, the preacher of the gospel of nature-worship, hero-worship, God-worship—such, Mr. Chairman, is the destiny of the Gael.
Before I proceed to fill in this outline, it may be well if I digress for a few moments, to consider what races have, up to the present, contributed most to the intellectual advancement of mankind. First of all occurs to every mind the name of the Greeks—the pioneers of intellectual progress in Europe. Who can refuse his admiration to the nation which poured forth a stream of fire which to day, after a lapse of three thousand years, is still enlightening and elevating mankind? Mighty changes have passed over the earth during those three thousand years; but the epic sung so long ago by
‘The blind old man of Scio’s rocky isle,’
still instructs, and benefits, and delights us. The world’s greatest epic poet, the world’s greatest orator, several of the world’s greatest lyric poets, dramatists, and philosophers—these has Greece given to the human race. Next came the Roman: but the Roman directed his splendid energies towards other ends, and, beyond the work accomplished by one or two great men, his influence on intellectual history has not been great—has not, by any means, been proportional to what he might have done. Amongst modern nations those which have contributed most to the intellectual welfare of mankind are undoubtedly Italy, England and Germany. It is the great men of these nations along with those of Greece that have made the literature of the world.
But is it not unquestionable that the influence of these men—the Homers, and Dantes, and Shakespeares, and Miltons—is gradually growing less and less? Is it not unquestionable also that, at the present moment no literature is being produced in Europe, or in the world, worthy of the name? The vigorous minds of the day are engaged in producing writings which must, from their nature, be purely emphemeral—criticisms reviews, magazine articles—things which, however excellent and highly-finished in themselves, are, as a rule, forgotten as soon as read. Two or three writers are making desperate efforts to achieve fame by selecting the most outré and absolutely startling subjects to write of which even their prolific brains can devise. Nowadays no author can hope for popularity unless, like one popular novelist, he goes to Hell for a hero, or, like another, he makes a practice of libelling all that is sacred and sublime under pretence of zeal for liberty and truth. One novel has Satan for its hero, another has God for its villain.
Now, this may be modern, and up-to-date, and all that; but, I ask, is it pure, good healthy, natural literature? Is it literature which tends to exalt the souls, to make us better holier, happier? No, Mr. Chairman, emphatically no. The truth of the matter is that the intellectual and literary tastes of the world have been carried away by a craving for the unreal, for the extravagant, for the monstrous, for the immoral. Men’s tastes have become vitiated. There is no healthy out-of-door atmosphere in modern literature. Literature has arrived, in short, at a state of unnatural senility, and the time seems not far off when either of two things must happen—either intellect and literature must disappear from modern life, and with them everything that makes life worth living, or some new and unpolluted source must be opened up, some new blood must be infused into the intellectual system of the world, which has become prematurely worn out. Now, whence is this new blood to come? The answer is plain: there is but one race, among the races of to-day, which possesses a literature natural and uncontaminated; there is but one race which possesses an intellectual wealth which, though as old as history, is yet young and vigorous and healthy, and has a future before it rich with undeveloped possibilities. Needless to say, Mr. Chairman, this race is the Gaelic race—a race whose literature is as different from the unnatural literature of to-day as the pure radiance of the sun is different from the hideous glare of the electric light, as the free breath of heaven is different from the stifling atmosphere of a crowded theatre or music hall.
I have indicated, then, Mr. Chairman, what seems to me to be the true mission of the Gael, and it will be seen that in this mission the creation, or rather the propagation, of a nature-literature plays a most important part. I do not say the creation of a nature-literature, for the excellent reason that it has not to be created: as a matter of fact, it already exists, and only wants to be developed, to be matured, to be expanded. Now, this literature is totally different from every other literature in the world, and this is one of the reasons why it proves so entrancing to everyone who makes a study of it. Gaelic literature, we should remember, has grown up among and been developed by the Gael alone. Its sources of inspiration have been entirely native, and in this one point, at least, it can claim superiority even to Greek literature itself. As regards manner and style, it has been absolutely uninfluenced by the literature of any other nation. This is why it is so unique, so peculiar, so unlike everything else we are accustomed to, so refreshing—that is the proper word to apply to it. It has a quaint, old-world magic, and charm, and glamour that mark it as peculiarly fit to accomplish the reformation we have seen to be so necessary.
To give a more accurate idea of the form this reformation is to take, and of its effects, I would draw special attention to two points in the temperament of the Gael: his love for nature, and his veneration for his heroes. The intellectual life and atmosphere of the present day are, as I have said, nothing if not unnatural. The Gael, on the other hand, like all the Celts, is distinguished by an intense and passionate love for nature. The Gael is the high-priest of nature. He loves nature not merely as something grand, and beautiful, and wonderful, but as something possessing a mystic connection with and influence over man. In the cry of the seagull as he winged his solitary flight over the Atlantic waves, in the shriek of the eagle as he wheeled around the heights of the Kerry Mountains, in the note of the throstle as she sang her evening lay in the woods of Slieve Grot, in the roar of the cataract as it foamed and splashed down the rocky ravine, in the sob of the ocean as it beat unceasingly against the cliffs of Achill, in the sigh of the wind as it moved, ghostlike, through the oaks of Derrybawn—in all these sounds the ancient Gael heard a music unheard by other men, all these sounds spoke to his inmost heart in whispers mysterious and but half understood: they spoke to him as the voice of his ancestors urging him to be noble and true—as the voices of the glorious dead calling to him across the waters from Tír na n-Og.
The Gael, believed, too, that the earth and, the air, and the sea were filled with strange beings that exerted a mysterious but potent influence over him. Everyone who has the slightest acquaintance with Gaelic literature knows how this belief appears and reappears on every page; how the creatures of the upper air and the beast of the forest are represented as sympathizing with the changing fortunes of men; how, during a battle, the blackbird wails in the wood, the sea chatters telling of the slaughter, the rough hills creak with terror at the assault; and how, when anything remarkable occurs, such as the death of a hero, or the overwhelming of a favourite champion by unequal odds, the three great waves of Eire cry out—the furious red Wave of Rudhraighe, the foam-stormy, ship-sinking Wave of Cloidhna, and the flood-high, bank-swollen Wave of Tuagh.
Closely connected with, and, indeed, directly dependent on this love of the Gael for nature, is his capacity for worshipping his heroes. Hero-worship, no doubt, is often carried to extremes; we are prone too frequently to mistake the hero for the cause, to place the man before the principle. But there can be no doubt that hero-worship, in its highest form, is a soul-lifting and an ennobling thing. What would the world be without its heroes? Greece without her Hercules and her Achilles, Rome without her Romulus and her Camillus, England without her Arthur and her Richard, Ireland without her Cúchulainn and her Fionn, Christianity without its Loyolas and its Xaviers? And what is true of hero-worship in general is true, in an especial manner, of the hero-worship of the Gael. When great men die the ancient Gael did not believe that they had passed away for ever from human ken—he believed, on the contrary, that their spirits lingered round the lonely hills and glens, round old moss-grown lioses and crumbling dúns, round the haunted sidhe-brughs and fairy ráths—he believed that they hovered near their children, watching over them and taking an interest in their every action. Now, when a man believes that the spirits of the mighty dead, the spirits of those he has loved and venerated, are near him and watching over him, he cannot but endeavour to make himself nobler, better, worthier of the great ones who have preceded him.
‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And departing leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of Time.’
The spirit of these words of the great modern American poet was perfectly understood by the ancient Gael. Fearghus, Conchubhar, Cúchulainn, Fionn, Oisín, Oscar—these were more to the Gael than mere names of great champions and warriors of a former time: they represented to him men who had gone before, who had fought the good fight, who had passed from earth to the mystic Tír na n-Og, who had become gods,—but whose spirits, heroic and immortal, still lived after them. And though well-nigh two thousand years have rolled away since those mighty heroes trod this land of ours, yet is their spirit not dead: it lives on in our poetry, in our music, in our language, and, above all, in the vague longings which we feel for a something, we know not what, our irresistible, overmastering conviction that we, as a nation, are made for higher things. Oh! that this hero-spirit were stronger than it is! Oh! that men could be brought to realize that they are MEN, not animals,—that they could be brought to realize that, though ‘of the earth, earthy,’ yet that there is a spark of divinity within them! And men can be brought to realize this by the propagation of a literature like that of the Gael,—a literature to which nature-love and hero-love shall form the key-words, a literature which shall glorify all that is worthy of glory,—beauty, strength, manhood, intellect, and religion.
The mission of the Gael, however, will not be confined merely to the propagation of this literature. The Gael is, in the fullest sense of the word, an idealist; he is, in fact, the idealist amongst the nations. All that is beautiful, noble, true, or grand will always find in him a devotee. He revels in imagination. He loves to gaze on what is beautiful, to listen to sweet and rapturous sounds. Hence, painting, sculpture, music, oratory, the drama, learning, all those things which delight and ravish the human soul, which stir up in it mighty, convulsive passions, and strange, indefinable yearnings after the Great Unknown, all those things which seem, as it were, links between humanity and Divinity—these will ever find among the Gael their most ardent and accomplished disciples. What the Greek was to the ancient world the Gael will be to the modern; and in no point will the parallel prove more true than in the fervent and noble love of learning which distinguishes both races. The Gael, like the Greek, loves learning, and like the Greek, he loves it solely for its own sake. For centuries, when it was sought by penal legislation to deprive him of it, when the path to honour and wealth was closed to him, and when learning could be of no advantage to him at least from a worldly point of view, still did he cling to it. The spirit which animated our O’Clerys and our Keatings still animated their humbler successors. The hunted priests and schoolmasters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carried about with them from cave to cave, and from glen to glen, not only copies of the Gospels, but copies of the Greek and Latin classics, and volumes of old Gaelic poetry, history and romance. Hundreds of young men are annually turned out of our modern universities with a classical education far inferior to that imparted in the hedge-schools of Munster during the last century. When love of learning is so deeply implanted in the heart of the Gael that not even persecution, penury, and degradation can eradicate it, surely it ought to blaze forth with ten-fold brilliancy when the night is past and the morn is come. The dream of the great English cardinal may yet come true:—
‘I contemplate,’ says John Henry Newman, ‘a people which has had a long night and will have an inevitable day. I am turning my eyes towards a hundred years to come, and I dimly see the island I am gazing on become the road of passage between two hemispheres, and the centre of the world: I see its inhabitants rival Belgium in populousness, France in vigour, and Spain in enthusiasm; and I see England taught by advancing years to exercise in its behalf that good sense which is her characteristic towards everyone else. The capital of that prosperous and hopeful land is situate on a beautiful bay, and near a romantic region; and in it I see a flourishing University … Thither as to a sacred soil, the home of their fathers, the fountain-head of their Christianity, students are flocking from east to west, and south—from America, from Australia and India, from Egypt and Asia Minor, with the ease and rapidity of a locomotion not yet discovered; and last, though not least, from England … all owning one faith, all eager for one large true wisdom; and thence, when their stay is over, going back again to carry over all the earth ‘Peace to men of goodwill.’’
I am aware, Mr. Chairman, that there are many here who may consider that the picture I have drawn is a far too rosy one, who may say that ‘The Intellectual Future of the Gael’ is an excellent theme on which one may wax eloquent—is a catchy title, perhaps, for the Inaugural Address of a Literary Society—but that, beyond this, the talk about nature-literature, about hero-love, and the rest, is little more than the raving of an enthusiast. Well, Mr. Chairman, I admit that I am an enthusiast, and I glory in being one. To those who would object that the sketch I have attempted to give of the intellectual future of our race is a mere ideal picture, I would reply that it is intended as an ideal picture. If you wish to accomplish anything great place an ideal before you, and endeavour to live up to that ideal.
Now, has the Gael been able to attain the ideals he has hitherto placed before him or, does it appear likely that he ever will? Assuredly not. Nothing seems to me so certain, nothing seems to me so logical a consequence of our temperament, of our history of our present circumstances, as that, if we are to have any future, it must be an intellectual future. And is there anyone who would not prefer such a future? It is, no doubt, a glorious thing to rule over many subject peoples, to dictate laws of far-off countries, to receive every day cargoes of rich merchandise from every clime beneath the sun; but if to do these things we must become a soulless, intellectual, Godless race—and it seems that one is the natural and necessary consequence of the other,—then let us have none of them. Do the millions that make up the population of modern nations—the millions that toil and sweat, from year’s end to year’s end, in the mines and factories of England, the Continent, and the United States—live the life intended for man? Have they intellect? Have they soul? Are they conscious of man’s dignity, of man’s greatness? Do they understand the grandeur of living, and breathing, and working out one’s destiny on this beautiful old earth? The sea, with its mighty thunderings, and its mysterious whisperings, the blue sky of day, the dark and solemn canopy of night spangled with its myriad stars, the mountains and hills steeped in the magic of poetry and romance—what are these things to them? What are the hero-memories of the past to them? Are they one whit the better because great men have lived, and wrought and died? Were the destiny of the Gael no higher than theirs, better for him would it have been, had he disappeared from the earth centuries ago.
Intellect and soul, a capacity for loving the beautiful things of nature a capacity for worshipping what is grand and noble in man, these things we have yet: let us not cast them from us in the mad rush of modern life. Let us cherish them, let us cling to them: they have come down to us through the storms of centuries—the bequest of our hero-sires of old; and when we are a power on earth again, we shall owe our power, not to fame in war, in statesmanship, or in commerce, but to those two precious inheritances, intellect and soul.
Another thousand years will have rolled over the earth, and the bard, and the seanchaidh, and the teacher of the Gael, will once more be held in honour. A better, purer, and happier world will be listening in rapt amazement to the grand old epics and time-honoured sgéalta of our race. Men’s gods will no longer be empire, ambition, and gold: but the homage that is paid to those things to-day will be paid in that happy age, as it was in days of yore, on the hills and in the valleys of Eire, to the mysterious potencies of nature, the beauty and virtue of woman, the heroic dignity of man, the awful and incomprehensible majesty of the Divinity. This, Mr. Chairman, will be the gospel of the future; and to preach this gospel—world-old, yet new, so true, yet so little realized, so beautiful, and so ennobling—will be the mission of the children of the Gael.
- Delivered as Inaugural Address of the Session, ’97-’98 (October, ’97).